IN the countdown to X Factor’s return this weekend, one question dominates: will Simon Cowell correctly pronounce the surname of his fellow judge, the artist formerly known as Cheryl Cole? Following her marriage, this year, to a French restaurateur, she is now Cheryl Fernandez-Versini, a tumult of syllables that could have been conceived to send Cowell’s iconically massive eye-brows waggling.
It says something for reality television’s foremost franchise that, in its 11th season, the mildly exotic married name of a judge is the focus. But nobody is talking about X Factor’s recent record in uncovering talent — because it’s not good.
In the past, winners of X Factor were guaranteed some success: the limitations of Shayne Ward and Leona Lewis didn’t stop them headlining arenas and storming the charts, for a while.
But recent alumni have had blink-and-you’ve-forgotten-them ‘careers’, and while 2013 winner, Sam Bailey, has shifted a million records, when last did you hear her on radio? The test for her is next year’s tour: it would be a surprise if she attempted anything more ambitious than a series of theatre dates.
Even more sobering are the experiences of recent runners-up. Championed by Louis Walsh as a ‘mini’ Michael Buble, 17-year-old Scottish singer, Nicholas McDonald’s lead single from his debut album, Answerphone, stiffed at 75 in the UK charts (meaning it sold fewer than 1,000 units). ‘Street’ trio Rough Copy were signed by Epic Records post-X-Factor and that, alas, is the last anyone has heard of them.
So, Cowell, returning from X Factor USA as Gary Barlow’s replacement, has announced changes for Saturday night’s first episode. The age bar for contestants has been lowered, from 16 to 14: Cowell is taking his cue from his other show, Britain’s Got Talent, and thinks teenagers can handle the pressure.
Cowell has also announced a moratorium on sob stories. Lately, weepy warblers have become an unavoidable trope of reality TV, contestant after contestant arriving at auditions with a heart-string-tugging back-story, invariably involving bullies, stifled dreams and difficult parents.
Cowell, sensing viewers’s tolerance for mawkishness is at its limits, has declared himself ‘over’ from all the spoon-fed misery. Henceforth, aspirants will be rated exclusively on their musical abilities: anyone trying to win advantage by unfurling a tale of dejection and rejection can expect the boot.
The biggest retooling this season, however, is on the judges’ bench. Having announced 2013 would be his swan-song, Louis Walsh has changed his mind, so he returns with Cowell (“This year is fantastic,” he said. “This was meant to be. This is the perfect X Factor panel, it really is.”). Gone are Nicole Scherzinger and Sharon Osbourne, supplanted by Cheryl and ‘Scary Spice’ Mel B.
Regardless of how the replacements perform, the logic of switching things up is irrefutable. In reality TV, the focus is on the judges, the contestants being an unglamorous afterthought mostly serving as punch-bag for the adjudicators. Look at how Bressie, previously a jobbing singer in a not-very-good rock band has, post-The Voice, ascended to the status of national treasure (he has bagged his own RTÉ television show). Consider, too, the excitement on the UK edition of The Voice, when Kylie Minogue squeezed into a coach’s berth last season (the gig coincided with her new album and she has now parted ways with the series).
If last year was a mixed-bag on X Factor, the finalists a hodge podge of crooners, wailers, strummers and groovers, in 2014 a pattern is emerging. Scruffy young men with guitars are the trend: the success (short-lived, admittedly) of 2012 winner, James Arthur, and the chart-gobbling ubiquity of Ed Sheeran have, by every appearance, spawned a generation of tousle-haired guys looking to strum their way to stardom.
It is premature to administer the last rites to X Factor, or to proclaim its mix of earnestness and audition-room sadism over the hill. Ratings have held up; this year, there is the additional innovation, in the UK, of viewers voting for free (presumably boosting participation). Besides, when the show strikes big it strikes really big: it’s just four years since One Direction came together on X Factor; now they’re the world’s biggest band. And unfancied 2011 winners, Little Mix, have surprised everyone — Cowell most of all, you suspect — by conquering America.
That said, without question the show’s hold on the public imagination has started to recede. How long ago, it feels, since Jedward parlayed their ding-dong face-offs with Cowell into a career, and since the existential struggle between Matt Cardle and One Direction — age versus teenage guilessness, stubble versus brylcreem — transfixed viewers.
Today, X Factor increasingly resembles just another television show.
Barring a miracle reversal this season, you have to wonder how much longer it can continue.