Wednesday, 18 November 2009

What we can learn from the X Factor

My colleague Richard McKelvey has just started a blog, and an excellent first post it is too ( Rather alarmingly in referencing mine he says I focus on the details of the relationship between government and the third sector. Not so high-brow today I’m afraid…

I am an unashamed fan of the X Factor. One of the reasons I like it is the way in which it highlights some interesting British trends. When three weeks ago Danyl Johnson was amazingly in the bottom two the nation turned to itself horrified and wondered how this could possibly have been able to happen. Someone with talent may go out, and Jedward are still there! In most cases the people most outraged were the very same people who didn’t vote. Now that’s fine. Voting in the X Factor cost money and it doesn’t of course actually matter. But it isn’t a very large leap of the imagination to see how this same passive horror could be much more acutely felt following a success for the BNP say in forthcoming elections. I remember clearly John-Marie Le Pen’s shock result in the French election of 2002 caused in exactly the same way. If we don’t vote for what we want things can turn out badly.

There are many reasons why this is a poor analogy. One of them is that lots of people actually hate Danyl and so were pleased when he was in the bottom two. I can’t see it myself but lots of people in the twittersphere despise him for being too cocky and arrogant.

Err, cocky and arrogant pop stars? Isn’t that the point? I don’t want my celebrities to be humble, least of all those who are most entertaining when they have a swagger. In the distorted mirror of X-Factor-land this is a symptom of a chronic British disease. We far too easily translate a positive confidence into a negative arrogance and cockiness. It goes deeper than that though. In our nation’s popular narrative those who are successful through hard work are often derided rather than celebrated. Academic achievement is something we feel we have to apologise for rather than take pride in. And this is something which starts at an early age. The most popular kids in school are not those who do well in class. Think about the last time you said that you were really good at something. Did you feel a bit uncomfortable about doing so? We have all be trained to do so.

This is not always the case in other countries. In the US you’re allowed to tell people if you’re good at something and take pride in your achievements. My very good American friend got the shock of her life when at our school and told us she was good at Basketball. Our classmates looked on horrified at her arrogance. But it was also true. Why shouldn’t she be allowed to say so?

Danyl isn’t nearly so entertaining now he’s trying not to be cocky. The British disease has defeated him. Arrogance is not a good thing, but confidence and taking pride in your success is, and they are not the same. So put a sock in it Cheryl.

Right, enough serious talk. I’m off to vote for Olly.


  1. Agree 87%. We are undoubtedly a more diffident culture than in America. However, one word of caution is that self-belief is great as long as it is correct. If your basketball playing friend wasn't actually any good, then that makes her a poor judge of herself. To extrapolate it further, American politics, as it is reported over here, often seems very ideologically polarised. An unshakable belief in being right means that nuanced debates about policy such as healthcare het lost in a sea of red herrings.

    I'd rather we were more self-confident individually, and perhaps as a society. But I'd also hate to loose the suspicion that we hold for demagoguary.

    That's as coherent as a 11:50 comment can be!

  2. Btw, in the spirit of this post, I am a frickin' great conversationalist.

    What are you great at?