Tuesday, October 04, 2011

X Factory

No Doctor Who next weekend, boo hoo, so perhaps a good time to look at another source of Saturday night popular entertainment...

And it’s that time of year again when the workers have clocked in, the products are all lined up on the production line and the rest of the music industry hangs its head and/or probably wishes it had come up with the idea before Simon Cowell.

People knock The X Factor. And justifiably so. It’s a circus. Complete with performing animals, although some of them prefer the title ‘judge’.

Louis the Leprechaun chuckles all the way to the bank to collect his pot of gold every year, surely with no actual aims or hopes of ever seeing one of his category emerge as a winner. He’s the one who’s consistently seen pushing through the joke acts and the sub-Eurovision wannabes. Seen, because I’ve every confidence there are those at work behind the scenes nudging the clowns and contentious as far through the competition as they can to generate the appropriate level of ratings and tabloid coverage.

But the show is a guilty pleasure for many, myself included. Originally I think I ended up watching it in a fit of Saturday night boredom some years ago and finding myself entertained by the long line of execrable early auditions. A lot of vocal Verbal Kints in a row of Unusual Suspects. And not a single Keyser Soze among them, but some just as scary all the same. But then what would happen a number of years would be that a handful of actually pretty good singers would show up in the mix and you’d end up supporting them through to the live shows. Might be down to my imagination or my tastes, but it seems to me that’s happened more often latterly.

And on those (admittedly rare) occasions when you come across a real star in the making, it’s scarcely a guilty pleasure at all. Just an unashamed treat.

Those who mock and state that true talents are never discovered in this way demonstrate a limited grasp on reality. You might as well say that true writing talent is never discovered through hard graft, countless submissions and pure dumb luck of landing on the right editor’s desk at the right time. Come to that, I’m currently prepping a submission for a writing competition; the only thing that prevents it from being such a circus is that it’s not being televised. And, after all, who would stick a writing competition on the TV? (Trust me, this stage is not very exciting – essentially a lot of tapping at keyboards, procrastination, banging heads on desks and frequent frustration with the standard of prose.)

Heck, it’s impossible for me not to relate to some of these young hopefuls, chasing their life’s dream. Been there - still chasing and still, if not young, then not exactly grown up. Comic asides aside though, there’s a great deal for aspiring authors to empathise with and even to envy. Would that we had that kind of platform, eh, to publicise our talents. HarperCollins’ authonomy site was a step in that direction and, in its own way, as much a circus, but let’s face facts, it could never command the same ratings.

In terms of music competitions, well, I do believe there’s room for one. (Because The X Factor isn’t that.) Indeed, I’m surprised the Beeb hasn’t shown a little more creativity – hmm, what am I saying, this is the channel that brought us Don’t Scare The Hare and Epic Win – in launching a rival reality show that focuses on bands (you know, actual bands, with instruments, not groups of boys or girls lining up for a go at the autotuner) instead of promoting another singing comp in the form of The Voice.

Still, never mind that, this is the 21st century – sorry, all those lute-strumming Luddites out there – and if you’re not using YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and all the rest to raise your profile, then you’re doing yourself out of an audience. Likewise, as long as ITV are providing the opportunity, then singers might as well avail themselves of the chance for some proper wide-reaching media exposure. These days, you can even fall at a relatively premature hurdle and still get noticed or even signed up for an album contract.

It’s not for everybody, sure. And while that stigma remains attached in some people’s eyes, I guess it *could* be as effective a career-killer as a career-launcher. The main risk you run in the pre-live-show stages is getting passed over in favour of one of Louis’ gag acts. Which, I appreciate, would be gutting. But to my mind, I think the only real potential career-killer is that crucial debut album. Followed by, assuming you survive that first one, the even more crucial follow-up album.

It’s not the winning – or the coming second or third etc – it’s what you do with it that counts. Last year, I was a firm supporter of Matt Cardle, Rebecca Ferguson and Cher Lloyd, all of whom have albums on the way. So far, Matt_Cardle’s singles haven’t impressed as much as his songs from his pre-X Factor Seven Summers album, but they’re pleasant enough pop songs that could use a bit more memorability. While Cher Lloyd’s Swagger Jagger is appalling and all too memorable. I detect the hand of Will I Am at work there, buy whoever’s to blame, it’s too easy for producers to funnel these youngsters into something they’re not. Cher Lloyd was a wonderfully spiky sort of peg and, unless there’s better material making up the rest of her album, I fear she’s been hammered into a god-awful square hole.

This year, I’m championing Amelia Lily:

And little Janet Devlin:

Seen above in 'home video' mode. Both 16, both amazing.

The girls were the strongest category by a bazillion miles and although I personally don’t feel they were whittled down to the absolute strongest four (I’d have put lil Melanie McCabe through for sure – and I’d add, to the likes of Melanie, just remember the X Factor is an opportunity, no more, no less – it’s not the be-all and end-all - *nobody* should buy into this horribly pervasive idea that, if they don't make it through, that's it for them, it's all over), they’re the only category with a clear winner (two, in fact) at the outset.

The boys are an odd mix and I’d be hard pushed to tell you their names, although James, I think it is, strikes me as the best of that bunch. Frankie seems like a mini-Robbie and therefore so far from my cup of tea as to be chamomile, which I find (for the record) horrible and not at all calming. The groups are doomed. Poor Tulisa, she started out by impressing me as someone who knew her business, but she has her work cut out for her there. In fairness, she had precious few materials to work with, but she went and broke up the one group that seemed to have something – throwing away The Keys, in favour of cobbling together another group on the spot. And the Over 25s are, apparently, there to pad out the numbers and provide the comedy and controversy. That would have been even more the case had Goldie not turned down her spot on the show and you have to wonder how Sammi feels, being told, sorry it’s such short notice and I know we initially rejected you and all, but our chief gag act couldn’t make it, we’d like you to take her place. This year’s Mary Byrne replaces this year’s Wagner, while – thank heavens – we still have this year’s Katie Waissel, in the shape of uber drama queen Kitty, to divide the nation. Yawn.

But Amelia and Janet, for my money, are genuinely exciting and it doesn’t matter that this is the arena in which they were discovered, they’re authentic talents. X Factor mentor, Kelly Rowland, whatever you do, don’t mess with them too much. (I was a bit concerned with the makeovers that have been inflicted on them for the live shows and just hope it doesn’t too dramatically alter what they are in the minds of the viewing public.) Janet Devlin perhaps needs a teensy bit more work to get her to pop-star status, but only in the confidence department. And even then, when she sings, she’s perfectly at home, her Ellie Goulding/Cranberries-esque, unaffected but wonderfully affecting voice naturally transforming anything she sings to make it very much her own. Amelia Lily, meanwhile: pop star name, pop star image, rock star voice. Such a mature sound for her age, incredible. Ready made star, you might as well just go ahead and record her album now.

Inspirational. Love em both.

If just those two alone are what comes out of the pop-singer factory this year, then that's all the validation this annual process needs.

So, sure, in summary, The X Factor’s rubbish. But it’s nothing worse than a televised slush pile. You have to hope the best of the talent rises to the top. Unlike a slush pile, at the very least, they’re going to get noticed.

Go, Janet! Go Amelia Lily!


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