Dec 12

Sic Transit Gloria Barlow

FT///42 comments • 1,870 views

When Was The X-Factor’s Imperial Phase?

I got bored with the recent series of the X-Factor, and I was not alone: the ratings this year have crashed by a few million. The post-mortems are beginning: the editor of the Radio Times wasted no time in crediting the Olympics and its awakening of a public desire for real heroes who train and sweat and ACHIEVE and BELIEVE. Stage school is no picnic, honey, you might reply – but the claim debunks itself anyway. The ratings crash this year is no one-off – it’s now a trend, after an even more dramatic tumble in 2011, a year with no whiff of gold.

What struck me more, as I clicked back through the ratings of previous series’, is how slow the X-Factor’s build to prominence was. It seems to have always been there and always been huge – in reality, it was certainly a big deal but its days of sheer culture-stomping domination took a while to come. Leona made a splash, but after Leona came Leon Jackson. The climb was slow, and even now we’re still only just back in pre-Leona territory.

Of course, that’s the easy mistake to make with the X-Factor – judging it on its winners. They were never the point – golden geese One Direction finished third, after all. The X-Factor was – let’s tempt fate and use the past tense – it was about so much more: the judges, the subplots, the cheating, the outrage about the cheating, the panto saboteurs, and the treacherous stories it told about who ordinary people are – hidden treasures on the one hand, hopelessly deluded on the other.

So when was its Imperial Phase? The ratings are a decent guide. It built, hitting 10 million average viewiers in the Alexandra Burke season, and then in 2009 and 2010 – series 6 and 7 – it surged. It got average ratings of 13 million then 14 million, staggering in the satellite era, uncanny when you consider how fucking long every show was. These were the years of McElderry and Cardle, two of the most hapless winners, which proves the point about not relying on that as a guide.

But they were also the years of Cowell and Cheryl, of Jedward, of One Direction, and of Rage Against The Machine – seen as a crack in the armour back in 2009, but really the final catalyst needed for the show’s most successful year. The Rage campaign added the perfect note of pantomime and flattered the show, painting it as an unstoppable cultural force and helping it become more of a fixture than ever – the programme you love to hate, fronted by the man you love to hate.

Take that man away and things went downhill fast. The departure of Cowell explains the decline as well as anything. (My own take out from the Barlow Years is that someone who likes bad music is worse than someone who dislikes all music equally, but perhaps I’m unfair on both men). What’s more interesting is why the surge happened in the first place?

Some of it was the times. During series 5 the UK economy imploded, meaning that by Autumn 2009 staying in on a Saturday night was the only affordable option for a lot more of the show’s target audience (young people, lower-income families). But also the show had perfected its three-act structure. In Act 1, our heroes fight their way through a gauntlet of humiliation, gradually coming into focus. In Act 2, as the live shows begin, the tables are turned, and the foolish and formerly humiliated – Jedward, Wagner, Rylan, et al – look to upset the judges, who themselves seem fractious (Well before RATM, the show perpetually flirted with its own subversion). It’s all an illusion – the fools depart with honour, and Act 3 sees the judges resolve their feud and the heroes leave the field.

The structure worked superbly, but it had its limits – for one thing Act 3 was the most precarious even as it was the most popular, relying on audience identification and on talent. For another the story got too rigid. And it needed a better ringmaster than it’s ended up with. But this was what drove the X-Factor in its Imperial Phase, and if we don’t see the show again after next year, the structure will surely come back one day.


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  1. 31
    Erithian on 12 Dec 2012 #

    Rebelective Affinity? Didn’t they play Reading last year … etc.

  2. 32
    Erithian on 12 Dec 2012 #

    fatgit #24 – interesting point about how important the charts still are. If what you say is true, it’s another indicator of the changes wrought by downloading, in that the link between consumer and purchase is no longer physical. That BBC4 documentary in praise of the single a few weeks back wasn’t great but did convey the almost fetishistic appeal of bringing home a single in its pristine sleeve from the shop, with the always characteristic label looking out at you conveying an identity and/or an attitude of its own. Now that’s gone, and a download costs so much less in real terms than a single at any point in the chart’s history, the character of the chart is very different. I’m sure all those people downloading Kirsty/Pogues, Mariah and Slade this month aren’t fans who’ve never bought the single or downloaded the song before.

  3. 33
    Tommy Mack on 12 Dec 2012 #

    Sukrat @ 28: HiFalution sounds like an X-factor urban act who show early promise before inevitably getting voted off in the early stages. Two guys, one girl: in my mind, they are kind of Tribe Called Quest meets N-Dubz!

  4. 34
    thefatgit on 12 Dec 2012 #

    My point about social media vs charts was informed by the brouhaha when Gangnam Style reached 1bn views on YT. That’s quite a boast compared to actual sales that might not top 1%* of that figure, even Worldwide. Even the most apathetic would probably concede that the impact of reaching #1 in the charts has diminished in the download era. I’ll concede Sukrat’s point that “rebellion” is somewhat inaccurate in relation to Beatles, Stones, Rollers, Duran Duran, Britney, Gaga, One Direction or whomever become next year’s pop movers and shakers. After all, nobody can boast regime change by buying a single or attending a gig. I’m not sure “rebelective affinity” is going to roll off too many tongues outside comments threads like this, but teenage abrasiveness towards accepted norms and institutions, be they within family, or wider society won’t disappear thankfully anytime soon, so why not find another way of thinking about it. Leave “rebellion” to Arab Springs and suchlike.

    *I’m not sure what Psy has achieved in world sales to date, but I still think I’m being generous by saying 1%.

  5. 35
    Tom on 14 Dec 2012 #

    “Chasing the Beatles down the street surely wasn’t rebellious, it was doing what large numbers of girls did – like your mum had swooned over Sinatra and your nan over Valentino. Seeing the Stones, though, or getting into that folky protest business that was starting to come over the Atlantic, now that was rebellious.”

