Dec 09

Rage vs X-Factor: Winners and Losers

FT//60 comments • 7,463 views

Well, that’s that: the machine has been given a good beating and we can look forward to “Bulls On Parade” on the festive Argos ad next year. I will admit I didn’t think the RATM crew could do it: I was wrong. But as the dust settles on this most fractious and increasingly entertaining Christmas No.1 race, who has actually benefited? Here’s my round-up of winners and losers.

Joe McElderry: He’ll be Number 1 next week most likely, but while the ‘battle’ was never about him this puts him firmly in the “Leon Jackson” box, not the “Will Young” one. On the other hand, the constant refrain from the judges during the series was that he had a musical theatre kind of a voice, and this might nudge him in that direction and away from the fickle world of pop. Before dabbing your eyes over Joe’s lost dreams, it’s worth noting that if he’d sold as many as Alexandra did with “Hallelujah” last year, he’d have been #1, Rage or no Rage.

Rage Against The Machine: It’s good profile-raising stuff for them and their other material will do well from it, though unless MP3s come with reading lists in their IP3 tags the ‘educational’ element of RATM may be a little missing. The downsizing of their song’s target from “institutional racism” to “Simon Cowell” is probably a fairer reflection of their listeners’ concerns anyway but it’s left them looking a little… cuddlier… than once they did (and their participation in a classic British radio brouhaha has only helped). They themselves have joined in with gusto, of course: “RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE THANKS ‘EVERY FAN AND FREEDOM FIGHTER’ FOR THE ‘ANARCHY CHRISTMAS MIRACLE OF 2009′” blared their press release.

Simon Cowell: Cowell has not come out of this terribly well (though obviously not materially poorer): he handled it remarkably badly, turning just another web campaign into an actual issue by taking public note of it. In the last few days he’s come on-message, talking about the excitement of the competition, etc etc. But it’s his early churlishness that’s the lingering – and rather delicious – memory. The outcome will hardly dent his personal power, of course, and his public image thrives on dislike – but the effectiveness of the campaign might mean his “first among equals” prominence on his own properties needs to be dialled back.

The X Factor: With 18 million viewers – 17.5 million more than the maximum number of RATM buyers this week – the X Factor isn’t going anywhere, and it’s wishful thinking to imagine this damages ITV’s biggest light entertainment show since Morecambe And Wise. The Dubai-esque follies reportedly planned – “World X-Factor”, 5 judges, a ‘novelties’ category – will do for the programme in the end, but that won’t have anything to do with Rage. As I’ve argued before, what this result exposes is the problem of the winner’s single being so vestigial to the rest of the show: the storyline is over, the narrative complete, the single is just a “happy ever after” and who cares about the details of that? The X Factor’s mistake was to get to the position where its winner NOT getting a No.1 was a much more interesting story than getting one.

The Christmas No.1: as a lot of people have pointed out, the Christmas No.1 isn’t generally much good anyway. I’m still not convinced this idea that there’s a “tradition” of battles at Christmas for the #1 slot has any very deep roots, but we had a battle this year and a lot of fun it was. The big loser here may be the BBC, as the knock-on-effect of this is that its attempt to keep the corpse of TOTP alive for a once a year family shindig is now going to require some tricky politicking.

Real Music: here we get into more contentious areas. The “RATM is a win for real music” argument – and it’s being made by Rage themselves so we should take it seriously – comes in many different forms. At its mildest, it’s just opposition to a light ent show getting droit de seigneur over the charts at Christmas, and saying that a loss for the X-Factor makes pop more exciting. This is true, though a lot of people who normally don’t give a monkeys about pop or the charts suddenly coming over all Paul-Morley-In-1982 about them might raise the odd eyebrow.

Beyond that, though, the idea that Rage beating Joe is good for real music rests on two exaggerations: an exaggeration of the hegemony of the X-Factor, and more seriously an exaggeration of its typicality. The X-Factor gets one or two number one hits per year, and is hit-or-miss in launching its stars careers: it is powerful but it cares mostly about itself, not the wider world of pop. And the music that gets to number one off the back of the X-Factor is almost as distanced from the rest of the chart as RATM’s is (very few of the pop fans I know had kind words to say about “The Climb”).

Two things I’ve seen held up as self-evident truths on why the X-Factor has stifled the industry: it means the charts are full of crap ballads, and it stops record labels investing in artists. The only problem is that the charts aren’t full of ballads – charity singles aside there hasn’t been a #1 ballad this year! And given that two of the #1s there have been were by Dizzee Rascal, a critic’s darling since 2002 who was given an awful lot of time to deliver financially by a big label, it looks like “not investing in artists” isn’t the problem either.

In other words, the idea that the X-Factor music sucks isn’t interchangeable with the idea that pop sucks. The only element of “real music” that l’affaire RATM helps is the ancient rock v pop, or alternative v pop binary. Will the win have any longer-term effects? Well, the closest parallel to this isn’t the Sex Pistols and “God Save The Queen”, it’s metal monsters Lordi winning Eurovision in 2005: a similar irruption of ROCK into a staid citadel of pop, pushed on by bottom-up public opinion. The consequences of the Lordi win were a rash of rock-esque Eurovision entries, and then business as usual. I expect much the same here.

The Charts: A spike in public interest and sales of close on a million look like a big win for the charts. But this would be an optimistic reading. The purpose of the charts – its mission statement, if you like – is to reflect which current music is most popular among British listeners. The reasons for said popularity may not be pure, but there’s a difference between the charts being swayed by something interesting happening somewhere else (like a TV show or a World Cup) and the charts as a playground of gesture. On the other hand, they’ve proved surprisingly robust so far so I almost certainly shouldn’t worry.

