tue 23/04/2019

The X Factor: The Final, ITV1 | reviews, news & interviews

The X Factor: The Final, ITV1

The X Factor: The Final, ITV1

The yearly pantomime reaches its conclusion: has it been worth the hours of viewing?

'X Factor' judges Gary Barlow, Kelly Rowland, Tulisa and Louis Walsh

Well, there we go. Another series of The X Factor about to splutter and crunch to a halt. Seventeen-year-old shouter Amelia Lily has been voted out despite actually turning in the finest performances of the night, leaving delightfully rough-round-the-edges girl group Little Mix and lovable Scouse cheeselord Marcus Collins (pictured below) in the running to “win an amazing recording contract” - in the full knowledge that, given the last couple of years' evidence, pretty much anyone in the final six or so contestants is guaranteed a contract and a good shot at chart success.

X factor finalists Little Mix, Marcus Collins

Unpicking the layers of insanity, inanity, awfulness and high-grade pop thrills that The X Factor has offered this year could fill tomes and treatises, but in short it's as British and as ridiculous as pantomime. Even without evil overlord Simon Cowell, who has decamped Stateside to chase world domination via X Factor USA, the character of the show remains strong, just expressed in a new set of rituals.

The awkward buffoonery of host Dermot O'Leary has been ramped up by several notches, as he has clearly decided he is some kind of National Treasure and entitled to his own set of goofy dance routines to introduce each show. His chummy over-familiarity with the contestants has increased, too: his endless shoulder massages, backslaps and headlocks as he introduced them on stage provided a few knuckle-chewing moments this season, although they noticeably tailed off later in the run, making us wonder if he'd been told to rein it in.

The new judges have provided their share of wince-inducement, too. Kelly Rowland of Destiny's Child has supplied an endless stream of wildly enthusiastic non-sequiturs, and favoured the preposterously out-of-touch elderly Irishman Louis Walsh with a new outlet for his difficult relationship to race. We haven't had a moment quite as eye-popping as Walsh telling a young contestant that he was like “a little Lenny Henry” (he wasn't), but his constant attempts to mimic Rowland's southern black American slang have been pretty difficult to watch.

Watch Amelia Lily duet with her mentor Kelly Rowland

Tulisa Contostavlos of N-Dubz has managed a few non-sequiturs of her own, generally designed to express her immense sincerity about how undying is her love for the acts she was mentoring. And Take That's Gary Barlow has provided a great replacement to the overseer role, replacing Cowell's shark-eyed sociopath character with a high-camp pop headmaster, his carefully studied expressions as tailored for the role as his Edwardian jackets, with one eyebrow permanently arched.

For all this, there has been some good pop music. The only truly awful comedy contestant has been the ghastly little scrote Frankie Cocozza with his would-be rocker pose undermined by absolute hopelessness in all aspects of singing and stagecraft. But otherwise we've had nothing as ridiculous as the Jedwards and Wagners of past series: even Johnny Robinson (Charles Hawtrey wrapped in Bacofoil) and the deranged Lady Gaga acolyte Kitty Brucknell transcended their novelty-act status with some great performances.

Pop is seen as providing the social mobility that is evermore elusive for working-class youngsters

Otherwise, there are a few contestants who may very well achieve commercial success. Biscuit-loving balladeer Craig Colton displayed ready wit and a fine set of lungs, hastily assembled and re-assembled boyband The Risk had some rock-solid harmony vocals, and haughty Mancunian Misha B achieved the impossible by bringing some relatively credible rapping (as well as a powerful singing voice and dazzling visual identity) to the later stages of the competition. As for the finalists, each of the last three were characterful, vocally strong, and had none of the blandness of previous contestants like 2009 winner Joe McElderry, 2010's housewives' choice Matt Cardle, nor the utter, utter hatefulness of McElderry's rival Olly Murs.

Watch Little Mix sing "Don't Let Go"

There's plenty to object to about the format, of course. Yes, it all feeds into the increasing pop monopoly of Simon Cowell's SyCo machine, which now apparently supplies the majority of Sony UK's music income. And the whizz-bang glitz of the production – bigger by far this year than in any previous series, and blown up to even more ridiculous extremes for the final broadcast from Wembley Arena in front of an audience of 10,000 – is the pinnacle of what Guy Debord called The Society of the Spectacle, self-perpetuating escapism purpose-designed to keep us watching and spending as the real world collapses in around us.

