x factor

I Got Chills (They’re Multiplying)

Just a quick post to acknowledge the beautiful Matt Cardle, the adorable ex-painter/decorator in plaid shirts and worn-out newsboy caps, my pick from the very first auditions, who just won The X Factor! This boy has the most beautiful, haunting voice I’ve ever heard in my life – I seriously got chills all over every time he opened his mouth. A-mazing. Congrats to the best contestant ever – here’s hoping we don’t get another festive civil war and he manages Christmas Number One this Sunday!

The X-Effect

This week on Twitter, I read something about well-done sidebars on blogs being a big part of accessibility, and subsequently, probably, more readers. I took a look at mine, and, well, I have no idea whether or not it’s well done. It does its job, but I’ve never been one of those people who play by the Rules of Successful Blogging anyway – I don’t have a niche (hello, Star Trek rants one day, theatre festivals the next!), I don’t have ads, and I don’t worry too much if I don’t post three times a week… it’s my little corner of the Internet and I’ll write about kittens and robots if I want to! *Stomps* 🙂 I did notice one interesting thing in my sidebar, however – my Tag Cloud. Moreso that the biggest (and subsequently ‘most talked about’) topic is MUSIC.

I’m having difficulting believing this. If this were a tag cloud of my life, then perhaps I’d be more inclined to see the truth in its prominence, but on my blog? I don’t know. I tried a weekly music feature earlier in the year where I tried to share songs and music videos that were beautifully written, incredibly compelling, visually stunning, or just plain rocking my world, and every time? Turned out to be Tumbleweed City. Maybe it comes from the fact that I don’t listen to a lot of mainstream stuff  – stuff that might be more easily relatable across the blogosphere? Music is something I’m passionate about, and I’ll happily spend three hours on a Friday night scouring the Internet, reading reviews, and digging out hidden gems from across the globe, memorising the words, highlighting the brilliant ones and adding them to a mental collection of lyrical masterpieces to indulge in at full volume when nobody’s home. I’m passionate about music in the same way some people are passionate about cooking, or fashion, or exercise – but with those things, though they may not be big parts of my life, I can always appreciate someone’s enthusiasm for something they love wholeheartedly. Posting about music, however, has been discouraging – so it’s something I tend to stick to enjoying outside of the blog. Which is why it’s so surprising it makes up my biggest tag on the cloud.

But I digress. Today, I had to write about something music-related, because something music-related began another reign of supremity across the planet this weekend. On Saturday, 12 million people tuned in live to watch the first episode of the new season of The X Factor (stay with me!) -the show that brought the world Leona Lewis, divided the globe last Christmas with the war on Simon Cowell taking an old Rage Against the Machine track to the top in one of chart history’s most controversial moments, and has kept me, proud anti-mainstream indie kid that I am, firmly glued to my seat for the past six years.

I know I should be on the side of everyone who’s blaming things like X Factor and Glee for “ruining pop music”. I despise most modern pop music – pre-pubescent boys being voted sexiest “men” of 2010 (…), girls singing lines that are just plain embarrassing (really; don’t even get me started on Katy Perry), and songs about drunken promiscuity (as great as they are for nerdy video parodies) – am I the only one who’s feeling old here? But there’s been a tidal wave of backlash approaching for the last little while – and it seems to have come crashing down along with the commencement of the new series of X Factor. I doubt the return of Glee next month will escape unscathed: people en masse are revolting against the state of the charts, blaming shows like this for stealing the spotlight (and the public’s pocketbook) away from “real artists”, and actively destroying the music industry. But – as much as I should – I’m not sure where I stand.

In the UK, the X Factor has had significant effect on mass music purchasing, having had a total of 42 singles released by former contestants, sixteen of which have been number one hits. Worldwide, the music industry has undoubtedly been hit by the Glee effect: over seven million copies of cast single releases have been purchased digitally, and last year alone, the Glee cast had twenty-five singles chart on the Billboard Top 100 – the most by any artist since The Beatles almost half a decade ago. Manufactured television definitely has a stranglehold, but is that such a bad thing?

