Oh the X Factor audition process. Great singers. Average singers. Sob stories. People of society who smell of cats. I love it how the whole message that the show gives out each week is one of "Anyone CAN BE A STAR. You just HAVE to BELIEVE IN YOURSELF(!!!!!)". We all know that the whole message that you can just turn on the day, have a number slapped on your shirt like a bar code, get noticed on stage and then *drop* your album 15 months later is bollocks...
...but how bollocks exactly? Well just over two weeks ago I was invited to be in the audience of the audition stage of the up-and-coming series of the X Factor in Greenwich at the O2. It wasn't just for a"I-have-managed-to-be-in-the-audience-of-a-major-TV-show-I-hope-the-camera-zooms-in-on-my-face-disproving-a-contestant's-ability" kick, but also so I could judge to what extent the auditions are real audition, and what extent is part of a process.
And my findings? Well none of them will make you scream STOP THE PRESS or would be occupying the entire top of the Guardian for more than two weeks with a grey tinted background, but it might change the way that you watch the programme in the future.
An audition? What audition?
You know those massive queues of people with little dress sense queuing outside a well-known landmark throughout the programme? The shrieking crowds that all of the judges magically manage to judge by the end of the day?
When I arrived there was not a massive line of people outside with a lottery style ticket placed on their shirt, waiting for their number to be called and their chance to be put on the stage. Nope, there was just us, the audience, waiting outside the O2 in Greenwich so that we could take our seats. For hours. On end.
So where were they all?
Despite the lack of contestants there were some chairs and some lighting woven between the audience waiting to take their seats inside. Sitting on these seats were several selected contestants (for example a woman with looked like she was a victim of an orange food colouring accident, a Tina Turner lookalike in her late 80s and so on). At some point, the producers would stop the interview, and stage scenes of them being plucked out of the crowd by a television presenter.
This means that from what I have seen on that day, when contestants are being 'plucked' from the 'queue' they are actually in the queue for the audience members, not the contestant's queue that we think are there on the day. Then when we eventually took our seats inside the contestants that we had just seen being interviewed outside are the ones on stage performing for us.
There is no 'randomness' of the people who are picked out from the crowd. Although we all except that there are 'rounds of auditions' before contestants get put in front of the judges, from my experience on the day it seems that the system of who makes the stage is a lot more rigorous than what we usually expect.
Tell me about yourself
So let's move on. My friends and I have now taken our seats (after being briefly tempted by £8 beefburgers and a bag of Fruit Pastilles that cost £3.90), and are being now 'treated' to an awful and slightly seedy warm-up guy to get us in the mood (a man who constantly reminded us to 'follow him on Twitter'). Then without much ado, the first contestant walks out on to the stage and stands in front of the judges.
So are there any differences from what we see on TV screen here? Yep. You know those 'quick-fire' interviews that Louis or the-other-ones use to go and find out more about the person standing in front of them perform on the stage? Well in real life they are much much longer.
I mean, Paxman and co on Newsnight would KILL for the amount of time that the judges had to interview these people. I guess that they do this so all of the boring responses are edited out and all of the best answers and audience reactions to make the contestant more interesting / daft / insane or delusional are left in.
As the day dragged on though, I noticed something else. Some of the questions that the judges asked weren't really generic like ("How are you?" and "What are you singing for us today?"), but a few of them seemed to have been pre-written for the contestant.
Let me explain. About half-way through the day a plucky and bright girl entered the stage. The first question to her (after "Who are you?") was weirdly, "Tell us about your family."
Now that's a bit weird, but lo and behold, the lovely girl (sadly) has a mother who is constantly in hospital with numerous illnesses, and her father has had a history of being unwell in the past so she has to look after them most of the time.
Without that question being asked very earliest point of the interview, the rest of the conversation wouldn't have been able to constructed around that issue. When she sang (and of course she could sing very well), the judges were then able to 'celebrate' the fact that she could sing more and relate it to her family even more.
Okay, okay, so we know that the sob stories are commonplace within these types of shows, but I had never expected there to be so much emphasis on this. At some points I thought she was there on the stage more due to the fact that she had members of her family being unwell than the fact that she was a talented singer.
The final finding from my day at the X Factor? How short, and unsurprising, it was.
There were only roughly 10 acts during an afternoon session, which when you think about doesn't seem a lot considering that there are supposed to be hundreds. Each one was either incredibly good or incredibly bad, each with a particular style that doesn't make them seem like an 'ordinary' member of the public.
You this might have been obviously aware of this beforehand, and so was I, but the show is marketed to make it seem that 'anything might happen' and that there are 'surprises along the way'. There aren't. What I saw on the day wasn't an audition, but a process. The winners had been selected beforehand, the losers had been selected beforehand, the 'surprises' are vigorously pre-planned, the sob stories are worked meticulously in and what I saw on the day was just a 'step' before the final show.
From this day though I'm now in a complex. I know that the show and the beliefs that it portrays is bollocks, but yet I am disappointed on the day to find out that it is indeed bollocks.
I'll still watch every episode though.