I will preface this article by saying that I love The X Factor. I’ve been glued to the TV every weekend during autumn since I first saw Leona Lewis audition for the show. I’ve had my favourites the same as everyone else (hello Ruth Lorenzo), my hate figures (Wagner. Why?), the ones whose success I’ve rejoiced in (Little Mix and Cher Lloyd, I wish you only happiness and success) and those who I feel betrayed me (Alexandra Burke, you promised me great things, but instead delivered Start Without You. I want my money back). Sometimes I latch myself onto the acts for the right reasons (Ella Henderson), the wrong reasons (Katie Waissel), sometimes for no reason at all (Same Difference) and sometimes just because I’m shallow and I like to watch pretty people being pretty on stage (Union J, I just need twenty minutes of your time). I can talk about it for hours, dissecting contestants past and present, hypothesising over the judges’ motives and strategies as though they’re politicians manipulating their way into a coalition government. Sometimes it feels like I’m watching Game Of Thrones in an arena or The Hunger Games on a stage with smoke machines, but essentially it’s just a talent show, like those ones you had at school when someone played Felix The Cat on the piano and you attempted to sing Son Of A Preacher man while a teacher accompanied you on guitar. Why are we still watching?
Every year promises a shake-up, with something new to the format to spice things up. This year it’s the welcome return of Sharon Osbourne, the double whammy studio/arena auditions and the “battle for seats” at bootcamp. Admittedly I’ve found the new format entertaining, but when I take a step back from and attempt a (difficult) objective look, it does smack somewhat of flogging a very dead horse. In the US, The X Factor has failed as a format, while The Voice has barely stayed afloat in the UK. In a crowded market of TV Talent Shows, American Idol leads in the US, while it is The X Factor here, but is this only because we’ve become so accustomed to them that we don’t expect anything more? Is the TV Talent Show as a formula, in its entirety, overexposed and can now only inevitably fade away? Look what happened to reality TV – Big Brother and the other it’s-almost-the-same-but-not-quite clones saturated the TV market for so long that now their audience has switched to something wholly different (I’m sorry, but TOWIE, Made In Chelsea and Geordie Shore are as much reality TV as Hollyoaks is a cultural movement). Audiences are drifting away from The X Factor and it seems like there’s nothing the producers can do to stop it.
Last year saw an influx of what the media were calling “credible artists” - Lucy Spraggan, Jahmene Douglas, Ella Henderson the eventual victor James Arthur. Only time will tell whether Arthur manages to dredge a career out of his victory, or whether he’ll do a Matt Cardle and vanish within a year, despite his considerable talent. The whole season was attempting to raise the show’s credibility, yet who is the star that last year will be remembered for? That peculiar but weirdly magnetic, orange, sparkling-toothed beanpole, Rylan. No he couldn’t sing, no he wasn’t particularly talented in any way, but an instant celebrity was delivered almost directly to the doors of Heat magazine without anyone so much as batting an eyelid. But despite this, the show was still trying to maintain this aura of faux integrity and battling against the tide. The X Factor is increasingly becoming less of a talent contest and now more of a hunt for the next celebrity. What the public seems to want isn’t necessarily a musician, but interesting, funny and compelling characters to consume across all mediums, media and platforms. But the clue is in the name of the show – we’re not looking for a Pop Idol anymore, we’re looking for The X Factor, whatever that means. “The X Factor” as a term is transient; it can mean whatever we or the media or the producers want it to mean. The show is a hunt for someone who has that special something, a sparkle and a pizzazz that makes them stand out. One Direction were never the greatest singers, or even the best performers on the show, but there was certainly always something about them that stood out; Olly Murs and JLS too. The show’s biggest success stories have come from media-friendly likeable characters with good songwriters behind them and it’s all about branding; 1D are a friendly, preppy gaggle of fun-loving boys, JLS were a suave R&B boy band/dance troupe combo, Olly is a cheeky-chappy who likes to wear a hat… What exactly was Matt Cardle’s brand? Name one thing you know about him. You see? You can’t. And by maintaining this distant “credibility”, you don’t get to know the person, so you forget the music and ultimately, forget the fact that they were even talented in the first place. Bye bye Matt Cardle, bye bye Leon Jackson, bye bye James Arthur.
But we’ll keep watching, won’t we? That’s what Simon Cowell is banking on, but it doesn’t really seem to be the case anymore. I love the show, but watching the auditions this year has been quite a tiresome experience:
Opening shot. Screaming crowds. THIS IS A BIG DEAL. “1000s of (really sad) people have auditioned…” Hopeful, good looking person, smile could melt butter, hair was washed and cut and blow-dried by God himself. Great performance. Praise. Good looking person. You wonder what his dick would look like. Bad performance. Laughter. Montage of bad people. “The judges are beginning to think they won’t find anyone in x city”. Ugly person, looks like they’ve been raped by Susan Boyle’s Downs Syndrome great-uncle. Silly back story. AMAZING PERFORMANCE. Universal praise. A series of good performances, usually by groups – nobody cares that much. Hilariously bad person. Sharon falls off her chair. Hugely hyped up sob story. Middle aged sad person wearing sad trainers. BEST PERFORMANCE OF THE NIGHT. The judges explode. Credits.
Do we still want the above every week? We’ve been watching it for ten years after all. Though, saying that, at least it’s better than The Voice. Did you know that even in the US, where The Voice is doing exceptionally well as a TV format, they are yet to produce a viable recording artist? Says a lot really. We’re shallow, we like “stars” and we want someone with The X Factor. Will we find such a person this year? I will certainly be tuning in to find out, but nowhere near as many people will be joining me. But as long as I can talk to middle-aged women about sassy girl groups and crazy divas over the photocopier, I’m a happy (gay) man.