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3 August 2021

The X Factor was exploitative and cruel – but has reality TV really changed?

The show's freak-show mockery now feels mean and outdated, but the celebrity culture it helped create lives on. 

By Emily Bootle

It’s tempting to think that The X Factor represents a simpler time. From its debut in 2004 to 2010, a period when viewing figures were reportedly between 11 to 17 million, it was an emblem of a notoriously flat Noughties culture. We still looked at the TV guide and watched programmes live. Social media had not yet infiltrated every corner of our lives, and, in the show’s early years, there was no live Twitter commentary on airing programmes. We still bought CDs and found out about new artists on the radio. Pop music was trying to make itself heard – in a post-Britpop landscape of singer-songwriters and middle-class indie bands – by focusing on soaring vocals and an aspirational image. The X Factor’s brassy, showbiz theme tune became synonymous with Saturday night, and on Monday, at school or work, one question dominated: did you watch The X Factor?

Now, ITV’s decision not to commission another season feels both inconsequential (the show hasn’t actually aired since 2018) and momentous. A window into the competitive, savage music industry, it was also a pioneer of the type of reality TV that sold the idea that everyone could be a celebrity, which flourished in the neoliberal Noughties. As The X Factor continued and became increasingly hammy, with “sob stories” a recognisable feature and the judges caricatured, it also became the critical focus for the genre, which sold itself as “reality” but was actually – as tabloid exposés of its “set-ups” informed us – completely fake.

What is most clear with hindsight, though, is that The X Factor was a theatre of cruelty, fuelled by socio-economic desperation (can it really be a coincidence that its peak correlated almost exactly with the financial crisis and its immediate aftermath?) and insidious exploitation of vulnerable people for commercial gain.

[See also: Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever details the darker side of fame]

The trajectory of an X Factor series went something like this: thousands of people queued outside venues across the UK to perform for the judges (traditionally Simon Cowell, Louis Walsh and Sharon Osbourne, accompanied later by various celebrities) at open auditions. If they were good, they were put through to “bootcamp”, where they met vocal coaches and learned complicated dance routines. The best of bootcamp went to the “judges’ houses”, which was essentially an opportunity for Cowell to show off his mansions and private jets and juxtapose ordinary people, prostrating themselves on national TV for a shot at this lifestyle, with rich people, who had the power to crush their dreams. Competitions to win £50k in cash would also air almost every ad break. Finally, a few contestants would be put through to the bombastic live shows, where they would perform in front of a studio audience and be subjected to the public vote.

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There was exploitation at every juncture. The auditions stage was essentially an invitation for people to embarrass themselves, luring them in with the promise of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Contestants were encouraged to express delusions of grandeur – “do you think you can win this?”, Cowell would ask – and had their performances greeted with derisory snorts and fits of hysterics by the judges. Auditionees were often mocked for a clear lack of musical talent, but just as often for their foreign accent, appearance or what are now clearly recognisable as symptoms of mental illness. Cowell dutifully played “Mr Nasty”, the hardened industry executive whose compliments meant everything and insults meant nothing. Returning to old clips is distressing. It was mass bullying of the vulnerable. Ariel Burdett’s 2008 audition is listed on YouTube as “the worst ever” – she had a defensive altercation with the judges and clearly was not a serious contender, though she said she was a holistic vocal coach. She was found dead by suicide in her flat in 2019, and a coroner’s court heard she had previously been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

[See also: Lump’s Animal: Laura Marling and Mike Lindsay’s art-pop is brilliantly off-kilter]

While outright humiliation seemed to cease after the auditions episodes, exploitation continued to the bitter end. There was no consideration of the mental health of contestants suddenly thrust into the public eye, and many alumni report being thrown immediately to the tabloids as soon as their time on the show was over. Most notably, Little Mix, one of the only winners to achieve continued mainstream success, have publicly spoken about the lack of aftercare on the show; Jesy Nelson in her 2019 documentary Odd One Out outlined the relentless abuse she received after winning, which ultimately led her to quit the band. Little Mix split from Cowell’s label Syco, a deal with whom was The X Factor’s coveted prize, in 2018.

There was another kind of manipulation on The X Factor: that of the audience. The X Factor was, on the outside, the ultimate in what sociologists sometimes call “democratised celebrity”: the public literally voted contestants into fame and success. Part of its appeal was that it made audiences feel powerful and invested in the stories of the contestants they loved and hated. Again, this was particularly significant in an era in which the public had lost faith in their ability to influence politics, given both the failed protests against the Iraq War in 2003 and the 2008 recession. It was this sense of power, perhaps, that led to the culture of mass mockery and abuse of contestants, later encouraged by social media. The performers on the show were dehumanised and seen as products to buy into with a phone call. If they let us down, we had the right to complain.

But ultimately, as in most consumer relationships, the power remained at the top: with Cowell. He was creating a floggable product by trial and error, discarding what didn’t sell and retaining what did. By the end of the series, he knew the public was already invested in his winner and had found himself a profit margin. He could sell his product back to the people who had selected them with very little effort, and in doing so reclaim the power to influence mainstream music again. When the winners didn’t find immediate success, they were dropped.

Just as easily as we might reminisce fondly about Saturday nights in front of ITV, we might also posit that this culture of exploitation has no place in 2021. But this is plainly untrue. Contemporary reality TV functions on exactly the same premise: the draw of instant success and the illusion of public power, which leads to abuse and objectification. The parameters of reality TV have simply shifted to encompass a more nebulous fame that comes not from singing and dancing but a watchable personality, brand deals and an aspirational lifestyle. The X Factor’s freak-show theatre of cruelty is no longer desirable. But it helped create a celebrity culture still very much present today: one that manipulates ordinary people into believing they are special and powerful, before the world reminds them of the opposite.

[See also: Can Bandcamp save the music business?]