This was meant to be a lighthearted entry into my Fool Britanina but upon writing it my ranting took a turn. Basically there is a lot I wanted to get off my chest about this subject so here you go.
X-Factor can mean three things. It can be a pretty good comic book in the X-Men family. It can be a very crap pro wrestling faction from back in 2001. But for the purpose of this piece sadly it’s the vile contribution my country has made to world culture that totally cancelled out all the positives we did by giving you The Beatles, Monty Python and JK Rowling.
Yeah, we gave you all Simon Cowell…..sorry.
As I write this X-Factor has just finished it’s twelfth season, won by some 17 year old who had her first single released the very next morning. Normally the “winner’s song” gets to be the UK Christmas number one (cynically the series always ends the Sunday before Christmas chart in order to make this the case), but because the day of the chart was changed this year that didn’t happen even though large numbers bought the single not because they were fans of her or the song but because it was the X-Factor winner’s song. Her first album will be released in February, that’s just over two months after winning the show so you know it’s going to be quality stuff. All the best to the lass, but the manufactured manner of all this makes me feel very old and very grumpy.
I’m rather ashamed to say that I once was an X-Factor fan, especially of those early season auditions where those young hopefuls warble through a rendition of a classic song hopping to get that nod of approval and catapult them to stardom. Yes, I used to love it when some deluded wannabe would be brought down to earth by Satan himself Simon Cowell, Louie Walsh and “Didn’t I marry good” Sharon Osborne. My favourites were those who would kick off massively at been rejected unable to comprehend that they were really bad at singing. Especially the ones who had a family with them who were equally blind and deaf to their kids lack of talent. Oh how I would laugh.
The Cynical De-Evolution of X-Factor
Then something changed around the sixth season with the decision to change the format from having auditions held in front of only the judges to a full arena audience. As well as taking away the raw element of the auditions by adding live backing music, watching people make fools of themselves in front of a crowd wasn’t as easy to find funny, it felt down right uncomfortable. There was no better example of this than for the auditions of two girls who gave themselves the unfortunate name “The Stunners” (they weren’t) which immediately gained a baffled laugh from Louie Walsh and titters from the crowd. Sadly the Stunners singing did not redeem them and with the baying approval of the audience Simon Cowell ripped into their performance.
As the auditions continued the bad performances made seemingly worse by being on an actual stage grew increasingly unsettling for me, the put-downs by the judges now seemed cruel and more personal and the mocking laughs by the audience a throwback to the mobs of medieval days who would visit insane asylums as a form of entertainment.
The presence of the audience made me feel sick and a cruel and unnecessary development having these deluded souls humiliated in public. But of course this simply brought home the reality that this is how it had always been as the “hopefuls” had always experienced their mortification in front of millions like me watching at home.
“They can’t sing a note, better they know now!” Simon Cowell said of the Stunners to justify his scathing dressing down in front of a packed arena. Fair point Simon, although maybe a better time to tell them this was before they opened themselves up to embarrassment in front of a national television audience.
Sit and think for less than a minute and you’ll realise that any television show, even when it falls under the laughable umbrella “reality,”is a heavily staged media. Yet the fake nature of talent shows like the X-Factor takes the shenanigans to a higher level which gets more disturbing the deeper you delve into how these shows are put together. The sheer lengths of manipulation on the audience is staggering.
Watch the early shows in any series of X-Factor and you’ll be witness to the hyperactive crowds and long, snaking lines of hopefuls flocking to perform in front of the celebrity judges and realise their dreams of music stardom. Of course simple common sense dictates that the logistics of everyone who walks through the doors getting the chance to strut their stuff in front of the actual panel is pretty impossible (although the show does try it’s best to give this illusion). There is of course a weeding out process before hand, but it’s even more insidious than it first appears.
