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The X Factor UK and USA

Well it’s Autumn in the UK and by Christmas there’ll be a Number One slot up for grabs so in tried and true X Factor fashion (and October 2011 sees the start of Series Eight) - It’s Time! To Face! The Music!

And the light show, and the overblown stage, and the backing singers, and the choirs, and the dancers and the fabulously wealthy and influential celebrity judges, and the comforting host, oh, and the contestants. X Factor is an open door public singing contest after all, even though it now feels like the voices have been swamped in a whole lot of pzazz and expectation (and in backing tracks that drown out any vocals). The X Factor in question is that intangible certain something, that ooh la la, that je ne sais quoi – well you know. Hopefully, anyway because the outcome is decided by the viewing public.

On both sides of the Atlantic – and X Factor USA kicked off this year - two music industry grandees, older males with an impressive track record in selling lots of tracks and records, together with two younger females, each of whom is slim, sexy and a pop singer, choose groups and soloists to guide along the rocky road to ‘A List’ rock and pop stardom. In the States there is a $5 million record contract waiting for the winner. Along the way we’re told ‘this is my life’ this is my dream’ ‘this means everything to me’– and in the early stages at least, the ‘back story’ means as much as the ability (or likeability) of the singers.

A former crack habit, being an orphan, caring for an incapacitated parent , being homeless – fighting the odds, particularly if you’re cute, and especially if you can sing, almost guarantees you’ll make it to the later stages. And then come the Judges Houses. In case any would be star is in doubt about the stakes they’re playing for – by the time they get to Greece, or the Hamptons, or some far off paradise isle, and they sing to their mentor judge beside an infinity pool that reflects blue skies and majestic mountains, they’ll feel rich and famous already. There’s just the small matter of a talent show to win.

Unlike American Idol, and Pop Idol before it, X Factor is as much about the judges as it is about the contestants, and if you’re in any doubt about this, witness the tears, the passion, the commitment of the female judges, who are desperate to do well by their acts - ie to win. And though the more mature (in years at least) men may seem more laid back, they’re desperate to win as well.

This format was dreamt up by Simon Cowell, who became world famous on American Idol (‘I don’t want to be rude, but..’). To capitalize on his new found international celebrity status, he decided to create (and own the rights to) his own talent show. It was natural that the format would reflect his super status as a ‘tell it like it is’ judge. What could be better than that he should also compete in the show, with his fellow judges?

That mystery essence, that ‘who knows what’ of the X Factor is amply illustrated by the overwhelming popularity of its creator. Other than famously high waistbands and overly white teeth, there’s not a lot to distinguish him from other clean cut middle aged English millionaires, other than a supreme sense of self worth.

Surrounded by and deciding the fate of young and pretty women – English judges (will Cheryl Cole be in it to win it? Will she stay or will she go?), American judges, (Will Cheryl Cole be in it to win it? Will she stay or will she go?), female singers (‘I really wanted this category’ he says in the launch series of X Factor USA, embracing a bevy of screaming girls) – it’s clear he possesses something. And it’s taken him far. Though quite what it is, is something of a mystery.



Eileen O'Sullivan watched X Factor on Brit TV

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