Life after Will Young: how talent shows shaped Britain

Love them or loathe them, 20 years on, Pop Idol, The X Factor and their ilk have reshaped British culture

Next month, it will be 20 years since the Pop Idol final. Watched by 15 million viewers, Will Young triumphed over Gareth Gates with 53.1% of a record 8.7 million votes.

It wasn’t just the start of things for Young and Gates, it marked the birth of a cultural phenomenon: the television talent show. In 2004, one of the Pop Idol judges, Simon Cowell, launched The X Factor in the UK, a primetime weekend TV show to discover new singing talent.

Right now, The X Factor is “resting”, believed permanently shelved, which counts as a mercy killing. After 15 series, it was a shadow of its former self: a formulaic karaoke-panto of nosediving ratings, hammy showboating, and forgettable contestants. The last UK winner – Dalton Harris in 2018 – stepped out into a swamp of indifference. Nor is Cowell the all-powerful starmaker, the primetime Barnum, he used to be: his recent ITV venture, Walk the Line, was axed after one series due to poor viewing figures.

How different from when The X Factor was an unstoppable ratings juggernaut, syndicating to 80 countries, spawning an international franchise, including a US version. The sociocultural impact went yet further, changing the shape, ethos, the very DNA, of mainstream culture – music industry practice; television programming – and rezoning the aspirations of starstruck youth, making them want to be pop stars instead of teachers, nurses or shop assistants, in a way many thought to be irresponsible. In a broader sense, did talent show culture have a small but significant effect on how ordinary people thought, reacted, perhaps even voted for real? Is this part of the legacy of this form of television: as much as it entertained, did it also make us more stupid?

At the start of the 21st century, talent shows already differed from each other. Pop Idol and, later that year, Popstars: The Rivals, which formed Girls Aloud, were different to Popstars (2001), which put together Hear’Say and was billed as a documentary series about the making of a pop group. None of them bore much resemblance to talent shows of the past, such as New Faces or, earlier, Opportunity Knocks.

The X Factor turned out to be a different beast again: at once sentimental and cynical. It was lucky to emerge at a time when the music industry was wrongfooted by streaming and illegal file-sharing, and, just as crucially, when social media was on the rise. Cowell, with other judges Louis Walsh and Sharon Osbourne, positioned himself as a harsh-but-fair panto villain, bestowing lavish praise and acid putdowns.

A music business executive, Cowell regarded himself as a talent-spotter, which raised eyebrows in music circles where he was known for dealing with acts such as Sinitta, Robson & Jerome, and the Teletubbies. But Cowell didn’t care about “cool”. A defiant anti-snob, his affinity was with unfashionable but vast markets; his aim was to make money.

Diversity with the controversial on-stage kneel in homage to Black Lives Matter in 2020.
Diversity with the controversial on-stage kneel in homage to Black Lives Matter in 2020. Photograph: Dymond/Rex

The X Factor made huge global stars of the likes of One Direction, Leona Lewis and Little Mix, leading to swathes of the music industry becoming symbiotically linked with, and at times overly subservient to, talent show culture. The cultural pushback was immense. In 2009, in a move which seemed to be overwrought and a little spiteful, a song by Rage Against The Machine was pitted against The X Factor winner Joe McElderry’s version of Miley Cyrus’s The Climb, beating it to the Christmas No 1 spot. Many contestants, including the first winner in 2004, Steve Brookstein, have complained about being badly treated. Others have spoken of being left with mental health issues.

Elsewhere, criticism focused variously on the product – lame karaoke, suffocating everything else in the music industry, sucking up valuable resources – and also the effect on youth. In 2016, the then-Conservative education secretary, Nicky Morgan, worried: “[They] will look at The X Factor winners, or they will look at reality TV shows, and they will think you can have instant success, fame, money, overnight”.

Singer-songwriter Annie Lennox said: “You wouldn’t find a Joni Mitchell on X FactorX Factor is a specific thing for people that want to go through that process – it’s a factory, you know, and it’s owned and stitched up by puppet masters.”

In their long poem, Brand New Ancients, Kae Tempest wrote scathingly of Cowell as “the permatanned god of our age”, asking “Why is this interesting? Why are we watching?”

Was there a strain of dark populism in shows like The X Factor, a coarsening of culture, and of public discourse? Certainly, television was changed for ever. Rival shows included Fame Academy (following Pop Idol), The Voice, which launched its spinning chairs in the UK in 2012, all the way to last year’s frankly risible I Can See Your Voice on BBC One. Another Cowell vehicle, the variety-based Britain’s Got Talent, launched singer Susan Boyle and dance troupe Diversity – who supplied the most exciting talent show moment of recent years with the controversial on-stage kneel in homage to Black Lives Matter in 2020.

Elsewhere, there are celebrity-driven interactive-voting shows (Strictly Come Dancing; I’m A Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!). And of course, the other gigantic phenomenon: reality television. Pop Idol and The X Factor were contemporaneous with Big Brother, and you can see The X Factor’s fingerprints all over shows such as The Only Way Is Essex. That sense of, one way or another, it was time for ordinary people to be stars.

In this way, The X Factor grasped a huge emerging truth: that significant numbers of people were tired of rarefied celebrity; leastways, they were weary of being excluded from it. They didn’t want to look up to people any more, they wanted to look across. If it couldn’t be them, they wanted someone who looked, spoke and lived like them. In this way, class was hugely important to talent shows like The X Factor, which, significantly, focused on singing – no need to afford an instrument, or the lessons to learn one. Before long, there were two main types of contestant: those who were already grubbing about trying to make it in music, and those who came out of nowhere. Which suited Cowell and the television executives: members of the public are cheaper than entertainers, and more mouldable.

Leona Lewis and Simon Cowell on The X Factor final in 2006.
Leona Lewis and Simon Cowell on The X Factor final in 2006. Photograph: Ken McKay/Rex

What emerged was a personality-first culture, driven less by ability than by the concepts of the “journey” and “likeability”. Who had the most heart-rending upbringing? Who had the best “dead-gran” story? The result was soapy, farcical, but also, at times, powerful and moving: these were real people, after all. More recently, the dating show Love Island could be viewed as the endgame of the formula: contestants getting by on personality/likeability and no discernible talent other than looking good in a swimsuit. As ever, the voting public, the Roman emperors of the remote control, give the thumbs up or down.

Considering such influence, why did The X Factor run aground? It would appear to be a combination of changing trends (mainstream music has become too hardcore for mainstream television), a flogged-to-death format, the growth of influencer culture and the likes of Kim Kardashian, and the rise of TikTok, where people can generate millions using only camera phones.

What did it all mean in the end? In positive terms: some talented artists, a Saturday night giggle, a true sense of democratised culture, a window on to the UK. Negatively: regurgitated culture, flattening of music elsewhere, the lie that everyone is a star.

In a wider sense, what has it done to us? Boris Johnson became prime minister, trading on his likability: ruffling his hair, dangling from a zip-wire. Did the cult of likability lumber us with a leader who couldn’t be trusted to obey his own lockdown rules? Maybe, maybe not.

One thing’s for sure, the talent show will be back. They’re the knotweed of popular culture: they come, they go, then they return in a different form. You can never quite get rid of them.


Barbara Ellen

The GuardianTramp

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