I spent roughly 40 percent of my life watching and recapping The X Factor this autumn. While I’ve honestly enjoyed the experience, it ends this week after three months and there are still a few things about this show that don't make any sense. Maybe the stage lasers zapped my brain? Or maybe there is a correlation between my confusion and the fact that this show was a moderately humiliating ratings disappointment? Let’s review.
What’s in It for the Judges?
We know that each judge is randomly assigned a category: LA Reid got the boys, Simon the girls, Nicole the over-30s, and poor Paula the groups. But what will LA, Simon, or Nicole get if their singer wins? Is there any real incentive for them, other than vanity? A donation to the charity of the winning judge’s choice, its identity revealed after the votes are counted so as not to affect the outcome? A lifetime supply of Pepsi? Seven minutes in a closet with Steve Jones? The best I can come up with is “bragging rights.” But if you get paid millions of dollars to wear fancy clothes, sit in a chair, and listen to music for three hours a week, do you really need a second thing to brag about?
Were Their Votes Strategic?
The judges tell us at the top of each episode how determined they are to win. Great. But if that’s true, shouldn't their judging also reflect that? What if Nicole’s feckless non-vote in the Rachel-Marcus showdown was really an attempt to weed out a stronger competitor and ensure Josh a spot in the finals? (This presupposes that Nicole is thinking about anything other than the perfect moment to leak a tear and the correct point on her chin to place the tip of her prayer hands, so it is purely hypothetical.) We’re meant to believe the judges’ desire to win is so strong that they’ll put massive effort into mentoring, but not strong enough that they’ll cast their votes strategically. Again, it all comes down to incentive, and since that incentive is undefined, this whole part of the show — which is a pretty significant part — is a giant question mark. So ...
Why Were the Judges Also the Mentors, Anyway?
Since we saw so little of the actual mentoring, why not farm the job out to other, emerging pop stars? Are you telling me a Jessie J and a Taio Cruz wouldn’t punch their own mothers for a gig like that? Wouldn’t their incentive — airtime — then be crystal-clear and have demonstrable value? The judges could still be in charge of categories, and could give input during rehearsals, but wouldn’t be so central to the process that they couldn’t also offer critique when it came time for judging. Speaking of which ...
What Happened to Actual Judging?
If there was any criticism this season, I sneezed and missed it. Paula and Nicole’s rambling affirmations could have been expected, but even respected industry titans LA and Simon kept it blandly positive. Tongues were only sharpened when the judges lobbed critiques over the heads of the singers to razz each other nonstop, which always got old. But the worst you might hear about a performer was a “not your best” from Simon. Hence the singers had no criticism to guide them, hence they all gave the same performance every week.
What Were the Contestants’ and Mentors’ Relationships Really Like?
The X Factor was long — very, very long — on recap, surprisingly short on story. Who, beyond the broadest, most basic traits (former meth-head, burrito maker, crack baby ... ), were these people? There were flashes of personality onstage that suggested drama: Drew’s teary insistence that she has a more upbeat side that we never saw, or Rachel’s exasperation over having been assigned “Can You Feel It” on Michael Jackson night. There must have been controversy over song and wardrobe choice, so let’s see those moments. The producers could fill time and we could learn a bit about our contestants. Tell some stories, guys. Worst-case scenario, we don’t have time for a Tinie Tempah performance. I’m willing to make that sacrifice.
What Happened to Cheryl Cole?
She came, she offered occasional feedback, she went back to wherever she came from, and awful Nicole Scherzinger took her place. Why? Cheryl seemed perfectly nice! The official line is that her accent proved impenetrable, but: (a) I understood her just fine, and (b) I’d rather strain to hear something interesting from Cheryl than listen to Nicole’s perfectly enunciated nothing any day.
How Does Steve Jones Feel About All of This?
Steve Jones dwells in that in-between stage inhabited by so many U.K. television personalities: He enthusiastically keeps the show moving while smirking at it ever so slightly. But this is America, and ever so slightly doesn’t quite read over here. We have Ryan Seacrests and Daniel Toshes and not much in between. You can tell there’s a sense of humor in there somewhere, and you can almost hear the producers yelling through his earpiece not to deploy it. Let the guy be as charmingly, Britishly cutting as he wants to be, and see what happens. (Or leave him to the BBC and give us a Yankee. I know some people.)
Are the Producers Afraid That We As Viewers Won’t Understand That a Judge Has Said Something Not Entirely Positive Unless the Entire Live Audience Boos Like It’s a Sweeps-Month Maury Povich?
We get it, X Factor audience. You like everyone. Everyone is your favorite. Now shush.
What’s Stopping LA Reid From Signing These People?
No matter how heartbreaking the elimination — and that Rachel Crow moment will haunt my dreams until I am very old — we know some of these people will land on their feet. And we know LA is a starmaker, so why must we pretend Astro has been cast out into the land of wind and ghosts? We live in a Daughtry and Jennifer Hudson world, and it wouldn’t diminish the drama to acknowledge it. And by not signing anyone immediately, LA only strengthens the suspicion that the judges have been hyperbolic and don't actually think these contestants are as good as any currently famous singer.
Who Is Worth $5 Million in 2011?
The recording industry is a shambles. Nobody is a superstar anymore. Katy Perry just tied Michael Jackson’s record of five No. 1 singles from one album, and the album she did it with has sold exactly eleven copies. How on earth is Syco Entertainment going to recoup a $5 million investment in any of these three? The more I think about this prize, the more it sounds like a prison sentence. Whoever wins this thing is going to be doing auto shows and corporate gigs until they are 175 years old.
And one to grow on ...
Are We Pretending Simon Actually Sent Melanie Amaro Home Earlier This Season and Then Changed His Mind, or Do We All Know He Did That to Give Her the Backstory She Lacked Because He Knows She’s Going to Win and Backstory Is How You Sell Records?
Listen, I’m only 99.9 percent sure that’s true. But if it is, it’s wonderful, wonderful stuff.