Monthly Archives: February 2016


Q: Simon Cowell’s blood must be boiling: he gave Gary Barlow a job on The X Factor, while he was away between 2011 and 2013, and now Barlow is planning a rival talent show for BBC. We won’t be able to move for talent shows.   At the moment we’re reaching the business end of The Voice (below). Once that concludes, we’ll have Britain’s Got Talent, then Cowell’s mainstay The X Factor. Can we take this much talent?

The Voice

 A: I think the concept has plenty of mileage, but The X Factor is showing its age and could founder after another series, especially if the mooted Barlow series succeeds. We shouldn’t underestimate The X Factor, of course: the once-monumental show was, and perhaps still is, a television phenomenon. No programme has consistently pulled in audiences like Cowell’s show. At its peak, in 2010, it drew 19.4 million viewers — that’s over 30 percent of the UK’s total population. But it’s been sliding since and, last year, one of its programmes drew just 5.25m, the lowest since X Factor’s first ever show in September 2004. And remember, it straddles the whole demographic spectrum, bringing viewers of all ages and both genders to their screens for Saturday nights.
Q: I confess I find it simultaneously kind and cruel. It gives wannabes their chance but often uses them simply to mock. I know this was deliberate and, in a sense, this was part of the show’s attraction. But other talent shows are not so vicious. I mean, there are no lacerating put-downs on The Voice and criticism on BGT tends to be good-humoured.
A: And I wonder if that’s the problem. We enjoy critique. We even enjoy Cowell’s likening of some singers to karaoke performers or cabaret artists — as if these were the lowest of the low. And this has been part of the X Factor narrative. Yet familiarity is not always a good thing. Perhaps BBC is thinking along the same lines. Barlow is a constructive critic: he doesn’t pull his punches, but he’s nowhere near as acerbic as Cowell (below).

simon_cowell (1)

Q: Personally, I like Cowell’s disparagement: it’s blunt, honest and a rebuff for the narcissistic culture that encourages an anyone-can-make-it attitude among young people. Some of the contestants are chillingly reminded that, while everyone wants to be a celebrity, some of us are destined to remain anonymous.
A: I tend to agree; but tastes change. At least, the decline in ratings suggest so. Reality tv broadly continues to prosper, mainly because we find authenticity rewarding. The X Factor welded this authenticity to what we nowadays call fandom — that is, the collective of admirers or followers of the famous. Cowell took an old idea and gave fans the ability to decide who should win. The X Factor has more in common with sport than conventional entertainment: every week voting fans democratically decide who gets eliminated until, like a Darwinian struggle, whoever they think is the strongest survives.
Q: There’s something else: the voters are actually doing market research for Cowell. They tell him who they like and who they don’t like. So when he launched One Direction, Olly Murs and Leona Lewis, it was in the certain knowledge that they’d already created huge fan bases.
A: True. But the show has had its fair show of flops and The Voice seems to be an end-point for winners. Fans vote for them, but then turn away. Perhaps that’s really what the want. Leanne Mitchell had poor album sales  and  Jermain Jackman‘s first single limped only to 75 in the chart.
Q: Let me get this straight: you mean audiences like X Factor winners when they are on the show, but don’t like the prospect of them becoming world-conquering superstars independently?
A: Maybe. I think the failure of X Factor’s 2014 winner Ben Haenow could be a sign that fans like the feeling that they control the destiny of singers. Once the show is over, they just have to sit back and watch the likes of Harry Styles et al. becoming huge stars without their support. It’s like electing someone Prime Minister, then feeling helpless while they rule the country. I’ll be surprised if any future winners of The X Factor or any other talent show, duplicate the success of 1D, Leona Lewis (both from The X Factor) or Susan Boyle, who leapt to fame from BGT.
Q: The redtop newspapers love talent shows, don’t they?
A: It’s not only the redtop newspapers. The Sun and the Mirror certainly give most coverage to the shows, particularly any scandal, no matter how minor, surrounding the panel or the contestants; but all the newspapers grant them space. The relationship is symbiotic: the newspapers get a steady supply of stories, while the shows benefit from the exposure. And it’s not just traditional media.
Q: Social media wasn’t really around when The X Factor started, was it?
A: Not on any great scale. Today, twitter can help new artists and allow established stars to thrive. I think twitter, together with Vine and Instagram, can short circuit talent shows. This makes me think that, in future, talent shows — at least the ones that are going to flourish — will need to integrate television and social media. I don’t think this is just a case of hashtagging   and so on. I think the shows’ producers will have to exercise their minds creatively to come up with a closer interaction, cooperation or joint engagement. The alternative is to look old-fashioned and — dare I say it? — irrelevant. I don’t underestimate the ingenuity of the shows’ producers: I suspect they will innovate in a way that keeps us glued to our tvs on Saturday nights, though I think the days of 15m+ tv viewers has passed. Of course, tv itself may be passing too: all the signs are that we’re watching content via our tablets, smartphones or whatever portable devices will appear in the future. We’re also watching whenever we please: catchup tv means that we can choose the time to watch. I imagine all the shows are grappling with a form flexible enough to accommodate new viewing habits. The challenge is to retain the democratic character: the audience feels in control of talent shows at the moment. They can elevate someone to stardom or consign them to oblivion. I think this is important in separating talent shows from ordinary entertainment programmes.
Q: You sound ambivalent about the future of talent shows. Are you?
A: Well, I’m mindful that American Idol, which is the US equivalent of The X Factor, and features Cowell on its panel, is currently in its final run. It’s been going for 15-years. The show originated as a version of the UK’s Pop Idol, which played for two series between 2001-03, before The X Factor started up. An American version of The X Factor lasted only two years, 2011 to 2013, while American Idol thrived, at one point drawing 40 million viewers (for comparison, last January’s Super Bowl drew an average of 114.4 million viewers).
Q: And you think this presages problems for the talent shows?
A: Like any other television genre, there’s a point where you can have too much of a good thing. There are, at the last count, 147 versions of The X Factor around the world, for example. But we live at a time when people demand constant change and renewal; they want novelty, freshness and originality. Talent shows had all these. Now they’re looking a bit stale. Shows are going to have to mutate and adapt to new environments. Those that change in a way we find agreeable, will continue; but I think others will struggle. At the moment the landscape is very congested: we have talent shows almost every week of the year. I think The Voice, when revamped by ITV, will be interesting. I also think The X Factor will come back fighting after the worst year in its history. Whether BGT and the new Gary Barlow series will respond remains to be seen. The battle between the shows could be more interesting than the on-stage battles.



