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Why The X Factor Still Gets My Vote

I recently moved in with a new flatmate. We thought we knew each other so well that living together wouldn’t throw up any surprises, but on the first Saturday evening of Autumn she came into the living room and was appalled.

“What is wrong with you?” she said after a few minutes of blank staring. I said I didn’t know what I’d done wrong. “You’re lying on the carpet about two inches away from the television, loudly singing along to the X Factor theme tune, slapping your feet together and carping like a drunk seal.”

“Oh right,” I said, “that.”

My name is Sam Wolfson and I still watch The X Factor. Not in the way that you watch it, dipping in occasionally when you’re round at your mum’s, vaguely aware that Cheryl’s still involved and there was some big fuck-up where Olly Murs was unable to correctly count to two. I really watch it: I can tell you the name of every act from Bootcamp onwards, I vote five times on the official X Factor app, I even follow all the finalists on Twitter (and then ceremonially unfollow them as they are voted off, as they float out of my life for evermore).

What makes my obsession worse is that in my day job I am the editor of trendy music website Noisey, a place where we champion grime, hip-hop, punk and experimental new music. People assume that on a Saturday night I am in a rundown warehouse on the outskirts of the M25 watching some prolapse techno, instead I am tucked up on the couch with ITV, a bottle of £10 Rioja and a packet of ginger nuts.

Not so long ago, this wasn’t so shameful. Back in the heady days of 2010, during the TOWOD series of the show (the one with One Direction), it briefly became socially acceptable to like The X Factor among people who aren’t tween girls or nans who watch TV with a blanket across their knees.
That year, the show became part of the national conversation, people cared deeply about whether they’d autotuned Gamu’s audition, if Cher Lloyd could handle the stresses of the show, how you pronounce “Wagner”, whether it was racist that Louis called Paige “a little Lenny Henry”, was it legit that mum of two Rebecca Ferguson was bonking not-old-enough-to-buy-cigs Zayn Malik and how Katie Waissel’s Grandma earned her living. The final was watched by a peak of 19.4 million people, around 60% of people who were watching telly at the time.

These were halcyon days for an X Factor fan. I’d been quietly watching the show for years, but suddenly it was becoming a social event. The rise of Twitter meant that weekly shows became this huge deal that you had to watch live, so you could keep up with the barrage of witty gags and photos of Louis Walsh’s face. My friends held dinner parties where a TV was plonked at the edge of the table (they called them Four Course Factor, there were invites sent by post, I love my friends). I thought it would last forever.
But it couldn’t. After the 2010 high, Simon, Cheryl and Dannii all left, to be replaced by human storm cloud Gary Barlow. During the misery of the Barlow years, X Factor stopped being cool again. I’d text my old X Factor buddies with hilarious jokes I’d been crafting about Sam Bailey (looks like Katy B from the future) and Luke Friend (proof that a wood-beaded necklace is the most effective woman repellant you can own without a UN Security Council resolution) and they’d reply saying: “WHOOOO?”

Now The X Factor is in terminal decline, Simon and Cheryl are back but ratings are so low that not only is it being trounced by Strictly, even Antiques Roadshow is getting more viewers on a Sunday. Twitter on a Saturday night is a barren wasteland of drunk football fans and Buzzfeed scheduled posts. The show itself is showing its desperation to hold onto viewers, changing the presenters, stealing Rita Ora from The Voice, diddling the format in bizarre and pointless ways (worst of all were the “live judges houses” episodes in which the contestants were filmed live in a TV studio watching footage of them performing months earlier). The whole thing is a shitshow to be quite honest, and yet I can’t stop watching.

I think I love it now, in the same way a small child loves watching Toy Story on VHS a hundred times in a row. The things that upset people about it – big parts of the show are staged, the same kind of contestants audition every year, it’s easy to predict what’s going to happen – I find comforting. I know I’m being manipulated and I don’t care.

I have a friend who creates shiny-floor TV formats like the X Factor and when we’re drunk in the pub we always pitch ideas for formats to him. “What if 10 Clowns learn to play the violin”, “What about a show that’s like Bake Off but for chemical engineers” – great ideas like that. He always says the same thing: It’s a nice idea but there aren’t that many things you can learn to do in 10 weeks, start off ok and get noticeably better at, that’s why so many shows are variations on the same thing.”

But becoming a popstar is one of those things. Watching that process to me is still magical. Because when you strip everything else away, The X Factor is in fact immensely real. It turns ordinary people, however briefly, into nationally recognised stars. And that fairytale process, and the nightmarish fallout from it, is endlessly interesting to me.
Perhaps the truest sign of my devotion to the show is that I feel an immediate bond to people who feel the same way. If I meet someone at a party who’s up for talking about Sean Miley Moore’s song choice at Judge’s Houses, I will give them the last Red Stripe in my plastic bag and probably try to snog them. I feel like people who get The X Factor get me. By the same token, I have such a guttural and powerful dislike for people who don’t the like The X Factor, it gives me a rare insight into what it must feel like to be a racist. There is nothing more tiresome in the entire world, than someone round at my house on a Saturday night going, “god that was so obviously fake!” or even worse “this isn’t even real music!”

Last week it was announced that ITV had outbid the BBC for The Voice, and within hours rumours were circulating that The X Factor will be cancelled to make room for the new show. If things pan out that way, no doubt my flatmate will welcome her Saturday nights back, but I will see it as just the latest in a long line of events – losing my VHS of Toy Story, chicken nuggets becoming an unacceptable dinner, moving out of home, drinking tea without sugar, owning a Nectar card – that are probably healthy for my transition into being a human adult, but I feel bereft about none the less. It’s just a stupid TV show but, in the immortal words of Louis Walsh, I really made it my own.