Dec 12

Sic Transit Gloria Barlow

FT///42 comments • 1,833 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. 1
    JLucas on 10 Dec 2012 #

    There are many reasons why it peaked when it did, how it did, and you cover a lot of them. I do think that one important element was that the balance of judges was as perfect as it’s ever been. Louis the clown before he became too self-aware and self-referential about it, Simon the ringmaster, Cheryl the likeable young ingenue and Dannii Minogue, who you didn’t mention but who I think played a very important role. Her popularity mirrored the show’s in many ways. When she came on in 2007 she wasn’t well received, people wondered at her qualifications and she wasn’t entirely comfortable. Losing Sharon saw her installed as the matriarch rather than the upstart newbie, and she appeared much more comfortable in that position. She was by far the warmest and most constructive of the judges and she spoke the most sense. The “fashion wars” between her and Cheryl brought in a whole different viewership and became as talked about as the contestants week on week.

    Tulisa comes across as dull, petulant and fashion-wise she’s a wallflower. Nicole is very entertaining, but tries that little bit too hard and doesn’t know when to step back. People talk about the appeal of rivalries, but actually Cheryl and Dannii had a visibly warm relationship, whereas it’s obvious Nicole and Tulisa – while not antagonistic towards each other – have no relationship whatsoever. There’s no chemistry and it’s dull to watch.

    And y’know, crap acts, stale format, obvious manipulation. But I still miss the minor Minogue most of all.

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    The arglebargle over Christopher Maloney’s exit — or rather, how he misbehaved after it — has thrown up the interesting claim that Cowell was terrified he would win, and “discredit the show”. Maloney’s popular vote fell below Jahmene’s and James Arthur’s at round about the point when the judges stopped criticising him and started instead resignedly saying things like “you work hard” and “you’ve got this far”. I did actually (maliciously more than preciently) propose on twitter a couple of weeks back that Gary was keeping CM in in order that his fall seem greater. This ended up being more or less what happened: the manner of his leaving seemed genuinely humiliating, because he’d had been so buoyed up by implausible fortune earlier — perhaps by people voting for the underdog, Jedward-in-photonegative, and against this so-called “judges” sneering at him (they were entirely right about the one-note quality of his actual style and talent, and his increasingly brittle defensiveness was becoming strikingly less attractive week on week).

    I’m glad James Arthur won: I was a very early stan — he was an unexpected type of singer on the show, and his version of “Power of Love” last week was genuinely astonishing (aka “shamazing”). I suspect the win won’t be good for him as an artist: he had a lost-in-music doom-wracked formlessness (as if Van Morrison had been a down-rosta act on Factory) which I loved, and which I think has been disciplined out of him.

    I actually liked Tulisa: she was overly earnest and cares about music in a straight-forward professional way. I loved Nicole, from the dotty poetry of her word-choice to the fact that she was obviously a mentor her charges were enormously affectionately grateful towards (good mentor, also, apparently, assuming no shanigans, anyway) — though as many people on twitter seemed to loathe her for these exact same qualities.

    BORELOW is Borelow: I tire quickly of love-to-hate (it’s why I’m allergic to Cowell), but I also got bored with GB’s stolid refusal to be in on the joke ever. Watching it last night with T, I made a joke about his weird mein kampf look — and she said “Oh, he hates all this, his job, the music he has to play.” I assumed she’d read something, but she said she was just reading the tension lines in his mouth and eyes as we watched. “That’s depression,” she said. Which also makes sense.

    Louis is such an idiot. You can’t dislike him, but he’s impossibly out of his depth. What’s he good at? I’m tempted to argue that the show’s gathering unpopularity tracks an actual rise in quality in the musicians applying — of course I’m slightly trolling by saying so (James Arthur is my only evidence really, Ella had incredible skills but no real personality or personal presence, Jahmene was a deeply sweet person who clearly can sing, but he wasn’t a TALENT BEYOND in respect of earlier years I don’t think). But the element of bolshiness and playful refusal to accept the judges’ tastes and perspectives as worthy of respect — on Rylan’s part in playful fashion, and Maloney’s in a much more whiney and dickish way — seemed so much more pronounced than before. All those years ago, what I’d loved about Kym Marsh’s pounce back at Nasty Nigel was the potential to turn this kind of show into an actual public argument about the nature of judgment, the rival and contradictory ways music matters. Not because it’s not controlled and manipulated, but because the various contradictory elements that will need to be tinkered with allow all these little rifts and breaks and wrinkles, and when the wind’s in the right direction something can happen. (on ilx round the same time I argued — with Geir of all people — that the proof of the lack of imagination of the indie generation was that no one in it had the smarts to spot the McLarenite potential, or just the gumption to step in to make something of it…)

