X-Factory Farming


As I write, the final of this year’s X-Factor is playing out on a TV in the same room. My wife quite likes it, and so for this reason, I’ve been present whilst much of the series has squirted its way into my living room this year.

I’m able to ignore it, most of the time at least. I can get on with other things as it plays out, and I count myself lucky for this, not least as the show is expressly designed to shouty-laser the non-committed viewer into some sort of suggestible state just west of catatonia.

When I do start to pay attention to it, it annoys the hell out of me. I think I’ve worked out why.

It’s not some percieved lack of talent amongst the contestants. Most of them can sing to some degree. They are better than most pub singers, albeit probably worse than many. They can sure sing better than me.

It’s not related to lack of talent. Sure, ask the contestants to WRITE and sing a song each week and the series would last a fortnight (good thing). The history of pop is dominated by good-looking dolls who sang other people’s songs, from Elvis to Beyonce.

It’s not that it manufactures pop stars that we could happily have been spared. The pop business has worked that way since the mid-fifties. See Elvis.

I think most of the things that tweak me into screaming at the box if I give them half a second’s thought could be bracketed under ‘insincerity’ and ultimately it’s the huge towering pile of thousands of tiny lies that the show is built upon that really, really gets me.


  • The judges. There is something dishonest about a panel of experts spouting advice on how to be a world-straddling pop talent if that panel includes Danni Minogue and Cheryl Cole. And Simon Cowell. Look them up and marvel at how little they’ve actually done to qualify.
  • The words they all say. “What would it meant to make it into the last eight/seven/six/five/four/three/two?… Oh, it would mean everything to me (every week).” “You made that song your own”… so let’s be clear, that song will now belong to Joe Somethingorother, rather than The Beatles? “You deserve to make it into the final”… and I’ll tell all the others the same.
  • The idea that these stories are amazing, or miraculous. Oh really? You stick a singer on prime-time TV for several weeks and then people go and buy their records? Incredible! We shall call this new phenomenon ‘advertising’.
  • The huge, cavernous, universe-exploding pretence that this is something other than a game show, It’s A Knockout for karaoke wannabes.

I’ll buy the Rage Against the Machine song this year. Simon Cowell thinks this is stupid. He may be right. I haven’t listened to the charts for years, so it’s disingenuous of me to get worked up about a three-week advertising campaign which has destroyed the once entertaining race to be Christmas number one. However, if the X-Factor is entertainment, if it’s fun and pop and sparkly and life-changing, and if, as Cowell has intimated in the past, it’s proof that democracy is still alive, then so is the idea of boosting an 17 year old song to number one, just to piss him off.

Sure there’s an self-defeating irony in half a million people all succumbing to a campaign to buy the same song just to prove they can’t be dictated to, but that’s pretty comprehensively obliterated by the sheer joy inherent in the idea of Cowell being denied what he thinks is rightfully his, and having to hear “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” whenever he remembers 2009.

Pranks might not change the world, but they can make it a whole lot more fun.