Social Media: You’ll hear this one a lot – the RATM win was a triumph for social media! And it was, though ironically the X-Factor is one of the most social media driven TV shows around – facebook fan groups, message boards and Twitter backchannels are vital in keeping a conversation around the show going, and the production team pay them close attention. The moment at which I realised the RATM campaign might actually work was when I read an ILX poster pointing out that most of the people on his Twitter feed saying “Go Rage!” were the same ones who’d been hashtagging and watching the show all season.

So this wasn’t really “old media” vs “new media”. RATM’s success is a victory for a particular style of social media – the quick-hit campaign, the flashmob, an impromptu community beating (or subverting) an established one, “doing it for the Lulz”. The people behind the campaign, as the BBC noted, had tried this before, with the rather less “real music”-ish aim of getting Rick Astley to #1. There’s a “social media for its own sake” feel to flashmobs and the same is to some extent true of this.

Sony: well, duh, good day at the office for them. And it’s also worth thumbing-up the organisers for linking their campaign to the Shelter charity as soon as it got momentum – 70 grand raised for the homeless at Christmas is the one unarguably positive outcome of all this.

The Great British Public: The hangover may be lengthy and tedious and culminate in a Richard Curtis film about the organisers. But for now real winners here are us: while there’s lots of interesting things to say about the RATM incident the overriding thing about it is that it’s funny. How could it not be? Cowell and Rage are (in public at least) both caricatures: when two such collide the results are often comical.

The basic gag is fine – though it got swamped by rhetoric soon enough – but the joy this week has been in the incidental details. Joe throwing darts at a picture of Zach De La Rocha. Rage calling their single’s buyers “freedom fighters”. Mail commenters praising RATM for being anti-EU. The BBC telling a band not to sing “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” and being surprised at what happens. The one word which sums the whole thing up is “pantomime” – everyone playing their big, campy part to entertain us all. And why not? It’s the season for it after all.


  1. 1
    Len on 21 Dec 2009 #

    Your most insightful comment I think was: “The X Factor’s mistake was to get to the position where its winner NOT getting a No.1 was a much more interesting story than getting one.”

  2. 2
    Richaod on 21 Dec 2009 #

    Brilliantly comprehensive article! Not much I have to add – merely that I only support the “real music” idea if it’s from the angle of RATM beating a typically soggy, contrived ballad. Hopefully the Rage fans won’t generalise it into a lazier “rock > pop” kind of debate…

  3. 3
    john v willshire on 21 Dec 2009 #

    Brilliant write-up Tom. It’s interesting that, as you point out, it’s not ‘old vs. new’ in media terms, just two different ways of motivating people through involving them in the story. For years, the X-Factor singles were (for those who bought them) the culmination of their participation in the story…

    …following their favourite act, voting for them, buying the single. Which may explain why so many of the X-Factor winners disappear afterwards, as for the majority of the people who bought the single, the story is over for another year.

    The RATM campaign has built a similar story, but a lot more quickly, and using the weight of their opponent’s presence in culture against it. Like a kind of cultural judo. Which as you said would only have worked if the xfactor ‘stepped into the ring’ and acknowledged the threat. Which Cowell / McElderry did.

    I’d like to see a different kind of subversion next year; the crowd could never organise itself behind ONE song like this again now, so expect ten limp camapaigns across the spectrum. So instead, just imagine if the kind of effort that put RATM at no.1 had instead been used to make Jedward win the competition… Let’s all give xfactor 2010 the winner it deserves ;)

  4. 4
    fivelongdays on 21 Dec 2009 #

    I think what you said about Jedward was right – they might have actually done it, as I really don’t think “The Climb” (which, as you said, was a weak choice) would have been right for them, so they would’ve got something a bit different.

    I can’t remember who said it, but I agree with the idea that, had it been the Journey song chosen, that would’ve done it.

    Still, it was enormous fun, and I think we’ll all remember this for a long time.


    (Rage supporter)

  5. 5
    Sandy Blair on 21 Dec 2009 #

    One thing you don’t really speculate about is how S.Cowell and the X factor will change, once he gets over licking his wounds, gets over his huff and comes out fighting.

    As you point out, the Christmas single is the afterword on the real point of X factor, which is the viewing figures / phone in revenue for the TV show. So they *could* ignore all the easily punctured hype, and as your comments show, this “victory for rock” is indeed easily punctured.

    But it’s important to the show, no matter how much they privately understand the game, to keep up the ‘this is a search for a serious recording artist’ front. They can’t come clean and reveal how little they care about the future careers of the contestants – we might all argue that the level of manufactured-ness isn’t important, but they can’t admit that or they come across like Gerald Ranter.

    So X factor will have to respond to this bloody nose and up it’s game.

    Presenting such weak sauce as ‘The Climb’ was complacent and lazy, the choice reveals a sense of entitlement that compares to the behaviours of the dying stages of the New Labour experiment, where the needs of the core audience are overlooked or ignored. So people want to remind the powers that be not to take them for granted.

    The show won’t change much, it generates too much revenue, but the winners song next year will be better – it would be a mistake to make it more ‘rock’ though they might try to do that – but they will be strongly motivated to at least make it better pop.

    So they need to do more work on the winners song rather than leaving it as an afterthought (even though thats what it is) because if they come out and admit its an appendix, it punctures the value of the show.

  6. 6
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Dec 2009 #

    i haven’t followed every leg of every x-factor close enough to be clear about this, but it seems to me one element of massive risk-aversion that surely must at some point add to the sense of staleness is that the xmas single is always a cover version? this has been a pet obsession of mine for years, documenting the inner process of decision that goes into writing a song, esp.for a voice as it’s emerging, a talent as it’s arriving — obviously it would be a massive extra gamble and indeed fannydangle to incorporate this into the x-factor structure, but the process as structure is weirdly brittle without it: as if to say, all the good songs are already here to choose from… ?

