Next month it will be 20 years since the pop idol final. Watched by 15 million viewers, Will Young triumphed over Gareth Gates with 53.1% of a record 8.7 million votes.
This wasn’t just the start of things for Young and Gates, it marked the birth of a cultural phenomenon: the TV talent show. In 2004, one of pop idol judges, Simon Cowell, launched The X Factor in the UK, a prime-time weekend TV show to discover new singing talent.
At present, The X Factor is “at rest”, considered permanently laid aside, which counts as a mercy killing. After 15 rounds, it was a shadow of its former self: a karaoke-panto formula of snorkeling odds, hammy showboating, and forgettable contestants. Britain’s last winner – Dalton Harris in 2018 – emerged into a swamp of indifference. Nor is Cowell the almighty starmaker, the prime-time Barnum, that he used to be: his recent venture ITV, walk the linewas axed after one series due to poor viewing figures.
How different from when The X Factor was an unstoppable ratings juggernaut, syndicating in 80 countries, spawning an international franchise, including an American version. The socio-cultural impact went even further, altering the form, the ethos, the very DNA of the dominant culture – the practice of the music industry; television programming – and rezoning the aspirations of young stars, making them want to be pop stars instead of teachers, nurses or salesmen, in a way that many thought was irresponsible. In a broader sense, did the culture of talent shows have a small but significant effect on how ordinary people thought, reacted, and even voted for real? Is this part of the legacy of this form of television: while entertaining, has it also made us dumber?
At the beginning of the 21st century, talent shows already differed from each other. pop idol and, later that year, Popstars: Rivalswho formed Girls Aloud, were different from pop stars (2001), which reunited Hear’Say and was billed as a documentary series about the creation of a pop group. None of them looked much like the talent shows of the past, such as New faces or sooner, opportunity knocks.
The X Factor become a different beast again: both sentimental and cynical. He was fortunate to emerge at a time when the music industry was being taken aback by illegal streaming and file sharing, and, just as crucially, when social media was on the rise. Cowell, along with fellow judges Louis Walsh and Sharon Osbourne, positioned himself as a tough but fair panto villain, bestowing lavish praise and sour reprimands.
A music business executive, Cowell considered himself a talent scout, which raised eyebrows in musical circles where he was known to have dealt with artists such as Sinitta, Robson & Jerome and the Teletubbies. But Cowell didn’t care about “cool.” A defiant anti-snob, his affinity was with old-fashioned but expansive markets; his goal was to make money.
The X Factor made huge global stars such as One Direction, Leona Lewis and Little Mix, leading to whole swaths of the music industry becoming symbiotically tied to, and sometimes too subordinate to, talent show culture. this. The cultural decline has been immense. In 2009, in a gesture that seems over the top and a little resentful, a song by Rage Against The Machine is opposed to The X Factor winner Joe McElderry’s version of The Climb by Miley Cyrus, beating her for Christmas #1. Many contestants, including 2004’s first winner Steve Brookstein, complained that they were mistreated. Others spoke of having mental health issues.
Elsewhere, critics have focused in various ways on the product – lame karaoke, stifling everything else in the music industry, sucking up precious resources – and also on the effect on youth. In 2016, then-Conservative education secretary Nicky Morgan worried: “[They] go look The X Factor winners, or they’ll watch reality TV shows, and they’ll think you can have instant success, fame, money, overnight”.
Singer-songwriter Annie Lennox said: “You won’t find Joni Mitchell on X factor … X factor is a specific thing for people who want to go through that process – it’s a factory, you know, and it’s owned and stitched up by puppeteers.
In their long poem, New Elders, Kae Tempest wrote scathingly of Cowell as “the permanent god of our time,” asking “Why is this interesting? Why are we watching?
Was there a strain of dark populism in shows like The X Factor, an enlargement of culture and public discourse? Certainly, television has changed forever. Rival shows included Academy of Fame (Following pop idol), The voice, which launched its rotating chairs in the UK in 2012, until last year’s frankly laughable I can see your voice on BBC One. Another Cowell vehicle, based on the variety England has an incredible talent, launched singer Susan Boyle and the dance troupe Diversity – who provided the most exciting talent show moment in years with the controversial kneeling on stage in tribute to Black Lives Matter in 2020.
Elsewhere, there are celebrity-focused interactive voting shows (Come dance strictly; I’m a celebrity… Get me out of here!). And of course, the other gigantic phenomenon: reality TV. pop idol and The X Factor were contemporary with Big Brotherand you can see The X FactorFingerprints from all over shows such as The only way is Essex. This feeling that somehow it was time for ordinary people to be stars.
In this way, The X Factor captured a huge emerging truth: that a significant number of people were tired of rarefied fame; at least they were tired of being excluded from it. They didn’t want to admire people anymore, they wanted to look the other way. If it couldn’t be them, they wanted someone who looked, spoke and lived like them. In this way, the class was extremely important for talent shows like The X Factor, which, significantly, focused on singing – no need to afford an instrument, nor the lessons to learn one. Before long, there were two main types of applicants: those who were already looking to succeed in music, and those who came out of nowhere. Which suited Cowell and the TV executives: Audience members are cheaper than performers and more adaptable.
What emerged was a personality-driven culture, driven less by ability and more by concepts of ‘journey’ and ‘likeability’. Who had the most heartbreaking upbringing? Who had the best “dead grandmother” story? The result was soapy, comical, but also, at times, powerful and moving: they were real people, after all. More recently, the dating show the island of love could be seen as the endgame of the formula: contestants are all about personality/likability and no discernible talent other than looking good in a bathing suit. As always, the voting public, remote control Roman emperors, thumbs up or down.
Given such an influence, why The X Factor to fail? It seems like a combination of shifting trends (mainstream music has become too hardcore for mainstream TV), a format whipped to death, the growth of influencer culture and the likes of Kim Kardashian, and the rise of TikTok, where people can generate millions using only camera phones.
What did it all mean in the end? In positive terms: talented artists, a Saturday night laugh, a real sense of democratized culture, a window on the UK. Negatively: the regurgitated culture, the flattening of music elsewhere, the lie that everyone is a star.
In a larger sense, what did it do to us? Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, exchanging on his sympathy: ruffling his hair, hanging from a zip line. Has the cult of sympathy burdened us with a leader who could not be trusted to obey its own lockdown rules? Maybe, maybe not.
One thing is for sure, the talent show will be back. They are the knotweed of popular culture: they come, they go, then they come back in another form. You can never really get rid of it.