But, as with pantomime, through the cracks in the spectacle, we do see more than simple entertainment. The this-is-my-dream ambition of the finalists is easy to mock, but it is also a demonstration of the extent to which pop is seen as providing the social mobility that is evermore elusive for working-class youngsters.

And in-between the camp, the bickering and the idiocy are plenty of great performances. Whether it's Little Mix (pictured above left) pulling every ounce of high drama from En Vogue's “Don't Let Go” earlier in the series, or the previously uninspiring Amelia Lily (pictured above right) belting out Christina Aguilera's “Aint No Other Man” last night, when it's good it's really, really good; and it reminds us that however devalued pop music may be in an era of collapsing sales, the appetite for seeing people sing their hearts out live is still insatiable... and what else on TV is satisfying that?

Unpicking the layers of insanity, inanity, awfulness and high-grade pop thrills could fill tomes and treatises, but in short it's as British and as ridiculous as pantomime

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I have to completely disagree. Having had enough of being force fed this tedious show and its endless cyclical tirade of in-fighting and karaoke wannabes, I've decided this year to watch none. It seems that, given all the press attention handed over to the show, that I'm not the only one. Time to let proper musicians, who are struggling to gather an audience whilst WRITING and PERFORMING their own material have a chance and get rid of what has essentially become a few precocious teens singing over a backing tape.If the show were made up of the former it would far, far more entertaining and worthwhile, although undoubtedly it wouldn't line Simon Cowell's or ITV's pockets as much! Right, rant over.

I too have had enough of being force fed this degrading rubbish. Every weekend evening, as I am getting ready to go out, masked men burst into my room and change the channel on my television from BBC2 to ITV. They manacle me to my chair and force my eyelids wide open with steel hooks, like the ones in A Clockwork Orange. For the next couple of hours I sit there in my own filth watching The X Factor. Electrodes attached to my genitals with Marmite measure my state of arousal and automatically field a phone call voting for the act that I dislike the least. When the ordeal is over I am released and given an Iceland prawn ring to buy my silence. I tearfully devour it while listening to Spiderland by Slint, in the vain hope that their jarring a-melodic post rock will wash away the deep sense of shame I feel. When will the DELUDED public realise that what they really want is an updated version of Channel Fours' 1993 documentary The Next Big Thing, featuring acts who WRITE and PERFORM their own material. Artists like Elvis Presley, who's song Jailhouse Rock is so REAL that it takes on solid form and can be used to sand down wooden surfaces. The revolution starts here, today at 5:30pm, right after Songs of Praise.

Interesting tone. Of course, "Knock On Wood" might be more appropriate for that. p.s - how does the marmite taste?

