Is ‘The X Factor’ Evil?

Did you notice? In last Saturday’s X Factor, there was a subtle plug, barely perceptible, almost subliminal really, for Disney’s new film, Disney’s A Christmas Carol™. It’s entirely possible you missed it, because Dermot O’Leary only mentioned it, oh, 30 or so times, before every single bit of VT.

The contestants had all been to the premiere of Disney’s A Christmas Carol™ during the week, see, and their red-carpet exploits were dropped into the show in a bid to break up the performances and build some emotive backstory.

Meanwhile, this was ‘songs from the movies’ week, so of course we were treated to such entirely random track selections as, er, ‘This Is Me’ (from Disney’s Camp Rock) and ‘Circle Of Life’ (from Disney’s The Lion King).

Do you notice a Disney emerging? Sorry, pattern emerging? I don’t begrudge ITV taking sponsorship (or, more likely, ‘cross-promotion opportunities’) wherever it can – everyone in the media right now needs to do whatever it takes to survive.

But when the hard sell bleeds through from the ad breaks, and then skews the show itself in a way that’s baffling to its own core viewers (how many of the 15million-strong audience had ever heard of Camp Rock?), something is deeply wrong.

Indeed, the only way the last episode could have been any more nakedly commercial was if John and Edward had bounded on stage dressed as the Churchill Insurance dog and stood there nodding their heads and going, ‘Oooh yaaars’ for 10 minutes.

Which, by the way, would’ve been a good deal more entertaining than their gormless rendition of the Ghostbusters theme (another auspiciously timed song-choice, given that the Ghostbusters video game came out on Xbox and Wii the following Monday).

This is only the beginning. The power-brokers behind The X Factor have lobbied the government, apparently successfully, to change the law regarding product placement – which means, in the not-too-distant future, we’re likely to witness Louis Walsh turning to Cheryl Cole mid-show and saying, apropos of nothing, “I don’t know about you, Cheryl, but I could just go for a [cue ring-pull] refreshing Diet Coke break.” It’s a dispiriting prospect.

This ugly, turbo-commercialism has also infected The X Factor‘s unofficial media partners. A curious Disney obsession gripped ‘The Sun’ in the run-up to last weekend’s show, as demonstrated by this weirdly cryptic press release, sorry, news story.

“Lucie to sing Disney track”, blared the headline. We weren’t told what the track would be, but that was OK, because Lucie assured us that the song’s all-important Disneyness would be beyond question: “Everyone who likes Disney is going to love it because it’s from a Disney film.”

What studio was that again? More to the point: who talks like this, anyway? Have you ever described anything as a “Disney track”? Equally, though, it’s unclear why show bosses limited themselves to a few quick plugs.

They should have gone the whole hog, called it ‘Disney Week’ and had Jedward debase themselves by singing ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ from The Jungle Book. While dressed as Baloo. And hanging from a tree. Surrounded by wild pythons and panthers. Although they’d still probably have been saved by the public vote, more’s the pity.

Why does everyone watch The X Factor? It’s hideous. It’s not a singing competition – it’s a gigantic sales push. The world’s biggest, glitziest shop window, bankrolled by the richest swinging dicks in the global entertainment industry.

Note how special guest performances – once a rare occurrence – happen almost every week, now that record companies have twigged the colossal power of The X Factor to place an act front-and-centre in the national conversation. The pinnacle of any marketing campaign, the show has been exploited to herald the comebacks of such old-school unit-shifters as Robbie Williams, Whitney Houston and Bon Jovi.

Indeed, it’s possible to see The X Factor as the last stand of the old music industry, a desperate rearguard action against the last decade of musical democratisation, and a ruthless affirmation – by a super-rich elite – of the easy certainties that saw the music biz coin it in throughout the 80s and 90s.

It’s the brainchild of Simon Cowell, a man who got rich as an A&R by grasping a simple idea, namely that you can hype any old shit in to the charts – Zig And Zag, Robson And Jerome, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers – as long as it’s As Seen On TV.

And the other judges? There’s Cheryl Cole, undoubtedly a lovely person, but blessed with so little natural singing talent she mimed her own X Factor appearance – breathtaking hypocrisy, given that the whole point, the only point, of the entire show is the ability to sing live.

Then there’s Dannii Minogue: how many of her hits can you name? Not forgetting, last and least: Louis Walsh, that grinning Pillsbury Doughboy, the formidable Svengali behind such pop goliaths as Bellefire and Samantha Mumba.

Why does anyone value the opinion of these jokers? The standard response to X Factor haters is: Don’t be a killjoy, don’t spoil our harmless fun.

But it isn’t harmless. On the contrary, the show exposes, even delights in, the ruthlessness and cold-heartedness of the industry: for every Leona Lewis there’s a Shayne Ward or a Steve Brookstein, dead men walking, brutally dropped by Cowell after one album, banished to oblivion – or, worse, a role in a long-running West End musical.

Apologists will say, But that’s pop, it’s supposed to be fleeting, there’s always going to be cruelty and disappointment. I disagree. Pop is about escapism, about joy, about celebrating outsider-ness and otherness, and facing down the big bad world.

The X Factor is the opposite of that. It’s the anti-pop. Far from offering escape, it’s a confirmation of all those grimly inescapable forces that make pop such an essential release valve.

It’s a remorseless juggernaut, crushing variety and difference and dissent under its wheels, leaving in its wake an inflexible, gaudily commercial world where the richest and most beautiful always win, and the judges are always right.

PS: Danyl to win!