I adore hardworking, raw, real talent. I was perhaps more thrilled than the band themselves when Mumford and Sons became well-known globally, after having heard a demo single years ago and being unable to find a thing on them. I remember seeing them live and loving the genuine sense of gratitude bursting from the lead singer, who was shocked they’d sold out a venue before their album had even been released stateside. I love it when the little guys make it to the top. But I also love watching the little guys start on X Factor. Seeing them go from a small town, or a mundane nine to five job, and being given the platform to share an incredible talent with the world is fantastic. I watched last year as the boy who got bullied won the heart of a nation with an amazing natural voice. So they may have thousands in production, and pre-written songs built into their contracts when they win. It still showcases raw talent from the beginning, and gives them the opportunity to shine.

Like this eighteen-year old girl last Saturday night, doing something so original and different with perhaps one of my most loathed songs in the world that it sent shivers down my spine.

I think The X Factor can be a great platform for ordinary people to share amazing gifts with the rest of the world. It may have more money and more influence than the little guys, but then aren’t those little guys’ victories that much better when they beat the odds? How often in life are we given platforms upon which to share our gifts? I think the answer is a lot more often than you’d probably think. They may not be in front of thousands of people, on television, or across from a judging panel of celebrities, but platforms of opportunity come our way all the time. They may be in the form of a classroom, a customer service desk, or a white blank page, but I think we’re all given opportunities to shine. It’s whether or not we choose to take the risk and put it all out there that determines our success. I have a lot of respect for the people that have the guts to get up there and audition in front of millions, knowing full well how quick the masses can be to judge. But every once in a while, the decision to get out there and do it anyway can create something magical.

Maybe things like Glee and X Factor are destroying the music industry. Maybe they’re just giving regular artists more incentive to work harder. Whatever side you end up taking, you can’t argue with the power they have to cause controversy – as well as to unite (and divide) millions across the nation. And the fact that they make brilliantly compelling TV – even if only, perhaps, for all the wrong reasons. 🙂

Nothing says “Christmas” like Civil War…

Today marks the start of the last weekend before Christmas.  It brings shops filled with exhausted workers and frantic last-minute shoppers.  It brings TV specials, Advent services, holiday parties and, somewhere, in a little country elsewhere in a world filled with countdowns, festivities and frenzy, it brings a race to the annual Christmas Number One

Growing up in England, every weekend was an exciting time for music.  Friday nights were spent glued to the television for half an hour watching Top of the Pops, and Sunday afternoons to the radio, listening eagerly to the weekly Top 40.  I remember walking home from school, through the town centre, cutting through Woolworths just so I could check out the new singles chart, and often pick up a few on cassette tape with my £2 pocket money.  The music charts were a definitive part of Britain’s weekend, taking over the television, radio shows and shop displays, and in the leadup to Christmas, the chart battle for the number one spot took over the nation.

Bookies released the odds, bets were placed, and the nation held its breath during the week leading up to the Saturday before Christmas to see who’d hold the coveted number one position on Christmas Day.  Today, the UK finds out who their nation’s 2009 Christmas Number One will be.  But this year, it’s a little bit different.

This year, it’s become a full-out war.  Christmas charts of the last few years have undoubtedly been dominated by the winning single released from that year’s X Factor winner.  I have nothing against this – I love the X Factor, and this year have followed the journey of an absolutely lovely young lad who’s worked hard, won the heart of the nation, come from a humble background, and I’m excited to see him get the opportunity of a lifetime.  Previous years’ winners have gone on to break all-time records, or shoot to international superstardom, selling out faster than anyone in UK chart history, selling multi-platinum level albums and becoming three-time Grammy award nominees.  I love the show, and am thoroughly behind backing these kids who come from all walks of life, and giving them a shot at making it.  This year’s winner was incredible, brought tears to my eyes, a skip to my heart, and what’s happening to him this weekend makes me very upset.

The nation’s been split by a husband and wife team, who decided they were sick of X Factor taking the fun out of the race to the Christmas Number One, and set up a Facebook campaign to get an old Rage Against the Machine song to the top for 2009.   The band’s Killing In The Name track was chosen by the anti-X Factor campaigners because of its message of taking a stand against authority.  And the success has been staggering. The group’s membership has hit half a million, and alternative radio DJs across the country have spread the people’s discontent at the state of the music industry today.   “Fed up with Simon Cowell’s latest karaoke act being Christmas No.1?” the group asks Facebookers. “Me too… So who’s up for a mass-purchase of the track ‘KILLING IN THE NAME’ from December 13th as a protest to the X-Factor monotony?”