It's heartening to see some intelligent writing about this subject. I refer to the last two paragraphs. 'Pop is seen as providing the social mobility that is ever more elusive for working-class youngsters' This is very true. But music (and the arts generally) have always been viewed by the working class as a way to escape poverty. This is not an entirely new concept. What's different about the MTV, talent show age is that the music/ media industries (working together as they now do) have never been more powerful and effective as a gatekeeper to success (ie earning a living) for the aspiring artist. And while the promise of 'making it' has never been so appealing (fast cars, glam lifestyle, bling, red carpet, celebrity adoration etc), the reality for most wannabe's who do 'make it' is an exploitative contract which will allow the Simon Cowells of this world to make maximum profits during their short over marketed, over hyped, totally managed, disposable careers. After that they are dumped as soon as everyone is (understandably) bored with them or even sick of them due to over exposure. At which point the next wannabe wins the next talent show. But how do you negotiate a better contract if you're a complete nobody entering a nationwide, prime time TV based talent contest. You can't and, to be fair, you don't really deserve one. This is the opposite to the old school way where you built up your fan base, established yourself as a viable artist (as a viable 'product', to use today's demeaning language) and only then started negotiating with the industry (now that you have actually something to negotiate with). You may not achieve instant - and fleeting - superstardom using this method, but you might be able to build up something resembling a paying career as a professional musician or singer. But there's an even more important side to this. As well as escaping poverty, pop music used to also be about giving a platform for working class artists (or anti - artists!) to publicly express their own views, feelings, ideologies, philosophies as individuals and (inevitably) as representatives of the working class. I'm not just talking about the overt, in-your-face use of pop music as a platform for social/ political commentary (Billy Bragg style). It's not even about the lyrics. It's a lot more subtle than that. A decade or two ago even chart pop music was a lot less homogenised and corporatised than it is today. The genre of 'pop music' used to include many unique and bizarre voices, looks, 'personalities' . Not all of them were inside the 16- 25 age bracket (gasp!) and some of them occasionally expressed some pretty sophisticated, coherent, astute and subversive ideas. These days......hmmm, not so much. Apart from just being a lot less demoralising, this weird mixture which filled the charts of yester-decade allowed everyone to recognise the more cynically manufactured 'dumbed down' side pop music for what it was. This is something I just can't imagine kids today being able to do because that's all there is these days. Manufactured boy bands aren't considered fake like they used to be, they're the norm now. When you look at today's chart orientated pop music you find that the messages have been reduced to those which support and integrate seamlessly with consumerism and corporatism. And this is at a time when social/ political awareness (and activism) has never been more widespread. Hmmmm something about this schism just doesn't add up. But let's not suggest the industry is being controlled in any way - lest we be accused of being one of those crazy 'conspiracy theorists'! Thanks to talent shows and other 'reality' TV shows like Big Brother young people are being trained to think and act in terms of pleasing the authority figures: pleasing the judges, pleasing the music industry, pleasing the stupid voice of Big Brother. The message is always the same 'Conform and obey, please your masters and you will get your reward' (usually money, a higher position in the rigid hierarchy and social approval). At this geopolitically unstable time, when this week alone we find out that the US appears to be putting its FEMA concentration camps on 72 hour standby and they have just pass new laws (National Defense Authorization Act) allowing them to arrest and detain US citizens indefinitely and without charge, we have to ask the following questions. How does the promotion via the mass media (TV shows, advertising etc) of super competitive conformity and thoughtless obedience to authority figures (and conformity to the social hierarchy in general) affect society - and especially the young? And is the promotion of such 'competitive conformity' as being acceptable, and even desirable, behaviour a healthy message for young people (or anyone)? History, and my own instincts, says that it is not healthy, and that it is in fact 'rather dangerous'. But perhaps some people think that it is a great idea and the sign of a healthy society at the peak of their civilisation... It is certainly interesting to note how many pop acts now routinely incorporate riot police 'dancers' and general police state imagery into their shows and videos. (Spears, GaGa, Beyonce, RIhanna, Take That are all guilty). It's hard to see how police state imagery is at all relevant to their messages of partying and promiscuity. One might wonder if this isn't an example of cognitive dissonance being used to desensitise the youth to the otherwise alarming direction this (Orwellian, Big Brother) society is headed in. (The TV show 'Big Brother' which depicted confinement in a 'fun' concentration camp complete with 24 hour surveillance and requiring obedience to authority and 'tasks' in order to get necessities like food as being mere 'entertainment' might also qualify as another example of this process of desensitisation). But of course we mustn't think too hard about these things, lest we be accused of being a crazy 'conspiracy theorists'! (and that means social disapproval!) According to these types of TV show, the default ambition today for young people today is not to express own's own views (or even to have any) and not to express one's own experiences through art or through one's lifestyle and hopefully earn a living doing so. Instead, today's default ambition, as defined by shows like X-factor, is to simply make it in the industry, to get rich by selling out (to be blunt) by perfectly conforming to what the industry considers is acceptable (ie what it considers is marketable, profitable, controllable, non threatening and able to be used in conjunction with advertising etc). On the surface these shows celebrate singing talent and live performance (which is great - who can argue against that?!), but underneath they also promote the cult of consumerism and a society ruled by corporatism, training new generations to want to conform in ever more competitive and extreme ways (eg the TV show 'Big Brother') to criteria set by consumer corporations which seem to get more and more narrow. The end result is a neurotic, dumbed down population full of stress, eating disorders, low self esteem, depression and violence where everyone is pig ignorant and incapable of comprehending how they are being manipulated into being 'consumer drones' or 'sheeple' and 'debt slaves' so instead of doing anything about it they just grasp at the provided panacea which comes in the form of increasingly more extreme versions of the very mass media entertainments that dumbed them down in the first place. It's all rather tragic really :( Of course there is still room for talent shows and people who just want to sing other people's songs for a living. Talent shows are not automatically evil! Not even the the X-factor is evil (well it is quite evil). The problem is really when millions choose to surrender their brains - their souls - to it. The problem (the dysfunction) in all honesty is with us - not 'them'. Nowhere is originality and authenticity promoted or rewarded. But equally, it seems that nowhere is it sought or demanded. Nowhere is it valued any more. To criticise it or demand better is viewed as being 'too serious' or 'too uptight' (as apparent in these very comments). So we put up with it for fear of being seen as an uptight, ranting, conspiracy nutter. Unable to reject such TV programming (interesting word, right?) we are destined to conform to it. And we wonder why the world is in such a mess? Most people now define originality and authenticity as being Lady GaGa who is probably the most corporate friendly, plagiarising, ruthlessly marketed, inauthentic, unoriginal, corporatism promoting act that has ever existed. But she does wear a telephone as a hat, so that makes all the difference apparently. If Orwell was alive he would no doubt add 'corporatism is art' to his 'freedom is slavery' and 'war is peace'. If Kurt Vonnegurt was alive he would say "and so it goes" It's may not be a case of poisoning the fish directly, but it is a case of poisoning the water. The only defence against this poisoning is decent journalism and criticism and more intelligent consumerism (if that isn't a contradiction in terms). If we do not form our own opinion about all of these talent shows and all of the crap being pedalled for 'art' or 'news' or even 'entertainment' then the mainstream media will provide us with an opinion, and it will be a favourable opinion because they need our participation in order to attract their advertisers. IOW no one else is going to ever examine what is going on in the music industry or the media except YOU, the consumer and the critic. Do you ever research where it all comes from? Do you ever follow the money? Of course you don't. You don't want to be labelled a 'conspiracy theorist' do you?! (social disapproval, remember!) Yet all that is required is a little awareness and critical thinking. Not just to the obvious things but to the subtle things as well. Did you notice the chains in the Little Mix video? Of course you didn't, it's just pop music right? It's not something worth engaging one's brain over, right? Anyway, don't believe a word I say. I research things and use my brain which probably makes me one of those awful conspiracy theorists! Instead, why not check out the music industry articles on this site (http://vigilantcitizen.com), or do your own research and then use your own mind - but only if you can be bothered obviously ;)

