The X-Factor is a British television program similar to American Idol. It is a singing competition in which thousands of people across the U.K. audition for the show at open casting calls and once chosen, compete each week in a themed sing-off in front of judges and a live audience. The viewing public votes, the singers are ranked by popularity, and the bottom rankers must face off once more before being eliminated by the judges. In other words, the process is exactly the same as American Idol. The only difference between the shows are that while American Idol has fallen through the ranks of relevant popular culture and currently resides somewhere between washed-up and obsolete, the X-Factor remains both relevant and influential in the U.K.
The mass conversion from fictional to reality programs was a gradual process. Arguably, it all began with The Real World on MTV. This lone but incredibly successful show wetted the public’s appetite and the networks, realizing the public was hungry for more, gladly obliged. Reality shows spawned more reality shows and before we knew it, the majority of the programs being aired in the U.S. as well as the U.K. fell under the category of “reality television”. A new culture of celebrity sprung up around these shows; people whose fame depended solely on their appearance on a reality show.
Take the singing duo Jedward from last year’s X-Factor. Consisting of twin brothers Edward and John, Jedward made it all the way through to the finals of the competition. The reason that this was interesting was because they had absolutely no musical talent to speak of. In a competition that supposedly exists to find the best musical acts in the U.K. and sign them to a major label, two boys who couldn’t even sing were able to remain in front of the cameras week after week and achieve a relative level of fame because of the new status of celebrity. Thanks to reality television and the internet, the viewing public no longer wants celebrities that are special or talented. We want celebrities who are just like ourselves: untalented, mediocre, and relatable. Reality television has shown us that we don’t need to be good at something or accomplish anything in order to become famous; we can become famous just for being ourselves. Celebrity has become accessible. Jedward made it so even a person with no singing ability could hope to become famous on X-Factor.
As the line between celebrity and non-celebrity gets blurrier and blurrier so does the line between low and high culture. In the future, there will be no more Humphrey Bogarts or Marilyn Monroes. More people already aspire to be reality stars than to be the next JFK or Elvis. In a postmodern sense, the implications of this might not be that great. Reality stars only stay “real” so long as they are not celebrities, which is why most of the celebrities being created in this new environment have no staying power. As soon as they are no longer relatable they are replaced with another average person and so on. At the same time, a precedent has been set in place as far as what types of people thrive on reality shows. What may have started out as a very narrow representation of reality has turned into a surreal, mass emulation of the representation. Reality shows were never very realistic but now neither are the people on them. It’s a feedback loop and if it continues on like this, the simulation will altogether replace reality.