    Actual favourite moment: when Chistophers’ nan was asked, as it was about to through to the final two, who was going to win, and instead of saying “My lovely Christopher who I love” she said “Whatever will be will be.” I (like to) think she voted for James Arthur too. Maloney was SUCH a c0ck.

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    lex on 11 Dec 2012 #

    The thing with any Imperial Phase is that by definition everyone knows it won’t last, ESPECIALLY once it’s got to the stage where everyone’s aware it’s happening – the thrill of knowing a particular zeitgeist-catching phenomenon is at the crest of the wave necessarily involves admitting that from here on in it’s diminishing returns. An individual can morph what they do and ride a career out to longevity, but TV programmes are inherently transient – certainly if they’re so dependent on scale.

    I think the One Direction/Cher Lloyd/Rebecca Ferguson/Matt Cardle year was the peak, and everyone knew it – it was the first time the show had thrown up four viable and very different pop stars (well…three viable pop stars and one obvious flop of a winner). It was probably the most consistently watchable series to date, and in many ways fulfilled the flashes of brilliance it had previously given us. But after a series like that, going back to the usual arc whereby the winner doesn’t “need” to be heard from again is always going to be a comedown.

    That series also showed up the limitations of the format – the fact that the acts who were obviously destined for success were equally obviously not destined to win. And also the judges – that series worked despite the Simon/Cheryl/Dannii/Louis panel. Literally none of their comments made sense by that point – Simon was bored, Louis was mental and all of them just spouted empty praise regardless of how badly the contestants actually performed. It’s a real contrast to go back to clips of the early days, when Simon/Sharon etc were genuinely ruthless and, you felt, honest in their assessments. By 2010 there was no assessing going on at all.

    So by the X Factor’s final Imperial Phase I think it was already obvious that it was never going to be as good as it had been – so all the irritating or boring things the audience previously put up with because of the excitement of the Imperial Phase suddenly were active turn-offs. All the tweaks to the panel and the format were valiant but not enough. Would it be unprecedented for a show like the X Factor to return to its peak?

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    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 11 Dec 2012 #

    Very unsure if the “everyone” in the first sentence of Lex’s second para includes Cowell, though: precisely because Lex’s overall point surely unveils a hidden contradiction in the Cowell project, which as well as transient ratings-world conquest ALSO included a sustainably long-term reliable talent filter-cum-conveyorbelt. Ratings-topping and reliable sustainability aren’t compatible: though the latter could emerge in the long-tail aftermath of the former.* Because the ephemera-is-ever-its-best-quality aspect of pop is exactly the attitude Cowell was looking to counter, wasn’t it? He wanted a return to tried-and-trusted quality popular music based in talented singers guided by a well-informed and shrewd arranger-producer-management layer. His avowed Golden Age was the Ratpack: he reveres Sinatra with Nelson Riddle etc.

    Lex’s third para I feel would also be what we’d be saying if my ideal of these kinds of projects were emerging**: that we were approaching a situation where judges had (visibly, as part of the melodrama) to discuss out loud the tensions between “destined for sustained success”, “series winners”, “popular votes”, “anti-musical x-factor” and so on (Rylan couldn’t sing for toffee but he was easily the most talented all-round performer; Jedward are trollclowns not singers, but surely there’s an x-factor in trollclowning as well as singing, whether or not they had it…. ). There were flashes of this actually happening this series — and it’s pretty much what I mean when I say GB was boring because he didn’t play along, too stubborn to turn the pushback against his ideas of quality from Nicole (dippy poetic strong-arming, easy to get on board with in a WIDE-EYED BELIEVER sinse) and Tulisa (earnest and exasperated. often a bit hard to follow if you don’t know much about “urban” etc), into a genuine element in the drama. (Though by defalt this somewhat ended up being the drama of Maloney, sacrificed on the unexamined altar of nang-vote vs nan-vote, to pick up and extend eg Lady Chann’s twitter-reading…)

    *And in fact I think this is what was at the back of my mind in my earlier post: that if we have indeed entered the long-tail, this creates a stable routinised context, which is arguably (or anyway potentially) a better ecology for the longer-term nurturing of musical quality? Precisely because it’s increaasingly off the splash-page journalism map…

    **Which to be clear I’m not saying we ARE. I’m saying how would we distinguish the early stages of my ideal from what we actually have?

