How the show offers a perverse empowerment
The X Factor has turned into torture porn – that’s the film genre that specializes in exposing audiences to the wilfully cruel and sadistic infliction of pain, suffering and humiliation to others. I’m exaggerating a bit: torture porn, as exemplified in movies such as Hostel, Vile and the Saw series, is intentionally about hurting people. The films attract audiences who share a taste for watching others in pain. The X Factor, by contrast, is supposed to be a talent contest. But it now seems to appeal to the torture porn sensibility: its viewers might once have been drawn to the singers and allowed themselves the indulgence of laughing at the manner in which the judges expressed their disapproval. But the current series seems vicious: the entertainment value of others’ pain seems to have been foregrounded to the point where the singing is almost supplementary.
A few weeks ago, contestant Hannah Sheares and two friends auditioned as Daisy Chain, a band, only to be told that, Hannah herself was passable, but her friends were useless and would have to be dumped. Presumably forgetting that bands like the Supremes, the Three Degrees and Destiny’s Child all did pretty well with a strong lead and two backing singers, the judges offered Hannah the chance to progress as a solo performer. Amid much crying, she did so and lost her friends. “We don’t talk any more,” Hannah stated the obvious. She was eliminated from the show a couple of few weeks later. When the panel gave the same choice to another band, the trio refused, though a week later, the lead singer mysteriously re-appeared minus her two friends, meaning that she had been persuaded. It’s not the first time the show has made enemies out of friends and it could always be argued that the choice always remains with the contestants. Yet it seems a peculiarly vicious and unnecessary way of filtering out “talent” and, if we are honest, the way in which the camera dwells on the breakups suggests the producers think we enjoy becoming voyeurs. Maybe they are right.
The X Factor is not just a television show, it’s a cultural phenomenon. There has never been anything quite like it in the history of television. Starting in 2004, it has launched the careers of Leona Lewis, Alexandra Burke and, of course, One Direction (about whom I blogged a few weeks ago). It has also given career boosts to panellists, particularly Cheryl Cole, Nicole Scherzinger and Tulisa Contostavlos. Its viewing audience is barely believable. Over the years it has regularly snagged 40% of the total audience share and, even in slumps, draws in 10 million viewers. At its historic high point in 2010, 17.2 million tuned in to watch Matt Cardle triumph – that’s over 27% of the total population of the UK. It’s perfectly in sync with today’s culture, inviting audiences to vote using their phones and to tweet, text and engage fully with social media. In a sense it offers a perfect cultural democracy. But, as the show morphs from a talent contest to an all-purpose entertainment platform, its benign character has changed. It is now a heartless, insensitive and callous psychodrama in which astringent is poured on open wounds.
Like the torture porn filmmakers, the X Factor producers would probably shrug and say, “That’s what the audience wants.” They have a point: no one points a gun to the heads of 10 million telly watchers and demands they stay glued to their screens every Saturday and Sunday anymore than filmgoers are scooped up from the streets, strapped into place and forced to watch people having limbs cut off without anaesthetic. Viewers not only want to watch, they feel entitled to watch the slaughter and the human response that accompanies it. As the torture porn fan delights in witnessing the pleading, the whimpering and, best of all, the sobbing, the X Factor fan enjoys the privilege of observing human emotion at its most painful. We can identify with the rejected wannabes to whom winning would mean “everything” and this confers its own empathic rewards. Living in celebrity culture makes us realize how fragile hopes of instant fame are popular currency. But the real bonus is that we can also identify with the torturers … I mean, the judges: the power to grant someone’s wildest dreams or consign them to oblivion is something viewers have never had, and probably never will have. But by aligning themselves with Sharon or Louis as they traumatize young hopefuls and reduce them to incoherent losers, they get to identify with the powerful too. And the best bit is this: no one feels bad about this. There may be a brief moment of sorrow as the losing contestant blubs inconsolably and either promises to come back stronger or just go back to stacking shelves at the supermarket, but it passes as soon as the next TalkTalk commercial arrives. The perverse empowerment offered by the show is too good to risk undermining with sympathy.
Now the filmed sequences are over, we are into “live” shows and audiences will bear witness to exhibitions of inconsolable distress as their judges deliver their agonizingly prolonged verdicts (“I’m gonna say … ” followed by a 10-second wait). Years ago, we might have felt uncomfortable and switched channels. Who takes pleasure not just in other people’s distress, but in their shameless, often excruciating public display of that distress? I know the answer to this question. So do you.