X Factor Auditions 2011: It’s a question mark from me.

¬†This year’s ‘X Factor’ is full of changes: more auditionees than last year, three new judges and new expectations.

First thing’s first: the new judging panel. Gary Barlow is, in short, a wonderful man. He’s firm but fair, and knows how to judge talent. I wish the same could be said for Tulisa from N Dubz, who really doesn’t seem to have a clear knowledge of what constitutes talent. Unlike the gorgeous Kelly Rowland, who is both fierce and loving, at one point moved to tears but in a non-Cheryl-Cole way (i.e. it seemed genuine). And then there’s good old dependable Louis Walsh, who doesn’t chuckle at the little Irish man who rambles on about nothing? Together, though, they didn’t seem like the old panel. There was no particularly interesting chemistry or bond between them, and in some respects this meant they did the job of finding talent efficiently and without distractions, but the cattiness and infamous put-downs of the previous series were definitely missed.

The acts themselves were ambivalent. The stand-out act was a 28 year old soldier singing ‘Handbags and Gladrags’ beautifully. There were no real crackers though, and to be frank, I don’t think I saw the winner of the ‘X Factor’ today. The controversy, though, came with a sixteen-year-old nicknamed Bambi. Painfully shy, the voice that came from this young girl was absolutely fantastic, and she belted out Alicia Keys beautifully. But then came the judges’ verdict: come back in a few years, not ready yet, nothing special. The audience acted as the fifth judge and demanded a ‘yes’, a request only obliged by Louis. The others said no, and the fifth judge was not impressed. Every subsequent act was followed by a cacophony of chants for Bambi, particularly when two other sixteen-year-olds with considerably less talent were put through. And it was ignoring the audience that cost the judges dearly: the atmosphere in the LG considerably flattened, and the faith in the judges’ ability was clearly knocked. Not helped by Tulisa’s little dig at the end of the show: ‘thanks to SOME of you for making us welcome.’ Correct me if I’m wrong, but the tickets the audience were sent and the comedian compering the show instructed us to make our voices heard: well, what’s the point of being heard if no one notices?

Then there was Madika, whose performance Gary Barlow called ‘forgettable’. After being rejected, every child’s worst nightmare came true: the girl’s mother stormed the stage and demanded her child be allowed to sing a second song. Gary, quite rightly, asked what the point would be when she’d already been rejected once; Tulisa thought confronting the mother on stage was the right way to go. Hint: never confront an angry mom. She went home dejected, the judges sat back in their questionable decision not to allow her a second song in the face of some of the awful acts who just weren’t told to shut up.

Take the guy singing Ricky Martin’s ‘She Bangs’ whilst writhing on the floor. The most boring, mumbly voice meant the song went more like “mrrrrrhh mrrrrrhhh’ than resembling lyrics. Kelly Rowland was left justifiably speechless, and yet he was allowed to sing Shaggy’s ‘It Wasn’t Me’, which allegedly made girls fall at his feet…in agony, perhaps. Then there was Eugene, who came on stage in a high-vis jacket and just kept talking and talking and…After “singing”, he just would not leave the stage, so Gary Barlow (at this point every audience members’ hero) went on stage and confiscated the mic, forcing horrific Eugene to get off. Thank. God.

So my question mark comes from a comparison with the experience of last year’s Birmingham auditions: there was informed judgement but no sparks to catch our interest. In turn, this meant the atmosphere fell flatter than last year: less cheers, less involvement, it was like being an audience at a theatre production rather than at a show where the audience are expected to be massively involved. Everything felt a little stale instead of refreshed by the new panel, and what I believe is that this comes from Simon Cowell’s absence. He’s charismatic, fair and firm yet witty, and a born leader: the judging panel felt like they were floating around without an anchor to weigh them down. Essentially, Simon Cowell both is and has the X factor, and without him it wasn’t so much as a showbiz affair.

Review: ‘Chart Throb’ – Ben Elton

A real chart-breaker - Elton's 'Chart Throb'.

A fan of X Factor? Then this book isn’t for you. Ben Elton rips the reality world apart in order to expose the underlying rot that is the foundation for a large proportion of the celebrity culture – and it was a riveting read.

The plot is essentially this – the world of X Factor and by proxy The Osbournes is parodied to the extreme, outlining the corruption that we could see but choose to ignore. We all know shows like this are massive manipulators – nowadays we know that reality TV is not just a fly on the wall, but a fly that looks suspiciously like a script-writer/director/manager all rolled into one to maintain a very carefully constructed image.

