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In search of stars at Christmas

20 December 2013

The X Factor final is essential pre-Christmas viewing for millions. But does it exploit its contestants, or offer transformation? Madeleine Davies investigates


Quick change: this year's winner, the former prison officer Sam Bailey, after, and before the X Factor treatment

Quick change: this year's winner, the former prison officer Sam Bailey, after, and before the X Factor treatment

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 hands dirty."

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 culture."

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 miserable.

"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 on."

"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 down."

Nevertheless, her "biggest issue" with the show remains the fact that "it pretends to be about music, but it's actually not at all."

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 fan, says.

"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 recognised.

"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 mainstream."


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 acknowledges.

"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.'"

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