  7. 7
    admin on 21 Dec 2009 #

    i thought shayne and leona and leon were all new songs. dull ones, but not covers.

  8. 8
    admin on 21 Dec 2009 #

    their response will be to play down or re-time, the winning victory lap single, and play up the charity single, which remember DID still get to number one (another cover of course).

  9. 9
    Erithian on 21 Dec 2009 #

    Sandy #5 – and yet last year’s X Factor winner’s song was arguably the best so far: a good performance of a classic song which, although it wasn’t going to please Jeff Buckley or Leonard Cohen fans, introduced the song to a wider audience and was a convincing way to launch a career (indeed it would have merited a stand-alone video rather than the identikit “winner’s video” where the only changes every year are the winner’s face and a few extra lines on the judges’ faces). This year’s winner’s song is right down there with Leon Jackson’s effort from 2007.

    Something that hasn’t been mentioned much is the cost of all this. The Financial Times occasionally runs something it calls the Big Mac Index – how long it takes the average worker in various countries to earn the cost of a Big Mac. It’d be interesting to see the Hit Single index – how long it takes the average worker now to earn the cost of a top 40 single as compared to previous years.

    If it’s correct that 29p downloads count towards chart figures, then buying the RATM single now costs roughly the same amount as buying a Beatles single did in the 60s – about 6 shillings and a bit, wasn’t it? In real terms, it costs a tiny fraction of that. Indeed, it’s less than you pay to have a pee at a central London rail terminus! More pointedly, it’s not much more than you’d pay to make a phone vote in the X Factor.

    Time was that the outcome of buying a single was: you’ve paid a reasonable amount of money to own a piece of music that you liked. Now the outcome is: you’ve paid an amount you’d hardly miss to help the record you want to get to number one. And if it matters enough to you that it does, there’s no reason not to buy it several times. So as I think Tom was pointing out the other day, when buying a single means no more to some people than voting in a TV poll, something significant has changed, and perhaps the chart is even less meaningful as a result.

  10. 10
    Lex on 21 Dec 2009 #

    #5 – yes, as I’ve said elsewhere I think a lot of the pro-RATM sentiment actually came from fans of The X Factor who were disgruntled by this year’s poor series (cf: Tom’s point in the “social media” category about how the pro-RATMers were the same people who’d been watching XF all season), and it can’t have helped that it was capped by a single choice which was shoddy even by the X Factor’s previous rock-bottom standards. Plus, I found myself supporting RATM in the same way that I’d supported other contestants over Joe, who I think is a totally pointless pop star who needs to fuck off asap (hopefully this will hasten that) – an extension to the competition, basically.

    I don’t think new, original songs is necessarily the route for the XF winner to take (as #7 points out it hasn’t helped in the past), given how fast the turnaround needs to be. The obvious, logical choice is surely the winning contestant’s signature/best cover over the course of the series? A song they’re already emotionally invested in, a song there’s already public demand for, a decision which best represents why they appealed to their fans (ie, their interpretative/technical skills). You could even release the actual live version from whichever week it happened in. Leona’s “Summertime” and Alexandra’s “Unbreak My Heart” would have both made far better singles than either the original gloop Leona was saddled with, or the cover of “Hallelujah” which didn’t really suit Alexandra particularly.

  11. 11
    Tom on 21 Dec 2009 #

    Leona’s was a Kelly Clarkson cover – it had been specially written as a “winner’s single” though.

    “The Climb” was an awful choice, I completely agree. The problem with the “something original” strategy is that you’ll end up with something pretty identikit: the flaw in the whole winners’ single idea is that it has to be a song any of 3 or 4 people could sing, so it can’t really be tooled to the actual winner’s strengths, if strengths they possess.

    What they could do is move the whole thing forward a couple of weeks – have the semi-final a Christmas songs special (now including RATM heh) and make the final ITV’s big Xmas light ent blowout: then the winner’s single gets a clear run at the start of January and nobody cares.

  12. 12
    Tom on 21 Dec 2009 #

    Aargh I normally like Charlie Brooker but his graun column this morning was rub: “a shot in the arm the charts needed” – this gets said EVERY TIME something vaguely ‘subversive’ happens in the charts, always by people who never bother paying attention ordinarily – the top 40 is like the Latin America of pop culture in this regard.

  13. 13
    Tom Fulep on 21 Dec 2009 #

    To be perfectly honest, I really do not care because it’s not about the music anymore as this article clearly states.

  14. 14
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Dec 2009 #

    To be clear: I don’t think a new song — by which i mean discussion and targetted creation of same — would much help x-factor as a show: it would slow it up tremendously, plus bring in all kinds of uncertainties that would clearly grate on the gatekeepers-as-is: all i mean is the ABSENCE of same adds to a sense of staleness and lack of imagination, unless it’s genuinely the unexpected rescue of an extant strong song from semi — or indie! — oblivion: a shift in the song’s status created by the interpretation… ? hallelujah was a compromised nod towards this idea, as witness the territoriality of cohen and esp.buckley fans, which allowed for a certain confused energy in the concept not in any sense reflected in the performance, which has more athletic energy than energy of encounter

    But either way, what needs to happen is that the “xmas single” is an engagement with the world outside the hothouse air and (necessarily) narrow bounds of the competition: so as to answer the question “has the competition as run fit the winner for battle beyond the show?”

  15. 15
    Alan Connor on 21 Dec 2009 #

    an ILX poster pointing out that most of the people on his Twitter feed saying “Go Rage!” were the same ones who’d been hashtagging and watching the show all season

    For those who wish to make the distinction (eg Mike Butcher from Techcrunch), it was Facebook friends doing that, not Twitter ‘uns. (There might have been a similar ILM post about Twitter but I’m not reading back through them all.)

    (Of possible interest; ignore if seems spammy – I have been getting a lot of gyp for this textbook-standard fair-and-balanced piece from livid RATM fans who see it as nothing more than an effort to plough up Joe votes.)

