This is my first year watching the X Factor. I’ve avoided the show for however many years it has been running (I’m usually a Strictly fan), but from the moment I first heard Janet Devlin sing on Youtube, I was utterly hooked. Her voice moved me in a way that I cannot describe in words. I had to follow her through the show.
I was expecting some questionable singing, clearly scripted fights between judges, and the chance to see the wonderful Janet blast out beautiful ballads and indie stylings every week. Instead, the show seems to be full of real tensions, hateful commentators, and a worrying example of society’s expectations for girls, and our general resistance to any young woman insisting on her own individuality.
When Janet first appeared in The X Factor, she was this adorable, shy, vulnerable looking girl with an amazing, emotional voice. And people loved her for it. But she’s been receiving more and more criticism over the past few weeks, because, it seems to me, she’s going through something of an identity crisis, and she’s struggling to remain true to herself and come out on top.
There have been loads of rumours recently about her falling out with her mentor Kelly and of her having a bit of a nervous breakdown, and she has received a lot of criticism for being “bland,” “stroppy,” “moody,” and “arrogant.” I can’t comment on gossip that appears in the likes of The Mirror or the Daily Mail, but the reaction to Janet that I’ve seen on Twitter and on forums has been really disturbing. While people were willing to accept her as a shy little mouse of a performer, they are unwilling to accept her as an young woman who stands up for herself and for her beliefs.
The X Factor isn’t designed to help the competitors maintain their identity. Before even appearing on the live shows, each act gets an intense makeover, which, for Janet, meant a new clothes style, hair dye and entirely different make-up. Then every week they have to sing a song in a certain style, from club anthems to Queen. Their every move is dictated by their mentor, by stylists, and by the shows producers, and the result is analyzed by millions every week, including tabloid reporters desperate for a scandalous scoop. And I’ll be honest: something seems to have gone wrong with the way they are managing Janet. She seems uncomfortable with her songs, and her talent isn’t being displayed, possibly because they are trying to mould her into their idea of a commercial “X Factor star,” instead of allowing her to be the kind of gorgeous singer that she has been since her audition.
But the most worrying part, to me, is some people’s reaction to her strength. In her first live show, when faced with the tabloid reporters trying to push her to be “edgy” like Frankie, I felt incredibly impressed with how she stood up for herself, but that seemed to spark the first comments on her “arrogance.” Every week, when she quietly takes the judges’ criticisms instead of breaking down or smiling as though it is fabulous, she is labelled as “moody.” The message seems clear. Young, indie performers who seem shy, quiet, meek and adorable (aka “weaker,” “malleable,” “vulnerable”) are loved, but a young woman who is certain of who she is and of the artist who she wants to be? Why, that is unacceptable.
Yet maybe that conclusion is a little too black-and-white. Although Janet gets criticism for having an attitude, competitors like Misha B use boldness and confidence to complement their act (in her case, an RnB sound), and are frequently praised, despite facing accusations of bullying other acts. And I wonder whether it’s related to the way that they were introduced. Misha B has always been a bit loud, a bit “out there” and different, while the producers sold Janet to us as a wall-flower finally building up the confidence to sing in front of an audience for the first time. When it turned out that, despite being sweet, Janet also has strength and a good sense of self, that clashed with the weaker, needs-to-be-protected perspective people had built, and people turned on her. I also wonder if it’s related to the sort of music that they perform, and even to their appearances. People expect RnB acts of any age to have attitude, and even to be a bit of a diva. It’s right there in the stereotype. But emotional indie acts? Willowy girls with mounds of blonde girls and large, sweet eyes? They have to be vulnerable, have to be “girls” instead of “divas.” And Janet is breaking people’s comfort zones by refusing to be any of the people that the editors, the executives, stereotypes, and tabloid writers want her to be.
Good for her. I just hope that she survives, and that she gets another chance to stand on the stage and show us all who that young woman really is.