Cowell’s festival of kitsch

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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…

15 Comments

  1. ejh said,

    December 2, 2008 at 5:37 pm

    Because if I was a music critic with aspirations to seriousness, I’d be as scornful as Paul Morley is

    Or worse, you’d actually be Paul Morley, which fate I would wish on nobody.

    Incidentally isn’t the whole point of a niche that it isn’t big?

  2. charliemarks said,

    December 3, 2008 at 12:12 am

    Ant ‘n’ Dec are great.

    There was a programme on the siblings of celebs I saw last night – Cowell’s brother works with him and is like a clone. Spooky. Well spooky.

  3. December 3, 2008 at 1:46 am

    I am very fond of Ant and Dec and my niche is huge.

  4. Renegade Eye said,

    December 3, 2008 at 6:07 am

    Cowell atleast is honest in his criticisms. In the US version, his opinions are smarter than Abdul and Jackson’s.

    Cowell at one time was a producer of music for the WWE. He atleast picked up heel psychology.

  5. Andy newman said,

    December 3, 2008 at 10:29 am

    Miaow: ” am very fond of Ant and Dec ”

    But do you know which is which?

  6. Freshly Squeezed Cynic said,

    December 3, 2008 at 10:38 am

    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.

    Erm, Leona Lewis? Granted, she’s not lasted more than a couple of years yet, and could still peter out quite quickly, but she’s done a hell of a lot better than a festive number one.

  7. splinteredsunrise said,

    December 3, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    But do you know which is which?

    Ant always stands to the left of camera, Dec to the right. Otherwise anybody might have trouble.

  8. Harpymarx said,

    December 3, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    “There’s a nice symmetry to it. It means each of the four judges has one act in the final four.”

    Not being pedantic…oh, go on then. But Dannii Minogue has no acts left as Ruth “with the bazongas (?)” was voted off. Louis has one act, Simon has one and Cheryl has two. Er, not like I am watching this every Saturday..um, erm..

    I liked it when Ant and Dec did X-Factor and its predecessor Pop Idol.

    Probably should quit while I am ahead……

  9. ejh said,

    December 3, 2008 at 3:25 pm

    I always mix them up with Ant and Bee.

  10. skidmarx said,

    December 3, 2008 at 5:12 pm

    I’m fairly sure that Ant has darker hair, is a bit thinner (and so looks taller). He looks more like Gary Neville than does Dec.
    While I’m on the subject of the sons of Neville Neville, I used to have trouble remembering which was which, until I asked a friend “Which one looks like a weasel and which like his been hit in the face by a truck?” and have never had the problem since.

  11. David Ellis said,

    December 3, 2008 at 5:49 pm

    Off topic but you’ve blogged about this before so thought you might be interested if you haven’t already heard about it:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/police-investigate-mps-antigay-remarks-1050237.html

  12. splinteredsunrise said,

    December 3, 2008 at 7:10 pm

    Thanks, David.

    Damn, sunk by pedantry again. I really should have been paying attention intead of making the tea with the telly on. Anyway, the sexism is not mine for once – Cowell himself has been talking a lot about Ruth’s outstanding talents.

  13. Andy newman said,

    December 4, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    Louise: “X-Factor and its predecessor Pop Idol. ”

    But as Simon Cowell’s lawyers would be keen to explain, Pop Idol and X-factor are COMPLETELY different.

  14. organic cheeseboard said,

    December 4, 2008 at 4:58 pm

    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.

    Cowell doesn’t want, or need, momentum after January. That’s why Will young was such a glorious shock as a winner, because Cowell really, really wanted Gareth Gates to win – precisely because he appeals to the granny/kid market. Because pop idol/x factor is a yearly thing, it’s precisely in Cowell’s interest to only have a couple of true success stories – it means they can keep up the ‘this year we need an international star’ charade that reached its glorious peak when he tried to describe Shane Ward – a Justin Timberlake tribute act – as a star with international potential.

    Very few of the 17/18 market care about the charts – and they’re still watching x factor, like everyone else, they’re just not the people they need to vote. 17 and 18 year olds don’t have the kind of money – in terms of both phone calls and CD sales – that the old (who haven’t discovered downloads yet) and the young (who are too young to pay phone bills) have.

    you’re right, though, that the power ballad style of Ruth was never going to win it, cos a bloke called Ben had the exact same thing a couple of years ago and didn’t do that well. Nowadays you can guarantee that granny-friendly music will be represented in the top 3 – therefore classical-lite, swing, or any young boy singing you’ll never walk alone. This year we’ve got the added bonus of an eva cassidy impersonator.

  15. ejh said,

    December 4, 2008 at 6:14 pm

    O tempora! O mores!


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