    Redskins for 2010, yeah? Come on! “Kick over the statues! Kick ’em!”

  16. 16
    Tom on 21 Dec 2009 #

    The problem is that the show engages with the world more than “the charts” do – this is the crux of a lot of this I think: the vague feeling (not just among ‘pop fans’ or old chart borez) that pop OUGHT to be bigger and more important than a TV show against the reality that it isn’t.

  17. 17
    Steve Mannion on 21 Dec 2009 #

    The best song to ever come out of this kind of show, ‘The Sound Of The Underground’ (tho I still don’t like it much really), suggests to me that the new song approach can work. It would probably mean the show finishing a few more weeks ahead of Xmas tho.

  18. 18
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Dec 2009 #

    Tom@16: well yes, this is the point i suppose i have been making for an age now, that this type of show — for all its manifest problems, and for all the problems of the idea of music competitions, which after all exist across many many types of music, cf the leeds piano competition etc — is engaging with possibilities, however lamely, that the “it should be about the music” faction have long been in sulky recessive retreat from: so that x factor in a way highlights the greater lameness* of what isn’t x-factor

    *greater lameness in respect of social ambition; “better content” being deployed as an excuse for not engaging with the wider world: arts-for-arts-sake as a timid hideyhole for dreary aesthetes, rather than (as it could be) a flashbang assault on all aspects of everything

  19. 19
    thefatgit on 21 Dec 2009 #

    Thanks, Tom. Great piece that sums up the whole shebang.
    What we have experienced is perhaps the potential of social media and it’s power to effect change. I’m sure politicians have seen a glimpse of what can be achieved by using facebook and twitter as tools of communicating with the masses.

    What politicians don’t have is the necessary bait on the hook to entice the voting public to bite. They must be envious of that. In the forthcoming election year, we’ll probably see a large number of viral campaigns which may excite the already politically-engaged but do little convince the rest of us to join the debate.
    The power of pop is that for at least one week of the year, we can all feel involved, and be enriched by the experience.

    What can Labour, Conservatives and LibDems do to get us as engaged as we were with Rage vs X-Factor in 2010?

  20. 20
    admin on 21 Dec 2009 #

    during the conference season, 4 judges down the front. instead of the traffic light indicator to say when you are going over your time, a clapometer. Dedward Milliband!

    “Dave, Ed, you were giving it 150%, no 250%, and you owned the stage.the speech really worked with your personalities – you’ve got what it takes to be ministers with portfolio. But your mentor, and i’m just being honest here, is a one eyed goon. sorry cheryl”

  21. 21
    Sandy Blair on 21 Dec 2009 #

    Who wrote the X factor winners single:

    Steve Brookstien – Against All Odds (Cover of Phil Collins)

    Shayne Ward – That’s My Goal (orignal, written by Elofsson, and others, Elofsson is part of a Swedish hits factory Cheiron, Wrote Will Youngs winners single (Evergreen) and a long list of others, recently did stuff for Paloma Faith and The Saturdays.)

    Leona Lewis – A Moment Like This (cover of Kelly Clarkson hit, another Elofsson tune)

    Leon Jackson – When You Believe (Originally a Whitney / Mariah duet, writen by Stephen Schwatz, from the soundtrack of Prince of Egypt)

    Alexandra Burke – Hallelujah (Cohen, via Cale, Buckley, Wainwright and had previously been on American Idol)

    So it looks like covers are the way to go, and having a few well chosen ones – to suit the contestants – is needed. Doing a fairly radical work-over of a cover from an unexpected genre seems also a good idea. I would have had Joe doing ‘Outdoor Miner’ (with full orchestra and added seasonal Sleigh bells). Which may explain why I’ll never be Simon Cowell.

  22. 22
    Tom Davenport on 21 Dec 2009 #

    I think the problem is that all marketing types at big labels will try and emulate/engineer similar successes in the future, as well as hoardes of the public having a go.

    It will be so saturated, that any genuine campaigns for new music will be buried.

    It’s ironic that this could dampen the chances for artists promoting themselves online, with all the campaigns that will arrive now.

  23. 23
    Mark M on 21 Dec 2009 #

    Pre-Cowell, Popstars winners Hear’Say and Girls Aloud (but not One True Voice) were launched with songs new to the public, although neither of was custom-written for new groups. With Sound Of The Underground, it seemed a bit like one of those old-fashioned backroom hits where a band was subsquently formed to promote the tune – for a long time, it seemed like the song had set the template for the group rather than the just-cobbled together group having an impact on the song.

    With both Leona and Alexandra*, there was a very clear sense of ‘this will sell a bucketload but then lets head back to the lab and take our time deciding who this person is’.

    *Try watching the video for her version of Hallelujah with the subtitles on – it’s a genuinely cognative dissonant experience.

  24. 24
    Chris on 21 Dec 2009 #

    Great article. An awesome summing up of a really fun week.

    One addition I would make is the mainstream press losing a hell of a lot of credibility throughout this affair. Journos in the Guardian, Mail, and Independent getting their basic facts wrong about every aspect – names, numbers, details… Really bad journalism and totally shown up by the blogger contingent. (Examples in no particular order, but all from national papers – getting Tom Morello’s name wrong (it’s not Tommy, never has been.) writing a whole article about RATM being ‘wrong’ in re-releasing their single (they didn’t.) and the reams written about Simon Cowell ‘OWNING’ RATM (he doesn’t.)

    But yeah, agreed: A perfect Christmas panto.

