Voices: The appeal of The Masked Singer is that it’s so truly terrible

Do you get second-hand embarrassment? I do. Like, “my body is trying to turn itself inside out to get away from this” levels of cringe. It’s why I can’t watch reality TV; I’m not better than it, or too clever for it; I just see this year’s hot young singles have to pie each other in the face, and my gut instinct is to gouge my eyes out with a blunt spoon.

This is a me problem; I’m not here to yuck anyone’s yum. Imagine my wonder, then, when a few years ago ITV convinced 12 sort-of-famous people to dress up in mascot costumes and sing live, and I didn’t immediately want to curl up and die.

So what, then, is the appeal of The Masked Singer? Why did it win a Bafta?

It’s not a singing competition, that’s for sure. The jumping-off point is that everyone is famous in some capacity, so you can’t even get behind the “secretly talented” candidate.

The costumes are, quite frankly, deranged, and the whole thing has the feeling of a TV show created to exist inside another TV show. It should never have achieved syndication.

And yet, the yell I let out when the contestant in the Rhino costume was indeed confirmed to be Charlie from Busted in the grand finale could have been heard three streets over. Rhino got about two words out on the first week, and I immediately knew it was Charlie Simpson. It couldn’t be anyone else.

I grew up with Busted. “What I Go to School For” was an anthem, we screamed “Thunderbirds Are Go!” at full volume on family drives during the summer holidays, and my shaded pencil drawing of Charlie convinced my art teacher that maybe I could do GCSE art. Busted didn’t necessarily shape my pre-teen years but they were iconic, like Furbies and Alien Babies (ask your nearest millennial).

I think that this might be why this year in particular has had so much engagement. Look at who else was in the lineup. Lulu went out in episode two, Martin Kemp in episode three. Two stalwarts of the music and entertainment industry just gone, almost immediately.

The final was Natalie Appleton from All Saints, Ricky Wilson from the Kaiser Chiefs, and Charlie. It was like a Nineties and early-2000s invasion, and I was in my element.

The clues were targeted towards me. I felt like some sort of inside trader, with language and specialist knowledge that other people just couldn’t understand. And then I checked Twitter. It wasn’t just me, it was all of us. If you started secondary school a couple of years either side of the millennium, you were in on it too! Just a ragtag bunch of people in their early thirties saying: “Lads, I’ve got this.”

The producers were in on it as well. If you saw the clues from last night, it was a full-blown Nineties-fest, with references to Tamagotchis, Leonardo DiCaprio’s film The Beach, and the Busted school uniforms.

Rita Ora, who doesn’t always have the best track record with clues, saw the maths equation and immediately said: “That’s 3000.” Is she really good at maths, or was she so sure Charlie Simpson was Rhino that there was no other answer?

It’s worth noting, as a comparison, that she worked with Ricky Wilson on The Voice and didn’t figure him out. But Busted references? She had those locked up.

If you’re reading this thinking “What is she going on about? It was obvious Rhino was Charlie” then congratulations, you’re One Of Us. When I spoke to people a bit older or younger than me and said it had to be him, they suddenly understood, but it wasn’t an intuitive thing. For us it was; we could have staked our houses on it (if members of our generation actually had houses to stake, that is).

It got me thinking about the other years and previous winners. T-Pain and LeAnn Rimes have both won the American iteration of the show but the UK version has been nothing but Nineties and early-Noughties stars from its first season in 2020, with Nicola Roberts, Joss Stone and Natalie Imbruglia winning in turn. It’s been a secret millennial show from the get-go; this year was just the diamond in the tattoo choker to finish it out.

Look, I think if we’re being honest with ourselves – that middling millennial demographic – we kind of thought we were above the whole nostalgia-bait phenomenon. It always seemed to be about the Eighties, from Stranger Things through to the DnD resurgence; fashion to music tours. But then the next generation started wearing grunge and demonstrating an all-too-strong affinity to low-rise jeans, and I realised that we’re next.

I resisted it; in fact I outright rejected it. And then Charlie Simpson won The Masked Singer, and I have fully bought in.

Reboot Sister, Sister. Do Kenan and Kel in office jobs. What do the Rugrats kids look like? I’m in. That little serotonin boost from knowing, from being right (and quite frankly from seeing those eyebrows on primetime TV) for a shining moment made me feel better than I have in ages. Maybe better than I have since the Nineties.