“Do clever people care about the X Factor?” asks Matthew Taylor.
Yes - by definition. The X Factor final got 17 million viewers. Any clever person must be curious about such a significant social phenomenon. There is, in my dictionary, though not I fear Matthew‘s, a difference between being clever and being a pompous self-obsessed middle class prat.
Although I wouldn’t dream of buying an album by any of the contestants, I’ve watched the series with a morbid fascination. I say morbid because I think it highlights some of the less attractive features of our culture.
I don’t refer to the pursuit of fame without merit. The point about all those hopeless auditionees is that we laugh at them, not with them. Talent sumps such as Jedward and Wagner get ejected eventually. And, let’s be honest, Rebecca at least is not without ability.
Instead, I have four problems. One is that the show highlights just how fickle and inconsistent is public taste. Past winners of the X Factor/Pop Idol include Steve Brookstein, Michelle McManus and Leon Jackson. All were hailed as great stars at the time. None could fill a room today, apart from Ms McManus who can do so on her own.
Secondly, the show reveals the public’s Dianafied desire for empty histrionic emoting. Contestants are applauded for hitting “big notes”, with the result that the tenderest love song is belted out like Brian Blessed greeting a long-lost friend at the other end of the Emirates Stadium.
Thirdly, there’s the perpetuation of a form of the fundamental attribution error - the notion that the singer matters more than the song. But this is not true. Many people - Elton John, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson… - have had successful careers despite having indifferent voices, because they’ve written great and/or popular songs. Mariah Carey is almost unique in thriving for long by singing bad material.
Take That show what I mean. When they broke up, everyone tipped Gary Barlow or Mark Owen for solo success, and thought Robbie Williams would disappear. They were wrong, not because Robbie had the talent, but because he had the songs.
Another version of this elevation of the singer over the song lies in the ambiguous attitude to tradition. On the one hand, this is scorned. The singer who tries to adhere to a particular genre is urged to show more versatility. On the other hand, though, it is regarded as a resource to be plundered at will - as exemplified by this tin-eared insult.
In both respects, the X Factor is the antithesis of The Genius:
Music is so much about what our dead gave us. It’s a cultural medium that speaks backwards and forwards to the generations. Dead people designed the guitar and the piano and recording devices, amplifiers. Gazillions of lives of dead people and animals went into designing these bodies we sing out of. We’re the tip of an iceberg.
There is, though, a curious thing here. A programme such as the X Factor would have been inconceivable in the 60s,70s or 80s; teenagers and 20-somethings singing songs written before they were born would have been an anachronistic freak show. So why is it possible now? It is, I suspect, because popular music today is no longer a progressive or rebellious force, but rather something safe for both capitalists and all the family.
But then, wasn’t this always so? The fact is that pop music - be the lies of John Lennon or the truth of Johnny Rotten - never did change the world, and was only ever a commodity surrounded by romantic illusion.
In all this, I suspect, lies the reason why so many affect to dislike the X Factor. They’re shooting the messenger. The X Factor draws attention to some truths we’d rather not know.