The X-Factor crew tour the country in local heats, but at these auditions the celebrity judges aren’t even judging. They may turn up for a bit to appear before the crowds and the cameras but they’ll be buggering off first chance to get in their limos and private helicopters. Meanwhile the camera crews orchestrate the masses into television friendly shot of cheering crowds and queues of waving hopefuls, even going so far as to hand out supposedly hand made signs bearing such slogans as “I’m the X-Factor” and “Give me a yes Simon!” It’s a totally manufactured atmosphere and many people who have tried out have described this as a long, boring and tiring process and some who have refused to get involved in the spirit of it have raised the anger of production staff and probably blotted their chances from the start.
Getting through the thousands of hopefuls in one day means that auditions are brief and held on mass, with those who successfully get through two are invited back at a later date (and told to wear the same outfits in order to further the illusion of a single day of auditions). At the second auditions you’re once again unlikely to see a celebrity judge but get through this stage and you may get a callback to finally appear before the judges at the actual first proper tapings.
If you do actually get to perform in front of the cameras and the panel chances are you’ve impressed the producers in the earlier stages in a number of ways. A, you’ve a really good voice and the right look that gives you a chance to actually do well in the competition. B, you’re absolutely awful and have the kind of look that Cowell and co can take the piss out of you for the amusement of the viewers. Or C, you’re absolutely batshit bonkers on some level and will make for great television when you inevitably get that unanimous “No,” and proceed to go nuts.
So when someone like 2008 hopeful Emma Chawner gets to audition in front of the real judges, she’s probably already performed four or five times and producers are well aware she can’t sing all that well, is overweight, is wearing a less than flattering outfit and is accompanied by an also overweight family who are also oblivious to her lack of talent and likely to have an entertaining meltdown when she fails to go through. Producers know the calamitous outcome of putting her in front of the judges, but are quite prepared for her to go through with it at her own time and let’s not forget her own expense because it makes for good television.
When you see her break down in tears outside the audition after having her performance of “My heart will go on” savaged and her home made dress mocked (the fat family’s arrival is also accompanied by the theme tune to the Flumps in a further piece of cruel ridicule) it’s hard not to think that she’s been subjected to a degree of bullying. Much like the scenario of a hot girl asking out a nerdy kid just to make fun of him or the case where a Michigan girl was voted as Prom Queen by the popular clique as a prank to humiliate her.
As bad an experience as she had Emma tried again a year later, this time as a double act with her sister and once again she was put through by producers this time to the added humiliation of being rejected in front of a packed live audience. Now you can argue that Emma brought some of this on herself by returning and her family definitely deserve criticism for pushing her and filling her head with false hopes for a dream she is never go to attain. The Chawners are guilty of delusion and naivety, while the producers are doing far worse by deliberately exploiting them and every other bewildered bad singer they put through knowing they are going to make fools of themselves. How the hell can someone knowingly set them up for that and sleep at nights?
Don’t think for a minute that Cowell and his panel don’t know exactly what is coming up with some of these contestants. You can tell in the way they lead the story of each audition that airs with the little get to know you introductions. Cowell will build up the expectations of a singer who proves to be bad to further the horrible performance. Conversely sometimes contestants that look a little unconventional will got a “Oh God this will be awful” vibe only for low and behold they turn out to be great. Seriously when Susan Boyle came out dressed like your Gran and than wowed the world with her rendition of “I dreamed a dream” do you think those shocked reactions of joy from the panel were genuine? I suspect that they knew before hand that this audition was going to be special.
“So tell me, why are you here today?” Is a question conveniently asked whenever the audtionee has a story to tell. Because there is another angle that producers are looking for which can get you in front of the judges on television. If you can sing and can tug the heart strings of viewers with a stirring human story of overcoming tragedy you’ll get through. Anytime the presenters voice dips into a solemn tone and you hear those first few beats of that slow, drifting piano theme you know you’re about to be introduced to someone with an inspiring story to tell. People with disabilities, people who’ve lost loved ones, people doing this for their dead, disabled fiance who died on the wedding day with a X-Factor application form in their pocket (ok I made that last one up).
