The X Factor USA: The Rise of Alex & Sierra and the Role of Television in the Digital Age


Those who have recently viewed Alex & Sierra’s

target="_blank" rel="nofollow">audition on The X Factor USA have witnessed the rise of two stars. Alex & Sierra are not there yet, but if the viewership of their audition on YouTube thus far and the attention users have given to their respective YouTube channels since their audition are any indication, they will become hugely successful. And good for them. Not since Carly Rose Sonenclar auditioned in 2012 has a reality music competition delivered such promising results.

Much of the discourse surrounding Alex & Sierra focuses on their romantic relationship and how they appear adorable together. For me, at least, the couple has given me enough hope to last for the rest of year. But more than their on and off stage chemistry which I think makes us all believe in true love a little more, Alex & Sierra make incredible music together. Their cover of “Toxic” is brilliant and sophisticated, and elevates a fun pop song into a work of art. Their version of “If I Didn’t Know Better” by The Civil Wars is similarly powerful, and the fact that it appears so effortless for the two of them shows just how talented they are.

And maybe this is what is needed to reinvigorate a somewhat lackluster music industry. After all, there aren’t many great music duos worthy of our attention. We’ll always have Sonny and Cher and Simon and Garfunkel, of course, and contemporary duos like Sugarland, The Civil Wars, Chairlift, Matt & Kim, Beach House, The Black Keys, and MGMT are wonderful, but Alex & Sierra seem to offer something unique and, frankly, refreshing.

That is, they have the potential to be a talented mainstream music duo. I love Beach House and Matt & Kim as much as the next person, but they aren’t exactly topping the charts. And there is nothing wrong with that, but wouldn’t it be nice to turn on the radio and know that you are listening to two talented artists? With their charming chemistry, their likability, and their accessibility (they are, after all, on The X Factor), Alex & Sierra may just be the next big thing in pop music.

And this is why we need to appreciate these reality competition programs. Not all of them are necessary, but many of them do a noble service by bringing talented, overlooked musicians and singers to a mass audience’s attention. The fact is that Alex & Sierra have been on YouTube for quite some time, and although their uploaded videos demonstrate their unique talent, they needed a popular television series like The X Factor to truly shine.

If the music industry has changed, I don’t think user generated content, social media, and the digital realm are appropriate avenues for success. Sure, a few lucky individuals may become famous by merely posting videos and receiving a lot of views, but most musicians need something else. If anything, reality competition shows provide a platform to stardom and make up for what the internet seems to lack. That is, the internet may help an individual maintain the public’s interest, but the initial interest typically springs from somewhere else.

This is not to say that every musician needs a reality television show to become famous. In fact, most still generate attention the old fashioned way (i.e. a record deal, a constructed image, a publicity tour), even if they are aided by social media and the flow of user generated content. But the sad, unfortunate reality is that many musicians have the talent and ambition but they just don’t have the connections. The X Factor USA proves this, and the recent attention given to Alex & Sierra illustrates the internet’s inability to generate public interest on its own, and the importance of more traditional entertainment mediums to introduce the world to great talent that aren’t related to someone who knows Clive Davis.

There are so many end of proclamations as of late–the end of cinema, the end of television, the end of radio, etc.–but they all seem to be rooted in hyperbole. If television is on the brink of destruction as so many industry insiders seem to suggest, then why are Alex & Sierra just beginning to shine? Certainly the medium still has power if we continue to discuss its content, whether it be the final season of Breaking Bad, the Miley Cyrus VMA performance, or the Alex & Sierra audition on The X Factor USA. 

In fact, I’d argue, the medium of television might be just as powerful as the internet, for while the internet provides democratization and the flow of media content, television, with its limited options, forces the viewer to choose a program within a limited range of choices.

I don’t know about you, but after ten minutes or so of browsing YouTube videos, I become overwhelmed by the plethora of content on display and decide to walk away from the computer screen. For me, the internet isn’t as relaxing precisely because I have to make a decision every time I click on the mouse. Sometimes, media interaction and DIY entertainment becomes a chore.

Television, on the other hand, is less intimidating. Sure, I have to turn the machine on, and sure, I have to use the remote control to decide on a channel, but once such actions are completed, I can sit back, relax, and let the images wash over me. Reality television is so prevalent not only because it is cheap to produce, but because it is entertaining and, at times, enlightening.

