‘X Factor’, Britney Spears and ‘The Voice’

When ‘X-Factor’ first arose from the ashes of ‘Pop Idol’ in 2004, it was intended to be different. Michelle McManus had won the second ‘Pop Idol’ and, while undoubtedly a nice person and able to carry a tune, she was by no means a pop star. As its name suggests, then, ‘’X-Factor’ was intended to be about more than singing. It explicitly aimed to recognise that there was something almost indefinable which made a truly great pop star – something which made a mediocre singer like Madonna infinitely more interesting than ten thousand big-voiced pub singers.

It was certainly an interesting concept but one which (whether by design or by necessity) was quickly jettisoned. “It’s a singing competition!” became a mantra for the judges and audience alike, though even that became less true as the series progressed. In the endless chase for ratings it became very much a modern reality show, emphasising the personalities of the ‘contestants’ and ramping up the cruelty and contrived conflict at every opportunity. In the 2011 series Misha B was arguably the only contestant who had ‘it’, yet she was mercilessly undermined for dramatic effect and we ended up with three bland acts in the final (though certainly Little Mix are enough of a blank canvas to facilitate some decent pop singles). In short, ‘X-Factor’ these days shows nothing but contempt for pop music. ‘Talent’ is defined as being a) likeable and b) being able to hold a tune, and little else. Acts with a sense of their own artistic identity are maligned. ‘Versatility’ is fetishised but in a very narrow sense equated with the willingness to sing anything that sells records. The biggest crime of all is a desire to be creatively involved – if you want to do well from ‘X-Factor’, do not under any circumstances say that you wish to write your own material or, God forbid, aren’t particularly interested in ‘pop music’ (in its most narrowest sense  – taken to mean dance-pop).

It is perhaps naive to believe that it was ever different yet the show’s progression/degeneration can be easily traced in the lineage of its judging panel. It initially began with three industry people who could ostensibly spot ‘talent’. From there we have overwhelmingly moved to more ratings-driven choices, with each judge playing a set ‘role’. You could conceivably argue that people like Cheryl Cole or Tulisa are meant to illustrate the original concept of being pop stars despite rather modest talents, yet this is nonsensical given the decisive shift away from that idea. Indeed, when Cheryl launched her solo career on the show she mimed her performance, a quite staggering display of contempt for both contestants and audience of the ‘singing competition’. It both highlighted and undermined the charade – Cheryl is a pop star who began life as a tv personality and, despite the frequent brilliance of Girls Aloud, the latter has remained her most prominent role. This meant that she could perform as a tv personality – the singing (and even the song) were incidental. We are encouraged to buy into the person as an individual brand. This is the idea of a pop star being pushed by ‘X-Factor’ – a personality first, a singer second, an ‘artist’ a very distant afterthought. In this sense Olly Murrs is the archetypal contestant – someone who is able to present tv shows while churning out catchy, undemanding singles – while Leona Lewis’ swift decline could be attributed to her failure as a ‘personality’.

What ‘X Factor’ has become has reached its apotheosis with the appointment of Britney Spears as a judge on ‘X Factor USA’. She is in many ways the perfect ‘X-Factor’ pop star – Britney as a brand & persona long ago eclipsed Britney as a person. It’s almost irrelevant to ponder Britney as an artist because she is the ultimate blank canvas, reflecting everything and nothing, at once devoid of personality and containing everyone’s personalities. She may still put out albums but really, at this stage, no-one would bat an eyelid if she was used to advertise hedge funds.

It is a dead-eyed idea of pop as something which, at its best, sells. That becomes its primary purpose and, to this aim, it must not be demanding, difficult, too interesting or have aspirations towards being an art form (other than as, perhaps, a Warholian commentary on the cultural void at the heart of pop which has been replaced by the marketplace).

The launch of ‘The Voice’ in deliberate contrast to ‘X-Factor’ has been interesting. It already seems clear that it cannot hope to even begin to challenge the notions of pop disseminated by the latter. Yet in some ways it seems like a sincere effort. The instant admission that the contestants have all been pre-vetted is a hugely positive move, moving away from the deliberate cruelty and humiliation of the audition stages of ‘X-Factor’. It does try to avoid the traps of modern reality tv with its emphasis on the contest rather than the contestant. We aren’t led to believe that the contestants all mess around in a house together; there are no ‘profiles’ of each individual every week and no ironic ‘quizzes’ wherein we are encouraged to ‘get to know’ the individuals. It displays a very self-conscious interest in ‘talent’, from its judges performing live to contestants who play instruments and speak about song-writing.

