The Demise of The X Factor

Music is beautiful when it is done well. Consider the rich, sweet sadness of Nina Simone. But her voice wasn’t hers alone. It wasn’t merely a function of her lips or her tongue or her vocal chords. It was also a remembrance.  A history brought alive. Her voice was the echo of slaves toiling in the fields as they would sing traditional African folk songs. They would sing as a way of alleviating suffering. They would sing as a way of expressing a heartfelt connection with loved ones in the most terrible conditions. They would sing as a way of realising beauty and grace in a world which offered them little of either.   Sometimes the words of the songs were contrived in such a way as to allow the slaves to convey secret messages. Often at night, an escaped slave might be guided to safety by the rising and falling of those voices; disembodied and haunting, calling out from across the dark.

Nina Simone inherited these musical traditions and fused them with later ones. The ever increasing level of black converts to Christianity led to a greater degree of emphasis on hymns and melody which later became gospel music. Simone’s mother was a strict Methodist minister and the young child would often play piano and sing at the local, beaten-down church. The greatness of her music was bound up entirely with her cultural history and her talent developed organically from that context.

A whole generation of black artists came from the same context: from the newly urbanised black populations in the North who were developing Rhythm and Blues, to their contemporaries in the South who were mixing certain European influences to create what would become Jazz.   All of this was emergent against a background of renewed social struggle which would eventually grow into the civil rights movement.

More than anything else The X Factor represented the annihilation of this.  The annihilation of a living music tradition. The X Factor ‘created’ music consciously and in accordance with economic imperatives. Such music was, quite literally, manufactured. Simon Cowell’s notion of music was never premised on the music traditions he had encountered, but on his sense of what is most easily saleable.

And what is saleable?  Great music certainly is. Because it contains a universality which speaks to vast sections of humanity. But such music emerges from living history in a highly specific social context.  It does not emerge as and when the new series of The X Factor begins. It is a historical force and not at the beck and call of the music executive.

And that is why the music executives cannot posit a historical solution to the sales ‘problem.’ They cannot immerse themselves in the traditions and development of music more generally. They cannot take the time to ever really listen. Time is money you understand: they need a high level of sales and they need it at once. Their actions are dictated by the strictures of economic competition and the weekly or monthly turnover of record sales.  And that is why music companies are ever more compelled to create music artificially rather than allowing it to be created historically.

How does such a project work?  In summary the executive examines the recent past for examples of music which is most successful – that which has reached the highest sales peak over the shortest periods.   With this in mind, they develop a sense of what is most likely to sell in the immanent future.  He or she endeavours to create a facsimile of what has gone before: a music which echoes and emulates those qualities which have already provoked sales success.  Such a facsimile remains unable to offer anything qualitatively new and becomes ever more retrograde and banal in its manifestations.  When a relatively untalented boy band comes out and a lot of teenagers rush out to buy their albums, very quickly, like multiplying gremlins, there are created a hundred such bands.  Each one a little better looking and, if possible, a little blander than the last.

The X Factor was in keeping with all of this. There were contestants on The X Factor, people would remark, who could really sing. But what does that mean?  It is true that many of the winners had exceptional voices.  And yet.  Notice how they always seemed to be singing someone else’s songs.  This is far from accidental. The contestants were not refining the music they had inherited and grown up with in such a way as to allow them to express and mediate the reality of their own lives.   They were rarely using music as a means of relating to a world which might pain them or bring them joy.   They were not using their voices creatively – that is, they were not using their voice as a way to create something new.

Instead they were simply refining the technical aspects of their voice – whether those be dubious or skilled – in order to achieve stardom and riches through the medium of an entirely corporate creation. They were whittling their voices down into saleable commodities and singing the songs which best advertise those commodities. The voice of Nina Simone might well have been commodified:  she might have made oodles of money in light of her musical success; but the realising of her voice as a product which could be sold was the consequence of her music and not its premise.   The genesis of the music which shows like The X factor promote is to be found in the commodity form itself.   Such music is created not as a use value, not as something beautiful and original and pertinent to the experiences of the person who creates it, but as an exchange value – something whose existence is delineated entirely by its ability to command a market price.

