“Strange, I’ve seen that face before.” – Grace Jones
A long time before The X Factor returned to our telly screens in August, all the tabloid whispers pointed to the fact that this series would be going back to basics, in a attempt to revive the glory days of the mid-noughties. This was a fairly predictable move given the lack of talent/fun in recent years, and one that has been modelled successfully over at Channel 5 with Big Brother. Superficially at least, X Factor X (that’s ten in Rocky language) has some features of the good old days, most of all the return of cackling Sharon Osbourne, to whom everything (apart from Dannii Minogue) is faaabulous. Shazza’s reunion with Louish Waltz is a true blast from the past, and an admission from the production team that, actually, experience is what matters on the panel. Despite experimenting with wizened old hags like Pixie Lott, Rita Ora and that drug dealer out of The N-Dubz, we now have four judges that have been around the world and I-I-I, if you get my drift.
On top of this, room auditions were back. The rationale behind moving the auditions to an arena was about finding stage presence, but really turned the whole thing into more of a pantomime than it already was. I attended the Manchester auditions last year, and was struck by how orchestrated the theatrics are. One woman was laughed off the stage for singing in an African accent, and I realised that the arena auditions were creating a foaming mob of racist, unthinking fools. The return of the room audition has thankfully removed the ignorance of the British public, while also drawing attention back to the singing. Even the laughably terrible acts have had a nostalgic silliness to them which was turned to near bullying in the arena. This focus on vocal ability instead of audience interaction has meant that for the first time since Jedward cartwheeled into our consciousnesses, we are entering the Live Shows without a joke act. It remains to be seen how boring this will make the darkening Saturday nights until Xmas, but it seems that the circus is inching slowly out of town.
Or is it? For, while singing has definitely been back on the menu this year, one of the more contrived elements of early twentieth century singing competitions is back with a blub: the sob story. Over on the BBC, that other singing competition with the swivel-chairs promised to eradicate the sob story, but failed when the two winners were fat and/or blind. This year, The X Factor is taking sob stories to a new level by making them ludicrously vague. Rejected wife-beater Joseph Whelan went with ‘I have a son’, while Wagon-Wheel-shaped Hannah Barratt mumbled something about living away from home. I presume it is up to the tabloids to go digging for skeletons, but so far this series the contestants have been getting very upset about nothing too specific. Zoe Devlin was worried about what her three-year-old daughter would think of her failure, and her concerns were justified. When Zoe finally had the courage to break the news, the little girl blew a spit bubble and picked her nose for a bit. Damning. Other excellently pathetic blub-tales included: ‘I drive a van’ (Shelley Smith); ‘I love my husband’ (Sam Bailey); ‘I can’t afford shampoo’ (Luke Friend) and ‘We are poor hipsters who inexplicably live in an expensive part of London’ (Kingsland Road).
If the format and the style remind you of the days when Kate Thornton hadn’t been melted down for scrap, just look at the contestants. The Boys category in particular is so dated that it should come with Computers-For-Schools vouchers. In fairness to the lads, they are being mentored by Louis Walsh, a man so out-of-touch with reality that he still leaves confused voicemail messages on Stephen Gately’s answering machine. Even Louis’ choice of guest judges was baffling, as the bankrupt one from Westlife, an Appleton sister and (who else) Sinitta joined him in Saint-Tropez. The whole thing was like an audition for the next series of The Big Reunion, or a strange, meta reality show where washed up celebrities sunbathe for charity. I half expected Rebecca Loos to show up and toss off a pig while Paul Danan fell in love with something. The Boys have a decent chance, but their coup is Nicholas McDonald, a sparkly-eyed Scot with a good tone and zero chance of being a pop star. I was surprised that he made it to the Lives, but he has the classic ‘confidence problem’ of a Leon Jackson or Joe McElderry, and no doubt the whole of Scotland will push him into the final three. Hell, he might even win it, and that truly would be a return to the past of the show, when the contestants could actually get to Xmas Number One with a stinky ballad about overcoming adversity.
Elsewhere, there is little to suggest that this series will produce any bona fide pop stars. Poor Sharon O has picked three average pub singers who can belt the favourites but have no concept of music, and her three girls will certainly be fighting over the Mary Byrne-issue billowing black fabric. Meanwhile, the Girls gave Nicole Scherzinger ample opportunity to do her ‘I’m listening intently’ face and some pretty tough decisions to make. Scherzy ended up sending home two of the best singers in the competition (Melanie McCabe and Relley C) in favour of the Wagon Wheel and Andrea Begley in disguise (she was blind, but now she can see!) Abi Alton. Abi has an average voice, but she wears a flower in her hair so she’s like totes current and like visceral, do you know what I mean by that? The Girls is a good category, but surely no one will get further than Tamera Foster, who is definitely lying about her age. In an attempt to show more of her ‘personality’, Tamera has been droning on about upsetting her family, but considering her age, the worst she could have done is accidently deleted Don’t Tell The Bride on the Sky Plus. It is worth noting that having a personality bypass didn’t hurt Leona Lewis or A-Burke, so I don’t quite understand what the producers are playing at here.
One of the most retro images from this weekend’s offerings was the sight of Gary Barlow in a sitting room in South London. He was telling a member of Rough Copy that, despite his illegal immigrant status, he would be able to go to the ball. This all seems fine now, but will take a tragic turn when Rough Copy are condemned to playing ice rinks in the North of England. Anyway, the image of Gaz Baz living like proper folk brought back lovely memories of the days when Judges Houses’ was nought but an idea, and the mentors actually had to visit their contestants to break the news. In a potent wave of nostalgia I saw Nigel Lythgoe telling Myleene Klass that she had made it into Hear’Say; I imagined Sharon O pulling up to a grotty, terraced house in Hull, stepping over piles of dog shit and Sports Direct bags-for-life, just so she could crush someone’s singing career. Oh, the memories! Oh, what a happy day!
Aside from these infrequent fits of ecstasy, this series has been exhausting so far. Everything is so familiar, with only subtle changes, that watching The X Factor is like watching a conveyor belt of your own, half-remembered memories, as infinite reference points come to the fore and drown us in our viewing history. I find myself predicting that Hannah Barrett will get booted off the show for happy slapping somebody; that Abi Alton will forget the words to MMM-Bop; that Sam Callahan will go on to release a single which references soon-to-be-defunct social networking sites. It’s all too saturating; at once canny and wholly uncanny, like watching The X Factor from an alternate reality. It’s a bizzarre and unnerving process, and one that makes series, contestants and years merge into one shapeless blob of pop culture information that is struggling to be contained. Crumbs.