Sunday, 29 April 2012


Dear Reader,

Onward, ever onward. Here we are at the letter X. Given the relative sparsity of words available X-Factor has proved convenient subject matter. It is also a Dear Lady Wife suggestion so I can always blame her if this goes horribly wrong.

X-Factor then, where do you start? Well, if you haven't seen it then I guess I better explain. It is, on the face of it, a talent competition. It is judged by pop svengali Simon Cowell, accompanied by which ever group of pop luminaries are currently in favor.

The X-Factor plays out in three phases, the auditions, judges houses and finally, the ultimate prize, the live shows. Let us deal with each phase in turn.

The Auditions.
Auditions take place across the UK or US, depending on which one you are watching but follow a similar formula. There are good auditions, OK auditions and bad auditions.

Good auditions first, these will either be really good or OK. Good auditions are delivered by people who have a shot at the live shows. A good audition example:

Not too shabby, Danyl was good enough to make the live shows, but did not win. A good audition does not guarantee success.

The OK auditions are normally accompanied by a story. A story can get you a long way in the X-Factor. The story normally involves misfortune, the type of misfortune that is guaranteed to get an emotional response from people watching. If Kayla is doing it for her recently deceased mother or father then she has a shot. If Kayla is doing it for her recently deceased father and her very much alive mother who is in the audience tonight but doesn't know that Kayla is auditioning because they became separated at the age of four by social services and only made contact again last week and her dog has got cancer and her cat saved the lives of four hundred people by dragging them all from a burning building using nothing but his tail, then, you have a guaranteed audition. That, is a story.

The other side of the coin is the bad audition. Bad auditions are the car crash moments that allow Simon to give full rein to his wit and biting sarcasm. Bad auditions are normally attended by people who have an over-elevated view of their ability, quite often they are also a little bit mad. This combination makes good telly apparently.

Beware the holistic vocal coach bearing gifts!

Much wittling of this nature happens over a four to five week period. Two-three weeks is spent travelling around the host country, followed by a more focused set of auditions which eventually leave us with the acts that move on to next significant stage.

Judges Houses.
The acts that have reached this stage are nearly all competent. During this phase the judges have been allocated their mentoring categories. The categories are as follows:

  • Girls - Regularly win.
  • Boys - Regularly win.
  • The Overs - I call them the overs as the age range for this category is fluid. It could be over 35's, the over 30's, so on and so forth. Never seen a winner in the UK anyway, but commercial success can happen for one who reaches the latter stages.
  • The Groups - Rarely win but, commercially are one of the strongest categories.
There are normally between 5 and 10 acts per category. You would think that by this time everyone in the competition would be able to hold a note and this is largely true. There are however, a couple lurking (normally in the Overs category,) who can only hold a doctor's note. These observations are UK specific, I have not had the pleasure of witnessing another competition unfold.

During the Judges Houses stage of the competition contestants are apparently shown a little bit of the celebrity lifestyle, and perform to the judge allocated to their category. What they are not shown, however, is the judges houses. These are very nice pieces of property rented for the show.

The hook with judges houses is the decisions. Each judge must sit down with each act in turn and tell them the good or the bad news. There will be many, many tears. Tears will often come from the judges (not Simon obviously, he is above all of this.) Tears will always come from the acts though, story or not.

Astonishingly, once this final wittling is over there will be still at least one basket case left in the competition. They will be able to sing a bit, have some charisma and can entertain. They will, quite clearly never win. They are normally in the Overs category. They do however give the live shows some comedy moments, where we shall go to next.

The Live Shows.
So, the X-Factor moves into the final phase. This is where the judges/mentors can only influence the outcome with the help of song choice, styling and production. No matter what they do, it is the public who decide.

In the UK each live show is played out over approximately 5 hours spread evenly between Saturday and Sunday. Filling that time clearly gets more difficult as time goes on. The live show has a host, who is really peripheral but sort of necessary. What this stage is all about is the story. Every week, every artist has a story. It may be a re-hash of a previous story or it may be an illness. It could be that the contestants' cat can't stop coughing up furballs. The contestant may have lost his / her voice for six days. The mentor is with them all the way through all of these mini-traumas if the story is to be believed. They might even be catching those furballs.

Each live show is also played out in the press. All contestants are now under the microscope, their past and present laid out for all to see. If one of them falls out of a nightclub at 3 in the morning with a lady on his arm, the public will know about it. If there is a lot of press coverage, you can be sure that their story for the next week will include this.

It is a perilous weekly journey that finishes with the public vote. Eventually there will be a final three and someone will win. That someone will sell records, without a shadow of a doubt. The someone who has sold the most to date is a diva. This return to the stage for a results show proves that occasionally these shows find someone amazing. Leona Lewis is proof of that.

So when the show is over, some will win and some will lose. It is supposed to be a singing competition, sometimes it is. In reality once you get to the live shows it is a popularity competition, pure and simple. This competition gets played out over the newspapers, forums and the web of the participating country.  

All of this is good for Simon. Many participating acts end up on his record label Syco, a fifty-fifty partnership between himself and Sony, who just want to sell records, as many as possible. Any arriving act who has just spent the last twelve to fifteen weeks on prime-time telly touting their wares is in a good place to start a recording career. This is good business.

I could spend a bunch of words being negative about this show, which begins as a circus and ends being something more akin to a money making machine. It's a guilty pleasure though, at least the latter stages. For the Dear Lady wife, I don't think there is any guilt at all. 

Onto later Dear Reader, as I attempt to yield all of the mysteries of the letter Y.


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