AS THE needle entered my skin and pumped the gear into my body, my GP looked me square in the eye and asked, “Is there any chance you’ll get to meet Jedward?”.
Even a swine flu shot is not immune from talk of the trials, tribulations and titillation of The X Factor. From the young girl working the Tesco check-out with the home-made “Keep Them In!” Jedward badge to “updates” and “exclusives” everywhere from Sky News to Morning Ireland, The X Factor has become a three-month “silly season” to some, but to the not-so-silent majority it represents the last great “water cooler” programme on television.
Sired by the ineluctable rise of reality TV and Pop Idol, The X Factor is a hyper-real soap “popera”. It works because it appears to bring us “backstage” and to let us participate in a process (the making of a popstar) that was previously mysterious. This all-important “reality” factor distinguishes it from previous talent show competitions such as Opportunity Knocks and New Faces.
The TV show has provided a boost to an ailing music industry. The pattern now established is that an X Factor charity single (recorded by all that year’s contestants and usually a mawkish cover version) goes straight to No 1 in early December and effectively keeps the Christmas top spot warm for the eventual winner of the show.
With such huge market penetration, it is no surprise that both the single and the album released by the X Factor winner arrive in the charts at No 1. The show has effectively killed off the question of who will be the biggest seller at Christmas.
While the first and second winners of the show (Steve Brookstein and ShayneWard) appear to have disappeared from view, the their and fifth winners (Leona Lewis and Alexandra Burke) have made sustainable careers. Their style appeals to the widest possible demographic, so it’s little surprise that the majority of X Factor music sales are through the supermarkets.
The show has changed the music industry in that everyone else stands out of the way when the X Factor winner releases a single/album (at least their first one). And, by emphasising MOR production values, the show is also partly responsible for the musical conservatism now visible at the top end of both the singles and albums charts.
It was never The X Factor’s mandate to slow the unstoppable slide of CD sales. This is merely a happy by-product and helps to keep the programme’s profile in the news until the next three-month musical crapshoot starts all over again.
This year’s viewing figures are up to 15.8 million – five million more than watched at any stage last year. The rise is attributed to the Jedward phenomenon. Lucan, you have a lot to answer for.
With commentators such as Mark Lawson in the Guardian comparing John and Edward to Barack Obama and Margaret Thatcher (they’re all “outsiders” apparently) and arguing that the reason the duo lasted so long in this year’s competition is because “it is a small-screen version of the revolt against financial fat-cats in a time of recession”, you realise that we’re in grave danger of falsely elevating an extremely well-produced light entertainment into a socio-political totem.
This is not a real-life documentary series; it is a show that uses every trick in the light entertainment book to jolly the action along. But none of this matters (except to joyless pedants). These are just trivial sacrifices to be made at the altar of a massively popular prime-time television show.
The man behind The X Factor, Simon Cowell, has a background in A&R and music publishing and once ran an indie pop label. He also has great “ears”, as they say in the industry. Allying his in-depth musical knowledge with the rigorous emotional dynamics of reality TV has allowed him to create a wildly successful franchise. A local version runs in most countries in Europe.
Next year he plans to unveil Euro X Factor, which will see each country’s winner compete in a continent-wide “Champion of Champions show”. Which essentially means bye, bye Eurovision Song Contest.
As for John and Edward, they really should schedule a meeting with Steve Brookstein (the first winner of The X Factor in 2004) and ask him what it’s like to perform in the Maidstone branch of Pizza Express, as he did last August.
Left: Simon Cowell and one of his “great ears” Below: do we really need to caption them?