The ‘X-Factor’, denoting that indefinable quality which singles someone out as a star has not yet made it into the Oxford English Dictionary. The existing definition is above, namely that part of a serviceman’s life which is unique to the military and which has no equivalent in civilian life. The X Factor has its own military metaphor the ‘boot camp’ where contestants are supposedly transformed by blood, sweat and tears into ‘real’ artists.
Today ‘The X Factor’ is a juggernaut of a programme, steamrolling the Saturday and Sunday night schedules and sweeping everything else in its path like some kind of diamante Tsunami. The show combines the grand narrative of entry to the music industry and becoming a ready made star with the human interest mawkishness of reality TV. Reality TV, making ordinary people stars without any script, now dominates TV scheduling and the X Factor with its constant stream of hopefuls taps into that popularity. The show is heavily scripted though, with producers manipulating events and stage managing spontaneity to give the allusion to the public that a real life human drama is unfolding. The early rounds are all about humiliation as deluded people perform for the judges and a live audience and then face ridicule and censure. Mental health experts have raised concerns about the power of the show and how it could trigger mental health issues for rejected contestants (http://tgr.ph/ohAfLy). Once the successful crop of contestants have been picked out the programme makers focus on ‘telling their stories’. It is important for these hopefuls to constantly stress ‘how much they want this’, and how ‘this is all I have ever wanted to do’. The judges are, in Larkin’s formulation, soppy-stern, getting attached to their charges but then pointing out how hard the business is and how committed you need to be to succeed. But the contestants are somehow forced into combining the single minded focus of elite triathletes with the fragility of fine china. They frequently break down and cry for the cameras when their dreams are in jeopardy and appear to have little or no emotional stability or sense of poise.
X Factor is all about creating stars, but I’m not sure there are real stars anymore. The show seems to hush up the truth that the era of the superstar is finished, or at least is seriously on the wane. Michael Jackson may well have been the last global superstar. The more the show strives to uncover a ‘real artist’ the more it simply confirms that nothing is authentic here, everything is manufactured and nothing more than a simulacrum. Nowadays music has fragmented. It is much easier to record and release music, even a modest PC or Mac can be used as a home studio, and with the advent of downloads there is no longer the need for the logistics of a record company. So X Factor is largely a show based on a lie. Some artists, namely Leona Lewis have used the show as a spring board to greater things. But many have had 1 or 2 years of fame, dwindling rapidly once the show finished and ended up back where they started, on provincial housing estates living with their parents (http://bbc.in/oue0XP). Syco the company which produces the X-Factor and then manages the artists is first and foremost a business and won’t keep an artist on books unless they are selling records and making money. The fame and fortune which X Factor offers is ultimately a con, a deception, a glittery tissue of lies. The only person really winning from this game is Simon Cowell who takes the profit where it is needed and discards acts ruthlessly when they are no longer needed. There have been reports of X Factor contestants getting singing lessons and makeovers, but the cost of these being deducted from any record sales they make as Syco seeks to maximise its profits.
Obviously this kind of agonised hand wringing over a popular entertainment show could be considered futile, it certainly won’t dent the X Factor and it won’t stop people applying and hoping to win the lottery of fame and fortune. But in cultural terms everything has a meaning and I worry about X Factor’s influence on young people. It is predominantly a show about youth, most of the people who progress are under 25. The over 25 category is often a rather sad affair with the contestants having to peddle the narrative about ‘it being my last chance’, as if failure on the show will mean a swift ride in a cheap taxi to a nursing home where they will be sat in front of a TV with a twice daily visit from a scowling teenager to change their colostomy bag. Once again the fatuous values of the show reduce human lives to two-dimensional paper cut-out lacking depth, sophistication or nuance.
So what messages might young people take from X Factor. Well I think the first message is that fame and fortune are immediately available, and somehow the trappings of fame such as expensive cars and flash houses are inherently desirable things. The producers of the show make great play of the houses and cars on the show, taking every possible opportunity to stress the material value of success. But the second and far more damaging message concerns music itself, namely that music only makes sense if you are a star. This is a cancerous suggestion and risks doing great damage to our enjoyment of listening to and more importantly making music as an expression of joy and hope. Music should be available to everyone. It is a unique art form, capable of entertaining us, bringing us closer together, and maybe even redeeming us. And music now more than ever is democratic. Something young people can create and share in their bedrooms using the same computer they use to post messages on Facebook. Young people should be enjoying making music as a process, as a creative engagement, as a means to make sense of solitude and a means to enjoy being together in social situations. The X Factor takes this promise and shits all over it with its facile, grim and utilitarian logic.