Maybe it’s just me, but I always get the feeling the late Nicolae Ceauşescu would have enjoyed X Factor. There’s something about it – the booming voiceover, the yelling audience, the names flashed up in lights, the overblown arrangements (including backing vocals!), the massive chunky desk the judges sit behind – that irresistibly brings to mind the sort of pachyderm bombast old-style Stalinist regimes used to go in for. And it’s all terribly, terribly kitsch, of course.
What X Factor has going for it is that there’s none of the ambiguity that’s plagued Strictly this year. Nobody really disputes that this isn’t a contest to find the best singer, it’s about finding money-spinning acts for Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh. And we know by now how the voting goes. It helps to have a sob story. It helps to have a regional voting bloc. A combination of the two is hard to beat. But, in the last analysis, it’s all about saleability. And the very democracy of X Factor does provide a rough guide to saleability.
So it was that, last Saturday, the Spanish girl with the bazongas went out while the wee lad from here, despite a weak performance, stayed in. There’s a nice symmetry to it. It means each of the four judges has one act in the final four. Had the wee lad from here gone out, Cowell would have been left with no act in the quarter-final, and as the owner of the show, that just wouldn’t do. Traditionally with X Factor, disgruntled viewers whose favourites have gone out mutter about rigged voting, but there’s never been firm evidence of it. Nor does there really need to be – if it’s all about saleability, these things tend to work themselves out.
You just have to look at who prospers in the final stages and ask yourself who’s going to download their single. I can imagine that the Spanish girl with the bazongas might sell a few calendars, but her speciality is the big shouty power ballad, and that’s probably not as big a niche as it used to be. I suspect the next casualty might be the blonde girl. Her quirky delivery might conceivably be appealing to the kind of people who like Kate Bush or Tori Amos, but those people aren’t likely to be looking for the next Kate or Tori on X Factor. What you’re left with, then, is the black girl, the boy band and the wee lad from here, all of whom are very marketable and could be presumed to be competent at whatever Cowell gives them to do.
Vance Packard might have got a lengthy essay out of this, but let’s be honest, we don’t watch it for the singing. I know every year I say it’s the worst yet, but Cowell does spoil us. It comes to something when easily the highlight is the guest performance by Hannah Montana.
Anyway, I do sense that the format is a good bit past its peak. For one thing, Cowell looks bored, as if he can’t wait to get back to American Idol. What’s perhaps more important is that, post-Will Young, he still hasn’t established a track record of breaking a performer with real stamina. There’s been no Kelly Clarkson coming out of X Factor, and there doesn’t seem likely to be. Getting the festive Number One is one thing, but it doesn’t compensate for a failure to follow that up.
I think one big problem is a basic lack of coolness. I don’t just mean in the sense that Paul Morley disapproves of it, I mean a sense of the whole event being a bit of a joke, and maybe this relates to the American public being a bit less cynical than the Brits. The Christmas Number One, let’s remember, is heavily based on sales to rugrats and grannies. The rugrat demographic is not to be scorned – viz. Hannah Montana – but are you going to appeal to the 17- or 18-year-olds? Because that’s where the gold is, and where you’re going to need to appeal for your act to get some momentum after January.
It’s a good job that I stopped caring about what was in the charts about 25 years ago, to the extent that I ever cared. Because if I was a music critic with aspirations to seriousness, I’d be as scornful as Paul Morley is. As it is, it’s nice to just contemplate the ridiculousness of the thing. And, actually, it’s a little bit comforting to know that it will all be exactly the same next year. I envision Cowell in a Zimmer thirty years from now, still judging bland boy bands with the same scripted put-downs, as much part of the seasonal furniture as Slade.
Ant and Dec, now, that’s something else. If there was a Celeb trial based around skinning and eating Ant and Dec, you might actually persuade me to watch…