Thursday 4 November 2010

A eulogy for pop

'The X Factor: Singing in the name of quality?', Battle of Ideas Satellite event, Royal College of Music, London, 14 October 2010

For the past seven years The X Factor has been the bench mark of poor taste. Yet the debate which accompanies every series has become as tiresome as the show itself. The two tribes which emerge each year always regurgitate the same arguments: one side claiming that Simon Cowell is bringing about cultural oblivion, the other insisting it is good, clean, TV fun, which, on occasion, produces some truly great pop stars.

Admittedly, over the past few years I have tended to side with the former. I’d pretentiously damn The X Factor for its banality and then recline with a Dylan CD, safe in the knowledge that I was right. Thankfully, I’ve grown up since then, and whilst I am still no fan, I’ve come to realise that any cultural phenomenon as significant as The X Factor deserves informed discourse. This year’s Battle of Ideas festival provided a platform for such a debate.

A festival Satellite event, ‘The X-factor: Singing in the name of quality?’, featured speakers from the world of academia, journalism and opera, and aimed to assess the viability and cultural implications of The X Factor‘s approach to the art of singing. Whilst the panel was divided over the format’s impact, they agreed that The X Factor is more about television than it is about music. As cultural commentator Norman Lebrecht pointed out, not only is the performance always subordinate to the story, but the entire format remains painfully out of touch with modern popular music.

Despite Simon Cowell’s insistence that the programme is looking for ‘the future’, when it moulds the bright eyed hopefuls into ‘stars’, they all begin to resemble the throwaway pop stars of yesteryear. Former Heat editor Mark Frith said that, despite resurrecting the sort of girl bands, boy bands and solo singers that we thought we had seen the last of, the genre of pop that The X Factor represents, remains ‘a very small slither of music as we know it’. It seems The X Factor’s greatest achievement is making this ‘small slither’ profitable once more.

Yet the question remains, is it a threat to popular music? Barb Jungr, a professional singer herself, was one of the first panelists to defend The X Factor, or at least its viewers: ‘Everybody knows it’s all rubbish, they’re just having a good time watching it’. Indeed, it seems that people are taking this mere talent show far too seriously. The suggestion that The X Factor has the ability to stunt our cultural development is truly ridiculous. Nevertheless, its phenomenal success does show us something. As Culture Wars’ assistant editor Sarah Boyes pointed out on the panel, the show simply ‘coalesces the death of pop music, by playing the same songs over and over again’.

Could it be that we only loathe the programme because it is telling us something we don’t wish to hear? We have become complacent, pop is so entrenched in our culture that we act as if it will go on forever. The X Factor simply hails its impending demise.

At the Battle of Ideas, one is always treated to a diverse range of opinion, but the one thing not open to debate, is that we are witnessing the final days of popular music. For the past few decades pop has been ‘playing the same songs over and over again’, and the success of Cowell’s karaoke format has simply provided a fitting eulogy for a culture which is eating itself alive.


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Resources

Battle of Ideas

Institute of Contemporary Arts

Intelligence Squared

Gresham College

LSE Public Lectures

Fabian Society Events

Exhibitions and Talks at the British Library



Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for this year’s Battle of Ideas festival.

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