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    Mark G on 11 Dec 2012 #

    mmm, Sack it and bring back “It’s A Knockout”

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    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 11 Dec 2012 #

    Isn’t that what Britain’s Got Talent is?

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    lex on 11 Dec 2012 #

    I suspect that no matter what Cowell says about wanting pop-that-lasts, he knows that TV phenomena can’t last (on the XF imperial phase scale): we say that XF has gone downhill since Cowell fucked off to America, but to me it looks more like Cowell fucked off to America because he sensed it was about to go downhill. I assume there’ll be further tinkering to the panel/format next year – it’s not dead enough to put out to pasture completely – and maybe what’s happening now is a transition period between XF-as-cultural-phenomenon to XF-as-establishment-series-pootling-away-quietly.

    (NB I didn’t watch a single second of this year’s series despite my avowed Scherzinger love.)

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    Tom on 11 Dec 2012 #

    Did Cowell have any inkling how enormous One Direction were going to be? It would well be that he went to America to keep a closer eye on them.

    Sukrat yr Rat Pack idea is interesting – is there any documentation of that at SC’s ideal (has the X-Factor kept up with the terrible Big Band Week since he left?. The question of what, if any, music Simon Cowell actually likes – or rather what the relationship is between his tastes and his actions – is quite an interesting one I think. If he does like Rat Pack era stuff he’s very successfully avoided it in terms of the material he’s actually promoted and signed through his career.

  9. 9

    The rat-pack paper-trail — including the apparent fact that he was working on a Rat-pack style group just last year!!! :D What happened to this?

    To be fair, there are two distinct elements here: the rat-pack era sound, which in rebirth-of terms is a TITANIC ASK and the perfected rat-pack era management/production structure, which has obviously never gone away (but had very much gone out of fashion).

    It’s a structure in which performers had quite reduced say in choice of songs, arrangement, image and such. Also: it’s the era which the Beatles waged such effective war on, not least by writing their own songs, gaining say-so over their LP sleeves blah blah ect ect. Worth noting that if X-Factor is past its imperial phase, so is Beatles-band era (defined at its most expansive: 60s plus “rock” plus aftermath).

    I’d also be inclined to argue — and very likely Cowell would too, through from a difft angle and with a difft agenda — that there is a deep relationship between sound-as-ethos and the underlying management/production structure. The fact that Cowellism has always been hostile to rock is taken (by many) as a sin that fits tidily alongside all his other sins (which are legion, before anyone thinks this is a general apologetics). But I think this hostility was shrewdly prophetic, even if his motivation was purely evil.

    Of course, I believe* there’s a McLaren-KLF-Blobby line to be drawn: which will trace a radical doubt about rock’s beliefs about its lasting superiority as a music-form and social formation, and the corrupting effects of rock’s own evasion of ephemera-is-ever-its-best-quality yaddayadda…

    *Sorta-kinda, trollclown-style.

  10. 10

    Question for those who watched earlier series more assiduously than I: who was the first non-winner to have gathered enough of a fan-group momentum, further energised by their not winning, that their non-winning was arguably a better result than actually winning? (Give the obvious disbenefits of winning, in terms of being embedded in a pre-decided and not-that-flexible management/production/contract structure…)

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    Steve Mannion on 11 Dec 2012 #

    Darius not winning and not fitting the makers idea of winner initially worked out very well for him. His debut single foxed people slightly with its obedient pleasantries but only then was he taken seriously, albeit briefly, as a would be pop idol. Not quite the same thing tho as his initial popularity came more as joke butt. What about Il Divo?

    Re #9 Like the point re the idea of Cowell foreseeing a rawk/bands decline in this way. Was he somehow the chicken to Napster’s egg?

    Re #8 I remember Cowell introducing Eoghan Quigg’s performance of ‘Does Your Mother Know? as one of his favourite songs ever fwiw, but I’m sure he’d rather have peddled Abba as just a female duo.

