Thursday, December 18, 2014

Book Review: Getting Over the X by Steve Brookstein


I saw a couple of people talking about this on twitter one night during the Xfactor (namely Kellie) and it sounded like a good read, so I took advantage of a special Kindle offer and downloaded it there and then.

"'One of you will leave with a million-pound recording contract, and the other will leave with nothing,' Kate Thornton had said on the night. Eight months later, I had never envisaged that it was possible to leave with both."

I've watched every season of the Xfactor from the beginning. In later years, I've become a bit disillusioned with it due to the trend of publicly humiliating people who aren't very good, or by putting novelty acts through (Wagner, anyone?!). The first year, I watched mainly because I had seen Tabby Callaghan's band Petronella live a few times the previous year while in college. I don't really remember being too concerned about the other contestants. The only thing I remembered about Steve was that he had released a cover of Against All Odds.

When people enter TV shows like the Xfactor, they are labelled pretty much straight away. For Matt Cardle, it was "House Painter". For Leon Jackson, it was "Works in a shoe shop". For Rebecca Ferguson and Stacy Solomon, it was "Single Mum". For Steve Brookstein, it was "Pub Singer". Steve was in actual fact far from a pub singer - he had already supported Dionne Warwick the year he applied for the competition, and turned down a job supporting Lionel Richie to take part in the show. Hardly a bog standard pub singer. In Steve's own words, he had "better irons in the fire." Steve was labelled overconfident from the very beginning, yet at one point Simon Cowell said of him "He found self belief when we gave him a stage." At the final, Sharon Osbourne tore into him in a most unprofessional manner, saying she had enough of his "Mister Humble" act. So which is it?! Overconfident, lacking in self belief, or humble? As you learn to watch out for certain phrases that the judges dole out, you realise they just recycle the same labels over and over again - if they take a dislike to you for whatever reason, they have the power to turn the public against you (ask Christopher Maloney). If they love you, they will champion you to the end, regardless of how the public vote goes ("the real winner").

As I read about the way Steve was treated when he won the show, I was disgusted. I'm not a fan of Simon Cowell anyway - that level of ego is not endearing to me. He comes across as incredibly self-involved, surrounded by people who are willing to fall at his feet and lick his boots. Steve's story is a cautionary tale of what can happen when you dare to put forward your own ideas, or step outside the Cowell 'bubble'. The sheer power of the "Simon Cowell Collective" is shocking. The press manipulation, misdirected quotes, false accusations - they can, as Max Clifford (don't even get me started on him) stated, "bury you".

"What have I become? I'm 35. I'm sitting in a mansion trying to impress a guy who turned up late to his own microwave dinner party. Why wasn't I saying 'What the f*ck's this sh*t?!'"

This stuff about the Xfactor having "a real winner" was obviously there from the beginning, as G4 were given the moniker in 2004. G4 themselves would later tell the press that the Xfactor was a pantomime, with staged bickering between the judges. You can see that in every year since - especially this year. One incident in particular this year was just ridiculous - "real winner" Fleur East (who came second to Ben Haenow) - was given a track called Uptown Funk to sing. Fleur rocked the song, and shot straight to number one on iTunes. If a contestant can score a number one before the show has even ended, what's the point anymore? The winners' careers seem to be lukewarm, and the management appears to lose interest before the next series begins. So what's the point of the prize? Of the competition?

Back to Uptown Funk - singer Lily Allen accused Simon of "industry corruption" because the song hadn't actually been released when Fleur performed it. As a result of her reaching number one, Mark Ronson had to push the single release date forward before people lost interest in the original (yet unreleased) version. In a media press conference, Simon claimed "This corruption thing is ridiculous. To be honest, I didn't even know what label it was on." Simon's record label SYCO is 50% owned by Sony, who also own Mark Ronson's record label. Presumably they wouldn't even have needed clearance from Ronson to perform the song on the show - are we supposed to be so stupid that we would think that Simon knew none of this?! Oh, and Mark Ronson's version is now head-to-head with Ben Haenow's debut single for Christmas Number one - but that doesn't matter anyway, because the song already seems old after hearing a contestant cover it. Well played, Simon et al.

Poor Ben seems to be the latest addition to a long line of male winners, set to be overlooked in favour of the "real winner" - he's already being referred to as "Ben Whonow?" on twitter and he only won it four days ago - I would be shocked if he were to be invited back to perform on next year's show.

I think Steve's book is a great read, it really exposes the staging and pettiness of the whole show. It was never a singing competition - it's about the judges, their egos, and how much money they can squeeze from the general public. If you do what you're told, you're wrong. If you step outside your comfort zone, you're wrong. The corruption, manipulation, and sheer deceptiveness regarding the media is shocking - but sadly, after recent revelations including the whole Max Clifford debacle and the demise of the News of the World - unsurprising.

Referring to 2014 contestant Jake Quickenden's stint in the Jungle (that's a whole other ballgame - a contestant on a TV show going straight into the Jungle as a "celebrity" before the show had even ended?!) Simon had this to say at a press conference: "I think with any competition, if you don't want to win, that tells me you haven't got that killer instinct to do well in the real world. If you're happy to come fourth or tenth and end up in the jungle.... what we want on this show are people who want to be recording artists in the real world. I mean, that's just the way it is."

