Since the painful arrival of Credibility Cardle on our screens in 2010, there has been a steep upward trend in the number of X Factor contestants showing up with acoustic guitars and sullen faces. Two years on, it is clear that the serious ‘n’ authentic troubadour has left something of a legacy on the X Factor. This year’s auditions were jam packed with pretty, whining indie-boys just bursting at the denim seams to strum a line or two for the judges.
They were not alone of course. Champion of the flipside, Miss Cher ‘Swagger’ Lloyd has her own brand of auditionee to answer for – the cocky urban child. It’s a niche that Her Royal Highness, Misha B, did well to refine last year, albeit in the face of some rather uncomfortable sabotage.
Whatever you think of these characters, their participation in X Factor has broadened our ideas of what a winner should sound like. Time was, you had to be a white crooner in a stiff collar or an overly grateful black diva-in-training to scoop the main prize. Today, people look at James Arthur (who surely would have been shooed like a dirty pigeon from series 1 auditions) and wonder if he might be the prodigal epicentre of artistic torment.*
Of course there have been guitars from the beginning, and rappers too (who can forget the inimitable Miss Frank?) but aside from 2005’s Journey South, who were more Kum-Ba-Yah than Arctic Monkeys, there weren’t any real ‘alternative’ contenders until Messrs Cardle, Lloyd and Grimshaw turned up in series 7.
So far, however, no indie act has really worked post show. Wett Flannel found that he had no street cred in the harsh, middle-class wankfest of NME readership, a misfortune he might have anticipated before slagging off the X Factor and labelling its audience a ‘stepping stone’. Aiden Grimshaw has managed a little better, but only by side-morphing casually into murky post-dub pop waters and keeping his head down somewhat.
2011 proved even more disastrous for the indie-crew, with James Michael leaving early, Janet Devlin suffering assassination and Frankie being a bloody, rasping arsehole on twiglets.
The urban story is a slightly different one. True, Cher Lloyd discarded the fragments of effortless urban cool she demonstrated in one or two performances and instead threw herself headlong down a gauntlet of lollipop knuckledusters and bubblegum pop. But what she did do, and what Misha B is trying to do now, was to turn a niche audition into a vaguely successful music career.
Let us imagine for a second that every X Factor contestant – and by extension every popstar – fits somewhere on a scale between 0 and 10. A nice number 5 would be neither too sweet nor too salty but simply good, wholesome pop. A zero would be as ghetto as X Factor is capable of getting, whilst a perfect ten would be an acoustic cover of Killing In The Name Of in the style of Florence Welch.
(I’m quite aware that ‘pop’ as a neutral point between contrasting genres isn’t exactly scientific but for the point of this post we’re going to run with it).
Some examples are in order (feel free to contribute your own). It would be pretty fair to say that Shayne Ward and Leona Lewis were both about a 4, much like Justin Timberlake and an early Whitney Houston – essentially pop but with a hint of soul. Meanwhile, Joe McElderry, One Direction and Little Mix would all be a strong, poppy 5. Diana Vickers would just about push over into a 6 and Janet Devlin would yelp her way to an 8, right behind Matt Cardle at 8.5 (still a fair distance from Robbie Hance’s 10).
Overall, the show’s winners tend to be a 5 or under, with the sole exception of Matt Cardle (who incidentally also holds the record for fastest post-show vanishing act). Winners and runners up can lean ever so gently towards the urban, as was the case with Alexandra Burke and JLS (both about 4) but not so far as to intimidate middle England and therefore cost producers a lot of extra pushing and pimping, as was the case with Cher and Misha (2.5 and 2 respectively).
However, should you graduate the X Factor as an urban leaning artist in a top 4 placing, you look far more likely to make waves in the singles chart from that point onwards.
The same cannot be said for the indie-rock darlings. In fact they appear to have the opposite problem. Whilst some appear to storm the public vote, as with Cardle and Devlin, we might speculate that others pose such a threat to producer plan that they are cut before the public get a say (see: Joseph Whelan, Robbie Hance). And unlike the ‘urban’ acts, the indies don’t have to rein their differences in – the more leftfield their performances, the more the audiences lap it up. The paradox: these are the acts that the TV viewing public love to get behind but the record buying public won’t invest in.