All of this is much mocked, usually with an appeal to the oft-derided notion of ‘authenticity’. This criticism works in two ways – firstly to suggest that the show is obsessed with the sneering notion of ‘real music’, secondly by highlighting that it’s a tv show and involves manipulation and so isn’t actually ‘authentic’. I think the first is unfair – I don’t think the show is overly concerned with ‘real music’ in the sense of any specific genre or even the idea that artists write songs – indeed, the two favourites to win, Ruth Brown and Jaz, are simply singers. However they are singers who seem to be treated with respect, guided to improve and grow in confidence without artificial hoops to jump through such as singing ‘big band’ or whatever. The ‘authenticity’ being pursued is one that is in opposition to the ’X-Factor’ ideal of blankness. Yet it almost goes back to ‘Pop Idol’ and its idea that a good voice is enough. Madonna certainly wouldn’t make it past the pre-audition stage of ‘The Voice’.

The second criticism, though largely facile, does inadvertently highlight another big problem with ‘The Voice’ – it doesn’t quite work as a tv show. In avoiding the contrivances which make ‘X-Factor’ entertaining and aiming for an ostentatious sincerity, it ultimately misses both the entertainment of a trashy reality show and the honesty which it aims for. How could it not? The American version is far more astute regarding this and is based almost entirely around the relationship between the superstar judges.

Ultimately, I do prefer ‘The Voice’ to ‘X Factor’. The latter feels exploitative and unpleasant; I feel grubby when I watch it. The greatest crime of the former to date is that it’s a bit dull. I suppose if there’s a ‘lesson’ here it’s that pop music can never be reduced to a magic formula which works on television. ‘X Factor’ is explicitly aimed at a television audience while ‘The Voice’ naively aims itself at an audience who will appreciate ‘good singing’, assuming that this is enough. Both, perhaps, contribute to the reduction of pop music to a talent show and the increasing emphasis on pop stars as next-door ‘personalities’. To coin a phrase, the next pop revolution will not be televised.

Britney Redux

I wrote about my problems with ‘Femme Fatale’ here . It’s interesting that the videos for the campaign have attempted to address this, suggesting that the people around Britney actually do get in some way that the only point to her in 2011 is as a self-referential cipher. It doesn’t quite work – while the music, imagery and Britney’s life all intertwined in ‘Blackout’ to provide a spectacular metanarrative about our modern fame culture, this just smacks of half-heartedly trying the same without any deeper grasp of what was going on. Perhaps the central problem is that, since ‘Circus’, Britney Inc have been at pains to paint her as a normal, balanced, down-to-earth ’girl’ and this has jarred with any snatched glimpses of her outwith that prism. This causes videos like this, which largely rely on her ‘mythology’ but also push this banal vision of her, to ultimately collapse under the tensions created.

She still sounds like a robot, though. We’ll always have that.

So…’Femme Fatale’

‘Blackout’ isn’t Britney Spears’ ‘masterpiece’ because it contains catchy pop music. It’s because the people behind it recognised (in a way that Britney herself doesn’t really seem to) what the point of Britney is these days. She doesn’t sing live and on record her voice is auto-tuned to the point of distraction. She can no longer dance spectacularly. She is so devoid of personality that her fans go into spasms of delight when she says something as banal as ‘my songs are fucking amazing’. She rarely contributes to the music she fronts. As a pop star she fails on pretty much every level – except (and it’s a big one) her iconic persona. Her name and image conjure up a wealth of associations and by the time ‘Blackout’ came along she seemed like a spectacle detached from a human being. And ‘Blackout’ played with this magnificently. It doesn’t try and paper over Britney’s weaknesses but instead magnifies them – indeed, her voice is the most robotic it has ever sounded. The entire album is built around her persona, her history, her status as a celebrity and in referencing everything surrounding the music, the music itself becomes something far more. Britney is dead-eyed at the centre of things and the album works because of this. It simply wouldn’t work with anyone else ‘singing’ the songs – only Britney could have made that album.

Which leads us neatly onto ‘Femme Fatale’, the second album since ‘Blackout’ which demonstrates quite neatly that Britney/the people around Britney really don’t get ‘it’ at all. The charts are littered with Britney soundalikes, and most of them tick at least one of the boxes mentioned above. The best ones also seem to be in on their own joke in a way that Britney is not. The thing Britney has that they don’t is that detached persona, and when this is played with the results are invariably great, and uniquely Britney – the best parts (and, in retrospect, pretty much the only interesting parts) of ‘Circus’ continued this (‘Circus’, ‘Kill The Lights’). When this is stripped away and she’s just given catchy pop songs to sing, we’re left wondering what the point of Britney is and why we’re not listening to one of these other singers. After a couple of listens, ‘Femme Fatale’ seems to have precisely zero moments which understand the point of Britney in 2011. It’s just a bunch of anonymous pop songs that could be performed by 20 other women in the charts. Which makes it a chewing gum album – enjoyable but ultimately pointless and unsatisfying.