For Simon Cowell and those like him remain always more in tune with the rhythms of the market than the rhythms of songs. It is not simply that he is enwrapped in his own personal fug of arrogance and stupidity. It is that he too enters into the logic of an objective process: the logic of competition and the need for an ever continued stream of saleable products. And this necessarily militates against the creation of new and original works of music as the latter are often beautiful but disturbing – especially when viewed from the perspective of well-heeled corporate interests.  Vivid and original music cannot be called into being on a whim nor measured against any ‘like’ phenomenon via the sales statistics of the past.  For any executive that makes for a volatile and unstable prospect.

And so a prevailing economic tendency (competition) more and more results in a type of ‘McDonaldization’ effect across the musical sphere. A cheap, mass produced and entirely forgettable series of artists become the order of the day.  Thousands of albums are sold during the mayfly-like life span of this or that particular singer, who, having been produced by the slick, media savvy X Factor creation, is then consumed and almost at once discarded.   The Times described the process as producing:

‘[T]he heartless, thoughtless and superficial – the flotsam and jetsam of the polluted seas of celebrity that is likely to sink without trace into toxic foam’.

But The X Factor was about more than the syphoning of the logic of corporate competition into an entertainment programme. It also represented an act of glaring hypocrisy. The ostensible premise of The X Factor was a kind of rags to riches story; the endeavour of the producers to locate hidden talent in the untapped resources of the general population, to bring onto the national stage those people whose everyday lives held secret and glittering gifts which could be brought to fruition with a Cinderella-like sparkle. And yet, it was a sham from the start. The real motivation had more in common with the Victorian freak show; that is to say, the producers knowingly and cynically sought out the deluded and the inadequate – incompetents and fantasists – as contestants in order to wheel them onto the stage to be humiliated by the judges, particularly by Simon Cowell himself.

Cowell was key to the presentation: his character was carefully crafted – the idea of a businessman-savant, a master entrepreneur. The image was cultivated of an individual whose forensic understanding of the music scene, his ability – his genius even – left no room for niceties or social graces.  Devoted to the pure aesthetics of his craft such that he was always brutally honest when it came to filtering the wheat from the chaff; ruthless and cutting in disabusing the illusions of those with meagre abilities on the road to unleashing the real talent.

And yet the whole thing was a cynical and contrived pantomime. Cowell had, so the story went, worked his way up from the bottom – but like Donald Trump and so many other men who crow about being ‘self-made’, he actually owed his position to his father, an executive at EMI Publishing where the teenage Cowell was given his first job, and who oversaw his climb through the ranks subsequently.  Furthermore, the idea that Cowell had a keen ear for musical talent and was responsible for facilitating the rise of some of the most significant musicians of our epoch is contradicted vividly by the fact of the actual ‘talent’ Cowell had signed up. Before the advent of The X Factor and Pop Idol, the most notable acts Cowell had signed were Sinitta, Robson and Jerome, Westlife and the Teletubbies.

But most significant of all, was the way Cowell would humiliate and deride many of the performers who appeared before him. These people were sometimes completely awful but clung fervently to the belief that they were destined for great things; that the greyness and difficulty of the present was on the verge of giving way to the rainbow horizons of a future in which the world ceased to ignore and neglect them, and instead raised them up to the levels of celebrity and superstardom they had for so long craved.

Such people were rarely likeable, of course, but behind the bombast and bravado was nearly always a sense of wretchedness, behind the facade of the fantastical, was always a baffled vulnerability – the struggle to provide a cocksure smile, even as you are being ripped to pieces in front of a crowd of jeering spectators, your hopes and fantasies revealed as a pathetic sham before a global audience of millions. It was here where Simon Cowell played the role allotted to him to a certain perfection – always with an air of exasperation as though he took no pleasure in ridiculing the bewildered and deluded but it was simply all an unfortunate consequence of his ruthless professionalism.

