I have a confession to make.
I have recently developed a serious addition to The X Factor UK.
I’ve never been a fan of so-called reality TV, and yet each week finds me snuggled up under my blankets, obsessively watching the most recent show, laughing and crying along with the contestants and the judges. I can’t get enough of it. All of which prompted me to ask the simple question: Why?
It’s not the singing. I like music as much as the next person, but I like what I like. Most of the songs on the show aren’t ones I’d choose to listen to in a blue fit.
It’s not the talent. As much as I love a bit of karaoke, I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. A singer has to be spectacularly bad for me to notice an off-key note or flubbed lyric.
It’s not the interactivity of live voting. I’m not even eligible, being that I live in another country, and I watch the show days after it aired. (As to why I watch the UK version, and not the Australian iteration, I can answer that in two words: Simon Cowell.)
No, it’s something a lot more simple than any of those things.
When a young man stands up in front of the judges and sings Labyrinth’s Jealous with so much emotion it makes even Simon Cowell shed a tear, we’re not sitting at home crying because of his talent. We’re preparing to hit the “Share to Facebook” button because not only is he an incredibly talented singer, we know that he’s really singing to his best friend, who died two years earlier.
When a 40-year-old woman stands up and sings Whitney Houston’s I didn’t Know My Own Strength, we’re not moved because of her awesome vocal ability. We’re moved because not only does she have an awesome vocal ability, she also spent years helping her new husband learn to walk again after a horrific accident. In fact, after her audition, Simon Cowell said, “That could be the best backstory we’ve ever had on X Factor.”
It’s their stories that move us, and their singing ability that provides the medium for us to experience their stories.
Which brings me to the overall story of X Factor, which is where we move from backstories to the way each character changes as the plot — the challenges — push them into more and more difficult, emotionally fraught situations. What the judges are looking for, and what they encourage the audience to look for, is not merely great singing. They are looking for a performer who changes for the better; someone who can bring the elusive X Factor on to the stage in performance after performance.
But, what does that really mean? And what can we, as writers, learn from it?