  25. 25
    citizensound on 21 Dec 2009 #

    Tom. Just posted my own piece on the same subject when I came across yours. You have summed things up very neatly.
    Some have bought the track to have a laugh (rude words at Xmas…ooooh) – OK
    Some have bought it because everyone else has, and they didn’t want to feel left out). That’s human nature.
    Some are doing it for the ‘social media’ experiment. Lovely.
    But there are those who really want to make a big point against Cowell and stand up for ‘real music’. The seriousness and almost evangelical campaigning by seemingly sane people leaves me stunned. To me this is all RAGE Lite. If they want to stick it to the man, back either a DIY band, a comedy song, or even a song created by the community (with each person singing one song)…anything that has some semblance of the opposite of X-factor. Don’t back a band that are also on Sony – to do so is just misplaced rage.

    Me I am just enjoying the panto too. Even the debate online is turning into one…
    oh no it’s not…
    oh yes it is…

  26. 26
    koganbot on 21 Dec 2009 #

    Haven’t heard Joe’s version yet, but I think “The Climb” is a pretty good song; of the original version, a frequent blogger said, “Miley soars through the platitudes with ease and restraint” – preferred it to “Hoedown Throwdown” and “Party In The USA,” he did (though either of those two might have been a more interesting X Factor choice).

    As far as I know (too lazy to check), all of the American Idol winner’s songs have been originals, to no particular effect. I can’t see it making a creative difference in the way that Mark wants unless the winners get to choose the song, which’d be awful hard to manage (you don’t know who’s going to win, so several different songs would have to be written and recorded in advance, and even then I don’t see where the performer gets a huge input, or would have much time to be involved in the process, given that the performer is busy prepping for the next week’s show).

    As for Lex’s suggestion: On AI, at least for the last couple of years, a quickie studio version of each singer’s track is recorded before each show, and those are available for download; as far as I know, none has ever charted during the week it was performed, though interestingly a few did chart last May in the week after the final show, though not as high as the “real” single, and they dropped off immediately.

    Also, not that this challenges Tom’s point about what the winner’s single means in relation to the show and the purchasers of the winner’s single, but X Factor has produced a couple of stars, and American Idol has produced stars and superstars, though you can’t count on it to. But a point Tom alluded to above is that the X Factor viewers aren’t altogether the same as the week-in/week-out consumers of pop singles, who are generally a bit younger and likely to be more committed to a particular genre (r&b, say, or dance) than the X Factor audience is. The talent shows tend to reward versatility and chops, whereas after the show the singers – at least some of them – will need to focus on a particular audience segment, a deep one rather than a broad one.

  27. 27
    Simon on 21 Dec 2009 #

    Fine work. A couple of interesting extra things:

    – The mainstream press were very late in picking up that RATM actually had a chance of number one, even after the midweeks were out. That 5 Live appearance was essentially as the filler light entertainment item before the news, while the attitude until about Thursday when Cowell stepped up his side of the pantomime bargain was that these interlopers would be seen off soon enough.

    – Should Cowell really care that much? Susan Boyle has sold about 1.3m in four weeks and has the Christmas number one album, which when added to Leona’s success this year, and Alexandra’s to a lesser extent, isn’t exactly going to leave him penniless.

    What would be your reading of why Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah, which at least initially was far higher profile a campaign and at a time when the press believed Facebook groups were making a difference and hence The Future (it’s Twitter hashtags now), did so comparatively badly last year, especially as it’s a song Alexandra fans might well have been buying too given Miley’s Climb is at 30 this week?

  28. 28
    ace inhibitor on 21 Dec 2009 #

    sandy@21, inspired choice of outdoor miner for joe. going head to head with a jedward cover of ‘I am the Fly’, obviously

  29. 29
    Tom on 21 Dec 2009 #

    Not enough swearing in Jeff Buckley’s song? It’s a good question.

  30. 30
    jordy on 21 Dec 2009 #

    Check out “The X Factor Song (2009)”

    @ youtube.com/thisisjohnnyblack

    and let’s keep sticking it to Simple Simon

  31. 31
    thefatgit on 21 Dec 2009 #

    If X Factor is here to stay, then maybe the way to go is to have annual themes. You could bring in a respected songwriter from a particular genre as 5th judge (not mentor) to write the winner’s song. Start the ball rolling in the early stages and say we’re looking for someone who can sing showtunes or upbeat pop or ballads (keeping the genres as broad as possible). You would only need 4 or 5 themes on rotation to keep it fresh. There would even be room for rock (in it’s most radio-friendly guise). If it was done in the right way, then the story of the song could be just as intriguing as the story of the winning finalist.

  32. 32
    Frankie on 21 Dec 2009 #

    The RATM thing was fun but seems irrelevant really

    The supposed “point” of The X Factor, as I understand it, is to unearth a hidden talent who has something special or different about them (the aforesaid “X Factor”).

    From what I saw of this series there were precious few serious contenders who offered anything different – namely:

    Jedward (massive cartoon quiffs with ropey song & dance routines)
    Stacey Solomon (genuinely did seem mentally subnormal..yes she could sing but fully-formed sentences were a struggle bless her)
    Jamie Afro (a ludicrously outsized afro and a proper rock voice)

    Yet – the two who got to the final couldn’t have been more bland and LACKING in any kind of “X-Factor”. Joe is a handsome enough little lad, with a reasonable singing voice but I get the impression his votes were based on how many wet gussets he caused down the local comprehensive than his actual talent. The fact they gave him a Westlife-dull ballad for his “No. 1 Hit” doomed him even further.

    Cowell’s mob need to start taking a few chances – not just putting through a load of carbon copy Mariahs and spare George Michaels. The X Factor by definition should be about launching something different but it seems intent on playing it safe. X for Xerox anyone?

  33. 33
    Tom on 21 Dec 2009 #

    But this is the “problem” w/a public vote. The X-Factor contestants this year who offered the best representation of “pop” outside the show’s own confines were Miss Frank – wall-of-sound harmonies plus smart girl rapping, they could have been a Shangri-Las-meets-Mis-Teeq proposition and were from a “pop perspective” the best thing on the show, easily. The first week they actually rapped in their track, out they went.

