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The X Factor in a thousand words June 17, 2012

Posted by wallofsound in Music in the media.

A few months ago I posted an analysis of The X Factor in 100 words.  It was an abstract for an essay accepted for a new book, Mythologies Today. The book aims to return the Roland Barthes’ famous essays from the 1950s exploring the ideological operation of French popular culture. I have always admired Barthes’ essays, and particularly his written style. The way he discusses his subject — the meaning of popular culture — is not simply a report of his analysis, but an unfolding investigation of the way language functions to naturalise ideas.

I have now completed my full essay.  At 2500 works it is at the upper end of the typical length of a Barthes essay.  I have distilled that essay into 1000 words.

The X Factor

Here, x marks that factor that we cannot define and so struggle to name, standing for that elusive quality. The show intertwines the quest to find the person with that elusive quality, with the contestants’ personal journeys of self-discovery. In the narrative arc of this series, each weekly programme sets out a stage of the journey of discovery, repeatedly calling upon the ‘backstories’ of the contestants as we join in the quest for the x-factor, which is to be found in ‘the recording voice’ of the winner. The X Factor is a production line for the end of the age of the record and the start of the age of something not yet formed, let alone named. The X Factor turns the process of star-making into the textual form of a new music commodity. The music industry used to make stars to sell records, the programme makes records to sell the process of making a star. It superficially resembles elements of the television talent contest, the docusoap story of pop star lives, and the variety show, but The X Factor is as much the creation of the practices of the music industry as of television.

In establishing itself as a successful television format, The X Factor has come to represent the story of discovery and fame, but in the beginning the programme needed to establish a frame of reference for us as viewers by drawing upon the life stories of the judge-mentors. Simon Cowell, the music label entrepreneur, Louis Walsh, the pop group manger, and Sharon Osbourne the rock manager and docusoap star. Later, the judge-mentors – Dannii Minogue, Cheryl Cole, Gary Barlow, Kelly Rowland and Tulisa Contostavlos – increasingly personified the very music stars that the contestants aspired to be.  Each judge-mentor represents a distinct emotional archetype: Cowell, the teller of truth; Walsh, ‘the gusher’; and Osbourne the nurturer. Cole later stood as the teller of a deeper truth, buttressed by the sense that she had experienced what the contestants were going through in a way that Cowell and Walsh just had not.

The role of judge and mentor is unstable within the myth of the quest for the x-factor, and makes little sense in the televisual logic of the talent competition. However, in the mythical world of fame-making the emotional archetypes are more important than the functional roles they initially represent. The dynamic of these characters also requires a third functional role and emotional archetype. Initially this was former pop journalist Kate Thornton, reprising her role in Pop Idol, and in later series, Dermot O’Leary repeated his Big Brother persona, combining the functions of narrator, interrogator and contestant’s friend.

While the x-factor cannot be defined, named, or represented it can be experienced as sound. In The X Factor, ‘the voice’ functions to be heard and recognised, to be selected, and ultimately to be recorded. X is sounded but not marked; performed but not pronounceable.

Our own role as audience members is also mythologised. Just as the new forms of social media seem to offer a greater democratic participation than the old, X Factor seems to offer us a say in the A&R process we were once denied. And just as the old music industry insisted that, ultimately, we chose who the pop stars really were, we are assured that we have a role in auditioning the contestants. In the final stages of the selection process, we can vote for our favourites, securing their place in the future weeks. Even in the face of an insistence from the judge-mentors that a contestant is not good enough, we can, through our collective will, overturn that decision. This is an interactive role which extends beyond that of TV viewer to text voter, and further into the weekly post-show spin-off Xtra Factor, the online forums, and Twitter hashtag exchanges. However, when we have made such a commitment to an artists and their journey, we are much more likely to buy the record which is the end product of the process.

The X Factor is the new music industry at work: selecting the potentially talented raw material from the spoil; refining the potential of the contestants to the perceived requirements of the market; commodifying this output into a saleable record; and finally building additional forms of consumption into further saleable services that turn the primary text into a metatext. Cowell’s independent music and television production company, Syco, makes both the record and the television programme, and sells the former to pop fans in order to sell the latter to television networks. The networks themselves will pay significant sums because the popularity of the programme enables profits to be made by selling the viewing audience to advertisers.  Just as the programme invests in the raw material of contestants who may have ‘the voice’, Syco invests in the production of a record to make a television programme, and the networks invest in a programme to buy an audience it can sell to advertisers. Each of these is a process of capitalisation, and while we are invited to share in the dreams of aspirant pop stars, it is the dreams and aspirations of the owners of this capital who ultimately benefit. While the contestants labour hard to develop themselves, the real returns flow to the holders of the capital resource.

At one level, The X Factor is the pop process laid bare; at another, it is the multimedia promotion arm of a record industry. That talent and opportunity are the keys to success is the show’s core message; fame and stardom the ultimate ambitions. The real opportunity, though, is to remake pop music for an age in which the record is no longer the bankable commodity it once was. Stardom is no longer the long-term process of capitalisation, but the short-term means to capitalise the audience.  Ultimately, we all know this is all there; it’s just that we struggle to give it a name.



1. Live Music Exchange Digest – w/c 20/08/2012 | - August 20, 2012

[…] The X Factor in a thousand words: As The X Factor returns to a slump in ratings for its first episode, here is a link to Professor Tim Wall’s exploration of the its myths and functions. […]

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