For a decade now, Simon Cowell has been presenting the spectacle of a fight-to-the-death sifting for real, enduring talent: the sort of talent that has the X-factor. The search has been for stars of such perfection and fully-formed impregnability that they will instantly come out of nowhere and dominate popular musical culture. We’ve been encouraged to participate in the savage, brutal, winnowing process, as he throws one hopeful after another into the ring, to be mauled and mutilated by the withering disdain of public criticism. So where are all the stars, Simon?
Clearly there is something drastically wrong with the entire premise underpinning his method of “discovering” the crème de la crème of unsigned talent. The premise that there is a large pool of already polished and finely honed gems just waiting for him to bring to the attention of the music buying public has proven to be ludicrous. There is no such pool of perfect artists cooling their heels, waiting for Simon Cowell to rescue them from obscurity. It was never that easy.
More to the point, if they pass through all of Simon’s quality bars and trials by fire, the winning artists seem almost totally incapable of making an independent artistic work of any value or merit, which captures the hearts and minds of the public. Sure, they go into huge manufacturing lines, where pop hits are produced like sausages by seasoned experts, but like junk food, the output is uniformly bland, unremarkable, lacking in authenticity, having no nutritional value and ultimately leaving the consumer hungry, bloated and dissatisfied. In Cowell’s own words, it’s a complete waste of everybody’s time.
What does this monumental error of judgement about how and where new talent comes from tell us?
- We prefer rough diamonds to smoothly-polished, semi-precious stones. Despite the saturation PR coverage, we are still able to discern the difference.
- Authenticity beats complicity – we like artists that stand up for their beliefs and express them through their art. We despise yes-men that do what they’re told and do only what it takes to win a television talent contest. Compromising their art to win leaves them at a very bad starting point for winning over a lasting following.
- Defiance beats compliance – Cowering to Cowell is unattractive and any contestant that does this forgets that they are here to entertain us, the audience, not Simon Cowell, the Svengali.
- Derivative is just derivative – Uniformity is not the goal. The goal of being an artist is to make something original and distinctive, not the same as all the other formulaic boy bands and X-factor winners. The audience needs to be able to tell who they are listening to in an instant.
- Simon Cowell is quite evidently not in touch with popular culture or its tastes. If he were, more of his artists would be enduring stars in their own right. He is, in fact, following his own aesthetic and seeking to impose it on us – unsuccessfully.
- There is no magic formula for success in the music industry and anybody that tells you they have it is a liar.
- Style requires substance as a foundation. Trying to present style without substance is like trying to decorate a cake without the cake. Ultimately, all you have is the superficial sugar coating, but nothing to sink your teeth into.
- You can dress a tree stump up in artist’s clothing, but it doesn’t make it an artist.
- An artist has to have something to say and be able to say it, without the elaborate support network, if necessary. It also has to be something worth saying. Too many of Simon Cowell’s protégés lack this basic skill.
- The public are just as interested in the artist and their vision, as they are in the art. No vision, no art. Why would the public follow an artist that hasn’t a clue about what they stand for, what kind of art they wish to make, who they are as an artist and where they want to take music in the future?
- Art requires heart and you can’t fake that. If the art you produce and present to the public is not honest and doesn’t have your whole being invested in it, then move over and let somebody else who does take the stage.
- Artistic development takes time and space, encouragement and forgiveness of mistakes. It’s a delicate and fragile thing, evanescent and precious. You’ll never find it by bludgeoning everything that might be a developing artist with a blunt force blow from a hammer.
- Real artists present themselves as imperfect, but improving. They embrace their vulnerability. They make no pretence of indomitability. Pretence of indomitability is wafer thin anyway. Thanks to the endless procession of forgotten X-factor winners, we have the proof.
- Nurturing an artist works much better than subjecting them to tests of worthiness, however televisually entertaining this might be. Undermining their confidence and individuality is not an acceptable blood sport.
- An artistic vision different to Cowell’s will not survive the X-factor process. Today’s most successful artists wouldn’t have survived that process either.
- Simon Cowell is not interested in introducing new artists of lasting significance to the public. He is interested in maximising his television ratings, to maximise his own income. The two goals are very different and incompatible. Presenting the premise of his show as the former, rather than the latter, is patently untruthful. Pretending that you can do both is also untruthful.
- The best artists probably never even apply to be on the X-factor. For those artists that do, the discarded may have much more promise and potential longevity, as artists, than the winners.
- If Simon Cowell believed in his winners and was genuinely interested in their growth and careers as artists, he wouldn’t move on to the next crop of hopefuls annually. He’d develop the talent he had already found. But he doesn’t.
- Arguing that public tastes have changed doesn’t cut it as an excuse for dropping his former winners, because he serves up essentially the same act and sound annually.
- How did he miss Adele?
- After the circus leaves town, all that is left behind are discarded rappers (sic) and the elephant dung to clean up.
The same observations apply to all talent discovery shows of this genre. Long gone are the days of Opportunity Knocks, with its gentle, avuncular style. And who even remembers the names of the judges? That show had a relatively good record of producing long-lasting artists, beloved by the public. I don’t think the Voice, Britain’s Got Talent or the X-Factor will fare quite as well, in the annals of history. Time will tell, but we have a decade of pitiful results so far. Just like the tiny number of big entrepreneurial successes that have emerged from The Apprentice.
I feel sorry for the discarded. In the wake of Simon Cowell’s money-making scheme, lay broken artists, lost and bewildered, tainted by their exposure to humiliation in a very public forum, who may struggle to ever be able to create authentically or be taken seriously as artists ever again. That’s an unconscionable tragedy. It’s also a waste.
I generally dislike criticism and try hard to not indulge in it myself, but the destruction of potentially viable artists, in this way, really bothers me. Too many people that I know personally have been crippled, creatively, by inopportune attacks on their early creative endeavours. I was one of them. The recovery time is long and difficult. For one man to make a handsome living in this essentially predatory manner, while encouraging more of this same behaviour in the general populace, does untold damage and harm. It’s not something I, for one, can remain silent about. Forgive my unflattering assessment of a man that, by many measures, is a success. I just don’t think it should be encouraged or condoned.
Meanwhile, genuinely creative people carry on with their struggle to create.