THE risk of discussing ideas for the Christmas double issue of
the Church Times is that, at some point, someone will
shout out, "The X Factor!" And then, a month later, he or
she will question whether it is possible to formulate a Christian
response to Simon Cowell, the perils of judges' houses, and the
rise and fall of Steve Brookstein.
It transpires, however, that quite a few people, not all of whom
are fans of the show, have done exactly this sort of thinking. They
include a gigging musician, an ordinand who referred to the show in
a presentation to bishops, and an Iron Maiden fan who titled her
email to me "Urgh X Factor".
"It should absolutely be explored," the ordinand, James Pacey,
says. He believes that the show is a symptom of a wider problem of
individualism. "It is a massive part of contemporary society, and,
as Christians, we are called to reach into the dust and get our
For the uninitiated, here is the dirt on The X Factor.
It is a TV programme in the tradition of Opportunity
Knocks and New Faces, a talent show in which wannabe
pop stars compete to win the backing of a panel of judges and the
votes of viewers. It has been broadcast every year since 2004, and
is aired on Saturday nights from September to Christmas. The
current series has about ten million viewers; but, at its peak, in
2009, almost 20 million people tuned in for thefinal.
The man behind it all is Simon Cowell, who worked his way up
from the mail room at EMI to talent scout, producer, and, today,
top of Forbes' Rich List of the most highly paid TV personalities
of the year, having earned $95 million between June 2012 and June
2013. "I wish I could have signed the Beatles," he told the
Daily Mail a few years ago. "But not for the music. I wish
I'd signed them for the royalties." You get the picture.
The format of The X Factor has been tweaked over the
years, but the basic structure remains the same: auditions are held
across the country, and the finalists then perform live on TV every
week. Viewers vote for their favourite acts, which are whittled
down to two or three in time for the Christmas finale.
The winner is crowned with a £1-million recording contract, and
invariably, reaches the top of the charts with his or her début
single. Past winners include Leona Lewis, Alexandra Burke, and
Little Mix, but some of the industry's biggest success stories
failed to win, including the boy band One Direction, last seen
generating Beatles-level mania in the United States.
THE show has plenty of detractors. Sting has described it as "a
soap opera which has nothing to do with music". Damon Albarn, of
Blur, criticised it for creating "a mindset that suggests you can
get something for nothing, and that it's easy to acquire status and
fame". What Dave Grohl, of Foo Fighters, said about it earlier this
year is not repeatable in a family publication. But beyond debates
within the music industry, there is still the question whether
Christians should be concerned about its popularity.
"X Factor should absolutely be explored in church," Mr
Pacey says. "But it should be explored sensitively, and from a very
objective perspective. It would be very easy, and entirely wrong
for someone to get into the pulpit and say: 'It is wrong because of
this.' It's not that X Factor is the problem, but rather
that it is a symptom of a wider problem . . . an individualistic
It is a culture, he argues, that promotes "instant success; that
very individualistic thing of 'I can have all my dreams in my life
sorted if I can achieve fame and success.'" The ethos of X
Factor is, he says, "very counter-gospel".
Rachel Scott-Thompson, a designer and touring musician, takes a
similar view: "I think its popularity is very indicative of the
fact that people are increasingly seeking fame, money, and
adoration above anything else.
"Fame is idolised as something desirable to be achieved, despite
the huge number of 'famous' people who consistently say in
interviews that living your life in the public eye is very
difficult, and that being constantly hounded by paparazzi is pretty
"People are looking for recognition, to know that they are
valued and precious; but, as with every other period in history,
they are looking to the wrong things to satisfy that desire."
CERTAINLY, testimonies from past contestants suggest that the
pursuit of fame through The X Factor is not a universally
positive experience. Mr Brookstein has become one of its biggest
critics. Weeks after winning the first series, he lost his record
deal, and, The Guardian discovered, ended up singing on
the Bilbao-to-Portsmouth ferry.
"I just wanted to make good music - and not the pop schlop
associated with Cowell," he said in 2009. "Unfortunately, I was
dropped because I wouldn't play the game." He exacted a small
revenge on his former paymaster that year by backing the successful
campaign to get Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name" to
the top of the chart, instead of the ballad released by the show's
winner, Joe McElderry.
Other contestants have complained about being exploited by the
show, or unfairly edited.
Perhaps the most obvious area for concern, from an ethical point
of view, is the audition process. While the initial screening of
candidates extracts those with talent, it is also designed to
identify "good telly" - what Louis Walsh, one of the judges, has
described as "the good, the bad, and the ugly".
