Essay

We are all Stan Walker

ABOUT HALFWAY THROUGH the debut series of The X Factor (New Zealand) I started making some notes about why I liked the show. I should add that I liked it un-ironically, though not unreservedly; I'm not insane. Of course the show is mostly reviled. Here are some of the reasons I've heard: it's exploitative of the participants and the audience, cynical, divorced from true ideas about musical talent and embarrassingly shallow; a crass, heavily scripted overseas commercial operation in the guise of an open, local, community-minded show. And the judges? No-account has-beens or lightweight nobodies, mangling the language and looking to bolster flagging careers while posing as mentors. I get all that, agree with most of it, and yet I continued to watch. Why?

An early driver, I suppose, was connected to that aspect commentators report as finished-with; namely appointment group viewing. We have teenage daughters – a key segment of the show’s target market – and we watched it as a family. (My guess is that the show was consumed like this around the country, in denial of the commonplace about atomised viewers and on-demand habits.) However, near the point at which there were six or seven contestants left, I was aware things had got strange – I was sometimes watching the live show by myself. My fellow-travellers appeared less than hooked, drifting in and out of range – even talking through some of the judges’ comments. I stayed to the end, where I was rejoined by the fair-weather cohort. Jackie won. She cried. Woop-de-shit. See how easy it is to slip into hostility. Still, it’s worth noticing that the result, for the viewer at least, wasn’t really the point. Winning isn’t the object of our contemplation. Losing might be.

THE NOTES I made on the show, in truth, don’t amount to much, certainly not a full-scale defence but they did issue from a sense that the denigrators – wise and knowing and cruel and right – were still missing something pretty great. I doubt there’s been a more emotionally engaging piece of NZ television in years than those first episodes of The X Factor. Two recurring themes I noted: breast cancer and poverty. I don’t know how many aspirants were singing for dead mothers, lost wives – maybe I’m inflating the number but grief seemed everywhere. So did poor people.

The host Dominic Bowden, not yet transformed into the suited suavery of showtime, prised open almost by accident some searing biographies as he walked among the waiting. (Something haunting, too, about that waiting, everyone slouched on chairs, lying on the carpet, drumming against walls – unspeaking family groups or couples or solitary figures, collected as if pre- or post-disaster, as in a horrible, huge transit lounge.)

Speaking of disease and mortality, later the show would make its required trips to Auckland’s Starship Children’s Hospital where it was painful to feel the affective distance between dialled-up illness and the random strikes in that roll-up crowd of hopefuls who had nothing but their sudden awful stories. Even deep into the finals, when a member of boy-band Moorhouse, showed us his smartphone video message from a child with cancer – the child of a friend of his mother’s, he said, trying to get some intimacy into the levels of remove – it was a desperate echo of the river of pain Dom had waded through back in the day when we didn’t even know who Moorhouse were.

And this was what my note meant too, I think – that you needed to have watched all the way through to catch such an echo. Had the dreaded, diminished word ‘journey’ begun to make a kind of sense? For those of us long-timers, the series was epic and we did remember faces, pimples, pre-show civvies before Wardrobe arrived and the judges could say things like, ‘I like what you’re wearing.’ Maaka Fiso, a finalist, auditioned in baggy T-shirt and shorts and looked awful. Turned out he scrubbed up well (and possessed my favourite voice of the show). We knew them back when.

The slump towards groomed emotion, photo ops, product placement – the Coke segment was particularly sickening – made it harder to like anyone walking around in this world but investment is a strange thing; you’re locked into returns. You want to see why you bother caring when dreck is all around.

The casual detracting glance sees slick formula in every move but this series was oddly, interestingly messy, productively mismanaged. Two finalists (including the eventual winner) were tossed out and then, in turns I can’t be bothered to remember, asked back. The mess didn’t end there. Again it was easy to find nauseating the judges’ confident talk of ‘your place in the market’ but this was a piece of commerce repeatedly bothered by notions of ‘art’.

