All you need is luck

X Factor and Red or Black, two philosophies at war

Saturday night is a special time for Britain’s hard working families and everyone else…  Audiences want to be connected with other people, and television gives them a chance to get together in a party mood. Shiny floors, loveable hosts and uncomplicated content are the order of the day.  ITV has scheduled two Simon Cowell shows on Saturday night and, while both are BIG programmes, The X Factor costs ITV a fortune, and Red or Black is only likely to make money if the format can be sold overseas.  So these are high stakes for ITV, but also for audiences,. who really do want something uplifting and fun to make them happy.

So why does one get it so wrong and one get it so right.  And why is the one that has been getting it right starting to lose it?

Morality or beauty or meaningfulness

Hard work and creative genius creates success. Luck shouldn’t come into it. I have a signed copy.

Nine years ago today, the music critic and writer Ian MacDonald killed himself.  His astonishing, track by track appraisal of the entire output of The Beatles, Revolution in the Head, dissects the rise and fall of their creative genius.  MacDonald explained how they went from energetic, hard-working spontaneity, to overly-open-minded creative genius before their talent was squandered by a prevailing 60s mood of self-indulgence, and drugs.  The 1960s spirit sounds benign – an optimistic belief that everything is possible through the power of love, and through inclusiveness.  But to MacDonald, All You Need is Love was ushered in with a ‘slapdash atmosphere’, and ‘sloppiness’:

‘Drug-sodden laziness was half the problem… the rest of the trouble sprang from the ethos of 1967… a passive atmosphere in which anything involving struggle, conflict or difficulty seemed laughably unenlightened.  ‘It’s easy’ – the half-ingenuous, half-sarcastic refrain of All You Need is Love – expressed both this starry-eyed mood and The Beatles’ non-evaluative attitude to their music in the dazzling light of LSD… Anyone could do it, everyone could join in. (All together now’)  Revolution in the Head, p201-210.

What has all this to do with The X Factor and Red or Black?

The X Factor is one of my favourite TV programmes.  It works because the audience enjoys seeing charm and quality rewarded.  At least within its confines:  singers who are young, photogenic, mainstream, and conventionally voiced.  And that’s fine.  I can listen to 6 Music or whatever if I want something more edgy.  On Saturday, Ella Henderson offered all of that.  Yes, she’s an Adele-type in a world that is looking for more, but that’s not her fault.

Ella Henderson. Sang a lovely sad song she’d written herself in Week 1 of The X Factor

And there was also genuine humour from watching Sheyi Omotayo’s hilarious voice delivered with a straight face, derivative and angry averageness from Zoe Alexander and a lot more.  The audience is left enjoying the variation, the calculated surprises, and the delight in meeting a few new faces.  Ian MacDonald might have hated the heavy formatting of the whole thing (and ALL of the music), but been as charmed by Ella Henderson as everyone else.  The early weeks of the X Factor are the best because the sense of genuine surprise, and the singing talent rewarded is retained until the final 12 are selected.  Then it becomes dull, but in the early weeks there is a compelling story.

Money for nothing

Who cares?

Red or Black is very different from its first series.   MacDonald would have approved of the work that has gone into reworking the format – it’s not slapdash or sloppy. The winner doesn’t do it all from luck any more, merely 98%.  And we are no longer forced to watch hundreds of contestants carted off so quickly.   If The Beatles thrived from the creative tension of its members, Red or Black does manage a little tension in the red or black contests, but these barely work on Saturday night, and would collapse completely at any other time.  There isn’t really any jeopardy or empathy, even compared with Deal or No Deal, despite the impressive prize money.

Roulette-wheel gambling, such a depressing activity, may no longer feature in the programme’s aesthetic or finale, but doling out £500,000 on the random spin of a ball simply isn’t interesting or rewarding to audiences.  It lacks a sense of story and lacks any meaning.  Red or Black isn’t about anything. What audience need does it satisfy?  None.

Where The X factor, in its early weeks seems to tell us something about the collective optimism of being young, ambitious and British, in the spirit of the opening of the Olympics, Red or Black offers the noisy nothingness of the closing ceremony.

The emerging problem for The X Factor

Audiences have two sides. They are hungry for new things – such as new stories or (more likely), the same old stories but with new people.  But they are also moralistic: they like to see charm and quality rewarded.  They like authenticity and effort.  They know that being great at singing is sufficient to be rewarded, but they also know that success for X Factor contestants is hard to sustain.  They now know how these stories end: there isn’t enough room in the world for all the great contestants to become successful.

And The X factor is now hopelessly guilty of grade inflation.   Ella Henderson may become a ‘star’, but given that the drama needs to be sustained for four months, why not leave something for the latter weeks?   Supermarket worker and quite winningly shy Jahmene Douglas was dubbed ‘a revelation, a star, the X factor, off the scale‘ on the basis of his excellent rendition of At Last.   It is neither fair on him, nor pleasant for audiences, to see his inevitable failure prefixed by such an over-the-top reaction to his arrival.  It spoils the initial thrill to over-cook it.  And the problem in the latter stages is that the authenticity and charm at the start is first damaged (witness the peculiar make-over after the 12 are chosen), and then gradually removed.    A simple test may suffice: would Adele have ever achieved her success if she had gone through The X factor route?    No.

The Beatles succeeded because they were given the chance to practice for 10,000 hours, their problems came, in MacDonald’s view when they no longer saw the connection between effort and reward.

One obituary of Ian Macdonald wondered about his suicide, and its connection with that of Nick Drake, about whom MacDonald wrote:  “Can it be that the materialist worldview, in which there is no intrinsic meaning, is slowly murdering our souls?”.  Nine years after his death, sitting in on a Saturday night watching Red or Black, thoughtful audience members can begin to see his point.

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