Not just the X-Factor, but American Idol, America/Britain’s got Talent – and the rest of their ilk. Are they destroying real, grassroots music? I think so and in this article I’m going to explain why.
I feel I should start off with a confession. I watched the first few series of the X-Factor religiously (except on a Saturday Night rather than Sunday morning). In fact, watching the show became a household event, with the whole family gathering at the alloted time to cheer for our favourites and gasp in horror as the novelty act/panomime villain got through week after week. It wasn’t actually moral indignation that first made me start switching off though – but familiarity with the format. When you can start setting your watch by the smoke-shrouded gospel choir coming in on the key change, you know you’re wasting your evening for sure. I actually started taking bets on any given contestants’ sob story (2m27s before they start singing):
- A dead relative, who always told them to follow their dream – Evens
- Was bullied at school – 4/1
- No confidence/self-belief. 6/1 (worth a punt, esp. for older contestants – you find out later they’ve already realeased 3 albums and/or worked as a stripper)
- Crap job – 10/1
- Crap hometown – 10/1
- It’s my dream/I want it so badly/It would mean the world to me – no bets taken.
Being fair for a moment though, it isn’t all bad. Here’s some of the good things about these shows:
Some talent has actually been unearthed, that we may never otherwise have heard. Leona Lewis is a helluva singer. Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood have released some pretty good tracks. And I’d pay to go and watch Chris Daughtry or David Cook play original stuff, with a decent band.
The shows get people engaged with music and get young people enthusiastic about becoming recording artists.
Even if they quosh originality, they do highlight the importance of technical skill and dedication to the craft.
We get to watch the judges faces as they desperately look for something good to say about one of their own acts that suck big time.
No originality. The shows would be a thousand times better if the artists performed originals, instead of the same hundred or so covers that they all sing. I’m sorry Mr previously credible rocker – but doing an edgy version of a Britney Spears song is still doing a Britney Spears song.
The visual element is way too prominent. Line up all the winners – you won’t see many mingers.
The public vote isn’t designed to discover the best artists, but to maximise viewing figures and revenue.
The ugliest thing about these talent shows, is the way in which they are defining music within our culture. They send out a message to huge numbers of viewers that good music conforms to a very narrow and rigid type. Young people growing up watching this stuff are essentially brainwashed into seeing music in a very unhealthy way. This is almost certainly a symptom of wider societal changes – but for those of us who have music in our veins, it still hurts. The thing we love is being stolen from younger generations. The era-defining records that were the soundtrack of our youth are being lost under a pile of albums full of copycat covers of songs that weren’t any good to begin with. Or worse still, you hear classic tracks murdered so often, you never want to hear them again. The X-Factor/Idol are to music what microwave meals are to haute cuisine.
You might think I’m being a little melodramatic – of course, there are still festivals, local gigs etc. going on. But not as much. How many local bars/pubs have bands on now, compared to even 20 years ago? If you are just starting out playing local gigs, how many original songs can you get away with? If you go to an open mic night, what is the average age of the clientelle? Music at the grassroots level is definitely being damaged.
What worries me the most, personally, is where the next genuinely groundbreaking artists are going to come from. We all know the record labels are screwed; they are only bringing out more of the same every year – a quick fix to sell as many records as possible in as short a space of time as possible. They don’t have the resources to nurture and promote truly innovative acts, even if their business structures didn’t now preclude those activities anyway. Meanwhile, the ability for artists to establish themselves in live music venues is also suffering, because of the X-Factor/Idol effect. To illustrate the point further, if Bob Marley or Bob Dylan were playing a set at your local bar – you’d sit there for hours. They wouldn’t last 3 weeks on the X-Factor/Idol. For artists in any genre outside of pop, the problem is many times greater.
I don’t think there is an easy answer to this issue – and if there is, I certainly don’t know it. We have a huge mountain to climb – fighting the ‘talent’ shows and getting real, grassroots music back into the public conciousness. One of the first steps has to be for us, musicians and music-lovers, to unite and work together more. I think our website Musicians Together can be a key player in this struggle, but we have to really get behind it, and other organisations with similar aims. Grassroots organisations, made up of musicians and music lovers all pushing in the same direction have to be a focus for us. Millions of artists all working purely for themselves just doesn’t work – they all get lost in the noise of everyone else doing the same thing – and big sites like Youtube will only promote the major record label stuff, because it is more lucrative for them. So, in essence, I am arguing that musicians need to learn to leverage their collective voice somehow. In a struggle for workers rights, a lone voice is easily silenced, but a movement of people working together is not. Musicians Together – a grassroots organisation standing up for grassroots music.
In the meantime, if you find yourself having to watch one of these shows, there is a much more interesting way to pass the time. If you take a shot of your favourite tipple everytime someone says, “you nailed it”, “you really made it your own”, or uses the word “journey” – you’re guaranteed to be totally blotto by the second commercial break.
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