I'm sorry for interrupting you during another X Factor weekend. Because that's what they are now, aren't they? The X Factor owns your weekends. The X Factor owns you. George Orwell once prophesised that songs would be created by machines under a totalitarian regime.
The songs performed on The X Factor are repeated year in, year out, save for a few contemporary flourishes, but it's The X Factor itself that is the machine, a manipulative hugely entertaining demographic-crossing engine that hypnotises audiences and guides them to invest their own money in the system, be it through text voting or downloading the song covered by the ensemble cast the minute the programme is off air (an incredibly smart tactic borrowed from the American teen drama Glee). It ensures that the first single by the winning contestant, no matter how turgid, sits on top of the charts on Christmas Day. And it's bigger than ever.
On 17 October, 821,000 Irish viewers tuned into TV3 to watch The X Factor. That's not counting the number of people who watched the programme on its parent channel, ITV. That's 49% of the audience share for under 45-year-olds nearly every weekend for the duration of the series for TV3. The situation is similar in the UK, where the contestants have become tabloid fixtures and the competition is followed with the fervour of the World Cup.
In Ireland, Simon Cowell's creation is looking to have its biggest year yet. The inclusion of Mary Byrne, the former Tesco worker from Ballyfermot, as a contestant is a smart tactical one, although it's fair to say that she has one of the best voices in the competition and has certainly earned her place. Under the stewardship of her 'mentor' Louis Walsh, it was clear that 'Tesco Mary' or 'MaBy' would remain in the competition given Walsh's grá for Irish acts, as Jedward discovered last year. It has also worked well for the programme's revenue, given that for the first time, Irish audiences are allowed submit votes by text message, another element that has boosted the audience here, giving active viewers a more participatory role in their weekend's viewing.
Pretty much no one is immune. During the week we spoke to teenagers, journalists, academics, politicians and psychologists and few admitted to not watching it. Many were more than happy to discuss their love of the reality television show.
Finian McGrath, independent Dublin TD, watches it every weekend with his daughters. His own personal favourite contestant is Matt Cardle.
"It's one of those programmes that all families get a great buzz out of," he explained. "If we [McGrath and his daughters] aren't watching it together, we're texting each other about who got knocked out." McGrath had his own brush with reality TV fame when he was involved with the RTÉ series Charity You're A Star. "Ever since that, I got the bug," McGrath said. "There's a sense of drama... it's like watching a big international football match, the competitive thing is there."
McGrath's colleague, Fianna Fáil TD Mary O'Rourke, has also been sucked into the programme thanks to Byrne, whom she describes as a "phenomenon". Her grandchildren also love it, although O'Rourke isn't as versed on the contestants as they are, describing Katie Waissel as "the blondie one who freaks out", and Wagner Carrilho as, "the weirdo with the funny hair". Nevertheless, O'Rourke understands the appeal of the series, especially from an Irish person's point of view: "Mary Byrne has grabbed the minds of the Irish people... she is different. I admire her greatly; she has a marvellous voice. You can see the eyes of Cowell and that other fella perking up [when she sings]. She seems quite practical too. I admire her gumption."
When the Sunday Tribune caught up with Jarvis Cocker a few weeks ago, he made the most sensible point on how to enjoy The X Factor on a level other than buying into the rampant manipulation of both contestants and audience, the 'set ups' of careers and the monopolisation of the charts with the results of their output: "I know I'm not supposed to like it, but I don't think about it as music," the former Pulp frontman said. "I think that's what you have to realise. It's not about music. It's about fame... The X Factor kind of marks this thing now that it's completely separate [to music]. It's about being a pop star and there are other things that are about making music."
Lyric FM DJ and presenter of The View John Kelly agrees. "It's very well made, but music is just the peg," he said, adding that he felt extremely uncomfortable with the notion that young impressionable contestants were being "sold a pup" by making sacrifices to fame. "It's very manipulative of the audience and I can see why it appeals."