Q: In your book Beyond Black, you argued that Beyoncé was the epitome of today’s celebrity-as-commodity: someone who has almost surrendered her humanity to turn herself into an all-purpose industry that can sell practically any product. There’s no doubt about that. But, after her apparently newfound blackness (as revealed at the halftime Super Bowl show, see above), I have a new question: can she sell the end racism?

A: There’s a short answer and a long one. Let me start with the short: No. Beyoncé Knowles-Carter is a phenomenon, someone who has lived her life as a business; every move she makes is scrupulously thought-through,  every decision is subject to rigorous analysis, every interview   she gives (and there are precious few) is subject to her approval. This is a woman to whom spontaneity and randomness are like crosses to a vampire. She likes control over every aspect of her industry — and she is an industry, of course. She can sell anything, whether Samsung phones, L’Oréal lipstick, American Express cards … the list goes on. Oh yes, and her own music, of course. Since 2006, when Destiny’s Child split up, she has sold 118 million records worldwide.

Q: But, as I recall, your argument was that Bey’s avoidance of getting involved in any social issue that is even faintly controversial is the key to her commercial success. You also said that all black celebrities have conditional status in the sense that they are kind of allowed to be successful on the condition that they don’t get talk too loudly about social issues. In particular about racism. This seems to have changed now. Beyoncé appears to have some sort of epiphany —  a moment of sudden revelation — and is prepared to define herself as black. This is something she’s never done before.

A: You’re right: Beyoncé has never openly described herself as black and has even explicitly denied that she is on the same cultural landscape as the rest of us. In a 2009 interview with Vogue asked her “if she had ever experienced any of the racism in the music business.” She answered: “My father had to fight those battles. I didn’t. And now I’m large enough—I’m universal—that no one’s paying attention to what race I am. I’ve kind of proven myself. I’m past that.” Now she seems to have decided that the time is right to open up on this issue. In her new video Formation, she addresses the race issue, straddling a New Orleans police car, which eventually gets submerged (with her on its roof) And at the end of the video, a line of riot-gear-clad police officers surrender, hands raised, to a dancing black child in a hoodie, and the camera then pans over a graffito: Stop Shooting Us. She released the track just before her show the Super Bowl’s half-time; her performance was loaded with black power symbols and what some interpreted as a protest against the police’s treatment of blacks in America (see below).

Q: Since the Trayvon Martin shooting in 2012, there has been a series of encounters involving unarmed African Americans on the losing end of a gun or a confrontation with police. Jordan Davis, 17, was shot and killed in 2012. Renisha McBride, 19, shot and killed in 2013. Eric Garner, 43, was killed in chokehold New York City in 2014, by police officer Daniel Pantaleo. John Crawford, 22, was shot and killed by police in 2014. Michael Brown shot and killed in Ferguson in 2014, by then-police officer Darren Wilson. Tamir Rice, 12, was killed in Cleveland in, 2014, by police officer Timothy A. Loehmann. The killers of Davis and McBride were found guilty and are in prison. The police officers involved in the killings of Crawford, Garner and Brown were not indicted. The officer who killed Tamir is on restricted duty.

