Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

X Factor sob stories - is it time for a reboot?

The talent show's fixation on contestants' painful lives is driving viewers into Strictly's arms, says Jane Graham

The crying game: Everybody's at it on X Factor, including Rylan Clarke, Tulisa and 2008 winner Alexandra Burke
The crying game: Everybody's at it on X Factor, including Rylan Clarke, Tulisa and 2008 winner Alexandra Burke

One has to feel for Andrea Magee.

The 28-year-old music teacher from Glengormley came nail-bitingly close to a place in the X Factor live finals but was turfed out by an unforgiving Sharon Osbourne and Robbie Williams after her voice cracked on the very last note of her heartfelt cover of Radiohead's High and Dry.

To be fair, it was an Alan Partridgey bad note. Robbie's assertion that two of Sharon's dogs had passed out upon hearing it is unproven, but Andrea herself admitted it was "horrendous".

You might have thought Magee had already done enough to get through, however. As her many enthusiastic Twitter fans noted, she was one of the few contestants with a bundle of talent way beyond looking cute and singing loud.

She bounced onstage looking effervescently beautiful, playing a meaner flute than James Galway and showcasing her own compositions with a voice which hit the sweet spot between powerful and birthing Capuchin.

Yes, that note was painful. But it was clearly a nerve-racked one-off. Osbourne's decision to reject her wholesale surprised a lot of viewers.

Magee has her own theories as to why she lost out in the end. "The X Factor has a way of manipulating an audience emotionally about certain contestants," she told the Belfast Telegraph. "If I'm really honest, the real disappointment was the editing. I don't think people got a chance to connect with me at any point throughout the whole show.

"One thing I was certain about was that I was not going to have any other story than my music. On a couple of occasions, they tried to push me and I pointed out that everybody has ups and downs in their lives. I just wasn't prepared to share all that."

As a result of that reluctance, Magee suggests, "Some people got a real backstory and got to sing three, or four, songs up to this point and that definitely had an impact on viewers. I probably didn't even get two minutes."

Our hearts go out to Andrea, but if she was really looking for a platform that would allow her to focus entirely on her talent, how did she end up on The X Factor? If it was credibility she sought, she'd have been better off crooning over the whinnys at the Lammas Fair.

The X Factor is a primetime entertainment show masterminded by the dark lord of making money and spinning headlines. There's no point going on there unless you understand and accept the rules of Simon Cowell's game. In fact. the drooping careers of recent winners Matt Cardle and James Arthur suggest there may be little point in going on at all. The X Factor doesn't guarantee pop stardom any more. It's not even the biggest show on a Saturday night.

Simon pulled a whopper out of the bag this year getting Sharon Osbourne back in the judge's chair just weeks after she'd been all over news for her marriage troubles (what a lucky coincidence).

And it worked, for a moment. The figures – 9.2 million for the first show – didn't quite match the heady heights of its halcyon days, but they were reassuringly impressive.

But, just like last year, the return of Strictly pushed it back into the shade. The celebrity dance contest pulled almost a million more viewers than the show which used to loom over it in the ratings and, while the figures for Strictly are rising week-on-week, the opposite is happening over on ITV.

TV audiences these days show a clear preference for big smiles, gold thigh-splitter gowns and shiny bronze soap stars dipped in glitter, rather than sad-faced pop star wannabes trading tales of woe for a casually tossed off moment of attention from the public. And that's just Sinitta.

Actually, X Factor contestants would do well to study Sinitta. There was a time when she sold records, had natural sex appeal and possessed a shred of dignity. It was in June 1986, when So Macho was number two in the charts.

Since then, she's made a living as an ex-pop star who went out with Simon Cowell and has ever since hung on to him like a cat dangling from a lamp-post in the middle of a busy motorway. Her time to walk graciously into obscurity came and went many years ago; she didn't take it.

When she was announced as one of Louis Walsh's guest judges last weekend and leapt out to join fully-dressed functioning adult Nicole Appleton in a gold bikini clearly intended for a 10-inch Barbie doll, she looked like a one-woman cry for help.

If it's pop-bubble fame you're after kids, take a gape at Sinitta and remember that, if you don't die at 27, you have to keep breathing after the music stops. Unless you want to spend the next 25 years holding your stomach in, pause for thought before you jump.

It's curious that The X Factor, if Andrea Magee is to be believed, is still obsessed with pushing the sob stories. Maybe the producers have audience psychologists backing them, but a quick read of some of the most lively online chats about weekend TV suggest that it's the contrived revelations of suffering which are putting off viewers and turning them on to the happy camp escapism of Strictly.

As one fan wrote this week: "I'd much rather watch people dancing and having fun on a Saturday evening than watch every one sobbing (and I mean everyone) on the other side."

