Pop's New Paradigm: Cheryl Cole, X Factor & The Law of Diminishing Returns
Inspiration can strike from the most unlikely of sources, a case in point being divisive and outspoken pop-rapper Kreayshawn. Or rather, I should say, Pitchfork's somewhat withering appraisal of her debut LP. In among the witty barbs and at times brutally frank assessment of her 'talents', one particular sentence helped crystallise a nagging thought that's been rumbling through my mind all year, an uneasy suspicion regarding the artists currently sat around pop's top table.
"If anything, 'Gucci Gucci' helped usher in an era of artists for whom ‘talent' is beside the point, artists who've triumphantly remapped a hierarchy of values so that charm, branding savvy, and novelty rule supreme."
That particular track dropped in May 2011, and the subsequent 16 months have done nothing to shake the suspicion that much of modern pop has entered a new phase; one populated by identikit sounds and images, a manufactured blandness whose ubiquity is only matched by a spirit-crushing lack of originality and an all-consuming concern with the bottom line.
This isn't an argument against commercialisation, which has been around since time immemorial, nor is it a wistful, rose-tinted remembrance of some bygone golden era; after all, what were The Monkees if not the world's first "manufactured" band, four "insane boys" chosen for their looks to front a TV show? Commerce and art are rarely happy bedfellows, and it just so happens that, with regards to music, pop has borne the brunt of some of the bitterest struggles. Rather, it concerns something far more damaging, something that has slowly but surely inverted all the normal parameters of what might be considered "talent"; the very 21st Century obsession with fame and celebrity.
It wasn't always like this. Take That, currently enjoying a spectacular Indian summer of success, were originally built around the song writing talents of Gary Barlow, while even the oft maligned Spice Girls were whittled down from an audition of 400 and subjected to a three month bootcamp of writing, rehearsing and recording. Fast forward to 2012, and careers begin and die in less time than it took Girl Powers' torchbearers to settle on a musical direction, the public's increasingly short attention span and fickle tastes flitting around like mosquitos in the dark.
So where did it all go wrong? Two words; reality TV. 2001's Pop Idol was the moment that music got into bed with the phenomenon that would soon sweep the programming schedules, and it's been downhill ever since. Ostensibly a singing competition – or at the very least, a search for genuine talent – the ever-canny Simon Cowell soon realised that that wasn't what sold; Michelle McManus had a great voice, but lacked popular appeal, a mistake Cowell was loathe to repeat. Hence the subtle, but very deliberate, shift in emphasis for the X Factor, launched three years later, where contestants were sought who had 'it', a quality that over the eight series has been refined to include youth, marketability, and a burning desire to be famous. Being able to dance, or at least hold a tune, were advantageous, but not necessarily essential; Jedward are proof of that.
There's also a strange dichotomy at the heart of such shows, whereby unique or eccentric participants are kept around to sustain controversy and intrigue but denied the ultimate triumph. The likes of Ray Quinn, Rhydian, and even novelty acts – Jedward again – are essential to maintain the gladiatorial nature of the show, yet forever doomed to remain the bridesmaid. Dark rumours concerning the voting process occasionally surface and, while probably untrue, it's often not difficult to spot those who are too niche to come out on top. Even the winners are, post victory, polished to a bright, SyCo approved sheen, every ounce of creative independence and personality squeezed from their persona as they're shoe-horned into whatever style of pop happens to be flavour of the month.
It's interesting to note that the two reality shows that attempted to buck this trend, the BBC's Fame Academy and The Voice, were spectacularly unsuccessful and openly mocked. Both attempted to focus on purely musical or vocal talent, both flopped terribly. It seems that stripped of the soap opera element of modern musical reality shows, the public just aren't interested. In fact, the least memorable thing about the X Factor is the music; insider gossip, celebrity spats, heart-rending back stories, and bitchiness between the judges all hog the (not inconsiderable) column inches each week, any comment on the actual performances an afterthought.
