December 2009 was a truly bleak midwinter. In a year of deep recession following the prior year’s financial crash, the sub-zero UK temperatures were the least of many people’s sources of misery—and to top it all off, the ghosts of Christmas past still haunted the charts. The position of Christmas number one, you see, is a big deal to Brits, for reasons nobody has been able to successfully explain to me. I suppose there’s a thrill in watching the songs that are giving you the festive fuzzies rise the charts. However, this hallowed achievement was being undercut by a very predictable chart trend. At the start of December, the winners of smash-hit singing contest The X Factor would release a mid-tempo ballad that nobody really loved, but nobody objected to enough to turn off when it played on the radio on a near-constant basis, and voila: they had a Christmas number one.
By 2009, we’d had four years in a row of this pattern, with many people under the assumption or expectation that the latest winner Joe McElderry would be the fifth. As a wrestling fan, though, I know all streaks must be broken. I come from a proper rock-loving family who’d listened to Rage Against the Machine since before I was born, so they were thrilled to see the band’s “Killing in the Name” rising the charts. An online campaign had people buying up copies of the song entirely out of spite against another expected victory for the X Factor empire, and in the end, it worked. On the UK charts, sandwiched between two X Factor winners and their Christmas singles, is a rap metal anthem filled with lyrical middle fingers to the establishment, as if they were being delivered to Simon Cowell himself. The whole drama was a winter warmer of festive schadenfreude—but was it justified?
Bad sentiment had been building up for years about the monotony of the X Factor winners’ singles, as well as how their wins felt guaranteed. It feels a little reminiscent of the current discourse around industry plants. Many others have pointed out that it’s rarely the most talented contestants who win the competition; instead, record deals are handed to the contestants with the most marketable character arcs. Many of the X Factor’s winners who ended up securing that Christmas number one were shoehorned into these shy boy or girl-next-door archetypes, including genuinely talented contestants like the profoundly powerful vocalist Leona Lewis. But as talented as they may be, these stock characters couldn’t hold public attention for very long.
2009’s winner and the expected shoe-in for the Christmas number one, Joe McElderry, was seen as a textbook example of this. McElderry was marketed by showrunner Simon Cowell as a harmless everyman, and secured the win against showman Olly Murs, who would later go on to become more commercially successful. Similar complaints were levelled against Leon Jackson, 2007’s winner who, despite his Christmas number one being one of the best-selling singles of the year, was an underdog to both the competition and the charts. Both competitors’ songs were at times perceived by the public as mere filler. The campaign to knock an X Factor winner off the pedestal of Christmas number one wasn’t a protest against McElderry so much as a protest against the singing contest’s dominance over the charts, and the dominance of Cowell on the British music industry as a whole—still, many saw McElderry as replaceable.
Other protest songs that campaigned to steal the chart spot, such as last year’s “Boris Johnson Is A F*cking C*nt”, never saw the same success. After all, the star quality of so many Christmas number ones—their “x factor”, if you will—is their mass appeal. To get your song played around the holidays, you’ve got to offer something for almost everyone. You may not choose it, but you wouldn’t turn it off either. This was the line towed by many X Factor contestants’ winning songs: ballads with minimal orchestration and soaring choruses, songs that don’t contain much to object to simply because they don’t contain much. For the X Factor era of the charts, though, this blessing was also its curse, as the repetitive formula for chart victory quickly became worn out. Once you’re at the point where an anti-racist rock song from almost two decades ago will interest more family members than a heartfelt festive ballad, your recipe for success is in deep trouble.
The whole ordeal wasn’t quite the beginning of the end for The X Factor, but it was a sign that something needed to change. Groups like One Direction and Little Mix briefly gave the show an injection of vitality, and an opportunity to change with the times, but it seems the showrunners just didn’t take it. The droning songs that these dynamic young groups were given to perform in the finals just didn’t show off their talents, and as such, the bands only succeeded once they’d shaken off those X Factor shackles and found their own style. Meanwhile, the show haemorrhaged viewers and public interest from the start of the 2010s onwards as it fell back into these predictable patterns. There was a growing awareness of the formulaic nature of the show, leading many to see it as a rigged spectacle that wasn’t the legitimate source of creating popstars it once was. The X Factor aired its last series in 2018, and their guaranteed status at the top of the festive charts was taken up by the horror of Ladbaby parodies. Careful what you wish for, I guess.