X Marks The Spot

I have spread my dreams under your feet,

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams

W.B.Yeats

*

Where the gold is hidden, where the bodies are buried; wherever an X marks the spot, you can be sure there is plenty hidden beneath it.

Last night on the X-Factor Zoe Alexander, a Pink tribute artist, was rejected for, well, being a Pink tribute artist, because, they said, they’re looking for stars, not tribute acts. No surprises there, but her face told a different story. She looked stunned, uncomprehending of her rejection.

My first thought was, bit arrogant to expect an automatic acceptance onto the next round. Then she uttered the now immortal words,

‘But you told me to sing a Pink song’

Swift denials from the judges followed. Zoe stormed off, threw her mic, hit a camera and pushed a producer.

The article about her experience http://channelhopping.onthebox.com/2012/08/18/you-told-me-to-sing-pink-how-x-factor-producers-set-zoe-alexander-up/ (link via @derrenbrown) describes her reaction as ‘outrageous’ and ‘unacceptable’, probably to protect themselves legally more than anything else.

I think her behaviour was completely justified, because it transpired that she had been manipulated by the show’s producers for the past six weeks, told what song to sing, and set up for a fall.

This is despicable, yet hardly a unique story about ‘reality’ TV shows. This kind of thing is one of the main reasons these types of shows make contestants sign such stringent confidentiality agreements.

Most people realise that many TV talent shows are fixed in some way, allegedly (see what I did there?), but the contestants do not. They might shout ‘fix’ when they get passed over for someone less talented, but when they enter such a competition they truly believe they’re being given an opportunity to escape their humdrum lives and follow their dreams.

They are also told, time after time, how an appearance on such a show is a once in a lifetime opportunity and great care must be taken not to blow it.

So imagine how you’d feel to discover you’d been set up to fail; shaped into a laughing stock; tricked into sabotaging your ‘only’, chance.

There is a chapter in Jon Ronson’s book ‘The Psychopath Test’ that describes how TV producers are instructed to pick people who are just ‘mad enough’ to provide great TV by being a figure of fun to be poked with sticks, but not so mad that the experience leads to their going on a rampage with a shotgun. Sometimes they mess up spectacularly… read Jon’s book. Highly recommended. And follow him on Twitter @jonronson.

Some years ago I was at drama school with someone who got through a few rounds of a Certain Unmentionable National Talent Show (acronym will give a clue as to who the main judge was at that time, based on popular opinion of him). My friend became friends with another contestant who made it through to the final ten. Oh, the stories I can’t tell you.

I’ve had similar ‘set-up’ experiences in music. Not on TV, fortunately. People in the business side of things like to pretend they have money and power, and when the one who really holds the purse strings gets wind of things and pulls the plug, you’re the one left flailing and trying to piece your life back together in the midst of a complete loss of face, while they go on to pull the same stunt on some other young hopeful.

I hate the music business, I really do. Musicians by and large are wonderful people but the business really sucks. As a youngster I regularly had my carefully laid dreams stomped on for others’ amusement. People who pretend to be on your side, pretend to be your friend, will betray you at the first opportunity and they get away with it because of the Golden Rule: ‘Them that’s got the gold make the rules.’

I know I’m deeply scarred by much of this, and some may see my distrust of the music business as bitterness, and in many ways, it is. I’m bitter about having been lied to, led up numerous paths and ultimately betrayed, but most of all I’m angry at myself for not always listening to my dissenting inner voice and allowing myself to be shaped into something I’m not albeit briefly. And for spending too long trying to write ‘hit songs’ before finally discovering my real niche.

So whilst I hate the music business, I still love music and try to make as much of it as possible while keeping as far outside of the business as I can.

I wish talent show contestants would see this. No one can stop you pursuing your dream, but if you achieve fame it will be because you fit some kind of criteria. And if you don’t ‘make it’, i.e. storm the charts, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re no good, it just means that you’re not what they’re looking for. And fame really isn’t what you think it is, so think very carefully before deciding you want it.

Imagine if the Olympics was like the music business. The ones who got the gold wouldn’t be the ones who won their heats or scored the most over all, but the ones the organisers liked best.

Here he is, the 685th fastest man in Britain. He can’t really run, but he’s got ‘the look’. Let’s film a real runner bursting through the tape and superimpose our star’s head on the runner’s body for the video. His speaking voice isn’t up to much so he can lipsynch to an actor for his winner’s speech.

Sounds ridiculous, but you see it every day in music.

Whilst there have always been manufactured pop acts performing trite music, things in my lifetime got really bad in the 80s when Stock Aitken and Waterman had a stranglehold on the charts.  Pete Waterman later became a judge on Pop Idol, one of the forerunners of the X-Factor. Which says it all.

At the time I joined my first band there was a kind of consensus that if you got up on stage, played instruments and sang, you were musicians; if you included a dance routine, you were a variety act and were aimed at children and grandparents. TV talent shows are about variety acts, whichever way they try to dress it up.

When I was in my teens and early twenties and still sending demos to record companies, I couldn’t understand why the charts were filled with people who couldn’t sing as well as I can, warbling over songs I would’ve deemed weak had I written them as a five-year-old.

Now I know. The music business is just that – a business. It’s about money, not music, just as reality TV is about ratings not reality.

So, if you watch the show, don’t assume it’s real; if you enter it, don’t assume you’ll be given a fair chance; and if you win it, don’t assume you’ll have a career.

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By SJB

2 comments on “X Marks The Spot

  1. This is exactly why I won’t watch these shows. They are presented as shortcuts to success for the talented. In fact, they are invitations for the talented to be entertainment fodder. See people try and fail! It’s a story and the best part is, you don’t have to pay a writer to write it or hire a cast to act it out–it’s REAL!

    Remember when they used to say, ‘Life isn’t like TV?’ Well, that’s not true any more.

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