X-Factor v Genuine singing talent

X FactorHey, so it turns out that something on TV has been fiddled with in an attempt to make it more entertaining. How could something like this happen?

Okay, you might say this case is different. This is a singing competition. This is the ‘X-Factor’. This is a search for Great Britain’s next big vocal talent, and if the programme’s makers are applying Auto-tune to people’s voices, how are we to know who is genuinely the best singer?

Well, firstly, let’s not even pretend that ‘X-Factor’ is a singing competition. If it was, such a large proportion of the show wouldn’t be devoted to humiliating deluded people. People whose comically warped opinion of their own singing ability has already been spotted by the show’s production team in the early stages of the auditions (the ones before they actually get in front of Simon and co). This whole section of the series is about laughing at idiots, with the occasional break for a sob story or an introduction to a ‘possible future star’.

All of which makes it ludicrous that anyone would complain about Auto-tune software being used to make the good people sound better and the bad people sound worse. If everyone was portrayed as being as close to average as they probably are, it would make for some pretty dull television and everyone would complain that it was boring. And the last thing ‘X-Factor’ wants to be is boring.

Last Saturday a record 11.1 million people tuned in to watch the first episode of the new series. Some of them then accused the show of using Auto-tune. And the show’s makers readily admitted it, issuing a statement saying: “The judges make their decisions at the auditions stage based on what they hear on the day, live in the arena. The footage and sound is then edited and dubbed into a finished programme, to deliver the most entertaining experience possible for viewers. When it gets to the live shows, it will be all live”.

The people who spotted the vocal manipulation had not done so because they were specialists in audio production, but because it was plainly obvious. If you actually listen to the vocals that were edited on last weekend’s programme, the tweaks were applied so heavy-handedly (distorting, rather than tuning), and seemingly at random, that you can’t help thinking someone involved in the show wanted people to notice. Either that, or they’ve got someone new in to do their sound editing, and s/he’s incredibly rubbish.

As a result of this, the show has been in the news all week, which is good news for the programme, its producers, its sponsors and its broadcaster ITV. ‘X-Factor’ traditionally keeps itself in the news by feeding stories to the tabloids about how the judges all hate each other and Louis Walsh could leave at any moment. But people are wise to that now. And anyway, simply turning up the Auto-tune a little has resulted in far more coverage than Louis’ fake tantrums ever could.

The only really interesting part of this story reveals itself if you turn your attention to ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, which is, of course, made by the same production team. The most successful thing that has ever happened on that show, or to any of its contestants (or to any contestant on a Cowell-owned franchise) is Susan Boyle’s first audition in front of the celebrity panel in 2009. She went on to be one of 2009’s most successful artists – worldwide – all because of that short audition peice, which became an internet phenomenon, thanks to YouTube and some high profile tweets. And this was an audition video that – rumours now has it – was very probably Auto-tuned.

But, hey, you’ll have to go a long way to find a mainstream artist whose voice isn’t Auto-tuned, even if just a little, these days. By manipulating contestants’ voices, ‘X-Factor’ is just preparing us for the reality of what’s to come. Really, instead of banning the software, which they claim to have now done, the show’s makers should have come out this week and said: “We’re going to Auto-tune the shit out of every single voice on the show from now on, because of your ridiculous high expectations. Now shut up and take it”. And then found a sound engineer who could use the technology without making it quite so bleedin obvious.

This was the ‘Beef Of The Week’ in the 27 Aug 2010 edition of CMU Weekly, which you can read right here.

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