  12. 12

    Darius’s Britney cover was pre-youtube, wasn’t it? Did Darius fans actually ever gather and organise?

    (Of course the endpoint of Popstars was actually the formation of a group — hear’say and Liberty X being the actual outcome — which adds a whole bunch of other wrinkles.)

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    Mark G on 11 Dec 2012 #

    Well, there you go: Liberty X.

    The ‘runners-up’ in a competition to pick the best five, (so, people in positions 6 to 10) banded together, made better records, had a much longer run in the charts, as much success, and disbanded seemingly of their own volition..

  14. 14

    haha OK in that case can I change my question, bob?

    i: Did this feature of Popstars — which only lasted one series in the UK — uncomplicatedly transfer to all its successors, X FACTOR IN PARTICULAR: ie that a surprising number of NON-winners ended up doing better than the winners
    ii: if not why not?
    iii: if so, but complicatedly, when DID it start to emerge, esp.in X Factor?

    (the answer to i is surely NO)

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    Iain Mew on 11 Dec 2012 #

    Popstars had two series! The second one had the rivals gimmick which actually set up the chart performance as the final decision on a winner. It killed off One True Voice and hasn’t been tried since, but worked out pretty well for Girls Aloud (also the fact that they were sort of seen as the reserve initially meant giving them a bit more freedom maybe? I don’t know very much of the detail about this).

    The first series of X Factor had G4 finishing second to Steve Brookstein. G4 didn’t have hit singles but definitely had the better career of the two.

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    Another Pete on 12 Dec 2012 #

    I think the recession and Twitter are very good reasons why it was so popular. To think when Popstars was on the fact you could text your vote was seen as TV being forward thinking and embracing technology. Now social media seems to be as much a vital organ to the show as the acts and judges. (the teenage fans trying their damnedest to get their favourite top trending etc) making it more than just a Saturday night TV show it initially was.

    In regards to the recession would the primetime Saturday night TV output of the seventies be as fondly remembered if that decade wasn’t so turbulent economically, probably. What came before X-Factor’s many early manifestations, was it still Blind Date and Gladiators for the late 90s boom years? Certainly wasn’t memorable whatever it was but then again did it need to be because most of us would of been out anyway.

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    Mark G on 12 Dec 2012 #

    Bear in mind the first series of PopStars had no public voting at all.

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    Not entirely following Another Pete’s argument: if twitter and recession are the reason X Factor got so big, why are figures are in decline as twitter gets even bigger and the recession deepens further?

    The real-time interaction with fan groups — and having (arguably) manipulatively encouraged them to start, the relative difficulty of controlling them, the life-of-their-own they can manifest — is very much a new (post-millennial) phenomenon, and it’s the subtleties of this engagement I’d actually be most interested in. (Because the gatekeeper role of the judges — and even the producers — is challenged at least enough that they have to learn to adapt) (something similar has of course happened over in rockland, with the challenge of fan-energy and organisation to the gatekeeper role of critics…. )

    In the 90s ordinary primetime programmes — aside from telethons and Eurovision after 1998 — were almost entirely top-down. But Talent Shows (OppKnocks, New Faces etc) in the 70s had elements like the “clapometer”, so that live audience opinion was an element, though not exactly a nuanced one. (Actually I can’t really remember if New Faces had an audience element, but it did have a Brutal Professional Judge element: Tony Hatch and Mickie Most were both rolled out in this persona.)

  19. 19

    Adding: talent shows went right out of fashion within light entertainment — perhaps round about the time that pop and rock went mainstream as splash-page topics in the tabloids (ie the early 80s)? — so that their return c.2000 could actually be a big deal: the (re)gamification of variety on a much larger, sparklier scale. OpKnocks and New Faces had been popular TV, but they were much more at the pootling routine level than the all-the-papers OMG level.

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    Tommy Mack on 12 Dec 2012 #

    Rat Pack seems a good shout for Cowell’s poptopia: X-factor’s mantra “you’ve got to be versatile/when are you going to sing a different sort of song?” seems a pre-Elvis notion of light entertainer-craft over pop thrillz. I guess it’s a party line maintained to generate jeopardy in the live shows more than a heartfelt artistic conviction but. To my mind it’s why, despite turning up loads of genuine talent, some mavericks even, you’ll never get a total WTF gamechanger emerging thru X-factor.

