In the last 10 years, The X Factor and its ilk have bucked record-buying trends and breathed new life into a dying industry. We talk to the talent show's hits and misses
The cruel king of 21st-century pop is laughing gently down the phone, considering for a moment all he has done. "Look," Simon Cowell begins finally, just as he does on TV. "I don't think shows like ours have saved the pop industry, but they have changed it, most certainly. They made music interesting again after Top of the Pops, and they also sent tons of people back into record shops, where they can doubtless buy records by other artists."
He pauses, allowing himself a moment of self-congratulation. "You know, I don't get given handouts to do this, and I don't force people to buy things. It just happens that The X Factor has done a good job."
Whatever one thinks of the products of Cowell's international TV pop production line, he has a point. Even as filesharing has torn the music industry apart, so the TV talent contests that made a household name of Cowell, a man known only to his fellow music executives at the start of the decade, have become the surest makers of pop stars – and theirs is a stardom based on often record-breaking sales. In 2001, the first of the modern pop talent shows, Popstars, created Hear'Say, whose first single, Pure and Simple, became the fastest-selling, non-charity single, clocking up 1m copies. Last week, Susan Boyle, the unlikely star of this year's Britain's Got Talent, recorded the biggest-ever first-week sales of a debut album, shifting 410,000 copies. Three of the UK's best-selling singles of the decade were recorded by reality TV show winners, including, incredibly, That's My Goal by Shayne Ward.
The effects of reality TV on pop, though, have not been confined to propping up falling sales. Nigel Lythgoe, a judge on the series that gave the world Hear'Say, believes talent shows have changed the idea of what a pop star could be. "In 2000, the idea that a normal person could turn up to an audition and become a pop star was revolutionary," he says. "It had been a closed world for so many years, but suddenly it was accessible." Popstars presented what was, to all intents and purposes, a glossy take on the punk ethic: turn up and try out, because anyone can do this. The success of the Spice Girls in the late 1990s proved that a manufactured group could be marketed as archetypes of ordinary people, and the popularity of the first series of Big Brother in 2000 had given audiences an appetite for seeing members of the public turned into celebrities. "It feels like the lid has been lifted on the music business," said Hear'Say's Myleene Klass. "The people who are faking it will be quaking in their boots."
At first, though, those involved in the talent programmes thought they would show people how difficult it was to become famous, not how easy. "They told the audience that a pop star had to have talent, which hadn't been the case in the years preceding it," says the vocal coach Carrie Grant, a judge on the BBC's Fame Academy, which launched in 2002. "Rachel Stevens [of S Club 7] was signed up by Simon Fuller purely for her looks when he saw her in the reception of the building he worked in, and Popstars said that was wrong. It also said that you had to work hard, practise keenly and develop your style. I was over the moon about it."
But even as Fame Academy tried to concentrate on talent, ITV's Pop Idol drew attention away from the contestants' ability. It was set up by Cowell – an executive at the BMG record company who had declined the chance to be a Popstars judge – and the same Simon Fuller who signed Stevens, and it added a new ingredient: the idea of "the journey". Drawing on the culture of emotional openness that had consumed Britain after the death of Princess Diana, the show presented the contestants in dramatic isolation, rather than showing them all together in practice rooms. The audience was given the chance to "save" the contestants they liked. The contestants' personal lives became the big attraction, and the more focused Fame Academy fell by the wayside. As the decade moved on, songs were often contextualised by personal tragedies, rather than framed by a discussion of the singer's technical ability, and classic songs were performed to win over older viewers. The songs chosen for the contests' winners would reflect a sense of overcoming adversity – Anything Is Possible, A Moment Like This – suggesting that the journey of struggles could bring salvation, not only for the singers, but for us.
But the stories that made favourites of contestants were often little more than specially written soap operas. Rhydian Roberts, the 2007 runner-up, says his words were even spliced together to make new sentences. "It was ridiculous. But Simon would take me to one side and say, 'Don't worry, there's a plan behind this.'" Roberts was presented as a panto villain, but he had the strength to survive it, he says. "I was older than the others, and I had already been performing in theatre. But I worried when the younger contestants started to believe their own stories. They don't realise they have to look beyond the show."
