There is no cultural phenomenon which unites the people of the UK like The X Factor. It’s a marker for many facets of modern life such as youth, fame, wealth and influence. Jane Graham on why 12 million can’t be wrong
There are many methods with which one might attempt to judge a civilisation. The most famous suggestion, made long ago by a very wise man, is that it should be through the way it treats its weakest members.
A decent argument perhaps, but in 2010 we know that if the weakest ones can’t make it on their own on the big stage, the kindest thing is to tell them so and send them packing, trailing their smoking pipe dreams behind them.
Because it’s becoming clear that these days, the best way to judge a society is by who its citizens vote for in The X Factor.
There is no cultural phenomenon which unites the people of the UK like The X Factor. It’s not only that the programme currently draws in more 12 million viewers every week, a truly staggering figure in modern television terms which can only be contested by the four-yearly World Cup.
And it’s not simply that its fans cross every class, age and race divide, from eminent lawyer and director of human rights group Liberty,
Shami Chakrabarti, who outed herself as an addict this week, to the nation’s Vicky Pollards.
No, most significant of all is how the show itself, along with the way it is reported and the reaction it provokes, shines a light on so many crucial aspects of mainstream Western society. It’s not just a reflection of the entertainment and fashion industries any more, it’s a marker for some far more widereaching facets of modern life, such as fame, wealth, influence, manipulation of the media, our obsession with youth and even, in this ever more ambitious series, UK immigration laws.
Indeed if there was anyone in the UK who still doubted the power of The X Factor to dictate the front pages or whip up a stramash in the House of Commons, the controversy over rejected contestant Gamu, whose family are currently threatened with deportation, should have set them right.
Cheryl Cole’s failure to put Gamu through to the live finals won her a series of death threats, which police are currently investigating, while the Facebook site set up to back the 18-year-old Zimbabwean attracted more than a quarter of a million members and has been supported by most of the national tabloids, as well as numerous MPs and celebrities, including our own Gamu-loving Eamonn Holmes.
Of course when we say ‘The X Factor’ we also mean ‘Simon Cowell’ - the two are virtually indistinguishable, with the former operating as a kind of televisual representation of the nation’s favourite mogul. The queue of people happy to call Cowell a genius is long and vaguely distinguished, even if some regard his wizardry as closer to that of Dr Evil than Einstein.
Only last week Lord Alan Sugar was calling for Cowell to be knighted, claiming the multi-millionaire TV producer and music exec was a “great ambassador for Britain”.
It’s certainly true that Cowell’s production company, named, modestly, SYCO, has honed a brilliantly addictive and money-spinning TV format with The X Factor.
The emotionally manipulative back stories, the frenzy of the live studio audience, the nerve-jangling jeopardy of live performance and live elimination, combined with a lucrative voting system and ultimately, singles and albums which bring in millions, cannot be argued with in terms of business or viewer satisfaction.
The show has formed a blueprint for endless TV copycats, most of which have only proved how difficult getting the right tone and balance of such broadcasts actually is.
Equally impressive, if that’s the word, is the way Cowell has managed to keep the X Factor side show at the top of the entertainment news agenda for months in the lead up to this year’s series.
Signing up with SYCO has been compared to entering a Faustian pact; sure, you’ll make money and your profile will shoot through the roof (anyone remember anything Dannii Minogue did before 2007?), but you will pay in blood, sweat and tears.
This has been particularly true this year, with the judges agreeing to all kinds of painful and humiliating trauma to keep The X Factor at the forefront of the public consciousness. Louis got off lightly — he only had to get Botox. Dannii had to go through childbirth. Cheryl got a divorce, then malaria.
And even if not all of those situations were Cowell-controlled (and I only say ‘if’), the headlines carried on rolling in once those stories lost their sparkle.
Every week for the past two months the public has been treated to a new piece of salacious X-based gossip — Cheryl is having an affair with a twinkle-toed dancer; Cheryl’s affair with a twinkle-toed dancer is a sham; Louis is sick of Cheryl; Dannii is afraid of Sharon; Cheryl is upset with Simon; one of the contestants may be mentally unstable; one of the contestants may be a prostitute. And that’s before Gamu-gate kicked off and dominated the popular press for almost a week.
Simon Cowell must have spent the last 10 weeks just winking at the gods.
So far so good; everyone’s a winner right? Well — no, actually. A re-tracing of the X Factor’s steps back to the first series in 2004 reveals a road strewn with losers. And we’re not just talking Steve Brookstein.
There are many once-hopefuls who went into auditions having trusted their loving parents every time they told them they had talent, only for their humiliation to be captured on tape and replayed forever on YouTube to the delight /horror of their classmates/colleagues/family/the entire nation.
And there are also plenty of X Factor contestants, and even a couple of winners (Brookstein, Leon Jackson) who had a tiny taste of adulation and promise before it was whipped away |forever, and all contact with |powerful figures in the music industry severed.
There is also real concern about the way the show effectively neutralises the individuality of its participants, forcing them to sing songs they don’t like and bringing in stylists with an eye on upping their own profile (like this year’s Grace
Woodward, of Britain’s Next Top Model ‘fame’) through a radical re-branding of the contestants’ personalities. That’s why the distinctly understated and eccentric Aiden Grimshaw has already become unrecognisable, his grungy plaid shirts replaced with ludicrous, chest-baring silky numbers. (Woodward has said she wants him to ‘channel Jim Morrison’).
Fragile 17-year-old Cher Lloyd admitted to a ‘meltdown’ hours before last week’s live show because she’d been forced into a too-tight top and felt uncomfortable and exposed. “We have had a few tears,” Woodward has admitted cheerfully. “I have to be pretty tough with them.” She doesn’t say why.
Critics of the show will also point to its disproportionate influence on the music industry, claiming that A&R men are now far more focussed on matching Cowell’s progeny pound for pound, note for warbling note, than seeking out new, raw young talent.
Those whose concerns lie more in the realm of the social (though not, evidently, Shami Chakrabarti) also argue that the psychological impact of a show dependent on public rejection and gladiatorial knock-out contests is detrimental to a cohesive, compassionate society — and that the quick access to nationwide devotion and a glamorous lifestyle it gifts its winner is creating a generation of fame-hungry kids hooked on instant gratification.
What almost no one seems to believe is that The X Factor has little influence on the state of the nation. Which is pretty incredible, bearing in mind we’re talking about a TV talent show.
Love it or hate it, there is no arguing that The X Factor has become the nation’s unifying weekend ritual (the show attracts around three times the amount of viewers as churches can claim bums on seats on an average week).
Whether that makes us a country of winners or losers – well, that argument could rage on far into the century.
One thing that no one will dispute is the name of the biggest winner of all — despite the tag, this Syco ain’t no fool.