X questions for X Factor

As we enter the week of “live shows” – the proper starting line for the X Factor marathon, the end of the red faces portion of the event, the beginning of the popularity contest, the ramp up of the sob stories and tear-jerking background pieces – there may be singing, there will be hyperbole, there’s even a small chance there could be the beginning of an actualy career in music.

There are also some questions. Some important. Some inane. Some included just so the number could reach ten and a half-witty pun on the X in X Factor could be made.

Is 14 too young?

This year the entry age for X Factor has been lowered to 14.

Somewhere between the first audition by Shiane Hawke and the tearful rejection of Vendulka Wichta, this year’s X Factor – at least for a while – turned into “let’s torture a 14 year old.” A game that was previously restricted to fiction like The Hunger Games and real life situations like Martin Place outside the Sunrise set when One Direction are playing or any time a parent and child go shopping together.

While a diminishing talent pool might have prompted producers to cast a wider net, has anyone paused to ask whether we should be exposing 14 year olds to this sort of pressure, celebrity and judgment? “She didn’t know if I was ready?” sobbed Vendulka in last Wednesday’s episode. Surely no 14 year old is ready for X Factor? If they have THAT much musical talent they will break through, otherwise is it really a bad idea to force them to wait until they are old and grey and 16?

What happened to … ?

Either I’m getting old (and given my previous whinge, that’s likely) or the audition / boot camp episodes are getting confusing. We get all hyped up by the audition of a previously unheralded superstar, believe we’ve seen the next Susan Boyle moment, then … we never see them again.I know its important that the show gets edited to be fast paced and adrenalin-packed, but surely there’s a producer spare to just check all the loose threads are tied up. For me it’s Sarah Main, the girl who nailed Loving You by Minnie Riperton, including THAT top note. She was all over the promos for that night, she got through, and … well clearly didn’t make the final six but it’s hard to tell if that’s due to a poor performance or an alien abduction. Did she bomb out of boot camp incognito? So please, help me out, what happened to Sarah?

How are One Direction “the biggest band in the world”?

Speaking of the promos, I call shenanigans on this label. One Direction are a phenomenon, a global success story and … well more than a little terrifying. Without a doubt it was a coup to secure them to appear on this year’s X Factor. They were born out of the UK version of the show and clearly represent the dreams of every contestant. So why overhype them to the point of downgrading their value. Somewhere between gigs, you’d have thought U2, Coldplay, The Rolling Stones, Metallica and our own AC/DC might put up a fairly strong argument that One Direction, after one album, aren’t there just yet.

Can we stop calling them “home visits”?

Whose home are we visiting? The contestants are desperately trying to avoid going home. The judges are from Australia, England and Ireland. And the “home visits” occur in New York and London. Now I know Mel B has a pad in NY and Alicia Keys is a New York girl but Ke$ha and Usher are both from Tennessee and One Direction are from all over the British Isles. Can’t we just call this “Industry visits”, “final famous hurdles” or “star cameo week” and be done with it?

Can we stop calling them “mentors”?

Speaking of nomenclature, let’s clear something up. “Mentor” and “Judge” aren’t the same thing. Ironically in X Factor, the judges, particularly now we’re in to the live shows, actually do more mentoring than judging. The mentors on the other hand only ever judge. In fact the accurate summary of last week goes:

The judges mentor the contestants before they perform for the mentors who judge them so that the judges can decide which contestants to take forward to mentor while they are judged by the audience.

Was Ronan really listening to 1D?

Usher, Ke$ha, Alicia Keys and One Direc-sha. They are big names, no doubt, but mentoring, or to call it what it is celebrity judging, requires experience surely? Usher and Alicia Keys have the scores on the board. On the other hand while I am sure Ronan Keating and One Direction had a laugh together, and possibly the latter terrified the former into considering botox or doctoring a birth certificate, let’s face it, Ronan used them more as a survey panel than as any kind of experts. It made for good television though, so we can let that slide. On the other hand watching Nat and Ke$ha chat on a sofa really did start getting a little gal pally. When Nat comes across as the wise old soul in a conversation it feels a little topsy turvy.

Who is dressing the contestants?

I’m just saying, some of these kids are 14. A lot of them are a bit awkward one way or another. Whoever was playing real life Barbies in New York possibly didn’t aid some of the performers by asking them to wear heels for the first time ever while they sang in front of one of their idols.

Who won the super riff mega-mix trivia game?

Kudos to the editors last week who jammed every recognisable riff, sample and instrumental clip that has been created in the last three decades into the episodes. You got a three second shot of skyline? They have the Beyonce intro blast to match it. A contestant looks pensive, upset or just looks away? A George Michael guitar riff steps in. It was like watching X Factor at a 21st birthday party, even if it did occassionally raise the bar a little too high for the next contestant.

Time slots – Do they mean anything … to anyone?

You know a show is rating well when it over runs by 50%. 7.30 – 8.30 runs until just after 9pm. I realise we’re getting more of what we love, but you’ve already beaten I Will Survive into a whimpering glittery mess in the corner and claimed the ratings crown every night you’re on, so could we either run the show to within a vague approximation of its schedule or provide a schedule that is a vague approximation of when the show will run? The only effect is we miss out on seeing some X Factor when our time-shifted recording runs out. Maybe that’s what happened to Sarah Main?

Why is X Factor still working?

At the end of this long list of questions that are really just whinges, I wonder – in the year that Australia’s Got Talent suddenly lost its mojo and where The Voice seemed to pre-empt a shift in talent quests – why has The X Factor continued to succeed. Not just in the ratings, but in the watchability. It’s still very good.

The answer isn’t the 14 year olds, be they competing for or fawning over One Direction. The answer isn’t 1D or the other “mentors.” The answer is a little bit the Justin Standley’s of X Factor. With his great backstory and potential for a cinderella finish he is a talent show producer’s dream. Let’s just hope his long lost children weren’t auditioning against him.

The answer is, I think, mostly the judges. The Voice found a great chemistry with their four judges, one which was quite distinct from the overseas versions of that format. The four at the desk of X Factor with their great chemistry, passion and mentoring, are the model they replicated. Rumours of Mel B following Keith Urban off shore to bigger shiny floor ponds overseas are concerning. We look forward to watching her ruthless honesty for the rest of this season at least. These are four great judges … or is that mentors … actually its entertainers, and that’s what they need to be.

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