    That was a shame, but it’s only a problem if you think the X-Factor is somehow about pop or trying to find ‘pop stars’. It’s not – you don’t get 18 million by worrying about something as piddly as pop music. It’s a reality TV show* that uses a vague shared experience of pop as a pretext.

    *I always want to use ‘game show’ or something but they’re really not – rtv stuff is it’s own thing by now with its own rules and success conditions.

  34. 34
    PJM on 21 Dec 2009 #

    I am normally quite resistant to saying good things about Tom’s articles (because everyone else goes on about how good they are and I am contrary and cantankerous) but I think this one is really good, the proof (for me) being it made me interested in something I didn’t really care about. I saw RATM once on the telly and the guitarist had a Shaft t-shirt. That is really the only time they have ever made an impression on me. I think Joe’s record is quite good for the first half or so, but I have only heard it once (after he won).

  35. 35
    Erithian on 21 Dec 2009 #

    Of course there’s nothing to stop an enterprising producer (or Cowell himself since he no doubt has the first option on everybody) picking up on Miss Frank or anyone and giving them a career. A few previous losers have carried on, not least Diana Vickers who’s garnering good reviews in the West End production of Little Voice at the moment.

    The trouble with rock (and rockism) in X Factor is that it would do no good to your credibility as a rock singer to do well on X Factor, as it’s the kind of thing that rock is supposed to rebel against, which was the awkwardness with Jamie Afro. On the other hand Kelly Clarkson hasn’t done badly as a pop-rock chick, albeit, as thefatgit puts it, in its most radio-friendly guise.

    Tom, I’m not sure I agree with your inclusion of the BBC in the list of losers – it might make the Christmas TOTP tricky (but no more so than playing the bleeped version of a sweary rap hit) but beyond that I think the expansion of X Factor makes a convincing case for a return of TOTP. Once again we have a pop show on TV creating watercooler moments, but whereas years ago acts were on TOTP because they were in the chart, now they’re in the chart because they were on X Factor. Of course the BEPs, Rihanna etc would be in the upper reaches of the Top 40 anyway, but having a select group of acts given an X Factor boost, thus hogging the number one spot for much of the autumn, is bloody irritating, and it would be good to have a show covering a wider range of acts than those chosen for this special favour.

  36. 36
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Dec 2009 #

    the thing is, i love rock, but the entire concept of “credibility as a rock singer” is very extremely tremendously threadbare now, if not an actual pestilence, more than a half century after elvis went into the army ect ect* — and its use as an excuse not to be thinking to turn RTV stages like this into the forum for yr own mclaren-esque intervention is, and has been all this decade really, more of a cowardice than a principle; more of a sgn of lack of intellectual, artistc and political gumption than the opposite — of course if you don’t bother even trying, no one can prove that you wouldn;t have walked off with the honours… it’s this internalised defeatist cynicism i don’t lke being confused with bold refusal of taint, i guess… if you maintain your radicalism simply by contnually making the battlefield smaller, this is another way of saying you are losing the war at your own hand…

    *how long since sharon o’s husband bit the head off a bat?

  37. 37
    fivelongdays on 21 Dec 2009 #

    Erithian – there’s a swathe of Radio-friendly rock (best example -Nickleback) that they do over the pond which doesn’t happen here. I can’t think of any British equivalents that could, conceivably, work on the X-Factor.

    Plus – does “Since U Been Gone” partially rip off “When I Argue I See Shapes” by Idlewild?

  38. 38
    koganbot on 21 Dec 2009 #

    I suppose the music itself is off-topic here, but to compare Joe’s “Climb” to Miley’s, on Joe’s they make his path up the mountain far too smooth and event-free; of course we know from the first note of Miley’s that she’s heading upward too, but her version doesn’t feel like a foregone conclusion, given her raw bartender’s* voice and the variety of space/nonspace that producer John Shanks puts into the arrangement. So she comes across much better.

    Wiki doesn’t indicate the producer on McElderry’s, but presumably it’s not Shanks.

    *Chris Willman said on an old Rolling Country thread that Miley has the speaking voice of a 40-year-old Tennessee barmaid, implying that this doesn’t really come through in her singing, but he’s wrong: it does.

  39. 39
    koganbot on 21 Dec 2009 #

    Why couldn’t Kings Of Leon or Coldplay types do well on X Factor?

  40. 40
    koganbot on 21 Dec 2009 #

    I can’t imagine what a McLarenesque intervention on X Factor would be, or why one would want one.

    I only dipped in a couple of times via YouTube, but I get the impression that this year’s X Factor was pretty bad on its own terms; whereas American Idol always gives you a few talents who are coming in from their own angles (Allison Iraheta, Jason Castro, Brooke White).

  41. 41
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Dec 2009 #

    i think there are three reasons why it seems not something they’d opt to risk, and enter in the first place:

    i. a perceived built-in prejudice against broad-definition rock among the judges — tho this was surely less an issue when ozzy osbourne’s wife-and-manager was one of them…
    ii. the issue of playing yr own songs — the project is about being supplied songs and arrangements by the judges, so it’s a svengali talent show in a way, judging best deployment of off-the-peg material, and rightly or wrongly this remains very diffcult i think for rock bands to countenance… a “good” rockband by definition makes its name via its own songs?
    iii. the issue of becoming good by playing together live somewhere off-radar: again, a rock-centric shibboleth, but difficult to see how persuade people who want to go into rock that this is something they should foreswear? band identity or brand develops as a kind of lived manifestation of how the band “arranges” is own songs, as fits its particular individual’s styles, and the rub-together of their individual judgments into a collective mutual tolerance

    which means that a rock band fails to fit into the format for much the same reasons that new song-writing can’t be incorporated: it would seem to add enormous faffy layers of slowed decision-making

    i think all three would be REALLY interestng parameters for a smart band with intellectual ambition to play around with

    as to why they wouldn’t do well at the outcome stage: i don’t know that anyone’s in a position to make that call — so far, what there’s been of rock or rap has been weeded out early, but it’s also been pretty spavined as a recognisable representative of worthwhile rock or rap

    actually i haven;t watched enough to be certain about that last judgment

  42. 42
    Lex on 21 Dec 2009 #

    This X Factor also had a few “controversies” along the way – obviously talented vocalists getting voted out (by public and judges) before obviously untalented vocalists, a fair few “fix” rumours swirling around – which would have pissed off a number of fans of the programme.

