X Factor: Power For Good?

Imagine if X Factor used its power of influence and ability to reach mass audiences for social good.

I've had the opportunity of recently paying a visit to the X Factor studio. It came at a time when I had just been researching the influence gays have had on western culture, so I was sensitive to what I now clearly see as discrimination on the programme.

X Factor has over 10 million viewers per week in the UK. In terms of creating and reflecting social norms, the programme is a potential force. And with the franchise in the US and beyond, it's reach is extensive.

Now in its eighth year, X Factor continues to skirt around and often hide the sexuality of its contestants and judges. Apprehension of losing viewers to a conservative audience, or of turning off teen girls who are meant to fancy the young attractive contestants, is apparent. It is a fear that has plagued the entertainment industry for decades, keeping actors, musicians and TV personalities in the closet.

Young male contestants, like The Risk and Frankie Cocozza, are clearly encouraged each week to discuss their exploits with female fans. This sends the message that straight youth is normal - while at the same time being gay is not to be discussed.

The often cited argument is that sexuality is private and no one else's business. I don't agree with this, and find strong contradiction within the music industry where heterosexuality is openly encouraged. Young stars should either make the nation fall in love with them, or date each other to create tabloid headlines.

The issue here, however, is that until homosexuality is normalised in society, gays will continue to be seen as different and something to be hidden.

A result of this is teen bullying - which is often believed to be the cause of suicide attempts amongst youth. The UK charity Stonewall reports that two out of three gay teens are bullied in school. Alongside this is the fact that suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15-24 year olds in the US - with gay youth attempting suicide up to four times more than heterosexuals in this age group.

Lady Gaga has just been celebrated with an appearance on X Factor. Its safe to say that her fans include a large percentage of the gay audience. She campaigns against bullying, and has been part of the brilliant "It Gets Better" viral campaign. Gaga is the biggest force in pop music, and her recognition of this issue could have a significant impact in encouraging young gays to come out with confidence.

Shows like X Factor provide an opportunity for establishing social norms due to their popularity. By continuing to whitewash issues in an outdated belief that doing so will save ratings they are contributing to discrimination and homophobia. Think of the potential message a show like XFactor could send to young kids growing up gay who feel ashamed to be who they are. It's tragic that Simon Cowell has yet to discover the real power of his empire.


Learning From Our Elders

Pete Townshend chose to use the honour of the BBC John Peel lecture this week to deliver a rant. Essentially without any central thesis, his speech went over the same well-trodden ground that old industry giants find themselves covering - piracy, publishing, copyright, etc etc etc. Definitely not very Manifesto.

Townshend falls into the trap of many of our industry elders who feel that change is happening, but cannot recognise what a new industry offers to artists. Rather than adding a positive vision with their experience of being a creator, they respond from a place of resistance. It stems from the fear of seeing the foundations of how their own careers were shaped being torn apart and rebuilt.

We have much to learn from the forefathers of pop. They developed a blueprint of a creative form that we love, and the new industry is still celebrating. Townshend is apologetic throughout the lecture of speaking about music as art. But this is the area where he should own the platform. I want to know his genius and learn from his ability as a creator, not hear him riff about the price of downloads.

I'm not dismissing the old guard as being irrelevant to building the new industry. There are many who are active in pushing change forward. Brian Eno spoke recently on Channel 4 news about his new project involving crowd sourced creativity. These types of visionaries add immensely to finding solutions. They are using their abilities as creatives to offer something new - not attach to the past and complain that things are different.

The very act of being an artist means you create change. I often think of music as a mathematical problem that I must resolve - like sonic sudoku. Perhaps pop music has made us too comfortable. Even though we now live in the most exciting and productive era for artists, we seem to not all be able to rise to the challenge. For artists like Pete Townshend, it's just too much to let go of the past and embrace what we now have.

Image by Zio Zeta on Flickr