When good TV goes bad: why X Factor lost its way with One Direction

Once, tales of ordinary folk achieving stardom enthralled the nation. But smooshing its contestants into reluctant boybands revealed its true cynicism

In 2004, when The X Factor started, the show’s premise was simple: find talented but overlooked people and help them realise their dream of pop stardom. The contestants were mentored by the people who’d nurtured the musical endeavours of Westlife, Ozzy Osbourne and, er, Zig and Zag – Louis Walsh, Sharon Osbourne and Simon Cowell respectively – and who would repeatedly tell them that the key was working hard and trying their best every week.

For a while it worked. Series three winner Leona Lewis became a genuine pop star. She had legit talent, making at least one banger (Bleeding Love), breaking the US and becoming, briefly, a celeb that even your nan might recognise. Embarrassing as it is to think about now, the show was a national phenomenon: X Factor parties happened every weekend, nights out were delayed until after the results and it wasn’t shameful to talk about the programme in public.

Most of all, it had heart: the auditionees were everyone from mums who gamely gave the show’s dance stage a go because “I had some moves in my time” to awkward teens dedicating a Mariah Carey song to their dead pet to shop girls who reckoned that being good at karaoke qualified them to be famous. And who didn’t weep along with Alexandra Burke as she “achieved a dream” by warbling her heart out with actual Beyoncé in series five?

The problems started in series seven, when Nicole Scherzinger suggested getting five failed solo singers and mashing them into a slightly reluctant boyband: One Direction. Suddenly, the show wasn’t about van drivers and supermarket stackers, it was about building a just-good-enough product that would sell. And yeah: you could say that anyone who was stupid enough to believe that The X Factor was about realising dreams and discovering talent, instead of making people call premium-rate phone numbers and selling records for a desperate music industry, deserves to have their favourite Saturday night guilty pleasure ruined. But it was the first time the show had admitted that this was about making something, anything commercial, and they’d bend the rules to do it.

Band member Zayn Malik’s audition wasn’t even deemed acceptable for TV, while Niall Horan’s performance looked like the panicked flailing of a distressed puppy. Did they have The X Factor? No, but they had hair like Justin Bieber and that was enough: they’d appeal to teenage girls. One Direction didn’t even win the show, coming third to Matt Cardle who, it’s fair to say, did not reach Leona Lewis’s soaring heights.

With this calculated move, ironically the show revealed its true, mercenary self: if it wasn’t splitting up groups by telling them that only half of the members could go through, it was kicking out emotionally fraught but talented teenagers to put middle-aged white women pretending to be black rappers into the final stages. Out were the pub singers; in were the bands formed by auditions and adverts on Gumtree. Still, in the end, the joke is on us: One Direction are the most successful contestants ever to come out of the show, selling more than 20m albums worldwide. Why would the show ever go back to trusting the general public when it’s easier to hand-sort potential stars live on TV?


Issy Sampson

The GuardianTramp

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