If I had my way, contestants on X Factor wouldn’t just be auto-tuned, they’d mime. Yes, mime. I’m serious.
Faking it has always played an important role in the presentation of pop on television. In the 1950s pioneering shows like American Bandstand and Six-Five Special tweaked the atmosphere in the studio by adding audio tracks of cheering audiences. Today people will bellyache on in the comments sections of YouTube clips of old editions of Top Of The Pops about the performances being mimed or “playback”, as our European cousins call it. They’re forgetting that Top Of The Pops was always a celebration of singles, not performances. It was invented as an exhibition of the singles that were currently in the charts.
From its inception in 1964 the show had to find a way of presenting the 7″ single (i.e. an audio format) in a visual medium, and in the early days this involved filming Jimmy Saville placing discs on a turntable and putting the needle to the vinyl while groovy swinging hepcat ’60s kids frugged about awkwardly in black and white while awaiting the invention of multicoloured psychedelic rock. Jukebox Jury – also a showcase for singles – suffered from similar problems of presentation. To make Top Of The Pops a little easier on the eye, the producers hit on the idea of having bands in to mime along to their records. Thus a standard was set. This standard incidentally also allowed New Order to appear all the more contrary and brilliant because they always insisted on playing Top Of The Pops live. They were the exception that proved the rule, it was generally agreed that mimed pop on TV was great, and the world kept on turning.
All the pop shows followed Top Of The Pops‘ cue and avoided live performance because it was just understood that pop records were produced in studios, by background people with technological expertise. In the late ’70s the UK’s Musician’s Union – at the time trumpeting a campaign they called Keep Music Live – demanded that session men were on hand at the Top Of The Pops studio to knock out usually piss poor (much worse than the old Pickwick Top Of The Pops albums, which had a certain kitsch charm) versions of the current hits while the single’s actual singer sang over the top of it. It didn’t sound like the single people had gone out in droves to buy that week but under the delusion that this was all somehow more “authentic” than playing the actual bloody single, when it was in fact obviously LESS authentic, being a poor copy of an original piece of art, this was allowed to pass before someone somewhere saw sense.
This blip aside, pop on TV was going through a thirty year long heyday. In the 1980s MTV contributed to this, as did the terrestrial ITV Chart Show – the dawn of the pop video era meant you got to hear singles on TV in an unproblematic way. If you wanted to hear live music, you went to a gig. If you insisted on hearing live music on TV you watched full live concerts on programmes like Rock Goes To College. Even The Old Grey Whistle Test – the Later With Jools Holland of its day – had some of its performers mime (as recounted on the DVD extras), indeed increasingly so during its mid 80s tea-time relaunch as Whistle Test.
A few years later a crisis struck: in 1991 the Top 40 was suddenly overrun by rave culture. Television producers weren’t sure how to present this kind of music; The Hitman and Her was broadcast live from a club each week and the sound was consequently awful, and BBC2’s youth strand DEFII gave us Dance Energy, which like early Top Of The Pops featured lots of hip young ravers frugging awkwardly in a studio only this time lurid colour while they waited for someone to re-invent monochrome angsty guitar rock in the form of grunge.
Dance Energy had a small, niche audience. Obviously Top Of The Pops needed to draw a wider audience than that so its producers had a problem in dealing with rave at all because the scene was so faceless. In a bit of a panic, producer and director Stanley Appel effectively banned rave acts from Top Of The Pops from October 91 onwards by introducing a new format fronted by hitherto unknown presenters (who were mostly awful and looked like they’d got the job through some form of blackmail) and new rules which meant all acts had to sing live over a backing track of their single; a ploy which pleased no-one and led the iconic show into a depressingly dreadful decline which reached its absolute nadir with Neil Sedaka performing a track from his number 10 album in the studio to a visibly bored audience.
During the last three months of ’91, while arguably the last truly innovative youth pop subculture was at its chart peak, the most important pop programme on TV, the window on the world of the charts, was presenting an elderly man in a bad jumper playing below-par new material. Being 14 and having grown up with the show, I was not happy about this state of affairs. Things didn’t improve until Ric Blaxill relaunched the show in February ’94, and reintroduced Radio 1 DJs as presenters and even he didn’t drop the insistence on live vocal.
I loved watching The Cure mime to ‘Lullaby’ on Top Of The Pops with their musical instruments dressed in clothes, the neck of a guitar going up through the sleeve of a baggy jumper. A couple of years later I watched The Orb pretend to play what looked like a weird variation of chess to promote their freak top ten hit ‘Blue Room’. All About Eve fell foul of a technical problem in the Top Of The Pops studio when promoting their single ‘Martha’s Harbour’ in 1988, leading to one of the most memorable and sweet moments in TV pop history. Would you really rather endure a competent, but run-of-the-mill, live performance of Marina’s new single on Later with Jools Holland? Really?
How can you screw up a show like Top Of The Pops? It’s the most simple formula in the world. Feature only singles going up the chart and the number one. Get Radio 1 DJs to present it. Film it in a big TV studio full of neon lights and balloons. And have all the acts mime. Seeeemples, as I believe the kids say.
TV producers, like their audiences, no longer seem to distinguish between pop as an art form in its own right and the idea of live musical performance. X Factor, like Idol and Popstars before it, is guilty in my view of pandering to this “authentic” notion of what constitutes a fulfilling televisual pop music experience. These shows have been described by their more favourable critics as singing contests, but really they are launchpads for a) a Christmas single and b) a pop career or two. What we’re seeing along the way is the previously behind-the-scenes, manufactured pop process laid bare. So it didn’t surprise me, let alone irk me, to see that sections of the first X Factor show of this series were subjected to auto-tune, although I suspected loyal X Factor fans would revolt. And they did.
It will of course matter that Joe McElderry or Gamu Nhengu really can sing live if one is paying in to see these acts at, say, The O2 at some point in the future; if they turn out to be crows one might feel short-changed. But what I’m looking for from pop in general is the production of a few amazing singles, and for X Factor in particular to be the source of some of these and to provide a fun narrative to keep me tuning in through the winter months. I don’t care whether or not the amazing future singles of my dreams can be recreated live. But for the X Factor narrative to work people need to believe in it, they want to believe that they’re seeing the development of some genuinely brilliant talent before their eyes and they want it warts and all. But that could of course potentially be quite boring to watch – the X Factor’s producers understand that.
I’d be satisfied just to know there were more fantastic manufactured pop singles like ‘Sound Of The Underground’, ‘Bleeding Love’, ‘Broken Heels’ or ‘Beat Again’ in X Factor’s future. And I believe you could boil everything that’s great about these shows and their processes down into one great mimed performance of JLS’ ‘Everybody In Love’ on an X Factor results show, or better still and perhaps more aptly, a revived Top Of The Pops.