“Is this a blip or a trend?” mused Daniel, after 2012’s second instalment of X Factor auditions turned up more than its fair share of, for want of a better word, knobs.
First there was the double-denim singer-songwriter borestrocity Kye Sones, wailing normally upbeat pop songs in an analgesic fashion. Then came the jaunty Lucy Spraggan with her acoo-stick ghee-tar. The show was closed by James ‘live fast die a legend’ Arthur, one of 2012’s TWO supposedly homeless-at-some-point auditionees.
As Daniel put it, “I want my Saturday night entertainment to include some straightforward pop covers, please.” As I put it, “What a crock of shite.”
As bootcamp and judges’ houses unfolded, it became clear that maybe Spraggo’s shtick was not as one-dimensional as it had first appeared. Tea and Toast turned into a touching moment of television gold and Barelow led the world in gushing over Lucy’s original artistry. Spraggo became an unlikely, wild, dark card-horse – the series finale revealed that Tulisa had even tipped her for the win over long standing series favourite Frankella ‘Harry and the’ Henderson.
The first live show revealed that perhaps James Arthur wasn’t as totally uncoordinated as he might have seemed. Commenters Heisenberg and Curtis did some helpful comparisons of Youtube views which showed that James was racking up the hits for his smooth take on ‘Stronger’. KaraokeSauron saw “a very good opening night for James” although a few also thought James’ treatment was slightly dampening. Lucy also fared relatively well and appeared to be winning favour with the general population. Kye, unfortunately, turned out to be just as insipid as his initial impression.
In late September, Sofabet published this masterpiece of hard-shitting music journalism, in which I argued that perhaps the time of the X Factor indie darling had finally come. The alternative music paradox has always been that the troubadours on ITV fly with the voting public but fail to find a place in the pop market post-show. Artists like Gotye and Ed Sheeran, I argued, had carved out a nice warm indie butt-print in the sofa of popular culture, smugly guffing their pseudo-alternative gases into the mainstream. The tween market was hungry for a winner like James Arthur.
In the final week of X Factor 2012 Daniel, Andrew and I each reviewed the journey-till-now of one of the three finalists. In speculating about James’ Week 5 performance, I suggested the following:
I can picture the crisis meeting: / “Shit!” I imagine producers exclaiming, “James only just cleared the vote. The oldies hate him and the twenty-somethings don’t vote at all. We need to lure the teen girl vote away from our terrible boybands. I’m thinking an Adele song – everyone identifies with Adele – but with a reductive ‘dubstep’ breakdown. Young people love dubstep. Who’s on board?”
Indeed the week by week voting stats showed that James’ Week 5 performance of ‘Don’t Speak’ only just saw him safe of the bottom two.
Producers, having failed to sell angsty troubadour James to quite a broad enough audience, were faced with the task of sandpapering his rough, rapping edges into something to take home to mum. If the mountain would not come to the rapping Mohammed, then he would need to croon his way to the mountain.
In ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’, James took things too far: voters apparently felt no particular desire to pick up the phone. After convincing the great British public that it should want an alternative revelation, X Factor presented its viewers with Donny Osmond in jam-jar spectacles. Programme makers were failing to find the exact edgy-to-mainstream ratio needed to attract viewer votes.
Hence the big guns – Marvin Gaye’s soft porn classic ‘Let’s Get It On’ was the number that solidified the impression that James was the golden boy and producer favourite. However, it was also in many ways the least ‘James Arthur’ of all his performances. James’ three big signatures – the guitar, the rapping and the ‘authentic’ vocal melancholy were all conspicuously absent. ‘Let’s Get It On’ slotted James into the “white crooner in a stiff collar” mould that represents much of the programme’s winning history.
And yet the performance garnered James his voting peak and spiked him far enough ahead of the pack to maintain a lead until the bitter end. So whilst a few rules were broken, all in all James’ was not a leftfield win – in fact in comparison to the previous year’s triumph by Little Mix it was positively conservative.
Stylistically though, James was still more ‘alternative’ than Steve Brookstein, Shayne Ward, Leon Jackson, Joe McElderry and even the ultimate troubadour of the people, Matt Cardle. The sentiment of judges and programme makers was that James had succeeded in breaking the mould of what it meant to be an X Factor alumnus.
So what of the future? To return to Dan’s question about the latest series and apply it to the franchise as a whole, “Is this a blip or a trend?” Will the ‘indie’ win simply tick a box with little chance of repetition – as we can presume will prove itself to be the case with Little Mix’s girlband win? Or will X Factor continue down its trajectory into the serious ‘n’ authentic until it looks like some kind of T4 Sunday Dalston Unplugged Wankfest but with more homelessness and dramatic family reconciliations?
Of one thing we can be certain – there is no longer any need to fear a contestant’s indiefication as a block to potential success. If it isn’t possible to convince the masses that it’s cool, it’s certainly feasible to bring that cool a little closer to the masses. Mohammed, mountain, you get the picture.
Let us choose to put aside that the show feels on the verge of imploding entirely and imagine a trajectory at least as long term as another year or two. The grand plans of The Powers That Be for ‘authentic’ participants may depend largely on how James fares in the outside world.
Matt Cardle remains a classic example of the failed translation from X Factor to popular music artist. James is slightly younger than Matt, a lot more versatile, more personable and to put it very crudely, a bit ‘cooler’. If Syco can find material as appropriate to James as they have done for Little Mix – something fresh and interesting but not patronising and drivelly – then the trend of the alt-contestant is sure to continue for a good while yet and punters should be prepared for that. For better or worse.