With the rise of social networking sites and mobile technology, the reach of the shows has become all-encompassing. Viewers can follow contestants online, comment on the developments of their favourite "characters", and rewatch performances. With the rise of YouTube – which made an international star of Boyle long before she'd recorded an album – the idea of the fans' participation in the process became crucial. The viewers had become producers in their own right, members of Cowell's own global street team.
We are now at the point – with the shows becoming phenomena, with the contestants becoming the object of tabloid fascination, with the scheduling of Strictly Come Dancing against The X Factor leading to newspapers debating the role of the BBC – that it is worth asking: what does Cowell get out of the programmes now? He's already the highest-earning TV star in the US and UK, he's created a bona fide international star in Leona Lewis (with the hope that Alexandra Burke will follow suit, and possibly Boyle in a rather different market). Do the songs matter to him any more? Or are they just the soundtrack to the main event? His critics say that whether The X Factor final gets 20 million viewers is more important than the fate of the winning contestant. Is that true? That laugh comes again as he expertly evades the point. "That's a very good question. Let me answer it this way. I can't guarantee a hit record. I can guarantee an artist exposure, and I will help them as much as I can. What they do with that support is largely up to them. Sadly, this is the most unpredictable business in the world, and I'm not a magician." He has let people down, he admits, but he will not mention names. "I can give the singers the show, and I'm happy to give them the support they need. But after it ends, you can never really know what the public will do." In short, the story ends for Cowell when the closing credits roll.
That is harsh on singers who don't fit the dreamy narratives The X Factor requires, says Grant. She brings up Jamie Archer and Rachel Adedeji from this year's contest, singers whose styles did not fit the X Factor template. "Jamie had massive potential, but now he'll be seen as a failure. And when Adedeji wanted to roar like Grace Jones, Simon just said she had a silly haircut, so she was given a new one and a pretty dress. It's really insulting."
Grant also has first-hand experience of the way senior music executives are unwilling to take risks with talented new artists – and she thinks The X Factor's success is to blame. In 2004, Grant worked with a young singer who had won a national singing competition sponsored by a wine bar chain. "It was obvious, instantly, that she was extraordinary, but no one wanted to sign her. The record labels wanted a guarantee that the public would like her, and it was made clear that her talent wasn't enough." Two years later, that same singer did what she had to do. She won The X Factor – Cowell still promises he had never seen Leona Lewis perform before – and she became the first British artist to enter the US charts at No 1.
"I was delighted for Leona, obviously, but it just wasn't right," Grant continues. "The idea that she had to prove herself on TV to become famous in pop – it sets a really dangerous precedent."
But what's truly revealing is the career trajectories of the reality show graduates. Those who have been most successful have tended to be those who have not stuck to the path laid down for them. Will Young rebelled against the Cowell regime, to the chagrin of Cowell, but his mature pop albums still make the Top 10. The soul singer Lemar only reached third place in 2002's Fame Academy, but he has gone on to win Brit and Mobo awards and has recorded three successful albums. Girls Aloud became the decade's biggest girl group after being rejected by their Popstars: The Rivals mentor, Louis Walsh, while Roberts is on course for his second platinum-selling album of bombastic opera. Leon Jackson, the cute teen who beat him in 2007, is currently languishing in pop purgatory without a record deal.
That the biggest stars to come out of the shows have often not been the biggest names during the series proves the power of the stories to captivate us, but also our ability to understand that they are just stories, and not be unduly swayed in our long-term listening habits. Perhaps Cowell knows that, too. He says he doesn't want The X Factor to simply produce singers to a template – he would love "a Lady Gaga figure" to come through. He loved Archer performing more interesting songs this year, such as Primal Scream's Rocks and Crying from the film Gummo. "At the end of the day, an audience gets bored easily, and God, so do I. The best thing I can do for the show is be open-minded about what can come next, and let the audience take us where they want to go."
Copyright Speakers Corner 2017