All this may very well make for great entertainment, but it makes for some pretty uninspiring music. Even through the prism of commercial success, the winners tend to struggle; you can count on the fingers of one hand the artists who've had any sort of career beyond the now traditional Christmas Number 1. Girls Aloud are an obvious success, as are Will Young, JLS, and One Direction, but even Leona Lewis, perhaps the most naturally talented "star" and certainly one of the best singers, has struggled to achieve the acclaim she was tipped for. This is no surprise given the typical profile of the average contestant, for whom singing and dancing – or even, God forbid, playing an instrument – are simply a means to an end, a corollary to what they really want, which is to be famous. It's no coincidence that Pop Idol debuted in the same year as Big Brother, another show that over the years gave birth to the notion that being famous for being famous was something to aspire to and that "celebrity" was a career in and of itself.
Which brings us neatly to pop's current darling and the nation's sweetheart, Cheryl Cole. She sits atop the tree, seemingly immune to criticism, with a vast army of fans ready to descend upon anyone with the temerity to question her talent. Which is…what, exactly? Aside from the standard not playing or writing anything – and even going as far to admit she has no idea what some of the lyrics mean – Cheryl very rarely sings live, and when she does, the results are usually dreadful. Ah, but "she's not about singing live" cry her defenders, and to be concerned with such out-dated notions of authenticity and performance is to apparently out yourself as the worst kind of musical snob.
Well, I'm sorry, but then what is she about, and what exactly is the point? It's bad enough that she refuses to sing live on shows such as The Voice and X Factor before sitting in judgement – often critically – of singers doing exactly that, but discussing the derivative pap she fronts as "art" and blubbing about following your heart and "living the dream" is a new low. She's first and foremost a brand, a recognisable face and personality that everything else is subservient to. She's one tiny step above pressing play on a CD and standing looking pretty, a paparazzi perfect grin fixed for the cameras. She's the popstar as empty vessel, who can be whatever people want to see in her; publicly wronged women, local lass done good, glorified clothes horse. What she actually does is completely secondary to her main function, which is simply to just be Cheryl and to generate money – witness those amazing £350 meet & greet Platinum packages.
She's an obedient lackey, dutifully following orders from above and careful not to rock the boat or wander into controversy – one unfortunate incident in a nightclub toilet aside. Yeah, she looks great in leggings and tight tops, jiggling around in expensive videos or in front of some immaculately styled dance troupe, but the day can't be far off when she dispenses with the inconvenience of actually having to hold a (fake) microphone altogether. The songs and the music are completely incidental and come across as an embarrassing afterthought, a generic soup of popular themes and ideas designed to be as inoffensive yet fashionable as possible. Nothing risqué or interesting dare be tried for fear of upsetting all those meticulously mapped out 'campaigns', ensuring that everyone from 5 to 85 can buy into her carefully curated girl-next-door, humble working-class icon shtick.
Of course, she's not the only "artist" guilty of all this – far from it – but she's front and centre of the charade, the new archetypal modern pop star. Justin Beiber, will.i.am, and David Guetta are but three more examples of this SyCo approved, lowest common denominator noise that so clogs the charts, and it's not hard to think of others. This is music refined by focus groups, concerned with concepts such as demographics, revenue streams, and franchises. It's "entertainment" driven not by restless creatives, but by MBA-level Svengalis directing careers with military precision, as this rather illuminating profile of Scooter Braun so chillingly depicts. Any concept of pop as an art form, as having a meaningful message, or being about the thrilling magic when the right singer meets the right song, has long been jettisoned. Instead, to borrow an oft-repeated phrase, it's fame-as-product, and a never-ending race to the bottom that's as depressing as it is insulting.
Then again, maybe all this doesn't matter when the general public seems to lap it up. Maybe people are happy to be duped, or just simply don't care. In a world where Jedward can release three albums and appear on Eurovision twice, and where One Direction can rake in £100 million in two years, perhaps this is the new, or only, template for success. Those shows continue to go from strength to strength, and the churn of vapid, empty wannabees continues unabashed. Who cares about craft and detail when today's I-want-it-all-now generation demand their dreams on a plate? Originality, so it seems, is so last century. It was wise old sage Paul Weller who once sang "the public gets what the public wants," a sentiment that should ring in the ears of anyone gazing upon the sorry carcass of the once glorious world of pop.
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