Taking the talent out of a music show

Sordid backstories, ineffably crap auditions and no Cheryl Cole – The X Factor’s back and it’s better than ever.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

Topics Culture

It’s that time of year again, when our TV screens are lit up by the sight of a giant ‘X’ making its interstellar journey to Planet Earth. Oh yes, it’s The X Factor, and for all its sparkly silliness, it’s still a pretty big deal.

After concerns that the departure of Dannii Minogue, Cheryl Cole and Simon Cowell from the judging panel would hinder the eighth series of the show, Saturday night’s first round of auditions was watched by a staggering 12million people. With old-hand Louis Walsh now joined by Tulisa Contostavlos (N-Dubz), Kelly Rowland (ex-Destiny’s Child) and Gary Barlow (Take That), the show managed to beat last year’s viewing figures. But after seven years of The X Factor, and before it four years of the Popstars/Pop Idol formats, how does this show remain so popular?

In the words of new judge Barlow, ‘There’s only one goal – to find a superstar’, but this seems far from the secret of The X Factor’s success. Saturday night’s inaugural show saw the new panel preside over a variety of hopeful young talents. Some of the highlights included Kitty Brucknell’s haunting rendition of Lady Gaga’s ‘Edge of Glory’, and 16-year-old Janet Devlin’s heart-warming performance of Elton John’s ‘Your Song’. However, given the track record of previous winners, it’s no secret that the show produces more one-hit wonders than it does superstars.

Despite being the current king of TV, The X Factor seems surprisingly dated. The big-budget, Saturday-night format makes it feel like a mid-Nineties throwback, and despite claiming to look for the next big thing, all the show seems to find is the next Ronan Keating. When Simon Cowell’s matter-of-fact putdowns were let loose on the nation in 2001, he was a record-industry dinosaur who had very little hold on a rapidly changing music culture. Today he is one of the biggest brands in the business, and as he goes from strength to strength, his protégés fade back into obscurity.

With the exception of Leona Lewis, the majority of X Factor winners have enjoyed very short careers. Their work seems to function only as the soundtrack to the show, and as soon as the next season begins, they become obsolete. Joe McElderry was dropped from Cowell’s label only 18 months after his 2009 victory, due to the disappointing sales of his debut album, Wide Awake. A lifeline presented itself in June this year, when he won another ITV talent show, Popstar to Operastar, landing him a deal with the classical label Decca. His new album, Classic, was released on Monday and is a mix of opera and show-tunes, a far-cry from the inane power pop of his previous work. McElderry’s necessary change of musical lane, finding credibility outside of the X Factor bubble, is indicative of the show’s distinct separation from the modern music market.

It is pretty clear that the X Factor phenomenon is more about entertainment than music. Even so, Saturday’s episode laid it on a little too thick. Cheeky chappy Frankie Cocozza’s audition involved him exposing his posterior, adorned by the names of seven of his Malia flings. The footage of the shy Janet Devlin looking pensively across the Irish countryside was contrived even by X Factor standards.

With each passing year the show seems to become more about the narrative than the music. Everything is about telling the story, from the new judges setting out to find a star to the wide-eyed hopeful whose talent shines through despite the years of personal setbacks. Whether for better or for worse, this is a story the nation is highly invested in. Only two days after the show aired, Kitty Brucknell made frontpage news as stories surfaced about her allegedly sordid past as a professional ‘honeytrap’, and George Gerasimou’s audition, in which he called Tulisa a ‘dog’, has already received over 150,000 views on YouTube.

The past few series of The X Factor have incurred a lot of criticism. The use of auto-tune for the contestants’ vocals and the seemingly deliberate ‘saving’ of less talented singers by the judges to boost public interest, led many to question the show’s scruples. Yet the mere fact that an ITV talent show causes so much public outcry explains its ongoing success. Whether we believe in its mission to find ‘a star’, discard it as culturally impotent or just appreciate it as daft entertainment, the nation is always talking about The X Factor. I still don’t know how I feel about it, but I do know I’ll be watching next week.

Tom Slater is a writer and a graduate of the Young Journalists’ Academy. He is currently interning at spiked. Visit his blog here.

David Bowden is away.

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Topics Culture


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