Simon Cowell and the 1984 factor

Does anyone believe any more that X Factor isn’t scripted, contrived and edited to produce all those moments of ‘high drama’ and ’emotion’?

I stopped watching the show somewhere during series three, after a truly wonderful girl singer didn’t make it through to bootcamp. She had no backstory, wasn’t living in poverty and wasn’t doing it ‘for my nan’. She was just a beautiful girl with a thrilling voice, and that was clearly no longer enough. So I stepped away and never went back.

This week someone posted a link on my Facebook to one of those X Factor moments – let’s call it The Subo Effect – where we are supposed to feel we’re looking at a no hoper, and Simon Cowell gets tetchy.

The clip shows three nice looking boys, well presented, articulate, all with proper jobs. Which is astonishing since they’ve apparently grown up in the South Central area of LA, drug- and gang-ridden as it is.

It’s clear from the time they run on stage that the judges have been told they are perfect X Factor fodder. So as these three good-looking, sharply dressed and dignified brothers bounce on, Cowell scowls, and the other judges look distinctly uncomfortable – you know they want to smile, but they’ve been told to look sceptical.

During the ‘interview’, Cowell tells them to ‘stop weaving around; it’s like being on a boat; you’re making me feel sick”.

To add insult to injury, after they announce they’re going to sing Valerie, Cowell says: “I hate this song”, and then sits there looking flat-lipped as only he can. The camera lingers on the boys’ faces as they look like rabbits in headlights, because now they’re not so sure.

And then, off they go. Of course, the audience goes wild. Of course the judges faces light up. Of course, Simon Cowell begins to look impressed. It’s absolutely going according to script.

Except, that’s the problem. It’s so obviously, cynically, scripted.

When Paul Potts emerged on the first Britain’s Got Talent, it was a genuinely thrilling moment, that this podgy, shy and self-effacing man had such a surprising voice, and some actual talent to go with it.

Ditto Susan Boyle (although in her case, I wasn’t personally moved; I hate modern musicals, and most of the songs they contain, and she’s no musician’s idea of a great singer).

But of course, once you’ve had a couple of moments like that, you want more of them. So the research assistants have to go looking for unlikely chill-makers, and then the judges are tipped off, and now we’re on a production line of predictable and no longer so thrilling moments.

And the problem with AKNU, these three brothers, is they’re ok, but the singing’s not great, the dancing is sharp but limited and they just don’t have the, erm, X factor.

So the judges getting all misty-eyed and the audience going crazy all seems staged. Apparently, AKNU didn’t make it to boot camp (this was X Factor USA, last winter) and maybe we’ll never hear from them again, which wouldn’t be a tragedy.

But it set me wondering, and not for the first time, how pop music would have panned out if Simon Cowell had turned up in 1961 instead of 2001.

In 1961, pop was dominated by the likes of Cliff Richard, post-army Elvis, and blue-eyed white boys with names like Bobby (Darin, Vinton, Rydell, Vee) and girls who had the word ‘Little’ before their name (Eva, Peggy). In other words, totally unthreatening.

When John Lennon was told Elvis Presley had died, he said, “Elvis died when he joined the army” (in 1958).

Until then, Elvis had cut a genuinely threatening figure, “a national symbol of rebellion and untamed sexuality; a symbol of a new and dangerous way of being young”, in the words of American journalist David Seaton.

And his music seemed other-worldly in an age of Bing and Frank and Tony, David Whitfield, Donald Peers and Guy Mitchell.

But as the 50s turned into the 60s, and Elvis came out of the army and went off the boil, these older crooners were somewhat displaced by younger, prettier versions of themselves: Fabian, Bobby Vinton, Frankie Avalon – still crooners, but crooners your sister would swoon over, as opposed to your mom and your nan.

So imagine Simon Cowell stepping into that arena and playing to the gallery as he does now. How he would have loved Craig Douglas and Susan Maughan. He would have absolutely swooned over Kathy Kirby. Frank Ifield would have been told to “cut out the yodelling; it’s so 1949. Otherwise, good voice, good-looking guy. You’ll go far”.

But The Beatles? No chance – can’t sing, can’t play, hair’s too long. The Rolling Stones? Get the fuck out of here, and take a bath on your way out. Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Cream? You’re joking, right?

Bob Dylan. Well. Imagine the scene.

“What’s that song you’re playing?”

“It’s a Woody Guthrie song.”

“Woody Guthrie – who’s he? Is he a songwriter? If he is, he should stop now and spend the rest of his life listening to Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. That’s what I call song-writing.”

It really doesn’t bear thinking about, and it makes you wonder how much energy, attention and money Cowell’s empire has sucked out of the marketplace at the expense of genuine creative talent. I’ve no animus against Cowell personally, and I genuinely admire people who build businesses and make a fortune – as long as they’re not Russian oligarchs who’ve stolen all the money in the first place.

But there’s no doubt that X Factor and Got Talent have proved George Orwell’s contention in 1984 that music can be manufactured as a soporific, to keep people amused and occupied in a way that requires no real thought, and doesn’t inspire them to rebellion.

When was the last time you heard a song that made you feel like you did the first time you heard Blowing In The Wind, or Give Peace A Chance, or War (What Is It Good For?). Or, for that matter, Paralyzed by Elvis Presley?

So, you’ll find the AKNU clip here:

But for me, the most authentic clip of the week was this – 30 seconds long, partially scripted, but rounded off in the most surprising way that had me crying with laughter. It would never have got past Simon Cowell.