A: And everyone in America and beyond knows about these killings and understands the ill-feeling they have created.  I think this is why Beyoncé has incorporated black emblems into her music: it became artificial for her to keep insisting racial issues didn’t interest her, or she transcended these kinds of matters. My guess is that her advisors suggested it was time for her to make some kind of statement, however stylized it may be. Rather than give interviews on the subject of police and black people, she’s woven them in her music and onstage performances. As a result, the world has been taken by surprise, Bey has attracted global publicity and she finds herself in a huge controversy — just as tickets go on sale for her world tour (it kicks off in Sunderland in June, by the way) and releases her new Formation album.

Q: Surely you can’t be suggesting that this is just a marketing strategy.

A: Perhaps not just a marketing strategy, but certainly a development that’s beneficial for her marketing strategy. I’ve no idea what Beyoncé genuinely thinks and feels. Who does? Her interviews are typically not enlightening and she is not discussing either the Super Bowl show or the video. As in the past, she lets others generate publicity for her.  The former Mayor of New York Rudy Giulani screamed it was “outrageous” she used the Super Bowl “to attack police officers, who are the people who protect her and protect us and keep us alive”.  America’s Saturday Night Live show has parodied her with its “Where were you ?

Q: As you’ve argued before, celebrities today thrive on controversy and the kind of scandals that would have ruined the careers of film stars and rock singers in the twentieth century. Presumably, this is no different.

A: I suspect this is a calculation more than a gamble. Beyoncé is so globally adored that it’s difficult to think of any kind of scandal that would hurt her. She can say or do pretty much as she pleases and get away with it. The kind of conditional status that applies to most other black celebrities simply doesn’t work with her. She’s never said she is black, anyway. I’ve no doubt that she won’t clarify her intentions any time soon. Anyway, she’s too busy selling us stuff. But stuff isn’t the same as an end to racism — and this is my long answer to the main question. Celebrities can draw attention to big issues and can, in some cases, force the media to take notice. But there are limits to their influence. Beyoncé is a prodigious seller of merchandise, but thoughts are harder to sell than lipstick and breakfast cereal.

Beyoncé - Formation



Pearl Izumi Tour Series - Kirkcaldy (4)

Q: Is cheating fair?

A: “The rules of fair play do not apply in love and war.” This isn’t an answer: it’s a quote from John Lily’s Euphues (1578). A contemporary of Shakespeare, Lily could have had no clue how his phrase would become so widely used as a mitigation of cheating. Of the many modifications, one stands out: “All’s fair in war, I believe,” claims the central character John Pendleton Kennedy’s 1954 novel of the American Revolution, Horse-shoe Robinson. “But it don’t signify a man is good.” OK, this is hardly a definitive statement, but it does highlight how the rules of fair play might be acceptably broken in some circumstances, though without necessarily making the violation morally right, or exculpating the offender (i.e. signifying he or she “is good”).

Q: That’s actually a better answer than I’d expected. I was hinting at the recent case of “mechanical doping,” as they’re calling it. A motor concealed in a bike at the world cyclo-cross championships suggests competitors are prepared to try any means, fair or foul, to gain an advantage. It is banned in competitive cycling and the UCI, cycling’s governing body, has acknowledged it is a problem. Cycling is still trying to come to terms with performance enhancing drugs, of course. This is another form of cheating, isn’t it? After all, to cheat is to deceive, trick, swindle or flout the rules designed to maintain conditions of impartiality. So how can this be fair in any situation?

A: To answer this we need to establish the circumstances in which cheating takes place, and the conditions under which cheating is practiced – the context of cheating. Prior to professionalism, the aim of sporting competition was to perform at the highest level our bodies and minds permitted. Rules were designed as guiding principles, directions regarding appropriate behavior. Participants played on their honor: they trusted each other to be fair and honest. In a sense, the rules were superfluous. Later, when winning became the ultimate goal, rules became limits – boundaries of permissible behavior; they were supposed to govern conduct and specify what we could and couldn’t do. Rules not players governed acceptable conduct. It’s impossible to be precise about the time of the change in ethos. Sports such as association football and baseball were both professional in the nineteenth century, whereas rugby union didn’t go open until 1995. The Olympics were amateur for much of the IOC’s history; but, during 1986-92, it introduced amendments in its charter that effectively permitted professionals to compete. Even allowing for this unevenness, we can surmise that, while competitors in all sports were committed to doing their utmost to win, those who competed for money rather than glory alone had to deal with temptation.

