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Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Greening of Popular Culture : How to Dump Cowell in the Dustbin of History

Since 2004 and arguably before, popular culture in the UK has been blighted by the Cowellisation effect. In 2004, with Sharon Osbourne and Louis Walsh, Cowell was a judge on the first series of the British television music competition The X Factor, which he created using his production company, Syco. The X Factor has been with us since and enjoyed its tenth series in 2013. Earlier there had been Pop Idol, where Cowell had been one of the judges, and since then we've had Britain's Got Talent, the Voice and a string of other Cowellesque programmes.
Of course television talent programmes are nothing new; at one time there was Opportunity Knocks, presented by the irritating Hughie Green, and New Faces. However what is new is the way that Cowell's programmes have come to dominate the charts and achieve a grim hegemony over the music industry, stifling talent and numbing creativity. As of June 2014, The X Factor has spawned a total of 35 number-one singles: the ten winners' singles (six of which have been the Christmas number one), four charity singles (one each by the finalists of series 5, 6, 7 and 8), and 21 other number-ones by contestants who have appeared on the show (including winners and runners-up). One exception to this was in 2009  when hostility to the show's stranglehold on the Christmas number one slot prompted a successful internet-led campaign to propel Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name" to Christmas number one at the expense of The X Factor winner Joe McElderry
Cowell's dominance of popular culture is anti-green for a number of reasons. It represents the triumph of the corporate big business establishment over the individual creative artist. Obviously in the past large record companies have often bullied artists into becoming more commercial or tried to screw them over financially via dubious contracts. However what Cowellisation represents is music shoved right down to its lowest common denominator level. The 'artists' record other people's songs, often written to a formula by a commercial business team, are judged solely on the 'purity' of their singing voice and the tunes and lyrics are kept as banal, asinine, safe and emotionally syrupy as possible in order to appeal to as wide an audience as possible without frightening the horses. It is McMusic; riddled with ingredients which are bad for us such as mind-numbingly dull melodies and numbnut lyrics cribbed from a corporate script. Moreover the message being sent out to young people is clear and can be summed up as:

"Do not try and be creative as we believe that most consumers are too thick to understand that. Also we know more about 'music' than you do (or rather what sells). Therefore do exactly what we, your corporate masters, tell you to do. Sing our words and how we tell you to do it. You are the employee only, but we will still call you an artist to flatter your ego and manipulate you by inflating your vanity. You are a product and all that matters to us is the maximisation of unit sales. Do what we say and you will be rewarded with wealth and the ability to consume far more than you need. We will manipulate you into deluding yourself into believing that your motivation is love of music rather than love of money, which should not be particularly difficult." 

Yes none of the above is new. What is new is the way in which Cowellisation has achieved such dominance the mainstream music industry.

Why does this matter?

Why all of this matters most is the effect that the cultural context of any time, the zeitgeist, has on wider society, for example on the workplace or political arena. If the message being put out culturally is that the way to get on in life is to crawl to some big corporation and sing its bullshit tune then this is the message people may take with them into the world of work. It is a message of conformity, of subjugating your own initiative and creativity to the needs of the corporate bosses. The values which are being instilled amount to those of not questioning authority, laughing at anyone who doesn't 'fit in' with the accepted way of doing things (the accepted way being something defined by others and not yourself) and seeking material rewards for work rather than creative ones. The opposite of everything that rock and folk music used to stand for. Apply the same principle to politics and you get apathy and conformity.


Ah yes, snobbery. The charge that large corporate business loves to throw at anyone who questions the principle that selling truckloads of low quality rubbish that people don't need is a good thing. Question the fast food industry and you are a snob. Never mind the effects of such food on childhood obesity and other health issues, you are still a snob. Question the environmental impact of too much plastic food packaging and you are not just a snob but a 'middle-class Guardian reading snob'. Question the need for airport expansion and you are a 'tree-hugging hippy snob'. Question the Cowellisation of popular culture and you are an 'old snob', which is somehow worse than any other form of it apparently.
Everyone it seems is a snob apart from the likes of Mr Cowell who are making eye dropping amounts of money out of selling crud, exploiting the artists concerned and diminishing the quality of our popular culture in the process. 

And the solution is.......

The greening of popular culture is not going to be easily achieved however it is something which is already happening.

1) Shift to consuming music/culture via the internet and live shows. Obviously there are short term problems with the internet, for example if music is just free on the internet/youtube then artists don't make money. However with the big companies only interested in the formulaic and the internet being where the main audience is then there is no alternative.

2) Reform the way UK television works. Reduce the amount of advertising, remove the internal market from the BBC and appoint ombudsmen to oversee the quality of all TV programming. Less advertising and corporate involvement will see many of the small rubbishy channels go under. Less of them means less commercial pressure to dumb down the content of the main channels. Cowell would lose income and ship off permanently to the US. They can have him. Green Party policy on TV advertising states:

The “overall volume” of advertising on TV and newspapers will be controlled and cut, as part of a war on the “materialist and consumption driven culture which is not sustainable”.

3) Education reform:  Creative subjects should be given equal status to academic ones. More music, art and culture in schools.

4) A Cowell tax? I'm being faceteous, but really if it gets rid of him......

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