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Column: The democratic model of The X-Factor

The democratic model of The X-Factor

Welcome to Leopard Print in the Ivory Tower, where we analyse what pop cultural artifacts tell us about our society. If you’ve ever wondered what Kim and Kanye have to do with structuralism or how globalization theory pertains to Lolcats, you’ve come to the right place. (Granted, you probably haven’t, but why not start?)



This week, I’d like to look at The X-factor.

It could be argued that The X-factor is just a light-hearted talent show. But the X-factor is more than that. Believe you me: it is much more than that. It’s a model, and microcosm, of Western democracy.

If we want to get specific, The X-factor is more a model of Classical democracy than contemporary Western democracy. That’s right – contrary to the myopic way in which Americans like to rewrite history, democracy did not start with Thomas Jefferson. It started with Athens, and a guy named Solon, and a guy named Cleisthenes, and then another guy named Ephialtes.

Classical Athens practiced “direct democracy”, where citizens do not elect parliamentary representatives to act on behalf of them, but rather vote on individual pieces of legislation themselves. Similarly, X-factor viewers vote, themselves, for individual contestants. If The X-factor was like our modern parliamentary democracy, they’d be voting instead for the judges, who would be invested with the power to curate which eighteen-year old retail assistant from Queenbeayan gets transformed into the next Adele. Instead of voting for the contestants, we’d be voting to pick just three or four judges from an ever-vast pool of ex-child stars, embittered and misogynistic radio hosts, early noughties pop-stars making a “comeback,” and token entertainers imported from the U.S at a confounding price.

And I’m pretty sure that this is what Cleisthenes had in mind when he explained the notion of democracy to the Plebs back in the Agora in 509 BC. He was definitely envisioning how democracy could empower the Plebeians to take control of their destinies, enact agency over their lives, and pick Dannii over Kylie Minogue.

The X-Factor is democracy and democracy is The X-Factor.

And if you’re still skeptical, then tell me, dear reader, why else the Chinese government are actively banning voting-based talent shows?

That’s right, two weeks ago the Chinese government issued an order banning the programming of any new talent shows in response to their enormous popularity in the region. This move continues on from the censors’ enforced truncation of “Super Girl” in 2006, a singing contestant show boasting some 400 million viewers at its 2005 peak.

The censors are arguing that there are “too many” talent shows programmed, pointing to the nine existing programs and the three more scheduled for broadcast soon. But Chinese commentators are more skeptical, extrapolating that it is probably the voting-basis and American style of the shows that is irking the censors (many of these shows have been adapted directly from American formats, such as “Voice China” from “The Voice”, “Chinese Idol” from American Idol, and “Chinese Duets” from “The Duets”.)

When you think about it, there is pretty much nothing about these shows that wouldn’t make a Chinese censor want to scratch their eyeballs out. Shows like The X-Factor molly-coddle the distinctly American idea that we’re all unique incredible snowflakes, not just numbers in a sweepingly communitarian society. Shows like The X-Factor nurture that distinctly American idea that we can be whatever we want to be – that nothing is off limits – that any ordinary kid has the birth-given right to be a popstar, or an astronaut, or a neurosurgeon. Fame is as democratised in America as anything else, and this is in part thanks to reality television.

But such a fostering of individualism and aspiration is not welcome in dictatorship.

The Chinese government are that paranoid about dissent  they honestly believe that if their citizens get a taste for voting via talent shows then it could be the downfall of the Communist state. The Chinese government are that paranoid they think that all their cumulative military and political power could come to naught against “Super Girl”. And if that isn’t testament to talent shows being the apotheosis of Western values, then I don’t know what is.

But here’s the thing: like actual political democracy, The X-Factor gives the illusion of complete freedom of choice. In Western democracy, we have the impression that we have complete authority over our political outcomes. But in reality, we are only selecting between a handful of political parties who fall relatively close together on the political spectrum. We can only choose between a left or right wing rendition of the political and economic system that we already have. There is no avenue in our parliamentary democracy to challenge the very systems of democracy or capitalism themselves. (par break)

I wouldn’t want to even if we could, but it is interesting to consider how these basic structures fall outside the parameters of what our democratic vote can determine. Similarly, we are only choosing between a handful of X-Factor contestants whose actual place in the competition we had no say in. Like democracy, and capitalism, they were selected for us by someone else: in this case, the holy trinity of Dannii Minogue, Ronan Keating and Redfoo. The contestants we can choose between are the unchangeable given, and it’s only within this that we get to exercise our choice.

So perhaps the Chinese authorities need not worry. Perhaps Super Girl isn’t the awesome threat to Communism that it appears. Perhaps this is not, after all, the face that will bring down red China:



Annika Blau is a freelance writer from Sydney with a lot of opinions. Her writing explores what pop culture tells us about ourselves, and pairs the teachings of academia with those of the supermarket aisle. She wants to know why we don’t examine Kanye West with the same academic rigour as The Cantebury Tales, and finds Lady Gaga as revealing as the census. More of her writing can be found at

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(Banner image from Quinn Dombrowsky)