I’m glad its legacy of punching down will now finally come to a close (Picture: Syco/Thames/Dymond)
Watching the X Factor on a Saturday night used to be a very closely observed ritual in my childhood household.
Me, my mam and twin sister Liv would order in a parmo (if you don’t know what this Middlesbrough delicacy is I urge you to Google it and make one), get cosy on the sofa and tuck in just as that irresistible electric guitar sounded in the thundering intro.
My sister and I were around 14 or 15 and lapped up the hilarious auditions as much as the next person; our mam squealed with laughter, too.
We watched as one woman was told she didn’t sound anything like Mariah Carey (‘It’s so way off’), despite thinking she did, and when she told Simon, ‘My vocals are strong, I just need help’, he replied, with an eyeroll, ‘You need a helpline‘.
In another, a woman named Kelly with a huge diamante Playboy bunny necklace sang I Will Always Love You. When at the end Simon said, ‘You sounded like a dog barking there’, she replied, ‘I am so sorry’.
Who did these people think they were? Why didn’t anyone tell them they weren’t good?! It was all just too side-splittingly good.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but the mocking style, the humiliation element, ran deeply across class lines; people desperate for a better life were let through purely for their laughability factor, given hope only for it to be crushed.
So I’m glad ITV announced it’s been scrapped with ‘no plans’ of returning anytime soon.
But in our youth, my sister and I got so obsessed with X Factor that we even went to see it live in Newcastle, and Liv (sorry in advance, mate) was so in love with Matt Cardle – the winner of the 2010 show – that she wore a t-shirt with his face plastered big on it.
Our school held an X Factor themed talent show around the same time, too, for which I ascended the many steps to the maths classroom to audition with the Sugababes hit song Ugly (I ducked out in the end; wasn’t ready for fame).
Looking back nostalgically, it feels like a heyday, a special and enchanted time. There were some genuinely talented people who’ve since made careers off the back of their X Factor success. One need only look to the inimitable Harry Styles to see that.
But its ugly underbelly was never far from the surface, either. Stories would circulate at school that contestants who made it to the live auditions and who couldn’t hold a tune had already gone through several rounds where they’d been given the green light to move on.
According to Amelia Lily (also, as it happens, from Teesside) in Cosmopolitan: ‘What’s really interesting is that you do at least two or three rounds before you get to the actual judges’ audition, which is filmed. A lot of people don’t realise that.’
Was it any wonder, then, that so many of them swaggered into whichever decked out hotel room in whichever city it was with so much confidence? They were raised high, were being given an audience with the actual Simon Cowell, the man himself, so surely they were in for a fighting chance?
It’s a horrible, hard to acknowledge truth about human nature that we love to see people who’ve been raised high brought low; it’s a cruel type of humour that bolsters our own fragile egos, the type that ultimately saw the Jeremy Kyle show axed. And what do the X Factor and Jeremy Kyle show have in common: their poverty-porn drive to humiliate poor people for entertainment value.
I grew up and out of the X Factor after season eight or nine, as I’m sure many of us noughties and tens teens did, and with distance came a sort of clarity as each new season rolled around.
Suddenly, when I caught snippets of the show, these people didn’t seem too different from my family, my friends’ families. You could tell some of the people came from deprived areas by their clothes, their voices.
It seems like finally, there just isn’t a place for the X Factor’s particular brand of exploitation anymore (Picture: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Watching Cowell outright reject people with a resounding ‘Never’ didn’t make me laugh anymore, it made me wince. People would literally beg for a chance, I realised; the chance for a new, improved life had been dangled like a carrot in front of them and torn away.
The millionaires would sit comfortably back, watching them cry, in tears of laughter themselves. Thought of in such basic terms, it suddenly looks less glitzy and more like a scene from a Dickens novel.
And listen, I know that over the years this particular aspect was likely wound down, with less emphasis on humiliating people desperately hopeful for a different kind of life and more on the actual talent, but the show’s shadowed legacy remains.
Even now, some of the most ‘iconic’ moments remembered by fans and former fans alike continue to be circulated on social media, such as Kelly’s (who I mentioned earlier) and a blonde lady named Holly who said ‘you’ve not heard anything like me’.
I want to believe that these women auditionees – they’re often women – have truly reached icon status and that they’re unironically being praised for their courage and grit, but part of me feels like it’s a public sort of penance; a way of erasing the way we reacted to them first time round, to apologise and build them back up.
Thankfully we now live in a society at least notionally dedicated to messages like ‘be kind’, and reality TV is facing a reckoning as former stars such as ex-Love Islander Jonny Mitchell report damaged mental health following torrents of abuse, and worse. The coronavirus crisis has, too, exacerbated and highlighted the chasm between the haves and the have-nots.
It seems like finally, there just isn’t a place for the X Factor’s particular brand of exploitation anymore, and ITV are right to put it to bed.
I’m glad its legacy of punching down will now finally come to a close.