The X Factor

Saturday, October 23, 2004 by

How many times can the same idea be recycled? After Popstars, Popstars:The Rivals, and two series each of Pop Idol and Fame Academy, surely there can’t be room for more wannabe singers trying to win recording contracts on live television? Apparently not, and after several weeks of good and bad auditions – themselves almost identical to the first few weeks of Pop Idol and Popstars: The Rivals – we finally arrive at the first live show, in which the remaining contestants each perform, and the public call in to vote for their favourites, much like, well, all of the other shows I’ve just mentioned.

For anyone who has missed it thus far, the “twist” of The X Factor is that the competitors are split into three categories: 16 – 24 year-old soloists; 23+ year-old soloists; and vocal groups. Each of the three judges is responsible for mentoring the contenders from a particular section, with Sharon Osbourne championing the youngsters, Simon Cowell the older soloists, and Louis Walsh the groups. As such, great play is made of the idea that these three are desperate to beat each other by having one of their acts crowned the winner. Other than that, it’s the same old routine: they all sing, you vote for your favourite, one gets the boot, the rest come back next week and do the same again.

One question that always comes to mind in these shows is why anyone who is good enough to make it as a genuine recording artist would audition in the first place. This is particularly true of The X Factor‘s 16 – 24 section, given that this is the group targeted by all the previous programmes, where it has become screamingly obvious that the superstardom they all promise rarely materialises. Of all the contestants on the various incarnations of the format, only Will Young, Girls Aloud and arguably Darius Danesh have managed to sustain any sort of high-profile career. There’s no guarantee of superstardom even for the winners, as Hear’Say, Michelle McManus, One True Voice, and David Sneddon have all proven. Worse still, the fact that the immensely talented Alex Parks could make so little impact after winning Fame Academy should serve as a warning to anyone with serious musical ambitions to resist the temptation to try the shortcut to success.

And so, like lambs to the slaughter, the nine X Factor finalists lined up for the first live show. One thing that is immediately obvious is the whole thing lacks atmosphere. The studio seems a lot smaller and less glamorous than that of Pop Idol, whereas the presence of a petrified-looking Kate Thornton as host simply makes the whole thing feel like an edition of the aforementioned show’s ITV2 “fanzine” spin-off. Somehow, despite the hyped-up crowd, who willingly cheer anything and everything all night long, it feels like you’re watching a final rehearsal, rather than the real event. One thing that does arouse interest, however, is the promise that the voting system has a secret twist that will, we are told, make sure that every single vote matters.

As for the acts themselves, it soon becomes obvious that we have at least got a bit of variety. As well as the usual bawling balladeers, we have young Tabby rocking away, Voices With Soul offering exactly what their name promises, and G4 performing a stunning operatic rendition of REM’s Everybody Hurts. As with every other reality-pop show at this stage, the biggest problem seems to be that, with nine contestants to squeeze in, each act barely gets time to get going before they’re booted off-stage. As a result, by the end of it all, nobody can remember much about what happened at the start. In fact, several songs were edited so severely the lyrics simply didn’t make sense, not that anyone was really listening for that sort of thing.

With three categories and three judges all obviously biased toward their own protégés, the verdict sequence seems strangely stifled. By their own admission, Sharon Osbourne and Louis Walsh have formed an alliance against Simon Cowell, and so we have a fairly basic routine passing itself off as rivalry. Walsh, for example, comments on one of Cowell’s older female acts that “there just aren’t many housewives in the charts”, thus wilfully misunderstanding the whole point of the show – that anyone can supposedly make it if they have the talent. Cowell then criticises Sharon Osbourne’s acts, at which point Osbourne goes bright red and slags him off, and Walsh delivers some variation on the theme of “what planet is this man on?”, before extolling the singer’s virtues. Hopefully, when the series develops some sort of organic storyline and the acts make a genuine connection with the audience, we can be spared this rather feeble charade of mock-rivalry.

When the nine performers have come and gone, some of them making a great impression, others bland in the extreme, it’s time to fill some space with an utterly trivial vote. The audience is asked to vote for their favourite judge. Soon, Thornton says that “Sharon Osbourne is in the lead so far, but it could change”. A few seconds later, the result is revealed. It hasn’t changed after all. Sharon Osbourne has won, but the vote has no significance to anything whatsoever. There’s just time for a quick reminder of the acts, and the customary explanation of the billion-and-one ways of registering your vote, along with the minutiae of the costs of doing so, before ITV1 goes over to Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, followed by the choice of either ‘Millionaire on ITV1, or The Xtra Factor on ITV2, for anyone who can stomach 10 minutes of material packed into an hour of meandering TV.