When one of his acts was eliminated, Daniel Bedingfield cried at another judge: ‘I thought you’d vote for art!’ (From what I’ve read of Bedingfield, he considers himself an artist, with a significant history of industry abuse.) We quickly knew who the artists were – they were mainly white and played acoustic guitars. Memorably, Mel Blatt at the audition stage complained, ‘What is it with all you people and your bleedin’ guitars!’ – Mel was definitely not an artist. The brown singers weren’t immediately artists; they had voices which were ‘gifts’. Stan Walker called Whenua Tapuwai’s voice ‘anointed’. Brownness was associated with powerful feelings, virtuosic control and unoriginality. ‘I want to see you girls rapping in Kiwi accents,’ Daniel told Māori duo L.O.V.E. When it wasn’t wholesome (Cassie), whiteness was delicate self-expression (Eden), comic macho strut (Tom), and tameness (Anna).

But a few things made this thoroughly raced show not quite as easy to organise into the above boxes. Firstly, there was Benny Tīpene – Māori name, white act (the infernal guitar, his rumoured ‘original songs’, his terrible dancing, his Smiths cover). In one of the themed episodes (songs from movies), Benny was criticised by the judges for not being real enough. ‘But Hollywood is fake,’ said Benny sullenly. Of course he was talking about The X Factor. There was ominous unspecific talk of Benny having ‘a difficult week’; he was visited by his sister for some ‘grounding’. He’d been a long-time favourite but now as the judges reported back to him on a distracted performance – ‘Oh Benny, is this what you’ve been reduced to, the only interesting thing about that was your socks’ (Mel) – Benny was letting go odd yawns and glancing off to the side of the stage. For a moment it seemed he could do anything: roar, weep, run, laugh.

Whatever The X Factor bible says, its thou-shalt-nots finally can’t fully account for the one defining gamble of the format: it’s live. You see stuff before the machine can snaffle it. Of course whole swathes of its spontaneity are scripted. The licence for judges to disagree and badmouth each other, for instance, is franchised and finally not exciting. The licence for finalists to act strangely is not extended and such behaviour is usually punished and frequently exciting. Maybe, the judges warned, you don’t really want this, Benny.

Dominic Bowden’s mildly ribald banter (the week of ‘liking bush’ and ‘what are you wearing under that kilt’) is franchised but not two male finalists kissing each other’s hands a number of times while Dom intoned the script of ‘being sent home’. (Curious this almost universal infantilising formulation in reality shows: ‘Leave the kitchen’, ‘Leave the sewing-room’, ‘Go straight to bed without any supper’.) I’ve forgotten most of the performances but I remember Benny and Tom’s thespie hand-kissing. Before Tom exited, the host suggested that it was a very tense moment but the two lads were grinning goofily, and when Tom’s name was announced as the loser, he looked positively delighted to leave. It was unclear who’d got the better news.

This was also the night of Benny’s rather beautiful and saving reading of schmaltz classic I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You. That struck me somehow as a Māori note. In contrast, his white bro’s Jim Morrison impersonation was comedy that never approached feeling but was still delivered with weird intensity so that it almost crossed into something else. Daniel Bedingfield’s put-down about Tom being a pub band singer was right and wrong; a pub band wouldn’t hold this guy unless he was devoid of ambition – and maybe he is. ‘Wanting it’ seems to count, and it was surprisingly easy to read.

THE KEY MATERIAL, then, which casual watchers or avoiders miss or avoid, is not repellent industry grooming but nuanced, dynamic response to shifting moods. Grant the performers agency and the show becomes more than watchable.

