'X Factor' fantasy beats soccer seriousness hollow


I'M FEELING judged. And I don't like it. My resentment at being the victim of intellectual snobbery peaked at the weekend as the prevailing wisdom on popular culture oozed from the pores of the press. As Ireland played France, the mainstream wallowed in the assumption that everyone revelled in the nobility of soccer, while us X Factorfans, who were kicking off at the same time as the match, are cultural trailer trash, writes SARAH CAREY

Frankly, I've had enough.

The choices on Saturday night crystalised the issue perfectly. All week I'd been looking forward to watching X, free from mockery, since he'd be going to the pub to watch the match. I had my young sons in bed at 7.30 sharp and rushed to the couch with my cup of tea and two(!) apple, raisin and cinnamon cookies (99c in Tesco, up from 79c a month ago - haven't they heard of deflation?).

While I waited on X, I tuned into the pre-match build-up from Croke Park and, yes, the buzz was great. The commentary is a hoot, the anthems emotional, and for a few glorious minutes one dares to dream. Then the whistle blows and the nightmare begins. Ninety minutes of stress waiting on the inevitable disaster - how is this good for one's mental health? With a quick flick, it's over to X and the land where It Doesn't Really Matter. Who wins? Who loses? Who cares? Let's have fun!

I'd love it if Ireland qualified for the World Cup tonight, but the chances are so slim that allowing oneself to hope is pure masochism. Sports fans assure me that the agony of defeat serves to intensify the thrill of victory, and if that's how they get their kicks, fine.

But there's more to this culture clash than that. While the low stakes are a chief attraction of The X Factor, I will not defend the show on its superficiality, for that would be gravely unjust.

At the heart of the snide commentary that elevates sports above reality TV is the moral assumption that sports are pure and therefore good, while reality TV shows are contrived and therefore bad. This is simply wrong.

In both soccer and reality TV, there are participants, analysts and viewers. The participants in each are quite similar. They have stepped up to compete in order to reap both personal and financial rewards. The analysts and the viewers are quite different, and I claim that those belonging to The X Factorare superior because they possess the three characteristics I prefer in people - they have a sense of humour, they lack pretension and they are self-aware.

Simon Cowell is a smart man who might insult the sensibilities of cultural commentators, but never the intelligence of the viewers. So let me make it clear to all the high and mighty critics: We Get It. Cowell knows we get it.

Louis Walsh is there, not just for his proven entertainment instincts, but to serve as a worthy foil. Cheryl's job is to be what she is - the prettiest girl in pop with a natural sweetness that softens the cruelty of the elimination procedure.

As for Dannii, the producers figured out very quickly that what was required was not another girl, but a woman who would represent the interests of common sense. It's a perfectly balanced panel - and so what if I wonder whether I could handle Cheryl's mascara load, or get Dannii's haircut. What I like about them is that they know who they are, and why they're there.

Over at RTÉ1, I see the same forces at play but without the acknowledgement - and that's what bugs me. Dunphy is Cowell, Giles is Walsh, O'Herlihy is Minogue and Graham Souness is not just brainy but provides a much needed Cole Cute Factor (although that beard is not quite working for him) who suffers the patronising condescension of Dunphy. Eamo insists on pretending that his little tantrums and rudeness to his fellow panellists are heartfelt, when we all know he's hamming it up. At least when Cowell and Walsh have a go at each other, they have the grace to smirk.

But let's talk about the elephant that is Jedward. When I discussed this issue on Newstalk's Weekend Blendon Saturday, journalist Chris Lowry condemned Cowell for dramatically facilitating the boys' continuance in the competition. Cowell waived the opportunity to save Lucie Jones, who can sing, and offered the tuneless twins a lifeline in the form of the public vote - which they won.

This development was triumphantly presented as Exhibit A for the prosecution - how could the producers claim this was a legitimate singing competition when the poorest singers were kept in the show?

What Cowell did was follow the rules and defer to the wisdom of the crowd in the hope that they'd vote for the most interesting act and maintain the high ratings. Meanwhile, Fifa was frightened when France and other popular teams failed to top their groups, thus threatening the viewership of the World Cup. Appalled at the potential damage to the ratings, they just changed the rules and seeded the teams to help them get through. So who are the cheaters here?

As for Jedward - they're not good singers, but they undoubtedly possess that magical energy that makes us adore one entertainer over another. You can't understand it - but you know it when you see it. It's called the X factor. Go Jedward! Go!