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X-Factor: the show snobs love to hate

Malaria outbreak, auto-tune scandal, race row, some brilliant singing... thank God The X-Factor is back.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

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The X-Factor: it’s good to have you back. After the agonising, drawn-out deaths of Big Brother, the eerie anonymity of a SuBo-free Britain’s Got Talent, the horribly awkward From Popstar to Operastar, and the unspeakable tedium of The Leaders’ Debates, it is comforting to see the return of a reality show that knows how to push the right buttons.

The live show stage of the programme hasn’t even started and yet The X-Factor has already managed to affix itself to the nation’s collective psyche like some glittering, showtuney limpet. Where other light entertainment programmes would make do with an artificially constructed love interest, some pre-scripted banter, a few good sob stories, or the occasional resurrection of some long-forgotten celeb, The X-Factor has already been beset by a malaria outbreak, an auto-tune scandal and accusations of glamorising prostitution.

Last Sunday, when show darling Cheryl Cole put two girls who broke down in their auditions through to the live shows, while kicking out the note-perfect, Zimbabwe-born Gamu Nhengu, it provoked accusations of teatime hate crimes. One young man threatened to kill all women named Cheryl. A heated debate erupted on social networking sites and in the tabloids about the capricious iniquities of UK immigration law (Gamu and her family are facing deportation from Britain). Reality TV scandals? The X-Factor shits ‘em.

For Shakespeare’s melancholy aristocrat Jaques, surveying the disordered social hierarchy of Twelfth Night, all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players within it. Today, the stage belongs to The X-Factor mastermind Simon Cowell. The rest of us, it seems, are simply auditioning.

Snobbish commentators looking for proof of the tacky sentimentality of the masses tell us we need to look no further than talent show audiences’ favouring of underdogs such as tubby Scottish singer Michelle McManus, who won Pop Idol in 2003, and warbling bin-man Andy Abraham, runner-up in the second series of The X-Factor. Both McManus and Abraham competed against some starry rivals, and both quickly became fading stars.

And for proof of the essential medieval barbarity of the public, the commentators say, just look at the way the masses queue up to laugh at the deluded freaks and the mentally ill who join in the entertainment shows’ audition processes.

Others say Simon Cowell is killing music. Last winter, a heated debate on the matter was fuelled by a successful campaign to kick X-Factor winner Joe McElderry’s single off the top of the charts and make Rage Against The Machine’s 15-year-old petulant rap-rock tune ‘Killing in the Name of’ the Christmas Number 1 instead. A bit of Christmas fun it may have been, but those who backed the anti-X-Factor campaign also believed they were making a serious point: the crowd-sourcing of social media is changing the music industry, and soulless money men like Cowell should no longer expect to make a quick buck serving up processed pop.

The latest controversy over Cheryl Cole’s selection is yet another reminder that, whatever one thinks of his music output, Cowell is one of the smartest guys in the business. A producer with a famously dubious commercial record of failed novelty hits at the turn of the decade, he came to public prominence on Pop Idol as ‘Mr Nasty’. There, he ruthlessly and bluntly shattered the dreams of thousands of starstruck prima donnas. When he repeated the trick on American Idol, in a cultural climate where everyone is constantly reassured that they have talent and should follow their dreams, Cowell’s brand of withering critique caused a sensation.

So Cowell is an excellent reader of the market, and few X-Factor fans doubt that he has a hand in the major decisions on the show. This latest scandal, too, seems to bear his trademark. As talented a singer as Gamu is, she was hardly exceptional, but there is no doubt she conformed to the ideal X-Factor contestant narrative. The ‘X-Factor’ is about having something extra, beyond being a technically gifted singer. And Gamu had it. In keeping with the show’s much-mocked fascination with contestants’ sob stories, she is a Zimbabwean immigrant forging a better life for herself in Scotland. Therefore, she is considered much more deserving of a place in the show than the ‘chav’ girl Cher Lloyd who Cheryl put through.

This, ultimately, is what The X-Factor is about: unashamed commercial entertainment, designed to give viewers a bit of fun and make record producers a lot of money. Cowell has a phenomenal talent for making both entertainment and money, but he’s no Mephistopholes. While marketing pros love to think of themselves as masters of the universe, the mistake their anti-consumerist critics make is that they fall for the ad-mens’ self-hype and for their dim view of the public. As the hit US series Mad Men brilliantly implies, the truth is that the ad men have no better insight into the mysterious tastes of the market and the forces of history then the rest of us: they’re just slightly better at reading it, and even better at selling their ability to do so.

The question we really should be asking is how that gap in the market appeared in the first place. It wasn’t Cowell, after all, who led the attacks on ‘elitist’ classical music. It wasn’t Cowell who demanded that arts funding should come with conditions such as daft community engagement projects, or who insisted that anything with artistic value must be popular (and therefore, apparently, dumbed down).

Cowell does what every pop idol has always done: take your money and show you a good time. Anyone who wants to start a genuine fight-back on behalf of ‘real’ music should forget Mr Saturday Night. Instead, let’s have a proper discussion on what real quality is, and how we should sing its praises.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist. He is chairing the debate X-Factor: singing in the name of quality? on 14 October at the Royal College of Music.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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