Once I was talking to a friend at work about an X-Factor show where I said it was obvious a woman was getting a “Yes” at her audition because she was in a wheelchair. My friend immediately proclaimed me a dickhead for suggesting such a thing and argued vehemently that the lady was a great singer and deserved to go through. However my friend totally missed the point I was making. The woman completely deserved to get a “yes” across the board because she had a great voice, but you can bet that anyone with a story like that will only get to perform in front of the real judges if they have a great chance of getting through. The producers and Simon Cowell maybe heartless dicks but even they are not going to put risk the awkward moment of a bad singer in a wheelchair having to be told that they suck.
If you hear those piano keys you can bet the house and kids on that person getting through the audition with a heart warming feelgood moment, normally accompanied by a triumphant outburst of Take That’s “Rule the World”. And if for some reason one of these people with such a human interest story gets turned down by the panel, well it just wouldn’t air on the show.
Naturally it stands to reason that while giving the time to the hopeless and the deluded it means that some performers who are actually talented are going to be turned away to make room. It makes a mockery of the pure talent show aspect, but of course shows like X-Factor aren’t about finding great music.
This is not to say that there isn’t some amazing singers when we get to the finals on shows like X-Factor. Hell one of the best concerts I went to in recent years was Queen fronted by Adam Lambert an American Idol winner and I thought he was absolutely incredible. And I’m certainly in no position to judge on the merits of the stars who have come out of the reality TV show path to the charts, as I’m in my 40’s and that music clearly isn’t aimed at me. Besides my own taste in music throughout my life has been one could say electric or cheesy as hell.
For a far more informed and rational examination of music than I could ever do read Huey Morgan’s Rebel Heroes.
X-Factor Has Created a Generation of Delusional Idiots
My main problem with X-Factor’s place in music is not even that it creates an artificial road into stardom, it’s the attitude of those contestants who treat it as the be all and end all to them having a life involved in music. How many times do you see these hopefuls proclaiming that getting onto X-Factor is their lifelong dream followed by those inconsolable with tears running down their faces screaming how everything is in tatters for them.
So you didn’t get onto X-Factor? What next? How about doing what Adele did (Adele incidentally could out sing any of the loud warblers that come through X-Factor) and write your own songs and produce a demo tape? How about getting out there and performing live in front of crowds constantly to learn the craft? Here’s a novel concept how about picking up and learning to play a bloody instrument and getting yourself in a band?
That of course is the key thing here. To do these things requires a true passion for music, a need to perform. X-Factor is not drawing on that desire to indulge a love of music, instead it’s fulfilling that most vacuous of dreams, that of being a celebrity. Music is just the stepping stone to the limos, hanging out with other celebrities and being on the cover of the gossip magazines.
I’m in no way a precious music snob, I’m not one that clings to that notion that it has to have an artistic integrity for me to take seriously. I passionately love music though, especially live music, tribute bands and cover bands included. There is a band in Vegas by the name Dollface, a female quartet cover band who I always try to catch a show of when I take my holiday there. These ladies work their asses off every week doing four hour sets in bars and clubs up and down the strip. Another such band is The Whip-Its another highly entertaining cover bands, and if you take a trip up to the delightfully seedy Freemont street a good time can be had checking out the many live bands there, especially if you love “Don’t stop believing” and if you neck a shot every time you hear that song you will have an extra special awesome time.
Bands like Dollface I have a lot of respect for, they’re working hard to make a living in music by performing with a real genuine passion drives them to give everything whether it’s a small audience in a bar or a large crowd at a gig. (And if you’re quite partial to a fun rock cover act and you’re in Vegas I heartily recommend seeking them out and spending an evening by a bar watching their show, but be sure to leave them a good tip).
This is an attitude that is probably alien to the vast majority of X-Factor hopefuls who simply crave fame and have a sense of entitlement that causes them to avoid paying their dues working their way up to do so.
X-Factor is an ugly show on so many level and it seems to be getting worse. I haven’t the time or inclination to see for myself but apparently the latest season has added even more creatively humiliating stages for the contestants in order to maximum the chances of entertaining scenes of meltdowns and breaking of spirits.
Sadly while the deluded and desperate flock to take part and millions continue to gawk it will remain a blot on televisions worldwide.