Monday, 19 November 2012

The X Factor

“Do you want me to change channels?” asked my partner as I sat down on the sofa. The X Factor is not my preferred choice of evening viewing, and he knows that. But I know that he loves this kind of programme. “No, it’s OK, I don’t mind watching it if you want to,” I replied.

Behind my apparent graciousness, however, lay a long-buried, secret desire. My slightly condescending expression masked the fact that there is a part of me that loves watching amateur performers and finding out which of them has the talent to become a star. It’s the same part that can imagine being up there on the stage in front of the judges, backed by vocalists, dancers and a fantastic light show and impressing the audience with a stunning performance. It’s the part of me that knows that I have the X factor.

My Performer first appeared when I was a young boy. After Christmas lunch I would take it upon myself to entertain the family with a puppet show. My father constructed a small booth with a stage for which my mother made some curtains with a drawstring. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins gathered round and when everyone was seated and conversation had died down the curtains parted and the entertainment began. I wrote the story, manipulated the puppets and did the voices. I revelled in the attention - and of course the applause when I came forward to take a bow! My extended family was supportive and enthusiastic and my Performer could show off without fear of being rejected.

The world outside my home was a far more dangerous place, where people were not always as attentive or approving. After a few hard knocks I quickly realised that my Performer could get me into trouble, exposing my more vulnerable side by laying me open to criticism and even to ridicule. The shame and embarrassment was too much to bear and so he was shut away.

Growing up in London in the 1960’s, teenage boys were divided into two camps: those who were fans of the Beatles and those who revered the Rolling Stones. Either you worshipped at the altar of the Fab Four, bought the jacket and got the haircut, or you paid homage at the shrine of the instinctual and irreverent Stones.

I did neither. Instead I distanced myself from these vulgar rivalries by immersing myself in modern classical music. While my friends were grooving to the melodies of A Hard Day’s Night or rocking to the rhythms of Aftermath, I spent long hours listening to the ballet music of Stravinsky or the piano concertos of Bartok. Alone with my parents’ sound system I grappled with the atonality of Schoenberg and the clashing harmonies of Webern. This kind of music was a mystery to all but a few of my contemporaries and I gained a reputation for being “highbrow” or “intellectual.” I wrapped myself in a protective cocoon of “serious” music and as a result I was ignored by both camps. The sensitive child inside felt safe.

Of course there was a price to pay for protecting my vulnerability in this way. I had to further disown my confident, exhibitionist self - my Performer. As I retreated into the obscure world of modern classical music, he was relegated to the realm of my imagination. In my fantasies he would adopt the persona of any one of a number of famous singers. In my mind’s eye I strutted the stage with the same sexual bravado as Mick Jagger, wowed the audience with the same charisma as John Lennon, and drummed out rhythms with the same dynamism as Keith Richards or Ringo Star - the very people that my “High Brow” self shunned!

My dreams also proved fertile ground. In one I was Mick Jagger. I came out onto the stage in front of a huge audience. The arena was vast and the atmosphere electric. But when I opened my mouth to sing no sound came. I realised that I had a severe throat infection and that I could not perform. I felt impotent and immensely frustrated. I was angry at the infection but there was nothing I could do.

These rock star fantasies have remained with me since adolescence. They get stirred up watching programmes like the X Factor. My Performer knows he is as awesome as Freddie Mercury, as colourful as Elton John and as outrageous as Ozzy Osbourne. He watches with admiration as Tina Turner or Madonna fill a huge stadium with their energy and enthral thousands with the power of their performance. He wants to be allowed to do the same!

Actually, my Performer does have a role in my life. As a seminar leader and trainer I often find myself standing up in front of groups. I even call my way of working with people “entertraining”. But when he was recently encouraged to speak in a Voice Dialogue session he said he was unhappy that I was “piddling around” with such small groups. From his point of view I should be up on the big stage commanding much larger audiences. He would really like me to be a mega-star and rock the world!

Sitting on the sofa deep in reflection I watched the X Factor contestants trying their best to impress the judges. Then came a commercial break. The first advert was for some new Xbox software. It showed people singing, playing guitar and drumming to famous rock songs in their home in front of a large Xbox screen. My ears pricked up at the catch phrase: “UNLEASH YOUR INNER ROCKSTAR!!” Was the universe trying to tell me something?

The letter X can signify many things. It can mean secret or hidden - as in the “X files”. It can mean strong or forbidden - as in “X rated”. But it can also represent a magic ingredient or talent - as in the “X factor”. And at the end of a letter it denotes a hug. Perhaps it’s time for me to embrace my Performer more consciously and, after long years in the shadows, allow his energy to be more present in my life.