Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The X-Factor Decoded

Is The X-Factor a Modern Day Myth?

The X-Factor evidently turns peoples’ dreams into a reality, showers its finalists with untold wealth, lifts them from the customary drudgery of their underprivileged upbringing and thrusts them into the glorious yet fleeting spotlight. The now superhero status of Mr Average Joe is so blindingly obvious that the voting public wonder exactly where he (or indeed she) has been all their lives.

The answer, more often that not, is obscurity; that abstract place where people with a talent that is never internationally recognised live. They hide somewhere, just waiting to be plucked, preened, pampered and then propelled to stardom. Most spend their whole lives just waiting for their dream to be fulfilled. It is their destiny, after all, they could sing before they could talk, they danced before they walked and performing is, ubiquitously, in their blood. It is so deserved, this adulation, and deep down they knew they could do it; their families were behind them all the way, so much so that they spent their life savings on vocal training and stage school. Now it’s the contestant’s turn to give something back. In evoking such chaos, it is not surprising that The X-Factor has reached mythical status.

Unwittingly, the wannabe popstars become national possessions. There is a very prevalent sense of ownership over one’s desired winner that verges on hysteria. Going out on a Saturday night morphs into a ludicrous concept, as if the absence of one supporter will induce that particular contestant’s departure from the competition. The British public are protective of the talented contender whom they have watched blossom into a national treasure since their first audition. Like a hole in the head, they’ll miss them desperately once they are all too dramatically removed from our television screens. Alas we must remember that a mere two months ago, these people were mortal hairdressers and brickies, and once dropped unceremoniously from the dizzying heights of fame, they will revert back to their former professions without so much as a whimper. So what are the pre-requisites that we subconsciously require for our vote to be secured? Sparkling charisma, dashing good looks, a self-effacing charm and a heartbreaking sob story. Without the sob story, they are simply undeserving.

The live audience boo and hiss when one of the judges, normally the perma-tanned media mogul Simon Cowell, criticises an act’s performance. Maybe it was just not up to scratch, maybe they chose the wrong song, but whatever it is, it inoculates the contestant against the true evil; that they are, essentially, his commodity anyway. What drives The X-Factor is Cowell’s brutality and business acumen. He is there to make money at his prodigies’ expense. If you win, it’ll be Cowell that’s behind it because even after the public have voted, the judges choose from the two least popular which individual leaves the competition. When the credits roll, it’s Cowell’s company’s logo that culminates the programme, like a resounding stamp of his authority, therefore, when the audience cry ‘Fix!’ they aren’t far wrong. Every departure is superficial; every contestant is his to do what he pleases with, his product, his programme, and his profit.

Thus the public are ultimately powerless, yet they continue to pour their money into the ever-swelling pockets of Syco Ltd. The myth operating here defines the gullibility of Britain’s seemingly blinded, optimistic populace. Our assumed relationship, when we vote, is between the voter and the voted, whereas our actual relationship is between the voter and Syco balance sheet. The British public are transformed into minions of the corporate and commercial brigade that drives The X-Factor to be one of the highest circulating televisions programmes of modern times, drawing in 11.8 million viewers on the 7th November 2009.

Another myth of The X-Factor is that it encourages its family audience, inclusive of young and susceptible teenage girls and boys to aspire to something that isn’t real. Nobody knows what the ‘X-Factor’ is. Is it even attainable, or does the term refer to some kind of genetic twinkle in the eye? And since the show is supposedly about vocal ability, but ends up being about commercial viability, is the ‘X-factor’ as a concept ideologically redundant? If we go by what we see on the screen, then this ambiguous term could mean any number of things. For girls, it implies that one requires make-up artistry and a stylist to appear alluring, and for the boys it advocates that a cheeky grin and a charming, flirtatious and innocent persona will get you everywhere. Due to the popularity of The X-Factor, Britain now affiliates talent with performative aptitude, which is clearly misleading. It doesn’t treat intellectual curiosity or academic flair as attributes to aspire to, which in turn devalues the real breadth and meaning of the very concept of what it is to be ‘talented’. If Britain really does have talent, and this is it, we live in a very shallow and materialistic culture. If looking pretty in a dress or dapper in a suit and singing and dancing in synchronicity is worthy of international acclaim, as ‘The X-Factor’ promotes, it diminishes the very core characteristics that encourage a prosperous and developing society. In any case, all this assumes that ‘The X-Factor’ is a singing competition, and not the corrupt British institution that we suspect it to be.

For two hours every Saturday, we watch as this pantomime is played out in front of our eyes. Crocodile tears and false feedback; the patronising judges who wear a façade of concern and compassion raise the hopes of many a clueless competitor right from the audition stage. Cliché after cliché, an amazing performance is an amazing performance. With such a wide audience, the cultural implications of this cult-esque phenomenon are vast. We are a nation who are beginning to glorify talent that doesn’t actually exist, deluding an entire generation into believing that their ‘talent’ is electrifying. The X-Factor at best is a contemporary lesson in fakery and superficiality which has engaged the British public to the point of frenzy.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

First Article published in the University of Exeter's student newspaper, Exepose

In Thomas L Friedman’s acclaimed book, ‘The World Is Flat’, he asserts that the recent ‘explosion’ of technologies across the globe is ‘flattening’ the world we live in by connecting knowledge and resources from Poland to Papua New Guinea and back. His lax use of the term ‘flat’ in physical terms shouldn’t detract from his message; we’re in competition with people from countries whose names we can’t even spell. They’re competent, IT literate, and they want the jobs that we do.

With the press prophesying utter disaster for graduates and indeed every jobseeker, it’s more important now than ever before that we equip ourselves with the skills we need to get jobs. One thing that struck me from Friedman’s book was that every single person he covered worked with a computer. From the call centre worker in Bangalore to Google’s number crunchers in San Francisco, IT skills are almost considered a pre-requisite for the acquisition of employment. Typing isn’t enough any more, you either touch type or you learn how to, and fast. As a first year English student, this scares me. I like pen and paper, always have done, I enjoy writing, not typing, so I stuck with the old routine and now I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel like a bit of a fool. Reading through the job ads in newspapers makes me feel a bit inadequate when lightening fast abilities with Excel and Publisher are the norm, or so it would seem.

Jobs, as most of us already know, are increasingly harder to come by these days and when computers are ubiquitous in offices, one must ask if graduates without IT skills are even skilled at all. Evidently this depends on your definition of what constitutes a ‘being skilled’, but rendering yourself only partially employable is probably not a good idea. Currently, approximately 13 million people in the UK alone work in front of or with computers and this number is growing. With companies outsourcing their manufacturing and in some cases their tertiary operations, it would appear that we don’t have much choice but to move into the western world’s relatively new brand of higher level technological services. Still, the fact remain the same, although America is still the world’s largest manufacturer, producing 75% of what it consumes, this figure is down from 90% just ten years ago, showing a substantial shift towards China and India. We, as the workforce of tomorrow must constantly upgrade our skills in order to keep up with the pattern of jobs in our economy. The fundamental point being that factually, jobs which don’t require computer skills are moving elsewhere and those that do remain here; we need to innovate to stimulate our development before we get left behind.

Some would argue, and I was one of these people, that employers and companies have lost sight of character and the sanctity of the written word in favour of vigourous mouse-clickers and spreadsheet addicts but essentially facts need to be faced. Inadequacy with computers is simply restricting your own chances of standing out in that ever- swelling pool of jobseekers.