How long before it’s The Ex Factor?

Despite an entertaining ‘transitional’ series, ITV’s talent show is losing credibility faster than Silvio Berlusconi.

David Bowden

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These are troubling times for the established order. The survival of institutions that once seemed eternal is in doubt. Old alliances are being torn asunder; technocrats drafted in to steady the ship are getting uppity; the popular vote is being dispensed with; the Greek representative is clinging on for dear life. While the facade will be maintained at least until Christmas, in these dark days even its most ardent and enthusiastic advocates are thinking what once seemed unthinkable: is the end nigh for The X Factor?

The ITV talent show returned to the headlines this week after controversial contestant Frankie Cocozza was mysteriously booted off for breaking a ‘golden rule’. Rumours about what, precisely, this rule could be spread like wildfire. In contrast to his fellow Europeans, the undemocratic turn Cocozza suffered allegedly had little to do with refusing to swallow the bitter pill of austerity, although there probably would be mass support for giving the ridiculously coiffured singer a substantial haircut. His disappearance could be good news for groups mentor Tulisa Constostavlos, who briefly seemed likely to benefit from seeing her last remaining band, Little Mix, being bolstered by the return of another, The Risk, after they were unceremoniously dumped by public mandate on Sunday evening.

It seems an abuse of the term ‘cynical’ to suggest that this entertainment soap opera may just be an attempt to generate a bit of media interest in the midst of The X Factor‘s ratings war with BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing. More cynical is the suggestion from some quarters that Frankie, the show’s ‘pretend rock star’ and resident hate figure, might have been dispensed with to avoid Ofcom investigations into potentially questionable voting patterns that kept him in the show (despite his palpable limitations). There were also suggestions that the show might face questioning over depictions of Frankie’s ‘off-stage boozing’ – an accusation deeply suggestive of the New Puritan times we live in.

For showbiz hawks, however, this is just the latest manifestation of a desperation that has gripped The X Factor. With executive producer Simon Cowell and star judge Cheryl Cole having departed for the show’s US incarnation (before Cole’s apparently off-putting Geordie accent saw her dangling in trans-Atlantic limbo), and with Danni Minogue quietly dispatched with the ruthless efficiency of a Stalinist purge, this has been The X Factor’s transitional year. Only jaunty Irishman Louis Walsh remains, vaguely reminiscent of the European Commission’s tendency to offer high-profile roles to compatriots of what used to be a fiercely Europhile nation.

All seemed well at first. The aforementioned Tulisa, singer with North London urban-pop trio N-Dubz, was a charming and popular replacement for Cole, who was suffering from overexposure and an increasingly tawdry love-life. Kelly Rowland, formerly of Destiny’s Child, brought some kooky American brashness and glamour to proceedings. Gary Barlow, meanwhile, has been a revelation. Alongside his resurgent pop-star career, the washed-up songwriter from forgotten boy band Take That is now becoming something of a sexy authority-figure for depraved Middle England types.

Yet the cracks have been steadily emerging. Long-term rival Strictly Come Dancing has edged ahead in the ratings, with the tussle between the two shows having displaced, tellingly, the traditional BBC/ITV rivalry over prize soaps EastEnders and Coronation Street. Intriguingly, the weakness of the new judges seemed to lie in the seriousness with which they took their new roles: the nasty theatrics of previous series were displaced by an apparently genuine attempt to offer sincere and insightful criticism of the performers.

Meanwhile, some of their choices of acts seemed to reflect their own individual creative egos. Tulisa became obsessed with launching her own creditable urban act, demonstrating an almost touching naivety that N-Dubz were themselves a creditable urban act, rather than a factory unit designed by middle-aged men for eight-year-olds to get edgy to. Rowland seemed to revel in the role of therapeutic diva, bombarding even the most mediocre of successful auditionees with teary-eyed plaudits and esteem-building feedback, to the extent that you wondered whether she’d even read Nietzsche’s warning of the power of judgement being exposed by over-praise rather than unjust underestimation. In short, this series of The X Factor has seen the peculiar spectacle of a generation raised on TV talent shows and ‘anyone can be a winner’ ambition taking control: a monument of cynicism stage-managed by the sincerely naive.

Naturally, their wide-eyed earnestness naffed it up a little. If anything, there has been a staggering lack of deliberately employed cynicism on display in this series. While some have suggested the public bickering between the judges has been amped up for effect, Tulisa seemed genuinely baffled in one episode that ‘rock classics’ implied more than having loud guitars over pop songs. Rowland seemed genuinely affronted in discovering that her role as TV talent-show judge is not akin to a messiah/social-worker status. Walsh, who seemed increasingly tired of his orchestrated explosions of anger in previous series, seems genuinely exasperated at his fellow judges’ inability to display the required cynical pronouncements. Only Barlow, who went through the pop-factory process properly before the TV talent contest took hold, seems to have any kind of grasp of his role in the proceedings, although even he seemed a tad shocked that his terrible and inappropriate song choice last week didn’t kill the embarrassingly limited Cocozza off.

Only in the past fortnight, with Rowland’s staged walk-out and Cocozza’s ‘shock’ exit, has the controlling hand of Cowell seemingly returned to the show. Perhaps he’ll only act as an emergency measure for a format which is tired and stale, so he can slowly manage its decline after the peaks of previous years. It’s a shame, however, because unlike the serious cynicism at work on the European political stage, this series of The X Factor has been the most chaotically entertaining in years.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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