Q: We’re always hearing phrases like, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” and “Football is a matter of life or death? … It’s more important than that.” Competitors are encouraged to adopt a professional win-at-all-costs attitude. So, it could be argued that the athlete who is prepared to risk disqualification and the defeat, shame and sometimes humiliation in order to win embodies the very qualities that define competitive sports in the 21st century, right?

A: I’d say so. Cheating is an undesirable but inevitable consequence of professionalism. You could say it’s an admirable characteristic of determined competitors who are prepared to do whatever it takes to win.

Q: So how does cheating manifest today?

A: I’d say in three main ways:

(1) An intentional infraction designed and executed to gain an unfair advantage. Perhaps the most notorious unpunished instance of disguised cheating was Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal, when he palmed the ball into the goal of the England football team in a 1986 World Cup game. Video evidence showed that the Argentinean player used his hand illegally and probably intentionally. The referee didn’t see it and awarded a goal amid much protest. Maradona didn’t confess his sin to the referee. For that matter, he’s never openly acknowledged it. There are too many cases of this kind to chart here. But let me just give one more, this time from boxing. In 1983, the unbeaten Billy Collins, then 21, took a terrible pounding from the normally light-hitting Luis Resto, who was 20-7-2 at the time. Collins’ injuries were so bad that he didn’t fight again and was killed in a car accident nine months later. It was found that padding had been removed from Resto’s gloves. Resto was banned from boxing and, later, convicted of assault, conspiracy and criminal possession of a deadly weapon (his fists). His cornerman, Panama Al Lewis was convicted of assault, conspiracy, tampering with a sports contest and criminal possession of a deadly weapon. They both served 2 years in prison.

2) An unintentional infraction that goes unnoticed by game officials and which the offending player fails to report. It’s difficult to imagine an instance when a coach would not condone cheating if there was a guarantee that it would go undetected and an advantage to be gained. In a 1997 game of football, Liverpool player Robbie Fowler was awarded a penalty after the referee ruled that Arsenal’s goalkeeper David Seaman had fouled him. Fowler informed the referee that Seaman had not fouled him, but the referee was adamant that the penalty stood and Fowler duly took it. While Fowler’s spotkick was saved and driven home on the rebound, one wonders what might have happened had the player remained true to his original confession and deliberately sliced the ball wide of the goal. Even if the original intention of the athlete was not to cheat, the structure of the game actually inhibits him or her from doing much else.

(3) When rules are observed, but the spirit of competition is compromised. During her losing match against Steffi Graf in the French Open final of 1999, Martina Hingis (a) demanded that the umpire inspect a mark on the clay surface after her forehand landed adjacent to the baseline, (b) went for a 5-minute toilet break at the start of the third set and (c) served underarm when facing match point on two occasions. While the actions did contravene the rules, they prompted Graf to ask the umpire: “We play tennis, OK?” A dramatic fall by Arsenal player Eduardo in 2009 was the subject of intense, yet ultimately inconclusive scrutiny. Playing against Celtic in the European Champions League, the player tumbled after what appeared to be minimal contact with an opponent, and was awarded a penalty, from which his team scored. A retrospective charge of diving, or “simulation,” yielded a two-match ban from Uefa; this was subsequently overturned when governing organization failed to prove its case. Whether the player deliberately deceived the referee remains a talking point, though the absence of sanction suggests that the official view was that Eduardo was fouled and simply exaggerated his fall. Soccer players are so notorious for this that Fifa introduced rules that forced all injured (or pseudo-injured) players to be stretchered off the field of play before they could resume playing. Boxers employ a comparable strategem, exaggerating the effects of low blows to gain time to recover when under pressure.

Q: From what you’re saying, it seems instrumental qualities, such as prudence and calculation, are now parts of the character of professional sport. So were there no cheats before money became a factor?

A: There were, but perhaps not so many as today. Earlier this week, Lawrence Donegan, author of Four Iron in the Soul, who called me about a story he was writing on cheating in sport for the New York Times. I emphasized the importance of the filthy lucre, but added that we should guard against assuming amateurs were pure and virtuous. In 1976, for example, when the Olympics were amateur, Boris Onischenko, in a desperate bid for gold in his last Olympics, wired a switch under his leather grip, which triggered a hit when pressed during the fencing event of the modern pentathlon. He was disqualified after officials noticed that hits were registering even though his foil wasn’t even touching his opponent. Money is the primary variable in motivational mixture behind cheating, but prestige, distinction and the status winning brings to the victor are also ingredients.