By Amanda S. McClain, Ph.D.
The new American version of X Factor debuted this fall on FOX. While it purports to be a different show than American Idol, for all intents and purposes it might as well be called “American Idol: Fall Season.” The differences between the two programs are minimal: on X Factor there are contestants as young as 12, group auditions are permitted, and competitors may be age 12 and up (and up…). The similarities abound: a focus on attaining your dreams, awful auditions, and a lucrative prize. While other disparities may exist, the similarities dramatically overshadow the contrasts.
One difference, which casual viewers may not notice, is X Factor’s lack of American emphasis. Throughout American Idol, flags wave, iconic American cities are visited, the lighting is red, white, and blue, and the dialogue consistently references the American Dream. On X Factor, the contestants discuss attaining their own dreams, with no mention of America, or hint of patriotism. In a way, this personal emphasis is American as well. After all, the traditional American Dream is to attain success through your inherent talent and skill, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. While the X Factor contestants may not explicitly label their dreams American, by dint of appearing on an American Idol knock-off, they may as well.
Of course, Simon Cowell is one crucial element X Factor’s first season shares with the first eight American Idol seasons. On American Idol, Simon represented the Other, the caustic Brit unfamiliar with American civil norms. On X Factor, his Otherness is absent and his caustic comments are expected. Indeed, he hasn’t been nearly as scathing as in the past. His timidity and lack of astringency have made him boring. He’s no longer novel and audiences have grown accustomed to nasty reality TV characters. Instead, the interactions between wacky Paula Abdul and moody Nicole Scherzinger are more interesting, as are L.A. Reid’s references to past pop hits he helped to cultivate. In fact, L.A. Reid appears to be more like bland Randy Jackson, or Randy Jackson’s more articulate and boring relative, missing Randy’s flavor while adding more gravitas and heavyweight music industry experience. No name-dropping Journey from this new guy. Instead, he name-drops contemporary stars like Justin Beiber.
Like American Idol, X Factor offers a sundry mixture of contestants: country and urban, black and white, male and female. Like American Idol, the X Factor contestants are the most fascinating element of the program. Over the years, American Idol featured more and more of the contestants’ back stories, strengthening audience connections with the participants through shared elements: poverty, families, and religion. While already following the American Idol format, it behooves X Factor to follow Idol’s lead in this as well. While Simon may have been the original draw, the contestants are what make the program worth watching. The contestants represent America, in all its forms, and audiences enjoy watching versions of us. The contestants on X Factor are us at home: hopeful, anxious, awed, and determined. And American.
What do you think? Do you watch for the judges or the contestants? Is one show more compelling than the other?
Amanda Scheiner McClain is assistant professor of communications at Holy Family University in Pennsylvania. She is also the author of American Ideal: How American Idol Constructs Celebrity, Collective Identity, and American Discourses available now. Learn more by clicking here.