The biggest example of this is the odious Beryl Blenheim. The ‘rock chick from way back’ (a phrase I never want to hear again after this) had ruined her family to the point that they sought vengeance in the only way she would understand – a televised mental torture extravaganza. The Priscilla-Shaiana reveal was one of the cleverest bits of the entire novel, and one that I really didn’t see coming – Elton weaves the characters together in Beryl’s final scene within the novel so as to maintain the illusion of two separate identities until the last moment possible, and our realisation is linked to Beryl’s through this.

Calvin Simms, of the wittily named CALonic TV (a suggestion of purging television content there?) was as confusing as his real-life alter ego, the brilliant and arrogant Simon Cowell (SyCo TV – so purging the SyCo’s of the world now?). Personally, I love how cocky and self-assured Simon Cowell is, and Elton had clearly and successfully emulated the TV guru to present in Calvin a character who is an absolute pig-headed social genius who has created an empire based on the simple truth that the audience is never an independent¬†judge, they’re an extension of what the director wants to happen. This is why HRH’s success is so underplayed – Calvin was never in any danger of losing when he could control popularity with the change of a costume and a disastrous song. This is why it shouldn’t be shocking that he effectively wins Emma, and yet it is, because Elton truly leads you to believe that the veil of superficiality has been lifted from his relationship issues. But no: Calvin Simm’s is all about control and conquests, something he does very effectively, from getting a shot of Rodney coming out of a car alone to getting his fired employee to sleep with him. It’s interesting that Dakota is the only one who Calvin can’t control, which prompts his relationship with Emma – she is able to be manipulated, cajoled, persuaded into love and makes no demands that can’t be met. Easy target.

Rodney is the true tragedy of the story – so desperate for fame, he embodies the neediness of the contestants to be loved, to make it in a harsh world that is only interested in headlines. His story arc is interesting in this respect – his move from the third and lesser judge to tabloid gold and then to spurned lover show that popularity comes at a price. Fame is only for the strong, and the weak are pushed to the bottom of the pile and reserved for the slow news day, or the day they are utterly humiliated on live TV – shame.

The plot itself isn’t too complex. The live shows are dealt with quickly and efficiently, showing the banality of the entire process. The biggest portion of the book is devoted to setting up the conditions to manipulate the live shows which are supposedly ‘anyone’s game’. Despite the judges lack of involvement, they are carrying an pre-determined image for each contestant – from making the clingers cry to making the mingers go mad and the blingers turn brassy, the production process is a better show of scriptwriting than most popular dramas.

The best line, in my view, is the last one, summing up our entire culture in one outrageous statistic: ‘At the current rate of expansion it is reckoned by the year 2050 everybody in the world will be either a pop star or the subject of their own reality TV show.’


Review: Cheryl Cole on ‘Piers Morgan’s Life Stories’

I can only imagine that the ratings for Piers Morgan’s interview of the national sweetheart that is Cheryl Cole are through the roof. And better still, viewers were far from disappointed: cheryl’s heart-rendering memories of the turbulent two years that have dominated her media image really did help to remove the soap opera lenses in order to see that, actually, she’s a young woman trying to live through heartbreak and troubles.

The most touching part, in my opinion, was after the video clips explaining Cheryl’s fight with malaria, where the video stopped and all Cheryl could say was a small and yet resounding ‘oh’. It spoke volumes compared to some of her more rehearsed answers, showing how fresh the fear still is, and how unprepared she was for the threat to her life that ensued.

Piers Morgan – normally an arrogant figure of annoyance – was incredibly sensitive for once, timing his slight jokes and moving from tough subjects at appropriate times in order to
Ensure this was different to the usual bullying, biased news junk we’re spoonfed – Morgan’s sensitivity proved to be one of the factors to the interview’s success, as if legitimised it’s attempts to explain the truth instead of gossip-mongering. Piers kept his input to a minimum to fulfil Cheryl’s mission throughout the interview: giving her side and setting the record straight.

As far as Ashley Cole’s concerned, the less said the better. The only thing talking of his disgusting betrayals did was show Cheryl as an everywoman – touchingly referring to her happiness and how he wad her best friend demonstrated her dignity and poise throughout the worst of times, as well as giving a touching finale to the cheating trials by giving Cheryl a hopeful future.

The video footage was well-selected, and instead of trying to cram in as many celebrity faces as possible, it was a carefully crafted montage of Cheryl’s nearest and dearest. The only questionable inclusion was Pete Waterman, who seemed determined not to comply with the national view of Cheryl as a darling, trying to stir trouble by claiming she was attention seeking, when we saw that Cheryl purely wanted to live her dream. Thus led onto her role on ‘X Factor’, moving her from judge to fostering creativity. Likening herself to Simon Cowell may have been a slightly terrifying projection into the future, but it enhanced the promises tomorrow holds for her instead of the pain held in the past.

