“It is easier to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” The legendary essayist and reaction meme staple Joan Didion probably wasn’t thinking of The X Factor UK when she wrote that – she was talking about leaving New York in 1968 – but with TV bosses confirming this week that the reality show will not see another season, it’s what springs to mind. I can remember so clearly that big metallic X-shaped asteroid crashing into my life in 2004, and I can barely remember it slipping out at all. When did I last watch an episode? Wasn’t it cancelled a few years ago anyway? Does Tulisa still have her forearm tattoo?
At times of grief, unanswerable questions flood the mind and make it seem insurmountable. But in these reflective days, I’m finding it better still to reflect on the once-great moment we spent together in thrall to this cultural behemoth, and thinking about how different a cultural landscape we now inhabit.
When X Factor first came on the scene, phones were primarily tiny things you used to make calls and play Snake on. People still bought chart CDs; that’s how long ago it was. Our individuated entertainment culture now encourages everyone into their own niche: TikTok for the kids, Love Island for horny yuppies, GB News culture war screeds for mum and dad. X Factor was the last moment where TV reigned supreme, and everyone had to share a screen. Entertainment was about offering something for everyone in the family, with all the stinking, pandering, all-the-stops desperation that implied.
And what a job it did. Like Love Island, X Factor was a dating show - think Eoghan Quigg violently sobbing, pressing his puce little face against Diana Vickers as she was unceremoniously booted off, a tinny Dido instrumental left hanging in the background. Like Survivor, it put humans in inconceivable scenarios to see how they’d react – who has forgotten Alexandra Burke briefly sharing a space with Beyoncé and enthusiastically wiping her wet nose on the superstar’s clavicle? Like I’m A Celebrity, it pushed viewers to ask how much humiliation they could witness: The British meme circuit continues to rely on the quips and outbursts of aspirationally delusional auditionees in conference centre rooms.
X Factor reigned supreme in the cultural fog of the long 2000s, from the era where people wore dresses over jeans to the era where everyone had that one T-shirt where Rihanna had a red bob. Characteristically for the period, its dark heart was papered over by a thin pretence of social mobility. It traded on the moving idea that there were bonafide stars kicking about your sixth form, or working on your dentist’s front desk, just waiting to be propelled into stardom. And unlike Fame Academy before it or The Voice, whose winners mostly floundered on contact with reality, X Factor was so big that for a while, it was almost true.
Nowhere else in British society now could Matt, 28, from Southampton, grind against Rihanna for a terminally horny, tuneless take on “Unfaithful”. Never again will the culture, across a single hour of television, see Stacey Solomon, Mariah Carey, Jedward and Susan Boyle take to the same stage in Zone 4 northwest London. X Factor was so big that it could happily entertain implausible jumble sales of Essex barmaids and Catholic spinsters, tweaking Irish teens and international megastars, because everyone in the industry relied on it. It made chart stars of nobodies, and the Sunday night celebrity slots – even for established artists – were a guaranteed way of hitting number one.
This monopoly wasn’t without its opponents, and a whole counterculture grew in opposition to it: Men of a certain vintage will remember the year that a social media campaign propelled Rage! Against the Machine to Christmas number one ahead of Joe McElderry. (McElderry got to number one on New Year’s anyway.)
But it was a mistake then, and is a mistake now, to talk of the X Factor purely as bad taste: a 16-year-old Cher Lloyd’s trap-goth take on “Stay” by Shakespears Sister was genuinely affecting on a Hallowe’en weekend in 2010. Rebecca Ferguson and Leona Lewis were properly gifted R&B singers, who would probably still be very popular if the UK didn’t have a habit of leading talented women to ruin in monstrous record deals administered by people who don’t like music. Little Mix remain the world’s most likeable girlband, and the show can always claim One Direction as a genuine pop phenomenon.
Of course, that which was too big to fail, eventually failed. They ended up having a celebrity series featuring Martin Bashir. Rebecca Ferguson and Cher Lloyd were two of many to speak out against the cruelty they faced as artists, both during the show and in the grisly business of the music industry afterwards. Streaming decentralised how people accessed music, and social media democratised the means of becoming an overnight star.
But for a while, X Factor was the cultural well we all drank from; an easy way to live, a reliable unit to structure your week around. And, in some small way, it’s still here with us. Every time Jesy Nelson tries to put on a Jamaican accent and falters. Every time two little Scottish girls get interrupted singing “Cher Lloyd by Cher Lloyd” on webcam. Every time Olly Murs initiates a bomb scare at Selfridges. That, right there, is the enduring legacy of the X Factor. RIP, sweet prince. You should have died before Gary Barlow showed up.