Two years ago, mental-health charities spoke out after the
screening of an audition by Ceri Rees, a 54-year-old who had
already appeared, and been rejected, three times.
"She does appear vulnerable, and it was clear she had been set
up to fail," Mark Davies, of the mental-health charity Rethink
Mental Illness, said. "If someone appears as helpless as Ceri, to
put them in the spotlight is exploitative. . . I think most people
would have regarded this episode as gratuitous and cruel."
Mr Pacey believes that the public is being sold suffering as
entertainment, "just as when we watch people being lambasted by
judges. We are having a laugh at people's naïvety or lack of
talent. It's the 21st-century equivalent of the Colosseum. I think
it is unethical, let alone unchristian."
The show's producers argue that contestants enter the show of
their own free will. Psychologists are employed by them to help
identify those with mental-health issues.
THERE are, however, positive aspects of The X Factor.
Some would argue that there are worse ways to spend a Saturday
night. Malcolm Down, a music product manager, says: "I think its
popularity needs to be put in the context of Saturday night TV
viewing as a whole. As a nation, we love our Saturday night TV. We
always have. We just love being in on a Saturday night during the
cold winter months, especially as families, watching whatever is
"It proves that everyone likes well-produced television," Rhys
Morgan, a fan of the show, says. "We all like a good story about
the competitors. We all want to be part of a national event.
Water-cooler television is what everyone talks about at work on
Monday morning. Is it part of the conversation at coffee time after
the main Sunday service? I would think not. Church people can be
incredibly snooty about the whole entertainment business."
It is interesting to reflect on the type of people who win the
hearts, and votes, of viewers. Many have come from unassuming, or
even difficult backgrounds. Last year's winner, James Arthur, had
spent time in respite foster care. Jahmene Douglas, the runner-up
last year, and a Christian, became an ambassador for Women's Aid
after speaking out about the appalling abuse his family suffered at
the hands of his father.
At a time when social mobility is flatlining, and a third of
MPs, half of senior doctors, and two-thirds of high-court judges
were educated at independent schools, The X Factor puts
the people who keep the country running - binmen, prison officers,
and shelf-stackers - in the spotlight.
"Somehow, the stories of seemingly ordinary people achieving
their long-held dreams connect," Mr Down says, "especially if
they've been through tough times."
MS SCOTT-THOMPSON agrees that many of the winners' stories pack
an emotional punch: "Someone of worth, being noticed and 'rescued'
from a 'nothing' background. . . is very reflective of the gospel;
and I think it's what everyone dreams of for themselves, deep
Nevertheless, her "biggest issue" with the show remains the fact
that "it pretends to be about music, but it's actually not at
She is not alone in this criticism. Although nobody resorted to
Dave-Grohl-style expletives, several contributors to this article
were angry about the impact of the show on the music industry. "I
think it perpetuates the idea that it's really important to be
famous, and also that looks matter," Mel Wallage, a heavy-metal
"This is dreadful, and places yet more emphasis on materialism.
It's sad for the music industry, because our charts are full of
manufactured, reality-TV stars, and real musical talent is
overlooked." Ms Scott-Thompson agrees: "Obviously, success stories
do bring in a lot of money to the industry, which provides
employment for a huge number of people, but I think it also makes
it far more difficult for genuinely talented performers to be
"It gives false hope to someone who likes singing karaoke every
once in a while, that maybe they could become a famous pop star;
and they don't see that the vastly talented singer/songwriter who
has been working incredibly hard, and performing gigs at local pubs
and clubs for years, hasn't even been able to 'make it' in the
THE finale of series ten of The X Factor took place
over the weekend, live from Wembley Arena. It was won by Sam
Bailey, a 35-year-old prison officer with two young children.
She told a newspaper this month that she had already received
criticism on social media for her teeth, and her weight: "They will
both get sorted after the show." Her efforts, she said, all go
towards giving her children "a decent home, and a decent life".
Perhaps it is unsurprising that she, and other contestants, feel
that stardom is the best route towards this, given the shock that
registers on judges' faces when their professions are revealed.
"You are a prison officer?" spluttered Nicole Scherzinger, a former
Pussy Cat Doll, during Mrs Bailey's first audition.
It is easy to see why watching Mrs Bailey win was a cathartic
experience for millions. She has been transformed in recent weeks,
fast-tracked from a fairly ordinary existence to the warm glow of
adulation. We all want to be cherished, as Ms Scott-Thompson
"It could give other people hope that they are also valued and
more precious than they had thought," she says. "But I think it is
more likely that people watch it and think 'I wish I could be that
person' rather than 'Look at that "nobody" who was discovered, and
is now important and valued - maybe that's also true of me.'"