Alongside the rote statements (‘I’m just going to take those criticisms as fuel’), there was a palpable drama of striving and doubt that, unlike, say, the manufactured malice of so many other reality shows, didn’t rely on competitiveness. The competition among the judges to mentor the winning contestant was weak enough but it failed to find any purchase in the acts themselves. Unlike other reality shows, The X Factor contestants aren’t invited to comment on each other, to confess to camera some behind-the-scenes nastiness. The vibe is family, clean. The contestants’ parents come to the live shows. ‘Yes, we’ve very proud of him.’ Nor does the format, unlike say in MasterChef, centre authority around experts. The judges aren’t really in control. Who knows – industry-wise, it might be Sony, to whom the finalists are all apparently contracted, calling the shots. But affective power is another matter and, under these conditions, that sort of power is more diffuse and mysterious; it’s also capable of defeating the judges, who occasionally voiced pique: ‘I know you’ve got a fan base but I just don’t get you’. 

The performers did also seem genuinely supportive of each other and not at all isolated in their mentor’s camps: Cassie (Girls) said she regarded Moorhouse (Groups) as her fathers on the show. Jackie (Girls) had that thing for Tom (Boys). More than this, when they gathered together on stage at the end of each show, it was a motley bunch. You couldn’t say there was a shared body shape, a norm of attractiveness. Tom looked like he had false teeth; there were big stomachs, short legs. Loveliness was there too, of course, though not decisively so. A group of singers such as this made me think that showbiz is and always will be about freaks, oddballs, misfits, queers, characters prepared to dress up for us and for themselves, characters saved from other lives. ‘I don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t here,’ said Whenua, who was constantly told he wasn’t connecting with the audience and ended the phone poll as runner-up.

TRANSFORMATION IS WHAT The X Factor deals in. Critics naturally see coercion everywhere (clothes, song choices, staging) but the format is so open about its coercive tactics it’s hard to feel affronted. It’s also patronising at best to treat the testimony of those inside the beast as anything except genuine. Jackie, it seemed, had grown in confidence: ‘I’m a completely different person. I’m happier.’ Remembering her anxious, near-demented early self, the assessment had merit.

Of all the reality shows, The X Factor makes the most powerful and natural connection between what the contestant has to do and what the viewer experiences. I mean it requires considerable adjustment of one’s reality to fully compute the significance of an adult making a cupcake. But someone singing live – that has a head-start. Another way of saying this is that song itself is about transformation – the singer’s and ours – with the process astonishingly fragile, resting as it does in phrases, breaths, the chemistry of diaphragm, larynx, body. ‘You sounded a lot better at rehearsal,’ the judges said. ‘You were closed up just then.’ On a good night, visibly, audibly, the cupcake of song appears out of thin air. And of course we can’t choose transcendence; it chooses us. Who knew that a weightless tune from the wretched Twilight films could be an emotional highlight? I certainly didn’t think the weightless Anna would make anything of Stevie Nicks’ Landslide.

THE LAST PUZZLE for me in my X Factor ‘journey’ was Stan Walker. In 2009, Stan won Australian Idol, or as he referred to it on this rival product, ‘another show’. Readily lampooned, his self-mocking appearances on TV comedy shows around the same time as Idol proved he was easily ahead of the satire. Radiant, kind, silly and limited but frequently forceful and articulate, humble but also grand – he was the undoubted star of the show. When Moorhouse performed one of his anonymous songs Stan was briefly overcome (‘I am not crying! These aren’t tears!’). He often said, ‘I’m speechless, eh.’ He communicated delight and practiced decency, sometimes in a cringe-making way: ‘You look beautiful,’ he told fourteen-year-old Cassie, before quickly adding, ‘but not sexy.’ He told Anna (over twenty-fives), ‘You look hot, eh, but not in a skanky way. Some people dress like that are skanky.’ He always seemed surprised into emotion or statement. I found his clutzy openness winning though I have no further desire to investigate his music. ‘You and me come from the same place,’ he told Whenua. ‘Look at you! You’re in the final!’ Then he said something interesting. ‘People think it’s because you’re Māori I like you but that’s not it. I like you because of your voice, bro. Because of what you do to me inside.’