    This seems uncomfortably like, ‘rebellion is what boys do’ Erithian! Just sayin.

    (There were roaring boys aplenty prior to the 50s and 60s, too – there’s always a continuity of teenage action – but it’s important I think that there was a skipped genereration in male experience, the kids who were packed off to war, which perhaps allowed the next lot to seem more dramatic than they actually were.)

  6. 36
    Tom on 14 Dec 2012 #

    Social media has revitalised some elements of live TV definitely – but the X-Factor was pretty lively anyway and as DDD says Twitter wasn’t a big mainstream deal in the Imperial Phase 2009-2010. (The cultural history of social media is going to be awfully written because most of the writers were on some things too early, some things too late and some not at all.)

    As I said in the piece, I do think X-Factor won its huge audience partly because of the recession – it became a very cheap option at a time of narrowed choices. But narrowed choices aren’t *NO* choices so there’s no reason for the recession boost to sustain itself if the quality declines or the formula becomes worn.

  7. 37

    The other point worth making is that while the Valentino/Sinatra mass teen-girl screamfests had happened in America, Beatlemania’s emergence in buttoned-up Britain was really really NOT something that had been seen before.

  8. 38
    Tommy Mack on 14 Dec 2012 #

    Well, like I said, screaming/swooning over pop stars isn’t inherently rebellious, it’s just fun and hormones until someone in charge tells you your fun is wrong and your hormones must be supressed.

    Actually, adult men as the objectified prey of sexually agressive younger females, literally chasing them down the street does seem pretty revolutionary in its way!

  9. 39
    Tommy Mack on 14 Dec 2012 #

    sukrat @ 27 – it’s a fair point about mum and dad/the man. During my teenage years, I found my peers’ attitudes and behavioural codes far more restrictive and oppressive than my parents’ (mind you, my parents went to art college in the late 60s and I grew up in Wilmslow, one of the squarest places you could find. As far as I know, it’s still a blend of 80s greed and 50s social values there.)

  10. 40
    thefatgit on 15 Dec 2012 #

    Mum & dad vs whatever never clicked with me until I attended my first Gary Numan gig. In fact, they loved all my forays into Genesis and King Crimson. It was a real struggle to find anything in the rock sphere that didn’t rile them completely. I raided my Mum’s make-up box for Dramatis and Steve Strange. New Romanticism was my “rebelective affinity” point.

  11. 41
    koganbot on 16 Dec 2012 #

    HiFalution the noun form of HiFalutin.

    –Any thoughts about the international spread of the idols show format (I don’t know the history here; were there countries where it was being done in something like the modern idol version prior to Fuller & Cowell)? E.g., The Voice Thailand 9 Dec 2012 สวย Hava Nagila.

    –Speaking on the basis of my own nonexpert observations at the time, Beatlemania didn’t code as rebellion in early 1964 in USA (which may be one reason why it ran so fluidly wild so easily so quickly). Whereas Beatle hairstyle and its effect on other people’s hairstyle was seriously disturbing.

    –I have a pretty low bar as for what counts as “rebellion” — need not be social convulsion, which is something different and is generally called “revolution”; need not be progressive; need not be good; need not be lasting (but maybe needs to have some novel impact?) — but it does need to be going up against some social circumstance and I’d say it needs to be by people for whom (or from whom) such recalcitrance in the face of accepted reality is not expected or appropriate. So, e.g., rich people finding ever new ways to rebel against having to pay taxes doesn’t count as rebellion. What about that boy who walked into that elementary school in Connecticut and started shooting? I don’t think I’d count that (that’s why I potentially added that “novel impact” codicil above). I mean, otherwise we’d have to call it a little rebellion every time one of us fucked up or spazzed out.

    Eyeing K-pop, I’d say that a lot of social media independence and rebellion is conservative, the ‘Net being the place where complaints first arise when someone accidentally shows tit, or HyunA gets too feisty, or a star is insufficiently humble or common or dorky in an interview — stuff the biz would be glad to let slide, otherwise.

    I think Mark is looking for some sort of popular or fan initiative that’s not necessarily disallowed but seems to jump the banks and run off in an unexpected channel.

    After the subgroups Super Junior-K.R.Y. and Super Junior-T, on October 2, 2007, S.M. Entertainment announced the birth of another Super Junior sub-unit project that would begin activities in China starting 2008. Zhou Mi and S.M. Entertainment’s new Taiwanese-Canadian trainee Henry Lau, who was also featured in the music video of “Don’t Don”, were also members of the subgroup.[116] The announcement brought in a huge wave of dissatisfaction and opposition from fans of Super Junior after the announcement of two new members. Initially, fans were planning to boycott the company’s products, however, most fans agreed on a silent protest instead. Thousands of fans from Super Junior’s official fanclub E.L.F. silently sat in front of the SM building and held signs that supported the group to have only thirteen members.[117] After more rumors regarding adding another member to the subgroup, the fans decided to gain a legal representation as part of S.M. Entertainment’s stockholders. As of March 20, 2008, Super Junior fans purchased 58,206 stocks of S.M. Entertainment, holding 0.3% of the company’s entire stock.[118] They released a statement that they will obtain all chances to prevent S.M. Entertainment from adding new members and to keep Super Junior as only thirteen.

    [A possible racist motive here, Korean fans not wanting more Chinese members. But as far as I know there’s been no opposition to the Chinese members of Miss A or to the Chinese American in f(x), both groups doing quite well commercially.]

  12. 42
    koganbot on 16 Dec 2012 #

    “humble or common or dorky” = dorkiness is considered lovable in an awesome superstar.

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