Unfortunately, the rebellion has divided the nation, with odds fluctuating drastically all week long, and what initially appeared to be a small internet campaign has taken over the country, with the story being broadcast across the planet.  This kid’s worked hard for months, spending time living in a house of strangers, having to learn musical arrangements and dance routines within barely a week, and living away from friends and family throughout the holidays.  And his shot at a number one single is being taken away by people backing a foul-mouthed, rap-metal US band with a single from years ago that has no place in contemporary British music charts!

With less than 24 hours to go, I’m reading all sorts of articles.  The odds are too close to call. Public opinion is divided.  But the X Factor winner has spent his first week of fame meeting soldiers home from Afghanistan, and sick children in a London hospital.  He says these visits have helped him put his chart battle into perspective.

“This week I have been faced with soldiers who have had their limbs blown off and children who are dying or seriously ill in hospital.  That to me is so much more important than getting to No 1. You just don’t know how lucky you are.”

At the end of the day, I guess it doesn’t really matter who’s at the top when the charts are announced this time tomorrow.  But I can’t help but root for this guy, who’s worked hard, and ultimately, with a journey of hard work behind him, his compassion and sincerity will go on, and I wish him every success in the world – but I’ll still be sitting here, halfway around the world, with my fingers crossed very tightly indeed.

Cowell’s Stranglehold?

Recently, there’s been an outburst of attacks on smash UK reality show The X Factor.  For those not in England, the show’s basically American Idol, but good.  Four judges (including Mr. Cowell) each mentor a category (Girls, Boys, Groups, and Over 25s), pitted against each other for their act to win the competition.  They go through initial auditions in front of thousands, bootcamp at the judges’ homes, and lives shows on an enormous stage with pyrotechnics, smoke and confetti cascades.  Winner gets a hundred thousand pound recording contract, and total world domination (Leona Lewis, anyone?). 

I’ve been watching faithfully for years now, and I suddenly feel like a minority in a war between the masses.  There’s the pop-loving, Britney-singing X Factor faithfuls who’ll buy anything remotely connected to the show (and whose musical taste is determined solely by who’s currently at the top of the charts, and who they heard in the club last weekend).  Then there’s the other half – the recent outburst of celebrities giving a voice to the music snobs (hey, I’m a music snob too, I’m allowed to say that), Sting for one claiming the show is a “soap opera which has nothing to do with music”, and Calvin Harris, who crashed another awful “Jedward” (two bratty little tone-deaf twin brothers who jump about the stage, rapping to Queen songs) performance, running across the stage with a pineapple clutched to his head.  

His aim was to vocalise the growing concern of the state of the music industry.  In recent years, we’ve seen incredible artists emerging out of the UK, but now, in Harris’s words, “it’s like a frightening stranglehold that Simon Cowell has got over the entire music chart in the UK at the moment.”  

Growing up, the phenomenon of the Christmas number one was something exciting to look forward to. After the turkey, presents and mince pies were done with, the family would gather around the TV to watch Top of the Pops, and see who’d won the battle of the charts for the all important top spot.  Since X Factor inception, the spot’s been a guaranteed win for whoever comes out of the show on top, or the annual charity single sung by the year’s top twelve contestants (always a cover, always a ballad, always so horribly Westlife). 

I love the X Factor.  I think it’s great entertainment, not to be taken too seriously, and a fun way of spending your Saturday night in the cold leadup to Christmas.  I’m also passionate about British music, and hate to see publicity taken away from real, talented musicians struggling to make it in a world dominated by reality TV.  I’m not going to stop watching the show.  But I’m not going to stop supporting the little guys, either.

