The X Factor, ITV’s brutal, blockbusting hybrid of freak, talent and reality show, returns for its eighth series Saturday night. It’s never clear, once the end-of-series hype and fuss has died down, who the real winners are. The 2006 winner, Leona Lewis, is often cited as the prime example of one who proves that the show can produce original, sincere and talented stars – but even after American number ones, Grammy awards and worldwide success, her stardom and charisma still seem created by committee, her prize-winning gloss peeling away. Who are The X Factor’s real winners?
The cosmetic enhancing process used on most recorded pop singers to make it sound as though they are in tune. For some, this is artificial horror; for others, another necessary element in pop’s overall charade, and most consumers would never even know or care. Auto-Tune has now been banned during the audition process, after it was “scandalously” revealed to have been used to correct “live” vocals last year. But in terms of what the first record made by this year’s champion sounds like, the winner of this singing competition will yet again be Auto-Tune.
2. Simon Cowell
Supervising despot and creator Simon Cowell and martyred starlet Cheryl Cole are not on the mentoring panel this year, making it Peter Pan without Captain Hook and Tinkerbell (whichever way round). This is a game show, though, about the judges and their careers as much, as if not more so, than the destiny of contestants. So far, the greatest X Factor winner of all, as celebrity and tycoon, has been Cowell. He has slithered out of the shadows licking his lips amid the bombastic Wagner and swirling dry ice to imperiously confirm that it is the crafty impresario, the mogul mastermind who controls and dictates entertainment and the unruly needs of the masses. Cowell has delivered more than 180 number one singles around the world; his Syco label created up to 70 per cent of parent company Sony Music UK’s profits in 2008; and in 2010 Sony and Syco signed a joint venture deal “worth $1bn”. For Cowell, money doesn’t talk, it sings.
Some hapless victors – 2004’s first-year winner Steve Brookstein, 2007’s Leon Jackson – fade as fast as they flourished, losing their hard-won crowns almost overnight once ruthless Cowell cuts the marketing strings. Winner of the second series, Shayne Ward, initially presented as exciting singing sensation, sold millions, but will need another reality TV show to reboot his recording career.
4. The winning losers
Some of the most successful X Factor contestants did not actually win. Weeks of relentless, excitable promotion on peak-time Saturday night ITV enable the most plausible or preposterous show-business careers to be built. Scarily chirpy Stacey Solomon, second in 2009, reality TV national sweetheart-in-waiting, replaced broken Kerry Katona as the chaste face of frozen food store Iceland. 2008’s second place, JLS, were eventually embedded high in the boy band rankings following the exposure. Last year’s mildly wild fourth-placed Cher Lloyd’s kiddy hip-hop was recently, briefly, number one in what’s left of the charts. Twin pests Jedward, sixth in 2009, clowning non-stop on television ever since, most accurately represent the actual camp, kitsch soul of the programme. Despite Cowell’s on-screen mock protestations about this corny crackpot act, this is where his exploitative entrepreneurial genius lies – in the production and blunt marketing of pungent, distracting novelty, variety and costume acts, with a limited but lucrative lifespan.
5. Whole wide world
As the viewers themselves vote for their favourites, given the illusion they are star-makers involved in the process, pop fans around the world should be winners, getting what they want, now that the show is broadcast in more than 30 countries worldwide from Nigeria to the Netherlands, Colombia to Australia.