Thanks for your comment, Vigilant Citizen! Some fascinating points... but you are completely wrong about there being an "old school" way of doing things that was somehow more honest. I recommend you read Simon Napier Bell's fantastic memoirs to see how cynical the business has always been.

Glad it was appreciated (sorry for rambling nature - it was written in stages on the train!). Sure, the music industry (or world of mass media and advertising for that matter) may not have been any more honest, back in the day..... but I think it is fair to say that back in the day it was a lot less well organised, less integrated and centralised and a lot less efficient in its cynical manipulation of pop culture. For example, the cynical manufacturing and marketing of boy bands to appeal to certain demographic used to be done in secret behind closed doors. These days it is not only accepted practice but we are now shown the whole process as a form of entertainment in itself, not only soaking up the frequent ad breaks but also acting as nationwide focus groups for the likes of Cowell to reassure him that the raw material being 'bootcamped' into a short term consumer product is the most scientifically appealing (ie profitable) it could possibly be. The corporate mass media then endorses the process and even uses the celebrity gossip it to fill out its 'news' shows and 'news' papers, pushing out genuine news as well as trivialising world events that are reported alongside. End result is a population who actually feel that celeb nonsense is equally (or more) important that world affairs. This benefits the political elite who are able to run amuck (illegal wars, European dictatorships, reverse bank robberies etc) without upsetting the public at all. And on and on it goes... One may view this as a 'conspiracy' (and start researching things like CFR membership) or we can view it as just a thriving, interlocking set of occurrences which just happen to benefit the elite criminal establishment. Regardless of how we interpret it, the effects remain the same. Like a scientific dictatorship, the more power and control the music and media industries have (in this case to literally create culture rather than just own and control it) the more open and 'happy face' they can be about it. And so yes, I agree, artists may have always been unhappy slaves to the evil industry....... but today young people are being manipulated (through shows like X-factor) into aspiring to be willing employees of the evil industry instead. This is actually a far less healthy relationship and infinitely more dangerous to both art and to society. And it is happening in an age when we desperately need art (yes, even pop music) to reflect some semblance of reality and humanity - because where else are we going to be reminded of such things? If we choose to accept that 'corporatism is art' - or even that 'corporatism is reality' (and huge sections of society seem to be under this spell already) - then a Brave New World will have officially arrived. .... voice shuts up and returns to wilderness ;)

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