But...........that's NOT the way it is. Every single year, Louis Walsh sits like a Pantomime Dame defending whatever novelty act he has chosen to put through to the live shows, while genuinely talented people go home. Simon Cowell plays with people as if they were puppets - putting people through to spite other judges (Raign & Cheryl Cole?!). Take a show like The Voice - I haven't seen a single novelty act on that show. I'm sure it's not perfect, it's still TV, but it seems so much fairer than leading lambs to the slaughter after telling them they're perfect for the TV rounds before tearing them to pieces and laughing at them. We have had whole hour-long shows dedicated to "The Worst Auditionees", yet people who actually won the whole blimmin' show have been snubbed.

Steve has proven that he definitely has that killer instinct - and here's hoping he continues to do well in the real world. The Xfactor bubble may be the dream of many a young starlet, but it's definitely not something I'd want any of my loved ones involved in. I'm really glad Steve wrote this book (with the help of Tony Horne), because it just confirms opinions I've had about Simon Cowell for a long, long time - does he have any actual interest in the music at all?!

A must-read.

You can get the book here on Amazon.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Books I Read in November


November was a very light month for me on the book front. To be honest, the majority of my spare time was spent doing this:

When I had that finished, I started this: 

I want to get both stockings finished and made up as soon as possible, so the reading has been pushed to the sidelines a bit! Still, I did manage to read 5 books throughout November, and I'm making progress with 2 more.

Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner - Freakonomics
This was a Rick O'Shea Book Club pick for November. It reminded me a little of Ben Goldacre's Bad Science but with a lot less wit and a lot more filler. I didn't find it an enjoyable read at all, and found myself skimming it a fair bit. Much as Clarissa didn't actually explain it all, these guys do not "explore the hidden side of everything". I found this really boring.

Aimee Bender - The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
Rose is almost 9. Without warning, she gets a hollow, overwhelming feeling of sadness after eating lemon cake made by her mother. The book follows Rose as she deals with her "gift" but the gift is not the subject of the book. Simply Irresistible this is not (that's probably a good thing) - it's a very strange quirky little tale that focuses more on family relationships than on Rose being able to taste emotions.There's a story arc involving Rose's brother that is just bizarre, but altogether it was a good book and wasn't a taxing read.

Amy Poehler - Yes Please
I enjoyed this. I thought that the idea to bring other people in to tell their opinions on some stories were genius - like her parents' anecdotes about Amy's birth. I didn't start this book as a fan of Amy Poehler, and I'm not sure I ended it as one, I just thought it was a funny, witty book that had a lot of heart without being too try-hard. I will take the quote "Good for her, not for me" to the grave with me, I have thought of it several times since reading the book. This isn't a behind-the-scenes of Saturday Night Live, nor is it Bossypants II. It's just Amy.

Neil Gaiman - The Ocean at the End of the Lane
I got a gorgeous hardback copy of this book last Christmas and to my shame never picked it up until I saw it one morning and it called out to me. I adored it - it's the story of a man returning to his homeplace for a funeral. He visits a spot he used to frequent in childhood, and reminisces about the summer that changed his life, when the family lodger took his own life and set in motion a series of horrible events. It's a beautiful book, I think fans of Coraline would enjoy it.

Andrew Kaufman - The Tiny Wife
Shortly after 3pm on Wednesday 21st February, a thief (dressed like Prince, it has to be said) walks into branch #117 of the British Bank of North America. He doesn't demand money from those inside - instead, he demands to have the item currently in their possession that holds the most sentimental value. As the customers and staff hand over their items, they are unaware of what will happen. What happens is a series of bizarre and unexplained events - the titular character begins to shrink, until she is the size of a car key. Another woman witnesses her lion tattoo jump off her ankle, grow to full size, and chase her. The husband of a third woman turns into a snowman. A fourth woman discovers she is now made of candy. A man's family history literally collapses on top of him. This was an odd book, and a quick read - but nothing was explained. It's filled with metaphors about facing fears, but we weren't told why the thief wanted the items or who he was. It was all a little disjointed and rushed for me, I would have liked a longer book with more explanation and more detail into the individual stories.

The two books I began in November that I'm currently reading are:

David Nicholls - Us
Written from the point of view of Douglas, who has just been told by his wife Connie that she wants to leave him. I'm finding this a hard slog, I don't like Douglas' voice as a narrator. He actually reminds me a lot of Don Tillman from The Rosie Project. I have heard that it picks up though, so I'll stick with it.

Lena Dunham - Not That Kind of Girl 
I'll be honest, I know nothing about Lena Dunham. I've never seen Girls and I don't think I've ever seen or heard an interview with the woman. I picked this book up after the recent controversy over supposed "confessions" made in the book, because I had some opinions on it but felt like it was unfair to speculate without reading the book. So far it's okay - pretty standard fare.

One pretty cool book-related thing happened in November - a while back, I reviewed Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng for Little Brown via Netgalley. They recently contacted me to get permission to incorporate some of my review into a graphic as part of a huge twitter drive on the day it was published - it was such a cool thing to be involved in!

If you haven't read the book, I really recommend it. You can see my full review on Goodreads here.

Bring on the Christmas reads! If I ever get the stockings finished........