The X Factor is back. Gargantuan television that sees itself almost like a musical National Lottery, dealing in the hopes of proles and making their dreams come true! Forget all the sorrow, stress and humiliation that comes with it.
However, the negatives that are levelled at The X Factor are misguided. The stress, bullying and vapidity that comes with it is not unique to Simon Cowell’s theatre of pop – all the X Factor is doing is televising what the music industry is like behind closed doors. If you’re in a supposedly credible indie band, you’ll be jumping through the same hoops as someone like JLS. It’s a grim, shit-flecked world behind the veneer of the records you like and, somehow, Simon Cowell has turned the ogre-ish world of music into a successful entertainment programme that, basically, is to music what wrestling is to professional sport.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying WWE, just like there’s nothing wrong with The X Factor. Yet, time and time again, the same half-baked criticisms are levelled at it. Cher Lloyd, this weekend, was bottled off stage at V Festival. Of course, bottling anyone off stage is an act of supreme cowardice because there’s always a better option (that option being that you can walk away and do something else, especially at a festival and, if your best option is to stand and watch someone you hate, then you’ve been an idiot for buying tickets to a festival with an awful line-up).
So what if these acts don’t write their own music? Neither did Aretha Franklin. The Supremes didn’t write any of their greatest songs, yet, Chris De Burgh wrote every single foetid note of his. The assumption that ‘the best’ write their own material is bunkum. Just ask Elvis Presley.
Maybe the problem is that the process of graduating from a talent show is galling? The ‘best’ bands cut their teeth without them and rise to the top by sheer talent alone, right? Well, there are a huge number of acts that have graduated from talent shows. The Zombies won a record deal through a rigged talent show way back when. Ella Fitzgerald, Gladys Knight, James Brown and Michael Jackson all graduated from talent spots in Harlem. Are they lesser artists because they didn’t play the toilet bowl circuit for years?
There are very few criticisms of shows like The X Factor and The Voice that actually stick. Meteoric rises to fame aren’t the sole property of the talent show contestant. Being controlled by a svengali isn’t just a Cowell construct. When Phil Spector was creating some of the greatest records ever made, do you think he was giving his artists ‘creative freedom’?
The music industry is, and always has been, a woeful, cynical and ruthless industry. Records and artists are all mass-produced to some extent, shaped by stylists, advisors and supposed taste-makers. There are seldom few musicians in music’s history that have played by their own rules. Very few rock musicians have innovated or push boundaries. Madonna, queen of shape-shifting and towing the party line, has been the most vocal critic of Pussy Riot’s imprisonment. Kate Nash has leapt to their defence, in turn, turning millions of young people onto a political cause. Apparently cred bands have sat on their hands, worried about offending their record labels.
So what’s the real problem with talent shows? You don’t like the music and you don’t like people you know watching it – fine. That happens all the time, so quit your whining. Mass-production and industry interference is present? Go tell it to your Motown records.
Could it be that The X Factor et al is merely showcasing how ugly the business you bought into, really is? If that’s the case, you better re-evaluate what it is you want from music because, beyond the records themselves, there’s very, very little to get excited about.