Certain culture snobs may disagree to maintain their so-called intellectual credibility, but there is something exciting about turning on The X Factor, watching numerous unknown musicians and singers perform in front of a large audience, and waiting to see which one will blow us (and, of course, Simon Cowell) away. The program plays out in real-time, and when something truly great happens–like the Alex & Sierra audition–it feels magical.

We are glad to have watched, if only to say that we experienced the moment as it happened. Social media and the internet allows us to feel more connected with others who experience the same moments, to be sure, but we must always keep in mind that we are often tweeting about what we watch on television and only using social media to converse with others who aren’t in the same room as us. If they were in the same room, we probably wouldn’t be tweeting.

Contrast this with the discovery of a user generated YouTube video. You love what you just watched and are glad to have stumbled upon it, but the fact is that most other people in the world probably haven’t seen it, and if they have, they have discovered it long before you have, and others you wish to discover it might not get there for another year or two.

When it comes to babies ripping pieces of paper and cats jumping over fences, this format can suffice. But spreadable media through different social networks can’t really replicate the power of collective viewership that television offers, and it can’t create stars and events the way television traditionally has. Imagine if the Superbowl just happened to stream one day on the internet without any of us knowing. Sure, we’d probably catch on after a while, but isn’t it more exciting to watch Madonna perform at the halftime show in real-time than it is to watch her whenever you happen to find the video on a website?

This, I believe, applies to Alex & Sierra. If they did not audition on The X Factor USA, the world would not be exposed to their musical talent. Their YouTube videos would be uploaded, but the chances of them being viewed by enough people to generate the kind of attention that someone like Psy experienced is unlikely. I have numerous friends who have been uploading videos on YouTube for years, and as good as the content is, most of it becomes lost in cyberspace.

However, I don’t want to belittle the internet’s power either. If this article attempts to make a case for television’s relevance in the digital age, it doesn’t imply that the internet is not relevant. I think what most of us need to come to terms with is the potential for all mediums to coexist. That is, the various entertainment industries, if they want to succeed in the digital age, need to use one another for their own financial benefit. The internet arguably wouldn’t survive if it didn’t have other media to appropriate, because even if we have seen the rise of more user generated content to social media websites than ever before, the vast majority of content on the internet still comes from television, film, and even radio. In fact, the only medium that will become obsolete is print, and this is only because we have found a way to read books and newspapers in the digital format without ruining the so-called literary or journalistic experience.

But I don’t think the internet has yet shown us a way to replicate the television or cinematic experience, which is why both television and film remain relevant industries in the digital age. Both rely on the internet to succeed, and fortunately for audiences, both have begun to realize that they need the internet to succeed, but the majority of moviegoers are still going to theaters and the majority of television watchers still tune in on AMC at 10 PM to watch Breaking Bad. At the very least, even if they watch Breaking Bad on their own time, they will make sure to catch the “live” programs when they air, like the Superbowl, the Oscars, and even reality competition programs like The X Factor USA.

This leads to my conclusion that the television, film, and internet industries need to work together in order to remain successful, and that in today’s digital age, neither industry has become the most powerful or the most relevant. If the internet is the place we go to view or discuss content, then most of the content we’re viewing arguably comes from television or film. If television is the place we go to immerse in the “liveness” of the visual experience, then the internet allows us to connect to others who are also immersing themselves in the “liveness.” And if we make a trip to the movie theater to see the latest Batman installment, we will undoubtedly bring that experience to other mediums, whether we discuss the film on Facebook, watch clips of it on YouTube, or view it for a second time when it airs on television, but the experience itself can only be had in a movie theater.

Sometimes, though, people forget that the internet is not equivalent to the second coming, and that it cannot simply combine the unique things about each medium and entertainment industry into a unified whole. There is, dare I say it, limitations of the internet, and these limitations stem from what makes it so wonderful and revolutionary in the first place. Everyone can use it to do pretty much everything, but the consequence of such openness and democratization is that individuals, most of the time, don’t end up doing much of anything with it. It is naive and frankly untrue to assume that the internet will solve all of our problems and make life easier for us. It certainly helps, but sometimes we still need to consider the old fashioned way. We can’t rely on the internet for everything.

