Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Simon Cowell's back track highlights fear factor

It was Halloween, in a grim twist of irony, when X-Factor tykes John and Edward's double act passed from the ridiculous to the ghoulish. Highly entertaining though their Ghostbusters... ’rendition’ was, it served on Halloween as a scary indication of the way the latest series of X-Factor is going. Losing sight of its apparent talent-finding objective, pandering to a public looking for some twist on Big Brother’s gormless reality TV format – which will finally die an ignoble death next year – Simon Cowell’s money-spinning programme has now jettisoned two genuine talents within its grasp in favour of far less talented, but more widely commercially appealing acts.

Admittedly, Rachel Adedeji's exit the weekend before last had less to do with John and Edward than Lucie Jones’s. Young Lloyd Daniels, who each week seems increasingly out of his depth, was suffering from a virus and virtually unable to sing in tune, yet despite Simon Cowell’s repeat assertions that he and the other judges base their decisions on the merit of the performance ‘on the night’ – something Cowell reiterated last week – it was clear that this is no longer the case. Rachel’s singing performance wiped the floor with Lloyd, only to be met with Cowell back tracking and putting her at the public’s mercy.

If viewers thought this was a one-off (and given their capacity shown so far to put up with childish nonsense on primetime television, they probably did), they were horribly mistaken. For the first time, last week John and Edward found themselves in the ‘bottom two’. It seemed a no-brainer. Louis Walsh would obviously stick by his boys. Cheryl Cole and Dannii Minougue would correctly support the talented singer Lucie Jones. And Simon Cowell would be only too delighted to oust the twins himself, ridding Louis Walsh of his only act, and ridding the competition of two boys who he himself had consistently maintained “can’t sing, can’t dance”. Cowell has always relished the role of X-Factor’s pantomime villain; here was his moment to kill off two main characters. Oh no he didn’t! Oh yes he did!

Except: oh no. He didn’t.

The X-Factor's twin publicity propellers have divided opinion like no other act in the six (yes, unbelievably, six) series of the show so far: even brother and sister combo Same Difference, for all their gut-wrenching, incestuous faux-romance shtick, were undeniably decent singers and capable performers. John and Edward (smartly shortened to Jedward by chortling Brangelina fans) have the capacity for neither. They’re High School Musical – without the music. The trouble is, that is the sort of snide putdown Cowell is renowned for. Yet this week he clambered clumsily all over his previous statements and intentions and, knowing full well that Jedward were never likely to be the public’s least favourite, gave his backing to the boys. On television, as Lucie Jones broke down in tears, the crowd weren’t even split 50/50: the boos far, far outweighed the cheers.

Simon Cowell is not stupid, however. He said himself that the twins won’t win the competition, and he’s right. There isn’t a Facebook campaign big enough to garner the twins that amount of support. So at a purely tactical level, Cowell is now holding the cards for three of the six remaining acts that could win this year’s competition. He has furthered his stronghold with the decisions that cost Rachel Adedeji and Lucie Jones, genuinely talented vocalists and rivals to his acts, their finalist places.

His wisdom runs deeper than beating the other judges, of course. Cowell knows that John and Edward attract a wider audience than a simple ‘talent versus talent’ shoot out would. He knows that the twins’ plight has given the programme itself an X-Factor. The twins certainly don’t have any, but they’re the twist the programme needs to stay fresh each week; their survival enthrals both the audience cheering them on, and the audience baying for their blood. No other act can command such attention in equal measures, and Cowell, fearful of losing such a massive audience segment, has acted. For once, the show has a bigger villain than Simon Cowell himself – and all the best stories need a villain.

But in replacing himself as the necessary evil, Cowell briefly lowered his guard. As The Guardian wrote on Monday, in prolonging the absurd theatre of this year’s X-Factor Cowell has cheapened its core values; the search for singing talent, and the dreams of those who enter. He has given in to public demand, dethroning himself as the pervading pop idol of X-Factor and put popularity measured in television ratings ahead of everything else: the programme’s integrity, the album and single sales, the record deals, the tours. And once the Jedward novelty wears off – about January 2nd 2010, I’d wager – it will be very difficult to claw that elevated status back.

No longer can he claim, as he did last weekend, that the programme is made for the dreams of people like Leona Lewis: this year’s strongest female singer is already out of the competition thanks to Cowell. Maybe the lifecycle of X-Factor is drawing to a close, and Cowell’s short-term gain at the programme's long term expense is already in full flow. Perhaps Cowell’s mind is turning toward the infinitely more empathetic stories that drive Britain’s Got Talent. But whatever might happen, X-Factor has suddenly been reduced to pure spectacle. Cowell has tarnished the programme’s mission statement, and possibly its reputation; for good.

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