x-factor-bannerThe X Factor is set to return to British TV screens for a tenth series this evening. I, for one, won’t be tuning in.

For anyone who’s been living on another planet for the past ten years and has therefore managed to miss this mass media and cultural (I use the word loosely) phenomenon, The X Factor is a kind of hyper-commercialised karaoke (I can’t bring myself to say “talent”) competition where would-be singers apply to audition before well-known celebrities (some of whom are really only famous for being either rich or famous) to win a place as one of 12 contestants. The Chosen Twelve go on to perform songs on weekly Saturday night prime time TV, with one hapless loser artiste eliminated each week by a public telephone vote. The ultimate winner has their song released as a single and is awarded a record contract for an album.

I confess to having watched The X Factor quite enthusiastically for two or three seasons a few years ago. My wife and kids enjoyed it so it made for a good family activity, plus it was kind of fun, and anyway, well, everyone was watching it. But the longer I watched it, the more it began to irritate me, until I finally thought about it and realised why it annoyed me.

It’s not just the way that auditionees are herded like sheep and treated less than courteously; it’s not just the way that the contestants are psychologically and emotionally manipulated for the sake of drama and spectacle; it’s not just the overblown tantrums that regularly break out between the celebrity judges; it’s not just the excruciating ignorance and, frankly, sheer stupidity of some of the contestants. It’s not even the agony of having to listen to yet another no-hoper with zero musical or vocal ability and a super-sized ego look earnestly into the camera and say “I really, really want this” – because, as we all know, if you want something badly enough, of course you can have it, whatever it is.

No, what really bothers me about The X Factor goes deeper than these surface irritations. This show purports to be all about the music and unearthing the next genuine talent, but in reality it’s all about the money – specifically, how many sackfuls of it the producers can make from the millions who call the premium rate voting lines every week to cast their votes. This excessive commercialism in fact detracts from the show’s supposed purpose, because when it’s all about the money, that means it’s all about the ratings, and to get ratings you have to create spectacle, drama – scandal even. The music is just a thin layer that’s wrapped around the package to hide the naked commercialism and exploitation and give the whole thing a veneer of cultural respectability.

Admittedly, from time to time a performer with genuine talent and star quality might be found (Leona Lewis being the most obvious example), but this is a rare exception. Most of the wannabes paraded across the screen from September to December are mediocre to average.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that The X Factor actively damages and distorts the music industry. It fuels and perpetuates the myth that anyone can be a star if they have an ounce of talent and they want it badly enough, and it elevates image, marketability and notoriety far above artistry and gift. In doing so, it floods the charts with poor quality, mass-produced ear candy that crowds out and drowns out the genuinely gifted and talented.

And because it cynically uses music, which should be a high form of art, as a means to shamelessly exploit both the viewers and the viewed in the pursuit of profit for the programme-makers, The X Factor contributes to the demise and death of culture within our society.

American journalist Chris Hedges puts it well in his book “Death of the Liberal Class”:

Art is an individual experience. It forces us to examine ourselves. It broadens perspective. Entertainment masquerading as art, by contrast, herds viewers and audiences into the collective. It limits perspective to that experienced by the mass.

“Entertainment masquerading as art” – that’s a near-perfect description of The X Factor. So while half the nation tunes in to watch it this evening, I’ll be tuning out. I’d rather sit down with a book and listen to some real music.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.