One thing that no reality-pop show has yet discovered is the means to make the results show work, at least in the early stages before the revelation itself becomes significant enough to mask the cracks in the presentation. As Kate Thornton reappears, still looking utterly terrified, it is time to discover what the promised twist in the voting system is. It turns out to be little more than a variation on the Fame Academy routine, in which the bottom two from the public vote would be put forward, and the eventual loser decided in the studio. The only difference between The X Factor and Fame Academy‘s system is that, while the BBC show handed the final decision to the other contestants, X Factor passes it onto the judges. At this point, two problems become apparent. Thornton had promised that the system would ensure that every vote mattered more than ever, whereas in fact it makes the public vote less significant than before. Secondly, none of the judges are going to vote to dismiss their own acts if they have any choice in the matter, so there’s not a lot of drama in them giving their judgement.

Before we find out who will be put before the judge’s final vote, we have to go through Thornton, now looking even more afraid than ever, reciting the same line over and over, “The first person who is safe is … Tabby”, at which point, hysterical cheering erupts from the audience, and Thornton’s eyes dart about off-camera, as she tries trying to quieten the crowd.

As the fate of the last three contestants hung in the balance, things developed in a manner very familiar to anyone who followed ITV2′s coverage of American Idol. For those who didn’t see it, that show’s results edition would be dragged out as much as humanly possible, with contestants singing group numbers, showing “hilarious” clips of them all together, then dragging on celebrity guests to duet with them, and all manner of feeble garbage designed to postpone the actual reckoning for as long as possible. Fortunately The X Factor doesn’t yet go as far as that, but still pads out the process by revealing the identity of the bottom two, then making them both sing again. Given the amount of pressure deliberately heaped upon them, I take my hat off to the contestants for being able to stand up, let alone sing.

The bottom two were reasonably predictable. Voices With Soul were there, probably for no other reason than they were the first act on, and nobody could remember them by the time the lines opened; and young Roberta, a girl whose voice and looks scored highly with the judges, but who was so bland it’s hard to imagine anyone feeling strongly enough to pick up the phone and vote for her. Sure enough, Louis didn’t feel inclined to axe his group, and Sharon likewise didn’t fancy getting rid of her girl, and so the entire decision rested with Simon Cowell. Somehow, this seemed inevitable, as Cowell always seems to get what he wants in the end. The only question mark was whether he might be mischievous enough to axe Voices With Soul on the basis that they could pose a threat to his own acts later on in the series. In the end, however, he did the honourable thing, and Roberta was the subject of the usual montage of “your best moments with us”, and the shot of the tear running down her face.

As she disappeared into the eternal shadowland inhabited by the dozens of other former talent show contestants whose potential pop careers have been massacred by their appearances on the nation’s screens, it was time to wrap up.

Much like Popstars: The Rivals, it seems that The X Factor‘s real purpose is to prove how vital Ant and Dec were to making Pop Idol such great TV. Whatever “the X factor” itself might be, Kate Thornton, like Davina McCall before her, just don’t seem to have it. Seemingly nervous, and unable to bring out the contestants’ personalities or control the crowd’s enthusiasm, the whole show never loses the sense that the Geordie duo have called in sick and Thornton’s filling in at five minutes’ notice. Without their self-effacing bonhomie, the programme badly lacks humour, and everything feels far more formal that it ought to be. The rivalry between the judges comes across as hideously contrived, and you can’t help feeling that, if this were Pop Idol, any such faults would be neutralised with a bout of mickey-taking, or a wry raising of the eyebrow to camera.

One thing that is inescapable, however, is that whole thing is undermined by a sense that the contestants are all either bland balladeers or one-hit-wonder novelty acts, none of whom are likely to have lasting careers beyond the end of the series. Not that the judges are likely to care too much if they are, of course, as the whole show is geared up to allow BMG (Cowell’s record label) a shot at the Christmas number one, and what does it matter if you can’t remember any of the current contestants in 12 months’ time, given there will be yet another reality-pop show by then?

Then again, who is the real sucker here? If I look in my CD collection, I find an alarming number of albums by former reality-pop contestants, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, this time next year, I have something from an X Factor act sat there too. No matter how much I want to give up watching these shows, there’s always something that keeps me hooked. The format may be repetitive, but it always seems to have that intangible draw, that special indefinable something which keeps me watching even when I don’t really want to.

I suppose I’d have to call it the “X factor”.


Comments are closed.