I’ve just lent my support, via Facebook, to this, the latest crusade to keep a Simon ‘X-Factor’ Cowell-manufactured pop warbler or here-today-gone-tomorrow boyband off the Christmas No. 1 spot. Last year, a campaign spearheaded by a Facebook group ensured the rap metal band Rage Against the Machine successfully claimed the Christmas No. 1 place, thereby nudging Simon Cowell’s protégé, the forgettable Joe McElderry (where is he now?!) off the top spot. I also lent my support to last year’s campaign – because I loathe programmes like the X-Factor, and reserve even more opprobrium for Simon Cowell, whose main motivation, it seems to me, is to further line his already bulging pockets with millions of pounds
This issue interests me for several reasons: the first, that it demonstrates the power of social networking, something I had avoided like the plague until about two years ago when I discovered that Facebook was quite useful for staying in touch with friends abroad, former lovers, old work colleagues, and friends who are too busy to meet for coffee and a catch up chat now and then. On a more serious level, the recent student protests against the rise in tuition fees have demonstrated how thousands of people can be mobilised through the use of social networking sites. At the most recent protest, even the police were using Twitter to stay up to the minute with what was happening.
Secondly, it just goes to show that there are still plenty of free-thinking, free-listening people out there who can see that everything Simon Cowell produces is manufactured, ersatz, false and without integrity and staying power. How many previous X Factor winners have stayed the course of more than a year in the “industry”? Can you name any previous winners, or identify them if they graced the glossy pages of ‘Hello!’? Probably not. As fluffy, pointless, manufactured “stars”, they are a 9-day wonder, quickly forgotten when the next series begins and the attention shifts to another group of hopeful contenders.
There are some scary statistics associated with the X Factor too, aside from the vast sums Cowell is making from it. Apparently, tonight’s final is predicted to achieve 20 million viewers, and – this is even more alarming – more people vote in the X Factor than voted in the general election. Of course, the only winner is Simon Cowell. (Maybe, as a friend of mine suggested on the ‘phone earlier today, our politicians should consider fighting the next election along X-Factor lines? This might ensure a bigger turn out and a more entertaining election campaign!)
I have always called programmes like the X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, Strictly Come Dancing, Big Brother, and all the others that have gone before, “neo-opiates of the people”. Chewing gum for the brain, which require little effort, are largely unoffensive and mildly entertaining (except for Big Brother which is a freak show – like looking at the loonies in the asylum in the 18th century). I am constantly surprised at the number of apparently intelligent, free-thinking, culturally aware friends of mine who subscribe to and actively participate in (i.e. by voting) these mush-for-the-brain programmes. Fortunately, most of my friends know me well enough by now not to mention these programmes in my presence! (And I suspect they regard me as a dreadful intellectual snob because of my avoidance of such programmes and my passionate devotion to classical music…. but that’s another discussion!)
A couple of Sunday mornings ago, on Radio 4’s ‘Broadcasting House’ programme, Norman Lebrecht raged against the gaping maw of the machine that is Simon Cowell’s music manufacturing industry, claiming, as I do, that these programmes are unchallenging and pointless, which kill real creativity and originality, and turn pop music into karaoke (look closely on the X Factor and it is obvious that the singers mime). The power of Cowell is such that other, possibly far better acts are never given a look-in, and these Instant Whip “stars” suggest that pop success and celebrity is easily-won, without the many hours of training, study and discipline that real musicians – be they pop, jazz, world or classical – must undergo to achieve longevity and recognition.
All this positing begs two questions: what makes a truly great performer? and who can be expected to judge? I don’t know the answer to either of these questions, but what I do know is that many people are sick of Simon Cowell’s influence, and are actively and vociferously sending him the message, via campaigns like Cage Against the Machine, ‘I won’t do what you tell me’.
As for Cage Against the Machine, this is a campaign to get John Cage’s seminal, conceptual “silent masterpiece” 4’33” into the Christmas No. 1 spot this year as a protest against Simon Cowell’s ongoing manipulation of pop culture. Tonight, thousands of people around the world will take time out of their Sunday evening to perform their own version of Cage’s post-classical masterpiece, or to simply contemplate its purity and simplicity. You can find out more about it, sign up for the newsletter, or join the Facebook group by going to http://www.catm.co.uk
Read Norman Lebrecht’s article in today’s Telegraph.
And don’t forget to set your watch tonight to enjoy your own performance of 4’33″!