    Do many rock/alternative performers even care about politically-charged McLarenesque interventions in the mainstream these days? I think the idea of personally expressive art is heavily dominant over the idea of change-the-world firebrandism among alternative types: most shun the X Factor because it wouldn’t be the best vehicle for their self-expressive artistic sensibilities, not through any sense of defeatism. There is no battleground, basically. And to an extent, they may have a point: look at the reception that Kelly Clarkson got when she tried dark, bitter self-expression out – very well! – on My December. Looking at the alternative acts on my 2009 list – Fever Ray, The xx, Yeah Yeah Yeahs – I can’t see what good even going near the X Factor would do them.

  43. 43
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 21 Dec 2009 #

    I can’t imagine what a McLarenesque intervention on X Factor would be, or why one would want one

    I can’t really imagine why someone would consider this a post inviting generous response, as opposed to shutting down the conversation. Anyway, my part in the conversation IS shutting down, not because Frank is being annoyingly Socratic but because I’m tired and busy, and have a ton of stuff to get through before Wednesday. If anyone else wants to guess what I’m getting at you’re welcome.

  44. 44
    koganbot on 21 Dec 2009 #

    Fwiw, a couple of rock performers (though not interventionist rock) have done very well on American Idol, which has a somewhat different format from X Factor. Daughtry sells in huge numbers, and David Cook is still in business.

  45. 45
    koganbot on 21 Dec 2009 #

    Yeah, that came out harsher than intended, but what in the X Factor/Idol format invites an intervention, and what would an intervention be? If you don’t sound good to the judges you don’t make it to the stage; the attitude “we’re just having fun, and we’re not too concerned if we make it” is the closest I’d think of something that would work, and in some ways that was how Adam Lambert came across on American Idol, and the judges generally loved him. And Jason Castro had an air of “I’m too stoned to get it together in rehearsal.” (Btw, as far as I know, he was the first to bring “Hallelujah” to reality TV talent shows, though the song had already built itself up via fictional TV.) But anything confrontational, say by performers who pulled a bait and switch on the judges, is likely to seem juvenile or rude; and if it doesn’t, it won’t be an intervention, since it will come across as well-trod artistic integrity (which is how RATM come across).

  46. 46
    Mark M on 21 Dec 2009 #

    One might argue that Cowell himself engineered the most McLarenesque moment on this year’s X Factor, when Louis Walsh accused him of having made up Gummo (question, if Cowell were to invent an indie director, in what ways would he resemble Harmony Korine?)

    I must say that while I find X Factor basically unwatchable, I usually quite enjoy American Idol. But this might just be because I get my kicks by NOT being part of the wider conversation (Am Idol being a mildly esoteric taste here in Blighty).

  47. 47
    Lex on 22 Dec 2009 #

    American Idol is also far far better at producing decent pop stars too. The best of X Factor – Leona, Alexandra, JLS – I enjoy but still treat as an indulgence; I appreciate them but probably wouldn’t miss them if they disappeared. The best of AI – Fantasia, Kelly C, even Jordin Sparks who I don’t even like that much, they’re obviously proper, distinctive artists, not cheapo UK versions of artists.

    I mean, it’s obvious that US pop stars >>>>>>> UK pop stars and always have done, but American Idol/X Factor really shows us up.

  48. 48
    Tom on 22 Dec 2009 #

    Well in pure population terms Lex you’d expect AI to produce 5 actually good/successful/whatever pop stars to every 1 the X-Factor produces: I guess it’s fulfilled that remit with Leona (even if her “indie ballad” direction is the worst).

  49. 49
    Steve Mannion on 22 Dec 2009 #

    I forget that AI exists because only Clarkson made an impact here…until Sparks who I didn’t realise was an AI winner until, well, 30 seconds ago. So why haven’t the others exported well (if at all)?

  50. 50
    Joe McElderberry on 22 Dec 2009 #

    Quote of the moment.. “The one word which sums the whole thing up is “pantomime” – everyone playing their big, campy part to entertain us all.”

  51. 51
    koganbot on 22 Dec 2009 #

    Well in pure population terms Lex you’d expect AI to produce 5 actually good/successful/whatever pop stars to every 1 the X-Factor produces

    Well, “good” more likely than “successful,” since the bigger the country, the smaller percentage of its population gets to be stars.

    But as for Idol winners who’ve crossed to Britain, other than Kelly Clarkson and Jordin Sparks there really haven’t been any, as far as I can tell, though Jennifer Hudson (soul/r&b singer, 7th place in 2004, went on to a role in Dreamgirls) has hit the UK singles chart three times and may well do more. And Chris Daughtry (rock singer, 4th place in 2006) just charted this year in the UK with his band Daughtry, entering and re-entering the chart while remaining pure and tick-free on poptimists. His sales are mammoth in the U.S., and if he keeps that up he might eventually get some of the attention you give to Nickelback. Discogs.com is unwieldy, so I can’t tell if he’s gotten a UK album release, and I don’t know of a site equivalent to everyhit that compiles old sales and ranking figures for the UK album chart.