The future looks rosy for our Cheryl, and while some celebrities may take opportunities like Piers Morgan’s ‘Life Stories’ as time to bawl and fake-laugh their way into the publics good graces, Cheryl has used the opportunity to shine her halo and shine like the superstar she is. She definitely doesn’t need that parachute any mire, she’s landed safely into a world that adores her.

‘X Factor’ Auditions – Birmingham LG Arena

As part of the bid to cram as many people into the LG as possible, I was selected to receive tickets from the Applause Store to watch the ‘X Factor’ auditions. After a loud, long and incredibly lively day, Birmingham’s talent has been chosen, and it’s trash put out to be collected.

I’ve only really watched the Joe McElderry series of ‘X Factor’, as I’m not a massive reality-TV fan. After today, I had another reason to be uneasy about the show – the absolute ridiculous acts selected to appear in front of Simon and co. For instance, two girls (apparently 17 and 18, but if they were a day over 14 I’d be thoroughly shocked) came on giving the judges and the audience attitude which prompted booing and chants of ‘Off! Off! Off!’ before they had even performed, and when the music began…let’s just reiterate that silence really can be golden. Now, I was all for pitying these girls until the attitude came out to play, and they told the audience to shut up, stormed off the stage when the judges mistakenly believed they were sisters, and literally screeched down the microphone to Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ (clearly a product of the ‘Glee’ phenomenon). After their appalling behaviour and mouthing off to anyone who spoke to them, I ended up joining the crowd in demanding these girls clear off before they humiliated themselves any further. I mean, what parent in their right mind could be so blinded by love as to allow their child to humiliate themselves like that? And which producer decided to make these girls a Birmingham mockery? Let’s be clear – these girls needed taking down seventeen and eighteen pegs, but the abuse they’ll face in September when this comes out has the potential to be too extreme. Even the comedian, who entertained us during filming breaks, stepped in afterwards to say booing is banned, and he definitely seemed less chipper after this debacle. Simon Cowell lightened the situation by saying ‘I’m thinking it all the time, but keep the booing inside your head’.

It’s not all harsh when this happens – the most adorable sixty-year-old man came on and had no idea what any of the words were to S Club 7’s ‘Reach’, but he got us all singing along and having a wonderful time, and didn’t seem disheartened by his four rejections. But then, the previous bad contestant, a forty-one year-old housewife, was so tone deaf I felt the need to put my fingers in my ears for my own safety, and yet they let her do two songs whilst the sassy seventeen-year-old was told she was too generic and not given the chance to prove otherwise.

Other notable acts included a stroppy Elton John wannabe, who prompted the quote of the show from Simon after ‘Elton’ childishly insulting the judges and demanding they sing on stage and see how they like it, with Mr Cowell saying that, after thirty-five years, he’d earned the right to judge. For a man that rose from the ashes like the proverbial phoenix, you have to give credit where credit’s due. Some acts that didn’t get through were shockers, especially the token tear-jerker who was attempting to save her family from recessional bankruptcy with her talent: despite her abilities, she wasn’t given the chance to follow her dream through (although when saying her son was called Ashley, Simon coughed and said ‘moving on!’ to make light of Cheryl’s troubles). Simon was forced to eat his words by an irritatingly ecstatic Louis when one girl went from old-fashioned crooner who could ‘never be a recording artist’, to contemporary in her rendition of ‘Valerie’ which prompted Simon to say she’d definitely record (and that his previous doubts would be left on the editing room floor).

The judges themselves were rather a limited presence. Head judge Simon Cowell was very vocal and rather funny in his demeanour, although he could be very cutting if pushed or begged to give second chances. Cheryl was rather vocal, although it tended to come when she was trying to comfort someone for not having a good voice by telling them they had a fabulous presence. Louis and guest-judge Natalie Imbruglia were noticeably quiet – understandable in the latter but normally unheard of in the former (although it was a very welcome change). Cheryl looked stunning as per, and Simon even graced us with a t-shirt change in the hurried break. Dermot O’Leary’s role on stage was limited to warming us up before the judges entered, as his role was interviewing backstage (I look forward to seeing how he coped with Abbey and Lisa, the gruesome twosome), but was endearing and funny in his time with us.

The day at the ‘X Factor’ was, as I’ve said, incredibly long, but it is an experience I’d definitely want to repeat, although after seeing what they let through those doors, maybe I’ll stay on the safe side of the stage.