This is why the Alex & Sierra audition, however insignificant it may be in the big scheme of things, is so representative of the various mediums and the ways consumers react to them. Alex & Sierra, like most young aspiring careerists today, assumed that the internet and social media would be enough to catapult them to stardom. They believed, perhaps naively, that great performances on YouTube would lead to eminent status and enormous success. But as the weeks, months, and years passed by, they saw that the internet wasn’t really getting them anywhere. They needed another plan if they wanted to be successful. The X Factor USA and the traditions of television viewership provided them with a platform from which they will now become famous. Thanks to this platform, the internet will give them more exposure, and we will soon see the results of this domino effect.

The inquiry that might be worth prosecuting, then, is not whether or not television is more relevant than the internet, but what would have happened to Alex & Sierra without The X Factor USA? We know that the internet wasn’t enough to give them exposure, and that The X Factor USA is responsible for introducing them to a mass audience. But The X Factor USA and reality competition programs haven’t exactly been around for decades.

What I’ve noticed, and what others might wish to comment on, is that the invention of the reality competition program has proved a success for aspiring entertainers, and has given a platform for creative types who don’t have connections in the entertainment industries. The internet, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same success rate. More people use it to present their work, but fewer people become noticed. The trajectory of exposure, it seems, peaked with television. First there was Ed Sullivan, then MTV, and now Reality TV. One would think that the internet would naturally take the place of television and be the next place where people can go to make it big, but it hasn’t quite worked out that way.

Why hasn’t the internet proved more successful for aspiring artists, and what can this tell us about the role of media in the digital age?

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Jon Lisi is a PhD student who writes about film, television, and popular culture. You can follow his work here:

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  1. I don’t normally watch X-Factor, but I caught their rendition of Poison and they are good, very good.

  2. Interesting discussion. I argue that consumers value content from TV more as authentic than what is produced and released exclusively on the web. Think how we look at videos on the web versus videos released for digital distribution.

  3. StrawLuffy

    I genuinely hope for them to go far in the competition. Though honestly speaking, it’ll get tough, with extra attention and judgement once they reach the live stages (if they do reach it) They have great chemistry, everyone knows. What’s even more fantastic is that their voices really blend so well together and just… wow. I can just imagine how much better it’d be once they get professional help in making it even better

  4. Brenton Colyer

    Interesting entry.

    This leads to my conclusion that the television, film, and internet industries need to work together in order to remain successful, and that in today’s digital age, neither industry has become the most powerful or the most relevant.

    I agree that this is the current state of the business but by observing the drastic changes in technology, I am not certain that it will remain as such for the coming future. If you ask me, I see most things moving to the internet medium.

  5. Diana Beckler

    I’ve been following these 2 for a couple years now, and I can tell you that they just keep getting better and better!!! They deserve all thats their way, and more!!! EXTREMELY TALENTED, AND GENUINELY NICE, LOVING PEOPLE!!!

  6. I hope these two make it. They are genuinely good people, fun to watch and very talented. I think we are just scratching the surface of their talents.

  7. Michelle Webb

    What a fantastic article. I love discussion in this area, it’s very relevant and makes us think of the impact the media is having on our consumption and its effectiveness. I’d never heard of the duo until I took a look at your article, so thank you for putting a great topic on my radar to keep track of.

    • Jim King

      I believe you should do a little more research on this subject. Go back to the Vaudeville days of armature shows in the late 19th century. Then radio in the 1930’s, Major Bowles Amateur Show. In the 1940’s Ted Mack’s Amateur hour on radio and TV. In the 1960’s and 70’s numerous shows featured new talent on TV. X-factor and the Voice are just continuations of that tradition. But I do agree that that such shows give a platform to artist that cannot be found anywhere else. As an author with a good book I am part of the “Hey,look at me!” crowd trying to get noticed with little success. That part you got totally correct.

  8. Great & visionary article, congrats!

  9. The formula remains the same for this sort of thing: just keep trying. If you have sufficient talent you will get a break at some point. All that is required is to try as much as reasonably possible to maximize the odds of getting the lucky break.

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