This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
It is the year of our Lord 2015 and in the tiny corner of the planet we call the 'United Kingdom' we are all quite pleased with ourselves. And, yes, fine: there are lots of reasons to be proud of our little island. We gave the world fry ups and Kat Slater and conversations about weather. But probably the jewel in our collective crown of smugness, the case upon which we've based our secret conviction that we're better than the rude French and the loud Americans, is the fact that we've built an entire national identity on politeness. We like drinking tea, and when someone pushes in front of us in a line we'll emit a loud sigh but very rarely actually say something, and if we're annoyed at people in another country we tend to prefer dropping bombs on them from up in the air so we don't have to acknowledge the messiness of blood and limbs. We are, for all intents and purposes, what you might call a civilized society.
And mostly, it's true. But, once a year, our confidence is threatened. Like clockwork, as August moves into September and the leaves start their falling from the trees, The X Factor makes its way back onto our television screens and resumes its status as an inescapable mainstay of UK popular culture. And it tells us something about ourselves.
The Roman Empire lasted for about 500 years, though experts argue over exact dates. It was one of the largest empires to have ever existed, and its influence still reverberates in Western European culture. You know this. You learned about this at school.
But the Romans achieved quite a lot in their time, and can be credited with the development of things we still use now, like taxation, state welfare systems, and fucking aqueducts, dude. And in the same way, I imagine, that young British people feel a specifically national pride in the cheeky Nando's meme, the Romans were also pretty jazzed about their similarly significant accomplishments (such as making up these things called 'roads'), and liked to congratulate themselves by enjoying some well-deserved downtime after all that building and inventing.
It will not come as a surprise to you, dear reader, to know that they did not have TV in the Roman Empire, and so entertainment largely took place outside of the home. People went to amphitheaters—big outdoor arenas with tiered seating so that everyone could see—to have a big watch of the favored amusements of the day. These included gladiators beating and stabbing the living shit out of each other until one of them literally died, and, in the later years, Christians and criminals getting thrown to lions who would rip their bodies apart at the commands of the various emperors.
And though in the UK in 2015, we don't really 'do' public execution or bloodsports so much anymore, we do still love competition, and spectacle, and people making idiots out of themselves.
Do you see where I am going with this.*
I am a wholehearted X Factor fan. I have watched every series since the show started in 2004, and like to spend quite a lot of my time imagining what I would sing were I to ever audition for the judges (at the minute it's Papa Don't Preach, though like any self-respecting diva I am always expanding my repertoire). I love the show—it is camp and silly and predictable, like an effeminate uncle, or indeed, Louis Walsh—but this year, more than any year before it, I've noticed The X Factor becoming the Colosseum of reality television before our very eyes, narrowing the gap between us and our ancient friends.
For starters: Simon Cowell. Cowell, the mastermind behind The X Factor, is the most Roman Emperor-like motherfucker currently known to the UK. There is nobody else in this country, or probably in the world, who is quite like him. He is an omniscient presence in UK popular culture—he passes the mainstream litmus test of 'does your grandma know who he is?' with flying colors—and has the best job in the world (Professional Judger). He's also hyper-aware of his status as "TV's Mr. Nasty" and plays up to it with gusto: he is a cartoon villain made flesh; a walking accent in ill-fitting trousers, only one long-haired white cat away from total caricature. However, Cowell's genius lies in the way in which he always remains just the right side of ridiculous so that we, his public, remember just how influential and accomplished he is.
Simon Cowell is a terrifyingly rich and powerful man who can make or break livelihoods in the blink of an eye; he courts spectacle, and is really mean to total strangers because the public likes it (he also kind of sinisterly loves dogs, and owns two Yorkshire Terriers named Squiddly and Diddly; this feels like the type of odd idiosyncrasy you'd read about in a biography of one of the more especially cruel emperors). In my extended metaphor of X Factor as Roman amphitheater—which we are definitely running with now, sprinting at high speed after the bus of it—Cowell is the big kahuna, the overlord having his considerable authority reinforced over and over again by the spectacle he provides.
Next there's us, the viewers, the scum—or at least, our onscreen representatives, the crowd. This year, most of the show's stages have been carried out in front of studio audiences, and the audience's effect is felt strongly throughout the competition. Their collective cheers or boos can help to determine a contestant's success at the audition stage, and give an indicator of a performance's reception in the finals (kind of like how the crowd, as a special treat, could sometimes decide between a competitor's life or death in the Roman amphitheater). But the X Factor audience really comes into its scarily Roman own during the Six Chair Challenge.
For the uninitiated, the Six Chair Challenge is a fairly new element of the show, introduced a few years ago to liven things up and bestow lifelong inferiority complexes on the acts who don't make it through. Each hopeful performs, and the judge assigned to their category decides whether they will be allowed to take one of six seats (the seats symbolize a place in the next bit of the competition). Of course, there are more performers than seats, and so when they are all full the judge has to start swapping people who are already sat down for better, more attractive singers—and while I can imagine that a number of the rejected contestants are forced into therapy by the effects of this process on them, it does make for unbelievable television. It is the studio audience, however, that makes the Six Chair Challenge so unreal to watch—they become a braying mob, their chants of "SEAT, SEAT, SEAT, SEAT" or "OFF, OFF, OFF, OFF" the modern equivalent of "SPARE HIM" or "KILL HIM," totally caught up in the spectacle in the same way that the Romans fully buzzed off choosing which of two criminals they wanted to see literally crucified.
After the Six Chair Challenge, we spend a couple of weeks at the comparably sedate Judges' Houses (this year, Nick Grimshaw's was in the Cotswalds), and then move onto the live finals. Fountain Studios, where the X Factor live shows take place, is essentially a massive amphitheater complete with noticeably tiered seating, and each week the contestants take place in what I like to think of as a multi-man gladiator showdown, culminating in a sing-off between the two least popular acts every Sunday. Admittedly these clashes have way less actual killing than their Roman alternatives (killing is very much "not allowed" these days so we have to settle for voting the shitty ones off via the app instead), but just as much in the way of crushed dreams and schadenfreude. And what viewership worth its salt, at any point in history, doesn't love that magic combination?
In the Roman period, the greatest, most successful gladiators were rewarded with legendary status, public adoration, and money. On The X Factor, the winner gets a recording contract with SyCo and a shot at being as famous as Harry Styles. The warriors of both the Roman amphitheater and Fountain Studios demonstrate a fundamentally human urge to wrestle yourself out of obscurity, and by enjoying watching them do it so much, we demonstrate an equally human fixation on spectacle.
Even when each series is over, the spectacle doesn't end: the contestants become tabloid fodder—hung out to dry by the media, their faces blown up massive on the front of red top newspapers like heads on spikes at the edges of a Roman city, put there as signs of caution lest anyone should want to follow their example. But of course, people will always follow their example. People will always audition to be on The X Factor, and we will always watch them, and discuss them, and talk about how much we love them, until we inevitably forget them, like we usually do.
And so the deep truth of it all:The X Factor, so bubbly and Caroline Flack-y on its surface, has an underlying message which is at once extremely complex and astonishingly simple. Though we've got iPads and Starbucks now, our tastes have not changed, our bloodthirst undiminished. Our enduring fascination with The X Factor and the many copycat shows like it show us that we—people, humans—are just the same as we always were. So it always was, so it always will be. The only way the cycle will ever break is if Che Chesterman goes 'full Spartacus' and slaughters Simon Cowell live on ITV.
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