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    Tommy Mack on 12 Dec 2012 #

    The emergence of rock was coupled to the rise of the teenager as social phenonmenon:is the decline of rock: it linked to the dissapearance of the teenager as a distinct social group? Now that youth blends seemlessly into adulthood and grown-ups can pretty much get away with acting like teenagers, there’s no mass market for noisy ‘rebel’ music.

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    Tommy Mack on 12 Dec 2012 #

    An alternative theory: it’s all about technology: forming a band is a useful division of labour and a pragmatic way of making a pleasing racket when you have limited means of both production and promotion. Reasonably professional home recording, but it’s much easier to

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    Tommy Mack on 12 Dec 2012 #

    get your music heard by people without having to pay for rehearsal space, compromise with other musicians, spend several hours in sticky-floored Camden boozers etc.

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    thefatgit on 12 Dec 2012 #

    The rebellion is against the charts. Sales alone can no longer determine popularity. Twitter Trending and YouTube views have, I believe, overtaken the Official Chart as THE primary indicators of “who is more popular?”. Cowell’s occupation of the Xmas #1 slot might have persuaded social media-savvy teen punters to look for their thrills on the Trending lists, because it was immediate and they already knew it could not be manipulated by marketing strategy (yet). It’s a purely fan-generated phenomenon, as is how many times a video is viewed on YouTube. If the X Factor winner gets an Xmas #1, the “#FANS” won’t care tuppence, until James Arthur (or one of the runners up) trends Worldwide or gets the kind of YT views 1D get.

  25. 25

    “The rebellion” is probably no longer a clear enough term — there are now surely several parallel “rebellions” of varying types, against a variety of institutions or bothersome boredoms or wrong perspectives (as the rebels see them). And there are also always still “rebelective” affinities, if that’s the right phrase for mobs of screaming teens chasing Moptops/Rollers/Wand Erection etc down the street…

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    Tommy Mack on 12 Dec 2012 #

    I don’t think much pop music these days comes from a standpoint of rebellion*. Even rebellion against boredom. Chasing The Beatles down the street was rebellious because mum and dad disapproved: of The Beatles and of the chasing: few girls screaming at Cliff/David Cassidy/Donny Osmond were actively trying to rebel; they were just having fun and chasing after some pretty boys, but having fun and following your instincts can be rebellion if The Man is telling you you musn’t. Now, mum and dad are more likely to be retweeting your live account of chasing One Direction down the street than threatening to send you to a convent (boot camp!)

    *I will admit, I am not the world’s foremost authority on pop music these days.

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    I think this conflation of “mum and dad” and “the man” is actually turning out to be the (post-war generational) oddity, though — the assumption that “rebellion” is by nature against your parents, rather than alongside your parents against your landlord/boss/teacher blah blah. In x factor terms there’s clearly more than once now been a voters’ revolt against what’s considered the “establishment’s vote”: Jedward vs Cowellism, Rylan vs Barlow, Popular Maloney vs All the HiFalution World. All these as pop-as-rebellion votes, except the word “rebellion” is probably not the correct term for what I’m talking about (which is why I keep putting it in cute-quotes…)

    The huge problem with the petrified notion of Generational Difference as an Absolute isn’t so much that it’s “ok for adults to act like teens” as Adults ARE ALWAYS GROWN-UP TEENS, and thus deeply invested in the sounds and stances they associate with their own teen-dom (“noise”, “rebellion against yr parents”). Especially once teen-dom became an accepted niche-territory to be marketed at (ie the 50s). The really interesting development is that — since the 80s especially — pre-teendom and tot-dom are new&additional accepted niche-territories to be marketed at. And Adults are also now grown-up pre-teens and grown-up tots.

    (Obviously adults were always and always will be grown-up tots, but the territory of shared tot experience 50 years ago was much less mass-cultural…)

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    HiFalution is not actually a word (though it should be): HiFalutin is what I meant…

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    Erithian on 12 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. Interesting to hear the distinction made in “Crossfire Hurricane” that whereas at Stones gigs in Britain you could see streams coming down the aisle as the girls wet themselves, on the Continent the audience was mainly blokes and usually riotous, and the streams were more likely to be policemen’s blood.

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    Hence why we all need to start using the term “rebelective affinity” :)

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