Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Has X Factor hit a bum note?

I never understood the attraction of autumn. Yes there are the gusty, golden leafed walks home, the lure of guilt free cosy nights in after the pressure of sweaty, inner thigh chafing summer nights and snugly winter wardrobe, but the season always reminded me of sea side fairgrounds closing down, sensible school shoes and homework. That was before X Factor. Then I got it.

I love X Factor, and that’s why I’m worried the dream is over.

When I say I love it, I don’t just mean in a snide, ironic way either. I adored getting caught up in the drama and campness of it all. It was the ultimate Saturday night TV show, the type you’d watch when you were little after your bath drying your hair. Being able to ooh and ahh at Dannii and Cheryl’s clothes, get indignant about song choices, take sides in the scripted fights between the judges; it was wholesome innocent fun. During its run you could strike up a conversation with anybody about it, and have the kind of chats people had in the olden days, when people knew their neighbours, about the woman in the Post Office, but instead about Dannii Minogue, which if anything shows progress. With twitter you could instantly share your experience with friends, strangers, celebrities all watching the exact same performance, listening to the same flat note, puzzled by the same bizarre outfit Danii and Cheryl’s fashion one-upmanship has produced. Apart from celebrity deaths and maybe World War II, I can’t think of any other even that has united people in such a way.

The only people you can’t talk to X Factor about are the tedious point-missers who whine that Simon Cowell is destroying the music industry. Do people honestly think somebody is going to wander into Golden Discs determined to buy Bob Dylan and leaved confused carrying a single by Alexandra Burke? There’s always been bubblegum throw away pop, there have always been manufactured bands, they’ve now just turned the process into a viciously addictive TV show. The songwriters and producers that were going to be writing the records anyway just have a new person to hang their songs on every year that’s all. Yes it is sad to hear a chorus of contestants in their early twenties solemnly declare that this is the last chance. It’s heartbreaking in as much as it’s probably true. Of course, you can have a career as a professional singer at any age, but pop stardom is truly the shortest summer. I watched last year’s live final in a gay bar in Hackney, as the winner was called out we all, strangers, held hands and prayed that little Joe would get through. Did we foresee his mediocre, follow up single? No, but don’t tell me we didn’t care.

That’s why I was disappointed by last Saturday’s flat noted return. It should have been great, since the range of songs the acts can perform seems to have finally widened. Due to licensing reasons, a wish to appeal to the broadest possible demographic and brazen cheapness, the songs previously on the show were confined to the kind of tracks usually heard on compilation albums given out in Sunday supplements. The songs “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, “Unchained Melody” and “Smile” have appeared so many times, that they are ruined forever.

It wasn’t just the news that last week’s figures were down, that made me think the shows salad days were over. It was the introduction of twists and more acts that scared me. Messing with a show’s formats is like a once beautiful actress beginning the first tweaks with plastic surgery. You know in a few years they’ll be an unrecognisable insult to their former beauty. I got flashbacks of the once brilliant Big Brother, which gradually started convoluting their format and introducing a cast of thousands and ended with show more mangled than Meg Ryan’s face.

Secondly, after Jedward’s surprise success, this year all the judges seem to want to have their own crazy contestant. This is a bad thing. The whole point of the duos success was the audience’s unorganised decision to collectively subvert the show. Every time the po-faced judges self importantly declared they were trying to discover new talent, the viewers reminded them that is was just a silly TV show, and voted them in for another week. Simon’s decision to “embrace the craziness” and support Diva Fiver, is as deflating as a politician using your favourite song at their party conference.

The show’s also been accused of racism for putting through two white girls who fluffed their final audition ahead of two black girls who sailed through theirs. I actually think they might have a point. I think in our culture, white people are, in general, are less impressed or surprised by black people who can sing really well. Growing up in Ireland in the eighties, I knew no non whites at all, the only black people I saw were on the tele, and it was only when I got older and moved to London I realised that I subconsciously assumed all black people were brilliant singers. I know that’s ridiculous but on TV, especially American TV, whenever any black person sings they always, always have amazing gospel voices. Part of Amy Whinehouse ,Joss Stones and Duffy’s success is that they’re white girls who sound like black soul singers, but if they were black girls with similar voices, they’d probably just be backing singers.

(You could never really accuse Cheryl of racism, her husband was mixed race and that was definitely not a marriage of convenience to raise profiles and cover up rumours of homosexuality. Also, yes, she may have been convicted for a racist attack on a toilet attendant but that was ages ago. How could she judge anybody on the colour of their skin, after last week, when she was quite clearly orange?)

Endemic racism aside-Why don’t we feel the X Factor this year? The show’s previous trademark theme; the unfortunate wretch with a stunning voice and a tear stained back story, achieving success after a carefully plotted journey has famously been ditched this season. Those themes; the deserving working class achieving success through hard work and determination all had a very New Labour tinge to them. Anybody could make it, if they had the talent.

Now instead of being a likeable underdog Cher, comes across as an auto tuned ASBO .The judges drool over the other most notorious contestant Katie about her uniqueness as if copying Lady Gagaga is any more unique or original than copying Britney Spears. Despite this her shrill, smug entitlement has alienated her form the public. There just doesn’t seem to be much innocence left.

Topping the ratings is the series following the show “Downton Abbey” written by Gosford Park writer and old school Conservative Julian Fellows. The script, about a manor house before the First World War, still controlled by rigid class structures, noble obliges, and the each knowing their place is New Conservative philosophy in fancy dress. The privileged Lord of the Estate is a sympathetic, well intentioned man, willing to sacrifice his on daughter’s inheritance to ensure the survival of not only his manor but the way of life he feels responsible for. He’s David Cameron in breeches. As the government, decimates the welfare state, cuts child welfare for the top earners and raises university fees, maybe we just aren’t believing in the X Factor fairy story anymore? The X factor fairground might finally be closing down.

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