I’ve just watched tonight’s X Factor.  For many years, the which to tape/which to watch first dilemma re: X Factor / Stricting Come Dancing has been a winter ritual.  I know all the arguments about it being manufactured pop, but I’ve always found it pretty entertaining.  Until tonight. 

Since Subo first graced our screens on Britain’s Got Talent, I – along with many others, including some sections of the media – have begun to question what is acceptable as entertainment.  Where do we as a society draw the line?  When do we have to intervene or make a stance to protect those who are vulnerable?  However, such reflections have never really interfered with my viewing habits.  Until tonight.

There were two performers tonight who have changed my perception of the show.  The first started stirrings of discomfort.  The second actually made me say ‘I can’t watch this’.  My issues go something like this:

The show, like the lottery, offers a chance to fulfil one’s dreams – be it fame, fortune or genuinely to entertain people with your singing.  Like the lottery, it’s a long shot.  Unlike the lottery, it promises that one’s talent is the deciding factor; it’s not random like a lottery, although we all know that it isn’t that simple & many other factors can contribute to who does well, who gets through etc – look how one year’s winner had previously been rejected at a much earlier stage in the competition.

The fact that the greatest talent doesn’t guarantee greatest success (else how would Jedward have got so far?) isn’t my major beef.  Nor is my issue particularly the fact that the show is like a lottery.  My problem – the thing that made me so uncomfortable watching this evening – is who is attracted to play that lottery.  By and large, the people who choose to go on X Factor  – & by this I mean the ‘serious’ contenders, not the attention seekers who know that they cannot sing – seem to be people for whom there are no better opportunities.  They are often people for whom the show is the best (possibly only) chance that they have; for whatever reason, they lack the social (& financial) capital to make a go of it in the music industry through other more traditional routes.  They are people for whom gambling on the reality TV lottery may not give good odds but it’s better than no chance at all.

This may all sound awfully patronising of X Factor contestants & I really don’t mean it to.  I admire the guts of anyone who is prepared to get up there & give it a go, knowing that even having a good voice is no insurance against possible humiliation in front of millions of people. 

The issue is not that the contestants want to go on the show; if the opportunity is offered to win the jackpot – in whatever form – then there will always be people prepared to have a punt.  My problem is that such programmes exist – the issue lies with us, as a society & culture in which this kind of show has become acceptable entertainment, unremarkable in the literal sense that there is nothing unusual – nothing remarkable – about the format itself.  As a society & culture that watches, condones, enjoys, X Factor & the plethora of other programmes like it, we are like spectators who used to cheer on gladiatorial contests.  Only we’re not chanting for blood – we want to see their dreams, hopes & aspirations.  It is most clear with the contestants who go in the hope of either pleasing a parent (usually deceased) or wanting to improve the lives of their children.  If this show is a gamble, their only chance to fulfil these hopes, then what happens when that gamble doesn’t pay off?  Their dreams are destroyed, which is bad enough but is surely made worse because the failure is portrayed to be their own fault – they’re not good enough – they have failed to win.  And the worst part?  We as viewers only think about the show’s consequences for its winner.  We don’t think about the consequences for the thousands and thousands who have their dreams destroyed.

Tonight it broke my heart to see a teenage girl who was so thrilled to go through because I knew this was her only shot at singing.  There is no other way for her to fulfil her dream.  But she probably won’t win.  What then for her?  A life lived feeling that she failed her only chance?  Tonight it broke my heart to see a young man singing for his big chance to improve his family’s future.  He didn’t get through.  What now for him?  He has to go back to his everyday life & deal with this sense of failure, this sense that he has let his family down, this sense of being trapped with no way out.

What to do about all this?  I don’t know.  In many ways the show itself isn’t the problem, it’s merely symptomatic of an unjust & unequal society in which the division between the haves (those with plenty of chances to achieve their dreams) & the have-nots (those with only one chance to achieve theirs) seems to grow ever larger.  This is about race, social class, deprivation, the education system, social opportunity – not Simon Cowell’s grip on the music industry.

What I am going to do about all this?  I don’t the answer to that either.  I don’t know if I’ll watch the show again.  I guess I’ll have to wrestle with whether one chance is better than no chance.  And who am I to make this judgment call?  I’m coming up with more questions than answers.  The only thing I do know is that thinking about the dreams being torn apart doesn’t feel much like entertainment. 

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