In actual fact, however, the acts whom Cowell was given the opportunity to humiliate had all passed through the earlier stages of the ‘competition’; or to say the same, a group of middle-class, highly savvy media producers had consciously contrived to let the worst and most talentless people through the earlier stages, assessing them to be somewhere between the vulgar and the ridiculous, brash but inarticulate, loud but often desperate and deferential in the same moment.  In other words, the perfect fodder for Simon Cowell to work over in his role as a discerning but brutal arbiter of talent.

Assessing the programme’s legacy, entertainment journalist Lydia Venn writes ‘[t]he judges’ insults were often nothing to do with the singing and if they were they were unnecessarily cruel. There were moments of groping, cultural appropriation and fat shaming that hopefully would never be aired today.’   The series eight contestant, Misha B, outlined how the sensationalism of the show had graduated into outright exploitation when she revealed that the producers had engineered a scandal whereby she was presented as a bully in order to create the type of pantomime villain the audience would love to hate. ‘They saw an opportunity to tear down a black girl that came from a broken home and worked together to assassinate my character and to sabotage my career by orchestrating lies.’

Her account of events was supported by one of the ex-judges, Gary Barlow, who would later describe how the programmes producers purposely orchestrated the inflammatory claims: ‘About half an hour before the show goes live, the producers would come in and they’d go ‘Oh my god. That Misha. She’s such a bully. Can’t believe it. She is such a bully. In fact, you know what? You should say it. You should say it on air’.’

Other contestants such as Zoe Alexander have drawn attention to the manufactured nature of the auditions themselves. Alexander recalls how the production team requested she sing a Pink song rather than one which would advertise her credentials as a singer in her own right, but when she acquiesced the judges conducted their ritual humiliation of her anyway. She protested, telling them ‘you told me to sing a Pink song’ – before exiting the stage distraught. Even a number of the success stories who’ve developed careers off the back of the show, still draw attention to its ‘appalling and exploitative behaviour’ – the contestants Cher Lloyd, Rebecca Ferguson and Irish duo Jedward all allege this.

The X Factor was more than just a TV show. It helped popularise the idea that being considerate towards others was a sign of falseness and that cruelty and unpleasantness were the only true forms of authenticity.  The programme was born to a very particular historical period and it bore its traits.  Like so many reality TV shows it was the brainchild of neoliberal economics; by mobilizing members of the population through promises of fame and fortune, it avoided the need to compensate its performers and was thereby able to drastically slash costs.

But beyond this, it exhibited those who were poor, vulnerable, different, sometimes delusional and nearly always aspirant – the people who were mostly at the bottom of society – as ridiculous grotesques to be gawked and laughed at, and ultimately humiliated by their social ‘betters’. It provided an obscene fantasy which emanated from the millionaire mind-set; the notion that the cruelty and entitlement of those who have known only privilege and power is somehow key to unlocking the creativity of humankind;  it coated this ideology in the baroque drama of the most saccharine soap-opera and finally set the whole ghastly process to the ruthless and interminable rhythms of free market competition whereby the human individual is regarded in purely financial terms, before being drained of his or her commercial value and cast aside.

And yet.  Everything must change.  Last month The X Factor was cancelled after 17 years of running.



Tony McKenna’s journalism has been featured by Al Jazeera, Salon, The Huffington Post, ABC Australia, New Internationalist, The Progressive, New Statesman and New Humanist. His books include Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective (Macmillan), The Dictator, the Revolution, the Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin (Sussex Academic Press), Toward Forever: Radical Reflections on History and Art  (Zero Books), The War Against Marxism: Reification and Revolution (Bloomsbury) and The Face of the Waters (Vulpine). He can be reached on twitter at @MckennaTony