It could be argued that a lot of it comes down to class and taste. The stereotyped urban market is younger, less concerned with questions of high vs low culture and essentially less cynical / more willing to buy into commercial crap. The indie market however is obsessed with the idea of credibility and takes great joy in rooting out the inauthenticities in every Tom, Dick and Harry who makes the shelves in HMV. Look at what happened to poor Lana Del Rey.
So what does this dichotomy mean for the inaugural class of 2012? Ella and Jahmene are solid pop 5s so they’ll do all right, won’t they? And Jade Ellis looks like an appealing 3.5 which has to be better than Lucy Spraggan’s 8, no? Mitsotu can be written off as a threatening 1 but sixer Kye is not to be sniffed at. Right? Hmm.
Just as we here at Sofabet like to pore over our makeshift form book, so too will music bigwigs be scanning the X Factor’s eight year history for a good indication of what to do next. Is there space for another One Direction in the form of Union J or GMD3? Is it better to play to the show’s strengths and produce more urban pop artists and shy away from the dangerous, unmarketable indie acts? Isn’t it time that X Factor produced another golden girl pop star and shouldn’t that star be Ella Henderson – young, fresh, talented and unassuming?
The problem with that line of thinking of course is that music trends are fluid. Whilst Matt Cardle bitched about singing Katy Perry in yellow trousers (seriously, man the fuck up) and Janet Devlin moaned about being separated from her beloved guitar, we no longer live in a world where an act needs to make a clear cut choice about whether to attack the pop or indie market. Why is that exactly?
In a word, Sheeran. To complement it with another, Gotye. Those two acts have done more to indify the tween market in the past year than The Script could manage in four. Whilst ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ was the anthem for commercial hipster chic, with lyrics as patronising as ‘have you friends collect your records and then change your number’, Ed Sheeran became the poster boy for heartfelt angst and teen insecurity as well as a beacon of authenticity, shining brightly against a dark sky of monotonous production, dubstep breakdowns and Nicki Minaj interludes. Sheeran also became something of an unlikely heartthrob, his wiry ginger hair and tubby physique somehow making him the accessible pin up for adolescent females up and down the nation.
The tween represents a strong sector of the X Factor demographic but more importantly, a potentially strong crossover between the voting public and the average music buyer. Let’s face it; part of what doomed the careers of most of the show’s male winners is the simple fact that randy housewives don’t buy CD singles.
The X Factor has lamentably failed to provide us with a solid urban category this year. Rough Copy have apparently failed to make Judges’ Houses due to visa issues and Mitsotu have barely been covered. Rumour has it that Starboy Nathan fails to make the finals and Jade Ellis is hardly Miss Dynamite. Perhaps this is due to the current glut of ‘urban’ rubbish in the charts right now – from Tinchy Srtyder to Taio Cruz via everything involving Nicki Minaj (let’s be clear – I LOVE Nicki Minaj but enough is enough guys). Perhaps what the single-buying public want right now is more Gotye and more Sheeran.
As I see it, X Factor producers currently have two options. They can attempt a return to form by committing to one of Ella Henderson or Jade Ellis and creating their third successful flaming songbird character. Or they can strike while the iron is hot – that is to say at the point when the market wants Sheeranesque, acoustic indie-folk-pop – and take a risk with James Arthur (9) or Lucy Spraggan (8). The risks paid off with Cher and Misha in the urban vein. And they paid off with JLS and One Direction with the resurrection of the boyband. Maybe, just maybe, the indie-folk concept has been tweened and preened to the point that an X Factor alumnus could slip into the charts without the need to defend his or her authenticity. It may have been too soon for the Devlinator last year but Lucy Spraggan has already proved that she can sell records and James Arthur hasn’t half racked up the hits on Youtube.
Then again, that Adeleona Henderson does look like a safer bet for both punters and producers alike. Either way, what the show needs least is the fallout from a win by Jahmene or Kye. We don’t need another Steve Brookstein or Leon Jackson or Joe McElderry and The Powers That Be, as dense as they seem at times, must know that too.
As ever, do let us know your thoughts in the comments section below. Do you expect producers to play it safe and engineer a win for a silken pop princess? Or do you think producers and punters should take the big risk and root for the more exciting (read: tedious, acoustic) outcome? We want to know!
*Collagen Westwood is the prodigal epicentre of artistic torment and don’t you forget it.