Pop Is Not A Dirty Word: The ratings might be shit, but has The X Factor finally found its humility?

NME's pop columnist Douglas Greenwood decided to peek into Simon Cowell's evil empire after eight years of abstinence. And he didn't hate it as much as he thought...

I stopped watching The X Factor about eight years ago, and ever since then, the mere thought of it has depressed me. Simon Cowell’s show has produced pop stars who’ve occupied every rung of relevancy on the cultural ladder, but with the exception of one or two – only One Direction and Little Mix spring to mind – few have enjoyed a lengthy and illustrious career.

The X Factor stopped serving its purpose a long time ago. Back when the show started in 2004, the routes for unsung, primarily working-class people who lived outside of the London bubble to make it big were pretty much non-existent: that’s why we fell so hard for winning acts like the buzzcut Mancunian Shayne Ward, who gave up his pop career for a stint on Coronation Street recently, and the ‘prison officer with pipes’, Sam Bailey, who’s headed down the musical theatre route now.

But when streaming services like YouTube and Soundcloud started to launch new artists without any of the naff frills of being linked to a glitzy pop show, The X Factor‘s relevancy started to decline. We were no longer willing to spend our Saturday nights glued to the telly for three months, only to watch a winner fade into oblivion barely weeks after they took home the crown.

There was an unwritten deal throughout the series: that viewers would tune in for the auditions to see underdogs that brought us to tears and tone-deaf people make arses of themselves, taking plenty of the former and spatters of the latter through to the live shows. But every time we were exposed to the judges following the same three-beat formula (A moment of silence, a ‘yes’ and a burst of emotion soundtracked by Leona Lewis’ ‘Footprints in the Sand’), we saw through the charm and started treating the show as too facetious for its own good. To bosses, the impact of its winners almost didn’t matter anymore; it was the nightly ratings that became the measurable aspect of The X Factor‘s success.

Just as they dropped, so too did the number of people who gave a shit about Cowell’s dog-eared and dated format, and so naturally, he envisioned a switch-up. By firing his whole line-up and replacing it with Robbie Williams, Williams’ wife Ayda Field and One Directioner Louis Tomlinson, perhaps he’d hoped that audiences would tune in to see a panel that drew in hardcore fans of all ages. He was wrong. The X Factor‘s 15th series kicked off with a measly 5.7 million viewers – a serious drop from the show’s peak at nearly a third of the entire British population nine years ago.

But I, dear reader, was one of them. I was one of the few people in the UK who spent their Saturday and Sunday night indulging in the nostalgia of Britain’s most despised TV show. And I’m not ashamed to say I didn’t hate it as much as I expected to.

Sure, the shoddy formula is still the same. We’re left to watch Cowell eye-roll at an unassuming mother of two from the country, only for her to have a set of pipes that rival Susan Boyle’s. We see embarrassing groups of spice boys in their late twenties think they look like JT when, in actual fact, their harmonies sound like a sack of shite. It’s cringe-worthy, formulaic, but somewhere amongst it all, I found myself welling up. Twice.

“I was one of the few people in the UK who spent their Saturday and Sunday nights indulging in Britain’s most despised TV show. And I didn’t hate it as much as I expected to.”

And that’s thanks, in part, to the show re-calibrating itself, and appreciating the plucky underdogs that take to the stage. There was a sweet moment on Saturday night’s show that saw Andy Hofton, a Robbie Williams superfan, have a moment that will go down in X Factor history. The set-up was familiar: he fluffed his first song before Simon demanded to hear his second, a rendition of ‘Angels’ that gave its original singer the chance to take to join him, launching a sing-a-long sesh around the auditorium. The sheer pleasure and disbelief in the auditionee’s eyes as he looked to his right and saw his idol belting out a song he’d probably murdered at karaoke a million times before. Andy’s vocals weren’t great, but it didn’t matter: the genuinely surprising duet was enough for him to win his audience over and go through to the next round. In a sea of reality TV fakery, there was something lovely about watching a man’s lifelong dreams come true right before his eyes.

Sunday gave us a similar moment, one that would usually be dismissed as another cunning Cowell act if the backstory wasn’t there to prove it. Anthony Russell, an unassuming Northern lad with a rockstar voice who’s tried for years, we’re told, to make it through to the live shows almost succeeded last year until his battle with addiction forced him to drop out. Louis, back when he was just a multi-million dollar pop star and not a judge on the show, reached out via Twitter when hearing about his struggle and paid for Russell’s stint in rehab. He returned quite admirably to the stage; a new man, proudly indebted to Louis who lifted him up when he needed it most.

A poignant rendition of ‘Wake Me Up’, the Avicii club banger that’s surprisingly touching lyrically, left the One Direction star fighting back tears. Williams, who’s also battled addiction issues in the past, opened up to him too. Deservedly, he got the judges’ seal of approval, and even though the touching moment was filtered through that cloying X Factor lens, it didn’t dampen a TV moment that was honest in a way few have come to expect from the ITV show.

It was another sign of the show’s life-changing power – even if its effect is nothing more than a temporary flicker of hope. In this series more than ever, with a group of judges who are willing to let down their barriers and open up to contestants in a way we’re not used to, it feels like The X Factor has found its humility – something it’s been trying to conjure up formulaically since the show began. It’s a shame we’ll have to keep watching, every Saturday and Sunday for three long months, to see if it lasts.