This year’s edition of The X Factor has been an abject failure. The show’s ratings have slumped to a record low, its annual charity single was scrapped last week and its judging panel, presided over by Gary Borelow, seems geared towards creating an unwanted answer to Ed Sheeran. Worst of all for Simon Cowell’s televised cash cow, its ability to inspire the ire of independent music is long gone.
Back in 2009, The X Factor found unparalleled success by whipping up the tribal allegiances of music fans everywhere. I should know, as a lowly intern for this very website I was in charge of moderating the user comments on its coverage of the historic chart battle between Rage Against The Machine and Joe McElderry. The vast majority of your musings were ferociously opposed to the innocently quiffed talent contest winner and his abysmal cover of Miley Cyrus’s ‘The Climb’. No doubt plenty of you were among the 950,000 people who partook in the race for Christmas No.1 which eventually saw ‘Killing In The Name’ reign triumphant.
Despite this, being an object of hatred who could grace the cover of NME’s Xmas edition undoubtedly benefited Simon Cowell and The X Factor. Boosted by its status as a lightning rod for water-cooler opinion, the annual parade of televisual farce hit an all-time high in 2010, achieving average viewing figures of 14.3 million. Then came Matt Cardle’s attempt to manufacture yet more outrage with his insipid interpretation of Biffy Clyro’s ‘Many Of Horror’. The strategy was clear: “Hype up the real vs manufactured music debate and people will stay tuned.”
Although Jake Bugg has proclaimed otherwise – “I’m keeping that X Factor shit off the top spot” – independent music fans have been searching for a new mortal enemy for some time now. From Jessie Ware to Solange Knowles, a fresh wave of popstars have generated swathes of hipster buzz in recent months by marrying a DIY aesthetic with some good-old-fashioned soaring choruses. Where RedOne was once his genre’s hitmaker du jour, Dev Hynes from Test Icicles is more in demand than ever thanks to his knack for an awkward R&B anthem. It’s now only a matter of time until a Rihanna/Richard Hawley collaborative single takes the Top 40 by storm.
Faced with these unlikely overtures of friendship between the pop and indie worlds, ITV’s flagship Saturday night vehicle has been living off former glories and diminishing returns. In 2011 there were seven X Factor-related No.1s; this year only Little Mix have claimed the summit of the singles chart. Two out of the contest’s last three winners have been dropped by Cowell’s label Syco within a year of releasing their debut albums. Most significantly, Strictly Come Dancing is now trouncing The X Factor in the average ratings for both its live and results shows.
With only one more season of this showcase for sanitised mediocrity contracted to run, its answer to an impenetrable wall of apathy has been to embrace the alternative. Having been allowed to audition with her own songs, Lucy Spraggan found overnight fame by impersonating Kate Nash. Likewise, James Arthur is being primed as a credible finalist because he can sing moody songs and play guitar. Trouble is, all this year’s contestants are so inoffensive that they struggle to inspire anything more than a passing shrug.
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Without a wave of righteous, independently minded fury crashing in its direction, The X Factor looks set to be canned faster than Louis Walsh can say, “International recording artist.”