Misery Business: The X Factor In Action

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I sit watching everyone’s favourite entusical freak-show The X Factor on Sunday night, and the same old talent-show tropes appear in earnest: a collection of crying contestants, highly-edited shots of a live audience booing and clapping, a panel of tabloid-friendly judges, and a Leona Lewis or One Direction instrumental track humming away in the background. While music’s supreme lizard overlord Simon Cowell sits in his leather throne with dollar signs in his eyes, a large chunk of the country stares as the wannabe singers are tediously whittled down.

As the show enters the midpoint of its 12th series, ratings are at an all time low. Just around 7.5 million of us have been tuning in to watch the singing contest during its current series: 2 million fewer than last year’s series, as per The Mirror and The Huffington Post. Compare this to the wholesome Great British Bake Off, which enticed 9.3 million viewers at the opening of it 6th series, and closed the same series with 14.5 million. The appeal of The X Factor is evidently wearing thin, and there are great cultural implications deeply embedded in the show’s exploitative and truly shallow format.

A vast body of academic literature into music, communication and culture has suggested that a large part of the aesthetic experience of music depends on its ability to allow human beings to feel, to experience, and to flourish via the medium of music. The word ‘flourish’ is a useful descriptor for music, as it demonstrates how music is for everyone; it is something we can experience together regardless of cultural or socio-economic background. Whether you’re gay or straight, rich or poor, black or white, music is something for us, as human beings, to share; a medium for fine-tuning our emotions, and for catharsis and relaxation. As music and culture scholar David Hesmondhalgh puts it, the idea of flourishing is entwined with “living a good life.” Music is fundamental to allowing us to smooth out unrealised emotions, and to gain a better understanding of ourselves and those around us. It is a vital tool for accomplishing a happy life, and thus evoking that flourishing feeling.

Academic theories aside, surely music should, in some capacity, make you feel good, through engaging your emotions or your brain. Largely with a focus on Cowell’s The X Factor, this article explores how the more exploitative the show’s format becomes, the more of the ‘flourishing value’ of music is lost. While such theories could be criticised as reductive — e.g. the meanings and values behind music are many, rather than one in particular — this argument is nevertheless one to consider as, on autopilot, you settle down for your weekly dose of ‘reality’ TV.

“So many of us claim to hate the programme, but to enjoy the initial auditions. Our delight tailors itself to watching the judges and live audiences poke fun at the tone deaf, the talentless, and even the extremely talented, if the producers decide to tarnish their character through editing.”

The format of The X Factor as a talent show is fairly linear: auditions, pooling the cattle, process of elimination. While it is perhaps dehumanising to the contestants to label it as such, the format itself does little to reaffirm the human status of those very contestants. The exploitative capitalism that Cowell practises, advancing gimmick performers and those who cannot sing in tune but are ‘abnormal’ through the competition, takes away the joy from the notion of music itself.

Typically, the viewer is treated to floods of tears, snotty noses and cries of despair from contestants. And a monologue. Something like, “I’ve put my heart and soul into this… I want it more than anything!” It’s a routine that comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb mocked brilliantly on their series That Mitchell And Webb Look, as did Charlie Brooker in his hit dystopian drama series Black Mirror. Comedy aside, it seems that the appeal of talent shows like The X Factor is shifting away from enjoying the process of uncovering talented and gifted singers — a concept that sits at the heart of the pleasure taken from music — and towards voyeurism, watching poor, helpless souls being thrown to the lions as their dreams are cast asunder.

So many of us claim to hate the programme, but to enjoy the initial auditions. Our delight tailors itself to watching the judges and live audiences poke fun at the tone deaf, the talentless, and even the extremely talented, if the producers decide to tarnish their character through editing. We devour the narratives that we are fed. For example, 2013 contestant Shereece Foster claims (via the BBC) that she was asked by producers not to mention her partner, so that she could be painted as the ‘single mum’, to warm the cockles of audience members. This level of superficiality and exploitation is so significant that The X Factor has come under criticism from mental health charities, such as Rethink, who accused the programme of taking advantage of contestants who suffer from mental health issues. While some charities are quick to note that they can only “speculate” on the mental wellbeing of some contestants, the criticism is nonetheless grounding.

Not only should we question if those behind The X Factor care about the welfare of these artists, but if they truly care for their careers. The format is driven by finding the biggest voice, rather than the most interesting artist: built up for a flash-in-the-pan Christmas single spectacle and then dropped without a fair shot at a sustainable career. Consider that Madonna may not have the strongest voice in the industry, but she built an interesting and varied career out of artistic choices that gave her… well, the X Factor. Similarly, Taylor Swift can’t belt out notes with the impressive vibrato of Beyonce, but she has captured the loyalty of millions through her soft phrasing of confessional lyrics.

“The culture created by all of this is one in which music does not allow emotions to flourish; it is instead managed with plastic precision to exploit, and to stifle individuality”

How could such artists be nurtured on a programme where the biggest voice, the prettiest face, and the saddest story is always the best? With the contestants’ songs being chosen for them, they are denied artistic integrity and the ability to create music that can make an audience feel. If one dares to be not obviously ‘commercial’ — for women, over thirty— like 2013 winner Sam Bailey, then they will be denied the investments of time, money, and decent songwriters that 2006 winner Leona Lewis was granted, and be dropped from Cowell’s record label as soon as the Christmas Number One dust has settled. The X Factor has become a programme of conformity, makeovers, and “it’s a no from me because I don’t see how you’d fit in”: a vulgar deviation from the programme’s original intention to discover talented, quirky souls who have ‘that something special’. It has forgotten the meaning behind its title.

The culture created by all of this is one in which music does not allow emotions to flourish; it is instead managed with plastic precision to exploit, and to stifle individuality. Perhaps The X Factor has also contributed to the association of singing -– a natural vocal sound — with public humiliation, and the depletion of those who enjoy singing as a hobby or a means of socialising. Sadly, very few of us will happily and loudly sing ‘Happy birthday’ at a party nowadays.

This piece was not written in a ‘love to hate’ fashion, and it is likely that X-Factor-fan readers may think, ‘all publicity is good publicity’ and ‘don’t like it — don’t watch it’. No. This piece was written to shed light on the ways that modern music in the commercial sector is becoming more vapid, spaceless, and cruel. We no longer care who can sing in a way that makes us feel, think, and reach out to others. We only care about music as a means of watching others fail, falter, and make fools of themselves. It’s a horrible cycle, but one that is continuously consumed. Simon Cowell, of course, has the biggest laugh. We watch, they cry, and he makes millions. It is a business, perhaps even an international institution, based upon misery.

Special thanks goes to Shrewologist Claire Roberts, who co-wrote this article.

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