Future Nostalgia, or Why I Hate Louis Walsh

I’m sure at some point in everyone’s online lives, they’ve been forwarded one of those “you know you’re __________ if…” emails, had a quick chuckle and felt pangs of nostalgia. I’m sitting here listening to the Wonder Years feature on my favourite radio station (an hour every Friday consisting entirely of songs from one year out of the past twenty), happily enjoying my Backstreet’s Back, remembering the days of watching Goosebumps after school, collecting POGs and taping songs off the radio, when I started thinking about what those emails are going to look like when they get sent to kids who’ve grown up in the 2000s (or noughties, as they’re calling it on the Beeb). What do we have today that people 20 years from now are going to reminisce about?

I started thinking about it, and then I started getting angry. Even today, we still have 80s themed clubs and nights out and parties, because everything was amazing and new and great back then (says the girl who only fell out of the womb halfway through). New Wave was so exciting; synthesizers so futuristic, style so bold (I dare you not to fall in love with any man wearing eyeliner, painting half his face in more makeup than me and singing about romance on the dark streets of London). It was so awesome, in recent years it’s made a bit of a comeback, with shops like American Apparel regularly stocking brightly coloured tights, legwarmers, baggy tops and oversized belts, and artists like Late of the Pier, White Rose Movement and the Mary Onettes , armed with keyboards, spiffy haircuts and guyliner, releasing killer indie electronica that could slip easily into any “Best of the 80s” compilation unnoticed. The future of music in recent years was looking pretty good; an off the radar revival of everything new wave with a modern indie twist.

But, let’s face it, these guys aren’t on your everyday radio. They’re not in your Billboard 100 or on the cover of the Rolling Stone. They’re definitely not coming to Winnipeg. So as much as they have my heart unreservedly – people aren’t going to remember them twenty years from now.

So let’s look at the mainstream – what’s crashing the radio waves, taking over the charts and touring all over the world these days? I grew up listening to the Chart Show on Sunday afternoons, eager to see who was in the top ten, and it’s something I’ve carried on doing since my move to Canada, thanks to the wonders of modern technology. I listen to the Official UK Top 40 every Sunday (yes, it’s full of a lot of chuff, a lot of the time, but it’s more for the homesickness/nostalgia factor) and to my horror, this past weekend, in at number two was Westlife, with yet another cover of a song from two years ago.

Westlife was one of those Uber Boy Bands formed by Louis Walsh (of recent X Factor fame) that, due to an unfortunate lack of H1N1 contraction and a lull in anvil production, are still going eleven years later. Still dominating the charts with rubbish covers of decent songs, this time they’ve taken on a Chris Daughtry track, done nothing but added a couple of lame oohs and aahs, and rocketed to the top riding the wave of somebody else’s hard work.

I didn’t mind them in the nineties – they were just like the Backstreet Boys, but Irish! Bonus! Then their manager became a judge on an international talent show, and I guess things got a little scary. What’s this? Real people with actual talent winning the nation’s hearts? I suppose there really wasn’t much else in the way of choice but to nick a bunch of songs everyone knew the words to, get the lads together for a night of karaoke, and release this uninspired bile on the masses.

I suppose my loathing began a couple of years ago when they got a number one with a cover of Michael Buble’s Home from a couple of years previous. When I heard the Daughtry cover this weekend, my curiosity was sufficiently peaked enough to look into just how far other people’s talent has pushed their career, and found 63 covers, tackling the masters (The Eagles, Sinatra, Josh Groban)… and, in I suppose the hope people wouldn’t notice, classics from Nick Carter, Brandy, and various obscure musical soundtracks. I can’t even hazard a guess as to how much money they’ve made sitting on their arses, adding the odd choir and singing other people’s songs. Tossers.

Yes, it makes me rather upset that so much of music today will be remembered for the work of decades past – success seems so easy when something so formulaic becomes the norm; random sample of a decent old track + random rapper + thumping dance beat = $, or do a cover of something that was successful before, add some pretty faces and synthesised strings and you’ve got yourself a number one. I know what I’m going to remember about this decade. Little indie bands who I heard on the radio’s “unsigned” hour and ordered their albums in from halfway round the world. The new new wave which took something nostalgic and creative and made it new and exciting. And bands who’d been together since they were thirteen, played real instruments, wrote great songs about science and love and government conspiracies, and went on to take over the world.

That’s going to be my nostalgia of the ‘noughties’. At least when it comes to music, anyway. What about you?