    Carrie Underwood’s Some Hearts sold even more than Kelly Clarkson’s Breakaway, its 7 million sales coming a year or two later, which makes the numbers more impressive, given that CD sales have been steadily plummeting. She’s country but she crosses to the pop charts in the U.S.; her sound is big and brassy enough that I’m surprised she didn’t cross over in Britain. Don’t even think her albums have been released in the U.K., though I don’t know.

    Beyond that, Fantasia (soul/r&b), who won in 2004, hasn’t crossed big in the U.S., much less in Britain, though she’s still in business. Kellie Pickler and Bucky Covington, who finished sixth and eighth respectively in 2006, both are hitting the middle range of the country charts, Pickler benefiting from being associated with the Carrie-Taylor wave of young pop-country women. Katharine McPhee (pop), 2nd place in 2006, has had minor pop success, enough to get a second album, which has just leaked, and she could cross to Britain with the right material. Same with teenthrob David Archuleta (2nd place 2008), though he hasn’t sold much after his great first single “Crush.”

    Also, there’s a Nashville Star competition, though it may be defunct now (Wikipedia isn’t saying so, but there was no 2009 version); it’s big success was 2003’s third-place finisher Miranda Lambert, who’s not crossed to Britain but has impressed critics, since she’s the closest current mainstream Nashville has come to producing a punk rocker, and that’s why you’ve heard of her (also, she’s very good, even if her new album is a disappointment). And Chris Young, who won in 2006, had a country hit this year with a marital smoocher called “Gettin’ You Home (The Black Dress Song).”

  52. 52
    Matt DC on 23 Dec 2009 #

    Surprised by how happy I was by the RATM result, if only because Simon Cowell’s sense of entitlement over the X-Factor’s right to the Christmas number one every single year, no matter how bad the pop star or lazy the record, was so enraging.

    Hopefully this will inspire some actual pop stars to try and beat them next year. It felt like everyone basically stopped trying for the last few years.

  53. 53

    […] The whole RATM/X-Factor thing was, of course, hilarious. Here’s a couple of pieces worth chewing over. Firstly, here’s Paul O’Brien with an overview of the whole history of Christmas Number-1. Secondly, here’s Tom Ewing playfully listing the winners and the losers from the whole escapade. […]

  54. 54
    mandrill on 27 Dec 2009 #

    In response to the ‘Real Music’ argument. I don’t think anyone is claiming that pop is not real music. Its just that the very narrow and specific form of pop produced by the X-factor is not real music. It is manufactured and false.

    Real music is made by musicians and written by musicians. The people who win and otherwise place in the X-factor are not musicians. They are faces for a money making machine. There is no passion in what they do as it is not their music that they are performing. They get paid no matter the tune they mindlessly burble into a handy mic, though they don’t get paid nearly as much as Cowell and his cronies. Real music is created, not simply produced.

    ‘Real Music’ can belong to any genre, be it pop, rock, metal, country, swing, etc etc. It is not defined by the instruments used to make it, nor is it defined by a specific set of rules regarding rythm and construction. Real Music is defined by only one thing: it is created by musicians from nothing.

    The X-factor is not real music, never has been, and neither is anything that that cynical svengali Cowell has anything to do with. He is a manufacturer of fantasies, and not the nice kind with fairies and ponies. He creates a fantasy that anyone can become a star, be someone special, and live a life of luxury and celebrity without having to work bloody hard for it. That is the main objection I have to the X-factor and programs like it. I pity Joe, he will learn soon enough that the world will forget him in a month or so and he’ll be trawling crappy nightclubs for less money than he thought. He’ll learn how hard it really is and that no-one really cares. The marketing machine will move on to the next series and the machine will begin to process its latest product.

  55. 55
    swanstep on 27 Dec 2009 #

    The people who win and otherwise place in the X-factor are not musicians… it is not their music that they are performing… Real Music is defined by only one thing: it is created by musicians from nothing.
    But this Real Music standard is *far* too demanding. Most of the best song-writers aren’t great players let alone the best performers more generally (stage presence, image, projecting personality, handling media, etc.). Ella Fitzgerald didn’t write her songs, Aretha writes only very few of hers. And so on. The idea that everyone has to write their own songs etc. is a post-Beatles development which works fine in some cases, but certainly not in all. It didn’t even work for Dylan – he’s a great song-writer but (mostly) an indifferent performer.

    Would you be satisfied if they had a parallel show to X-factor just for the song-writer side of things – ‘X-Factor: Tin pan alley’? (Perhaps the game is you have to write a new hit/standard for Beyonce or Alicia)

    Or would you be satisfied by ‘X factor: Post Beatles edition’ where all contestants have to be singer-songwriters (and do only their own stuff)? (See also ‘X factor: Battle of the Bands’.)

  56. 56
    lonepilgrim on 27 Dec 2009 #

    re 55 I agree with most of your post but I take issue with ‘Dylan – he’s a great song-writer but (mostly) an indifferent performer’ – I’d agree that he’s an inconsistent performer but more often than not he’s a fantastic performer of both his own and others’ songs

  57. 57
    swanstep on 28 Dec 2009 #

    @lonepilgrim, 56. Your point is well taken. I hereby officially retract my ill-judged remark, i.e., to something like your formulation.

  58. 58

    […] joke isn’t funny anymore after last year’s Rage Against the Machine stunt? OK, in the case of songs in rival Facebook campaigns like the Trashmen’s Surfin’ Bird […]

  59. 59
    thefatgit on 21 Jul 2011 #

    A week or so late, but Joe McElderry won Popstar To Opera Star which proves he’s really, really good at winning reality/talent shows.

  60. 60
    Gareth Parker on 22 Aug 2021 #

    I would agree with Swanstep’s (#55) original comment about Dylan. Great lyricist imho, love his songs done by other people, but I’m sorry to say I don’t care too much for his singing.

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