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[whitespace] The Band Has Spoken

If life were like 'Survivor,' we could just vote away the people who annoy us

By Gina Arnold

THE SURVIVOR SHOWS were kind of boring--all those lengthy nature shots and the insufferable narrator intoning about the spirituality of the challenge--but they did give viewers an incredible lesson in human relationships and group dynamics. I mean, how many times have you been forced to interact on a daily basis with a randomly selected group of people and wanted desperately to vote someone out of the mix?

It's just so inevitable. At school or at the office, on a sports team or in a rock band, there's always a spoiler; someone whose presence just messes everything up. And yet, unfortunately, the rules of social engagement--or just plain expediency--generally dictate that said spoiler must stay in the game of life. You have to learn to live with them instead.

Hence, the appeal of the Survivor shows, where those rules were briefly broken, and every week the group got to oust the most troublesome member. Well, of course, it was enjoyable to watch, invoking as it did fantasies of a weekly Friday meeting where you get to snuff out the most irritating person in the work-study pod or the soccer team and tell them exactly why. It's wish fulfillment joined with a brief lesson in the fallacies of democracy, a captivating concept.

The shows had another lesson for us as well, which is that the most deserving don't always reach the top. True, the most irritating people are the first to go; and after them, the weakest. But after that, those people who exhibit traits like integrity, hard work and kindness tend to get dumped in favor of the conniving, the ruthless and the commercially minded. Thus, the first Survivor was won, pure and simply, by the most Machiavellian player.

On that show, Richard Hatch's eventual supremacy was pretty much an object lesson in how creepy dictators gain power. But this second version had an even harder lesson to teach, which is that you don't get rewarded in this world for giving other people a break. (In a nutshell, for those who don't know, runner-up Colby Donaldson gave the entire game away by voting out the loathed Keith Famie, thus leaving him up against the eventual winner, Tina Wesson.)

So Survivor II definitely provided a life lesson, much more so, than say, its Thursday-night rival, Friends. But the thing is, I sometimes wonder if the message it's giving out isn't just as destructive as the images of sex and violence, or the unreal body images the media likes to purvey, or any of the things that are more obviously reprehensible.

See, when a television show presents a lack of family values, there's always a faction of people who get up in arms. But when it shows values that are equally screwy--only more pragmatic--everyone says how great it is.

But it seems to me that what the two Survivor shows taught its viewers is that democracy is a racket and behaving ethically is stupid, and I'm not sure if that's a lesson I'd like people to absorb, however true it might be. I'd prefer them to admire Colby for sticking to his own guns, rather than thinking to themselves, "Gosh, what a sucker!"

BUT IT'S A curious thing, this winnowing out of the more deserving--curious and, alas, inevitable, at least according to no less an expert than Charles Darwin. In Chapter 5 of The Descent of Man, the famous biologist wonders how moral rectitude managed to survive the process of natural selection, since "it is extremely doubtful whether the offspring of the more sympathetic and benevolent parents, or of those who were the most faithful to their comrades, would be reared in greater numbers than the children of selfish and treacherous parents belonging to the same tribe. He who was ready to sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been, rather than betray his comrades, would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature ... Therefore, it hardly seems probable that the number of men gifted with such virtues, or that the standard of their excellence, could be increased through natural selection, that is, by the survival of the fittest."

Both that quote and the Survivor phenomenon explain so much about the world, particularly when you apply it to other areas, like business, dotcoms, movies and, most especially, the music business. It explains, for instance, why the mediocre are so successful, especially if they're willing to tolerate the constant presence of lackeys, minions and fall guys to insulate them from outside hatred. Haven't you ever wondered why there are bad songs on the radio instead of good ones (when in fact, there could be either?).

If you think of the pool of talent in the rock field as a giant form of Survivor, you can immediately see how it happens. The bands that don't make it in the business are the ones that make ethical decisions. They don't fire their friends, or vote the drummer out for obnoxiousness.

They don't make alliances with bands or people or corporations they can't stand. They don't sell their souls to advertisers, or play creepy "pay-to-play" venues, or take all their friends and family off the guest list or do any of a number of things that would make the ladder of success an awful lot easier to negotiate.

Of course, there are bands who've done all those things who play good music and even a few (although I can count them on one hand) who haven't who've made it to the top. But it's the exceptions that prove the rule, and all I can say is, if you want to make it in rock & roll, you'd do well to tune in to next season's version of Survivor.

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From the May 10-16, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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