There's no attempt at profundity on Strictly, no grave revelations of family tragedy, or triumph over adversity. There's a bit of chat about personal journeys, but they rarely go deeper than a discovery that dancing is great fun and gives you energy.

The X Factor, on the other hand, likes to imagine it's in the business of offering bite-size, fly-on-the-wall documentaries about the British people and their pain.

And, once the weeping stops, it steps in like a massive shiny Lady Liberty, scooping up the tempest-tossed huddled masses and ushering them through its lamp-lit golden door. It was a nice idea for a year or two, but now it has as much credibility as Louis Walsh's tan. We all know the chances of being left to crack, your brain bewildered and your heart squeezed out, are much higher after a stint on The X Factor than they are on the more ostensibly superficial, but actually more honest, Strictly.

The X Factor should consider Strictly's superior appeal, drop the fraudulent bleeding heart 'we can fix you' schtick and go for fun. Another change in the perception of The X Factor and its power is that now it's much cooler not to win, to be too cool to appeal to that last demographic of grannies and uncles you need to seduce to come out on top.

One Direction, the biggest band on the planet, are the most obvious example. They didn't even come second. They got out just in time to say, we weren't clean cut enough for the X Factor audience, we wouldn't do choreographed dances, or wear identical outfits, or lean against stools.

We didn't even do many key changes. But we did get enough exposure to bank up a single-demographic set of British fans who would literally chase up to the ends of the earth for a smile. They held us up while we plied our wares around the globe and augmented the numbers until the whole planet was headed in One Direction. Sorted.

Janet Devlin, Tyrone's flame-haired Dolores Cranberry soundalike, who came fifth in the 2011 X Factor, said in a recent interview that she "got to where I wanted to get" in the show, suggesting that, even two years ago, winning was not the ultimate goal for all the contestants.

She, too, had evidently disappointed in the sob-story stakes, with her paltry offer of a vaguely angsty transition from childhood to teenagedom (is there any other kind?) paling into insignificance next to the pile-up of dead relatives and chronic conditions.

The mining of past traumas isn't the only aspect of The X Factor which used to work, but doesn't anymore. Constant courting of the Press is leading to X Factor fatigue. It's not difficult to see the logic behind offering weekly updates on the contestants' activities to the tabloids and celeb mags; Big Brother does exactly the same thing for the same reason.

If you can drum up interest in these very ordinary people, not only are you likely to augment the weekly telephone votes (ker-ching!), but you should end up with a load of ready-made celebrities to whom you entirely control access.

The Sun, Heat et al will play ball because it's easier than fighting for an exclusive on Jennifer Aniston. For both the PR team and the Press, it should be a win-win.

But after years of this tactic, what we have is a swarm of very minor, interchangeable celebrities clogging up the pages of magazines and newspapers and offering both sides – the media and the public – diminishing returns.

Celebrity magazines have become like a Premiership-bereft 5Live over-covering rugby league in the desperate hope its audience will eventually be clamouring for it.

Sorry guys; it just ain't happening. Time for a serious rethink.

Revenge of the X Factor 'losers'

Bob Dylan once famously sang "There's no success like failure ... and failure's no success at all" *. No one knew what he was on about.

But decades on, the success of failures on the X Factor -- and the concurrent flopping careers of its winners -- suggest the great prophet knew what he was talking about.

One Direction are the ultimate X Factor failure successes. They came third in the 2010 series, signed to Simon Cowell's Syco cord label for £2m and released their debut single, What Makes You Beautiful, in September 2011.

It was the most pre-ordered single in Sony's history, went straight to number one and then on to sell more than five million copies around the world.

Since then, the band has sold 19 million singles and 10 million albums and are arguably the biggest band on the planet. Matt Cardle won that year, by the way.

Jahmine Douglas was runner-up to James Arthur last year, but saw his debut album beat Robin Thicke and Jay-Z to the top spot in July this year.

While the future looks shaky for Arthur, Douglas's teen appeal looks like he's got a fun few years ahead of him.

Rapping songstress Cher Lloyd came fourth in the 2010 X Factor, signed to Syco and saw her debut single, Swagger Jagger, go straight to number one in July 2011. In 2012, her single Want You Back saw her break into the US, selling two million copies there.

Olly Murs was runner-up in the 2009 X Factor, beaten to first place by that rather infrequent chart botherer Joe McElderry.

His debut single, Please Don't Let Me Go, nabbed the No. 1 slot from Katy Perry's Teenage Dream in September the following year.

Since then, he's had another two number ones, has sold 10 million records worldwide and has also become a staple on ITV as a presenter.

JLS lost out to Alexandra Burke in 2008, but went on to have a string of hits, such as Beat Again and Everybody In Love, amassing personal fortunes of an estimated £6m each.

Jedward only came sixth in 2009.

'Nuff said.

* from Love Minus Zero, No Limit

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