X Factor – The Whys and Wherefores

I get asked this a lot…

What are my views on X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, The Voice, and so forth?

Well, here are some of my thoughts on the matter. I doubt I’ll be able to cover every angle in one blog, but let’s hit some of the main points.

These shows are big business. The ad buys for their commercial breaks command some of the largest figures on television. As such, ratings are king. In fact, most news coverage pertaining to these programmes focuses on the race for viewers between competing shows. High ratings depend upon appealing to as many people as possible. Herein lies one of the issues. To appeal to as many people as possible, you have to shoot for the lowest common denominator. You have to avoid taking too many risks. You can’t scare people. Basically, you have to give people what they know they already like…

These shows aren’t really talent shows. Especially those that throw in the ‘car crashes’. You know the ones – the god awful off key singer with the adoring family backstage, toothless Aunt Tracy ready to pounce once the inevitable bad reviews arrive, false nails swiping angrily at the judges, held back just enough by the suited security guards. Let us remember, these shows are about gripping the viewer for long enough to reach the next ad break. People like car crash TV. And people like hearing pleasing renditions of songs they already know.

But surely, people also like finding new, wonderful music? Well yes, of course they do, and they will forever do so. But in some unspoken agreement between these Talent shows and us, the more discerning audience members, we have all agreed to keep these two desires apart from one another. And thank fuck for that.

New music, singer songwriters, bands with original material, etc, do not belong on reality TV. For starters, it would not make great viewing.

Art and mainstream television are not great bedfellows.  Art exists, in part, for its own sake. To the artist, creative vision trumps pandering. Integrity comes above mass appeal. Reality/mainstream television is little but pandering.  They want pretty young things, singing pleasant cover versions dripping in fake emotion. Ideally, from a lad or lass whose background has just enough strife for the editors to cue up the plinky-plonky  piano loop of weepy grandeur.

They don’t want the next Kurt Cobain, the next Radiohead, or even the next Jessie J. They want a soft focus approximation of the viewer’s existing music collection. They may attempt to then launch the winning artist into the pop cannon, but not during the contest stage. Baby steps.

X Factor wants a puppet. A singer or a group malleable enough to turn into next year’s pop single sensation. Any preformed act with their own character, a song base and (hell!) an actual ‘X Factor’ does not fit this bill. And here is my next issue. These shows do not create stars. They find, promote and then swiftly discard flash-in-the-pan products, doomed to a career at Butlins or the depths of whichever Big Brother spin off no-one is watching this year.

Some minor celebrity comes from these shows. One of Girl’s Aloud is still in the limelight. Leona Lewis is apparently aiming to be the new Whitney (I’d avoid the white powder though love…) Beyond these names, who else has lasted more than a couple of years at the top, or even close to it?

There is one. Mr Will Young. Still making albums, still selling out venues. While not to my taste, he is a very interesting case study. He is an anomaly. He swiftly positioned himself away from the pop covers of his debut Cowell-funded album into more soulful, MOR style. He sings original songs in his own voice, and pretty solid songs too. Certainly not pop fluff. And lo, he has an actual music career! He used the reality television route to launch himself successfully, but I can imagine he played some of his own cards along the way.

My biggest qualm with these shows is the false hope.

I work with many singers on a fairly regular basis who have placed a shockingly large amount of faith in their upcoming audition for their show of choice. When asked, I will always gently, kindly, point out the statistics. Tens of thousands apply, a handful are chosen. Out of which, there is the ‘car crash percentage’  to be deducted. I don’t ramble on about the short term fame of the winners or the fact they are turning themselves over to a huge corporation as living, breathing product; there is no need. They have their hearts set on something, for better and worse, that is most likely never going to happen.

In the world of real music, of course artists shoot for the top. But, they do so more organically. Along the way they have the substantial wonderments of the rehearsal studio, the small town gigs, the self funded demos, the local following, the local music scene… all of which can escalate (again, organically) into something more. And if not, they will always have the “small time”, which is no small prize. X Factor cares not for small time. It only cares for all-out explosive fame, with all the metaphorical fallout merely a side product to be burdened by the blinkered stars and starlets of yesteryear.

Some networks have tried to push songwriting and artistry to the fore in a reality programme. None have flourished. And I cannot myself see a way they could. Songwriting and musicianship is a mildly geeky affair, if we musicians are to be honest. Learning an instrument, writing a song, perfecting a set… all of these things are timesinks filled with repetition and rule sets. This is not sexy television. And while the results are potentially brilliant, new songs require repeat listenings to sink in. They may also only appeal to select audiences due to the matter of genre; could a death metal artist ‘compete’ side by side with a Goldfrapp-influenced electronica artist?

And therein we have another vital point. Competition. Art is not the realm of competition, of winners and losers. Artists live alongside one another. Granted, we have pop charts, but at the end of the day every artist wins. They create, share, contribute.

So let us end on a positive. Despite the proliferation of Talent/Reality music shows, real music is doing just fine thank you very much.

Live music is soaring, stronger than ever one could argue.

After a funny transition phase into the digital realm, music sales are also doing fine. Yes, there is still a degree of piracy, but let us not forget the days of cassette recording, bootlegs and such. A small amount of piracy has always been the norm and the industry knows its benefits alongside its harms.

Real music will exist alongside Talent shows, and real music will outlast each and every one of them.

Long live the music!


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