The X Factor is manipulative dreck. Must Be The Music is a far better show

By Luke Lewis

Which is the best talent show on television right now, The X Factor or Must Be The Music? For some of you, that question will be akin to asking how you’d prefer to be waterboarded, with Evian or Volvic. But bear with me.

Must Be The Music, Sky’s take on the format, attracts a fraction of Simon Cowell’s audience on ITV. Yet it’s the better programme, and shows up The X Factor for the manipulative dreck that it is.

Happily, an anti-Cowell backlash is gathering pace. Viewers have expressed dismay at the alleged use of digital auto-tune to correct contestants’ vocals, while Lily Allen took to Twitter to declare the show “everything that I detest about modern western culture”. Expect this auto-tune story to run and run. It’s potentially the most controversial TV moment since Phil Mitchell started freebasing in his front room.

How is Must Be The Music better? OK, it’s hardly classic television. For a start, it’s presented by Fearne Cotton. Now, it’s become a cliché to mock Cotton’s ditzy presenting style, but in all seriousness the show’s producers could have achieved a similar level of insight had they daubed a wonky lipsticked mouth on to a paving slab and swung a boom mic at it.

But still. The crucial difference is that MBTM’s judges – Dizzee Rascal, Jamie Cullum and Sharleen Spiteri – are all talented musicians, as opposed to corporate svengalis like Cowell and Louis Walsh, who between them have hawked such memorable acts as Zig And Zag and Bellefire. In a first for reality TV judges, Dizzee and co are pretty likeable – which instantly elevates them above The X Factor’s firing squad of charmless, tin-hearted multi-millionaires.

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Plus, whereas The X Factor has become insanely wedded to its formula (emotive backstory? String-laden ballad on the soundtrack?), MBTM delivers the odd surprise. Saturday’s episode featured a ludicrously attired synth-pop act called Legion Of Many, whose singer resembled Ming The Merciless trilling the hits of Mika. It’s a good thing they got through – it’s hard to look crestfallen when you’re wearing a giant feathered headdress.

Last week there was a solo folk singer called Emma’s Imagination whose performance was enormously moving. The acts are allowed to sing their own material rather than select covers from a Cowell-approved pop canon. Uniquely, the goal is not to sneer at the talentless and deluded. There’s genuine respect here, for viewers and performers.

Moreover, there’s a chance some of the contestants might actually make some money, since – once they get to the semi-finals – their songs will be available to download immediately. We could be looking at a homegrown Glee effect, whereby tunes from one programme swamp the singles charts.

Cultural apocalypse? Maybe. But you can see why it might be attractive for musicians. And it’s surely better than the X Factor model, whereby each year’s “stars” are shunted out the way in time for the new crop. Stacey Solomon, one of last year’s semi-finalists, was recently seen opening a branch of Quality Solicitors in Bristol.

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