Over the weekend of live programmes, with the contestants singing on a Saturday night, and the results of their performance broadcast on a Sunday along with an A-list singing guest (so far Rihanna, Michael Bublé, Katy Perry and Usher have taken to the stage), publicans around Ireland are complaining about 'The X Factor Factor', which translates as a plummet in business around the time the show goes to air.
"The key to The X Factor is that of a communal experience at home with family or friends, all the while texting those absent about who's been eliminated or who was the star, along with keeping an eye on the non-stop commentary on Twitter throughout Saturday and Sunday night.
Much of the success of The X Factor lies with Cowell, but there's a huge crew both in studio and behind the scenes that make The X Factor the slick mass product that it is. They manipulate every storyline, tweak every inch of dramatic lighting and come up with an emotionally reactionary soundtrack that has been copied over and over, mimicking heartbeats for especially tense interludes and explosions during the announcement of contestants, and overdubbing audience cheers at climatic moments.
Contestants who aren't perhaps up to scratch are purposely given less attention and airtime on screen so that they are eliminated more readily with minimum controversy. Those who emotionally appeal to the audience; the young boys lusting desperately after a dream, the middle-aged also ran who now finds herself as a diva on stage, the emotionally drained young girl reaching for success for the benefit of her family – the arcs of reality television stars' progressions are now so well recognised by audiences that they automatically know how to react to them.
That emphasis on the 'story' however (or, to paraphrase the presenter of America's Next Top Model Tyra Banks' remarkably unsubtle approach at extracting painful truths, the "tell me about the tragedy" method) has been to the detriment of The X Factor in recent series, and it's clear that Cowell has decided to change tack. Instead of the sob stories of family deaths and struggling circumstances, we are now instead shut out of the private lives and struggles of the contestants, save for a few descriptive brush strokes to make a vague sketch of who they are so the audience won't lose interest. Instead, Cowell, an expert at judging the public mood and in turn presenting television audiences with what they want, has gone for optimism.
While we may on occasion early on in the series laugh at the extremely misguided auditions of those who perceive themselves to be talented but are in fact woeful, once the live shows come around, it's all very cheery.
Cowell has stepped back from unleashing insulting tirades and instead finds positives in every performance. He knows that viewers don't want to sit in over their weekend watching people like them be torn apart and insulted, so he gives little boosts, nuggets of praise, and sometimes all out enthusiastic endorsements.
Like an expert dog trainer dispensing treats to the obedient, Cowell's u-turn towards positivity provides some relief from negativity external to The X Factor. So enjoy your X Factor weekend, and if you want my advice, put a tenner on Cher.
"When I'm out at the weekend, if I have a political gig, I have to tape it and I can't wait to get home and watch it. That's probably quite a sad thing for a TD to say, but it's an escape from politics for me"
"You can see the eyes of Cowell and that other fella perking up [when Mary Byrne sings]. She seems quite practical too. I admire her gumption"
"I know I'm not supposed to like it, but I don't think about it as music. I think that's what you have to realise. It's not about music. It's about fame"
"If you're prepared to swallow your intelligence and watch it, it could be a laugh, but I don't find it funny that people who believe they are brilliant and are patently not are offered up for our delectation... Anytime I've come across it, I don't like the smell of it"
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X Factor doesn't rule mine at all...I hated it from the 2nd series & can't stand Louie Walsh never mind Simon Cowell. I listen to my own music & got a great new CD last week "What we lose in the fire, we gain in the flood"...created by a band that I know are going to be big. They are the "Mynabirds". Laura Burhenn, the lead singer has the most amazing voice...the music & lyrics is refreshingly original & all in all it's "Ace". As I write, it tops all independent charts, podcasts, & blogs. So, X Factor, can stay with those who watch it, my time is more precious.
Una, you should listen to this album for free on "Grooveshark" yourself & then review it. I am more than sure, you'd like it.