A Talent Show Without the Talent? X Factor Returns… Again

Sadly the one thing the X Factor doesn't have in abundance is Talent. You would think that, for a talent show, this might be a shortcoming?

microphone

Some of this is true.

First, hand me a trowel…no, two trowels, one for each hand. I am going to lay this on Thick.

“My Grandad died. Yep. Tragic. He was lovely. He always told me to Follow My Dream. I remember he had a jolly twinkle in his eye. He played the concertina. That’s what got me interested in music. Every time I see a concertina I think of my Grandad so I owe it to him that I am here now. That and my three small children, one of whom needs an operation for a disease you’ve never heard of.

My mum has always been there for me and has given up everything, except pizza, so I can follow my dream. She’s not a pushy mum, she just wants me to follow my dream. My Dad buggered off when I was three so I have always had to be really really brave. I don’t think my Dad knew about my dream. This is all I have Ever wanted to do Ever in the History of My Life Ever…!”

Sound familiar? Well, I did have a Grandad – several, in fact. They lived till their nineties and one of them played the spoons as well as the concertina. Also, they were really expert at creative swearing and copious drinking. The rest is bollocks… but I fear most of it will be hitting a screen near you very shortly – twice a week – until you want to smash the television with your handy trowel or tear your face off with a cheese grater. Yep. The X Factor Season is upon us again.microphone

We have already had an announcement about the Amazing Expert Judges. The one who cries a lot will be joined in the competitive dress department by another this-week-I’m-blonde and a self-obsessed chap well qualified in reading out radio PR blurbs.

They will be presided over by a rich smug bloke looking for the Next Big Thing (for ‘Thing’ read ‘Cash Thing’) whilst pretending to be a philanthropic kind uncle. Rock ‘n Roll this ain’t. The X Factor programme is a Money-Making Behemoth that just keeps on giving in trowel loads. We will get Comedy, Tragedy, Satire, Buttock-Clenching Embarrassment, Bad Hair, Frocks and Spots and Misplaced Delusion… oh yes, and Grandad.

Sadly the one thing it doesn’t have in abundance is Talent. You would think that, for a talent show, this might be a shortcoming? Of course it isn’t, because this stopped being a talent show, in dozens of countries around the world, light years ago. I want to have anyone who thinks it is a talent show given a strait-jacket and committed indefinitely to a dark place with wall-to-wall Magic FM.

I have no problem with the existence of programmes like the X factor. I have a remote control. I don’t have to watch them. They clearly tick some entertainment box somewhere – but then people used to watch bear-baiting in days gone by. If you started worrying about that crowded Dark Corner of television shows then you would have to kill yourself or go and live in a yurt in Mongolia.

Let’s be sensible – a Kardashian Backside does not a Deep Thinking Documentary make. My problem is that, even after so many years of being served up candy floss, there are still so many people thinking, in all honesty, that it has something to do with musical talent, vocal prowess or even the nursing of embryonic talent. The show exists to make money and, rather like the lottery, the chances of all the factors coming together for success are so minimal as to be non-existent.

The final of The X Factor last year was watched by about 9 million people (say that very slowly) and yet that was the worst figure for a decade. Here are two names for you…Ben Haenow and Sam Bailey. No, I haven’t either – but they are the winners of the last two years of the show. They disappeared, probably, like unwanted characters in The Apprentice and EastEnders, in a taxi, cruising into the fading mists of time accompanied by some anodyne backing music….

However, even after years of mind bleach it is almost impossible to dispel images of Leonard Cohen and Whitney Houston weeping while ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘I will always love you’ are put through the mincer and the auto-tune engineer stabs himself to death with a mic stand….

The health side-effects of X Factor are not my concern though. As a music fan, musician, writer about and supporter of musicians, The Factor that interests me about this programme – setting aside the knockabout ruthless, cavalier judging and dismissals – is the huge amount of money involved in this annual sleight of hand.

The programme has, amongst other marketing ploys, massive sponsorship, huge commercial advertising income, money from downloads and apps, hoodies, T-shirts, tote bags, mugs (how appropriate) and a positive pirate’s chest of income from phone voting – this last, always a secret, is usually estimated at somewhere around the £8/10million mark… and that’s not counting the selling of a few copies of the competition winner’s ‘Music to Kill Your Neighbours’ album.

Simon Cowell, the impressario behind the show, has personally given substantial amounts quietly to charity for many years and that should be acknowledged. His personal website lists a number of them. I don’t doubt that he is nice to his mother and he is clearly brilliant at what he does. Also, there is a misplaced notion, to which I don’t subscribe, that if you work hard and are rich and successful, you are obliged to give away your money to the less fortunate – or face Opprobrium and Abuse from the trolls.

However, what intrigues me is the fact that despite basing its success on the mantra of ‘discovering and encouraging new talent’, there is no obvious sign that any of the profits from the triple-dialling fans finds its way towards meeting that end, except as an occasional one-off high profile public relations exercise.

[In part two of this essay, published next week, Pete Elliot suggests some ways to rectify the UK’s dearth of talent, and hone its public’s critical faculties.]

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