The modern reality music show has travelled a fair distance, like a kernel of corn, down the long and fleshy digestive tract of pop culture. X Factor is now a far cry from the days of Gareth Gates warbling Unchained Melody, all puppy-eyed and silver-suited. You only have to prod about for Youtube gems such as this to realise just how much more thought goes into production values these days.
Contemporary opponents of X Factor are most likely to be heard slating the programme as a freak-show or abomination. Once upon a time, ‘karaoke’ was the hater’s insult of choice. It’s a dirty word (outside of Japan) and still gets whipped out for occasional assassinations by judges, along with the accusations that acts are pub singers and cruise ship entertainers. It isn’t, however, the term of choice for the angry mob outside the XF studio.
2010 was the year that producers got all funky in the pants for original arrangements. It was the year when terms like ‘artistry’ and ‘recording voice’ became fully integrated into the ITV lexicon and public consciousness. It suddenly became cool for guys to sing ‘girly’ songs and to mash up contrasting genres. Changing it up became the new way to prove ones place on the X Factor stage.
As a viewer – one who clings despite bitter cynicism to the idea that the show might produce the occasional popstar – I think that this development has made live shows immeasurably better. In 2010, Cher turned her swag on ‘No Diggity’ and ‘Stay’ whilst Aiden psychopathed his way through ‘Diamonds Are Forever’. The following year, producers did everything in their power to establish Misha B and Little Mix with their own sounds. As a viewer, I think that this is a good way to bolster the chance of a credible pop alumni and to preserve the credibility of the show in the long run, unfair as it may seem on the Joseph Whelans of this world.
As a punter, I realise that sound production is an invaluable tool in gauging producer favour. Most obviously, One Direction and Little Mix were given helpful backing tracks in recent years, although the demands of managing a group vocal over an unreliable PA will inevitably require more support in this way.
More crucial than levels and backing tracks, I think, are the arrangements themselves. Not only can they help or hinder performers vocally, they serve to tease us with a peep-show glimmer of what kinds of mediocre recording artists our acts can aspire to be (or what post-show niches producers have in mind for them). When an act is favoured, producers can send them out with something current and clearly stylised. When producers want to nobble an act, they can send them on stage with something dated or outside of their niche (see: Wagner).
Lighting, styling and general staging play a massive role of course – as with last year’s speculation around the destructive potential of ‘red and black’ backdrops. Camera angles can make a singer appear as an intimating chanteuse or as lonely malcontent complaining at the crowd. But for now I’d like to take a brief look back at the music production from last week’s show and think about what producers can do in order to push their favoured acts tomorrow night.
The identikit boybands were the most interesting for me. Producers have two problems here. The first is distinguishing the acts from each another. The second is distinguishing at least one of them from One Direction (just enough to validate their place in the competition and any point of their potentially making the final).
The groups were allocated different niche sounds in terms of production and arrangement. District3 were sent out with a very ‘Fight For This Love’-esque, r’n’b raveballad backing track that suited their Backstreet Boys delivery of the line ‘bitter thin innyone’ whilst the little dubsteppy twist on Union J’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ was decidedly more British. Both were set a little apart from the Beatlemania influenced One Direction repertoire but more importantly the acts were set further apart from each other than in pre-live episodes.
I’ll definitely be keeping an ear out tomorrow to hear how their respective sounds are delivered. Of course, running order could play a part in revealing producer favour but then again both acts might have cleared the bottom two by a clear mile in which case producers might look to nobbling MK1 whilst they decide which boy band works best with the public.
Speaking of MK1, their arrangement was nothing but helpful. I had to feel sorry for Charlie Bieber when she started out of key but I’m in agreement with most that the pair pulled it back and there did seem to be a lot of effort involved in their production which made for an exciting performance. According to formula, we should really be losing a group at the weekend, what with it being Louis’ category this year and Borelow having already chipped a tooth.
The story with the overs was far more straightforward. With the exception of Carolynne, none received backing tracks that seemed intended to set them apart as anything other than cover artists. Kye, who is surely now Alpha over by default, had something of a jingly jangly Emeli Sande vibe going on but Christopher’s performance of ‘Hero’ was straight out of the Pop Idol karaoke songbook. Melanie’s ‘With a Little Help’ was lifted directly from the Joe Cocker cover and the ‘woodstock’ backdrop only served to remind us that MELANIE IS OLD.
As contestants know, X Factor today is as much about reaching the final as a springboard to a career as it is about actually winning. Part of the journey through the lives is about producers establishing acts with a clearly defined sound. I think that the arrangements demonstrated a lack of faith in the post-show marketability of the overs category as a whole, far from Gary’s belief this this is the year the oldies rise like a phoenix from the ashes.
Producers still seemed very much in favour (although to differing degrees) of all three girls. Ella got the full-on Olympic pride arrangement with ascending strings and emotive piano chords and it seems pretty fair to say that producers aren’t going off her just yet. I’m inclined to think that Ella may begin to grate with the public after god-knows-how-many weeks of pained warbling so it will be interesting to see how her sound develops over the competition. At the moment, it’s very middle-of-the-road Leona Lewis and as much as she might be the benchmark for XF success, she’s hardly the popstar du jour.
Also towing the Leona line was Jade Ellis, whose understated production might have helped or hindered her. It was nice, and definitely more career-defining in its sound than say, Christopher’s backing track. But it was little more than nice which is a shame because she has the best tone of any remaining contestants from where I’m sitting. If she goes out with something a little edgier tomorrow I’ll be happy but another ballad in an early slot will probably mean she’s bye-bye, Jadedeji.
Lucy didn’t fare too badly with her original song and the show made things pretty easy for her by allowing a fusion of electro-acoustic guitar and backing track. Her musicianship definitely does dwindle a little under the bright studio lights but I can imagine the show will give her a chance to be more ‘stripped back’ if and when it wants to do her a favour. On the same note, Gary’s assertion that Lucy should never leave her songwriting backstage sets her up perfectly for a fall should the show want to nobble her in big band or disco week.
The greatest variation in sound production was undoubtedly in the boys category. We had funky Davros singing gospel in a suit with a choir and backing track that felt very Gareth Gates indeed. As many have pointed out, a week 1 pimp slot is rarely a springboard to the final and Jahmene’s arrangement had dated written all over it.
In stark contrast, I’m afraid to say James Arthur put on the performance of the night. I have found him strangely repulsive from the word go but somehow his neatly produced rap/rock rendition of ‘Stronger’ showed the most careful consideration of niche by the music team. I’m sure Gary would have preferred to have seen it sung out of tune behind a battered acoustic guitar and prefixed with an explanation about how it was inspired by a stint in rehab but for me James works a lot better after a stint under the power-sander. It was pretty much the only arrangement of the night that I could picture as a single and that is exactly where to spot producer plans for post-show careers.
Of course Rylan’s Ibiza pantomime – via ancient Egypt – was the anomaly of the night and we’re interested to see how producers intend to pull him back from the brink this weekend. Either way, he’s not there to sell records and thus analysing the sound of his production wouldn’t be a particularly productive exercise.
What do you think? Do helpfully individualised arrangements indicate post-show careers for James and the girls? Do dated covers really show a lack of faith in the overs? Is it clear which group is favoured yet? And how accurately can we gauge favour for acts by the quality of their backing tracks? The comments section awaits.