That ‘same place’ Stan mentioned couldn’t fail to resonate with any viewer up-to-speed on Walker’s back-story. Born in Melbourne to Māori parents, the family moved back to New Zealand and Stan grew up in a Mount Maunganui household marked by poverty, alcoholism and violence; in interviews he’s described it as ‘like Once Were Warriors’. Both parents spent time in jail for drugs and Walker was a thief and troublemaker. He was also sexually abused by a relative. He’s said that moving back to Australia, and turning to religion, saved him. Before entering Idol, Walker was a shop assistant at a menswear shop in Coolangatta. After winning the competition, to protect his financial interests, he set up his own company, Stan Walker Music Pty Ltd, run by his mother, April. Australia may have saved him but his return to New Zealand was, infectiously and revealingly, an identification with voice: ‘Over there,’ he said in one interview, meaning Australia, ‘I have to talk proper. But now I’m back here in Aotearoa, I can just be me!’

If there’s one thing I’ll remember from The X Factor, it’s Stan’s – sorry, can’t find a word for it – in my original notes it’s ‘Māori-ising’. Anyway, I liked the eruption of that into middle NZ; liked it in my own house too. He repeatedly identified himself and others as Māori. The first line of his Twitter bio was ‘i love Jesus’ (sic) but his crusading here, thankfully, found a better topic. My favourite moment was when he said to Jackie early on in the live shows that he’d always thought she was ‘this little white girl’ but he’d just found out her dad was Māori. Jackie grinned and looked at the floor. Was anything else ever said about her Māoriness? The Greymouth haka that ended her local town performance before the Grand Final was perhaps the only other signal. (Whenua’s local return was to his Christchurch rugby league club; Benny Tipene’s Palmerston North home was a farm with chickens.) The signals then were muted or not depending no doubt on the normal patterns of each person’s life (and their choices about what they wanted to show of those patterns) but make no mistake, this was triumphantly a brown show.

Stan Walker grasped that at once and made sure we did too. In another interview, he spoke about ‘the shame buzz’: ‘Sometimes you know, within the Māori community especially, people are held back by shame and a fear of succeeding.’ He saved the best line for last though: ‘It was the move to Australia that actually helped me,’ he said, before slyly turning the solemn admiration into something more complex and funnier too, ‘because Australians are shameless. They’ve got no shame at all.’

THERE IS, OF course, that final question, which detractors love: what lies at the end of all this? Surely, in voting and watching, we were colluding in a vast empty promise. Setting aside the way the question assumes naivety and ignorance on the participants’ part – belied, for example, by Benny Tīpene’s post-show media appearances (‘I got what I wanted out of the show’) – and looks to deny them the chance we all have to fail spectacularly, it’s still worth asking. What kind of model of success, for instance, do the judges’ own music careers offer?

Most of the guest stars were almost laughably transient. One whose name I’ve forgotten was asked his advice for the contestants. ‘Enjoy it now cos it could all be gone tomorrow!’ he said, and meant it. Haunted by art but ruled by contingency, fleetingness, the scrap heap, this was always going to be an inauspicious setting for credible tales of lasting transformation. With vicious transparency and utter realism, the judges each hoped to avoid the ‘over twenty-fives’ section as mentors. The word ‘over’ said it all. Predictions of a quick return to obscurity look accurate.

Yet for months of prime-time episodes, The X Factor – pure global product – sent a messy local version into the mainstream and in its anxiety-laden self-image showed us as complicated and involving a picture of our aspiring selves as we’ll see all year. In this picture a lot of us have secret talents alongside our secret lives of pain; a lot of us are also not very well-off and brown – even if we’re white.

Naysayers also forget what even young Cassie knew – that performing a song is itself so chancy and so mysterious, that all bets are off until the last note sounds. How outrageous to want 'a career' from something so flimsy, elusive and charged. Week after week we saw people lose the fight to – key word for the series – 'connect'. The rare successes were startling surprises, making Stan Walkers of us all.

Griffith Review