Singing Competitions

An obituary for fading cultural relevancy

When Ben Haenow [heeynoow] won the 2014 edition of the X Factor in December; only 9.2 million people tuned in, making it the show’s lowest viewed final since 2004.

The more observant of you might remember that 2004 was the year in which Simon Cowell launched the series. So, for the most recent series to attract a comparable viewership speaks volumes about the public’s current interest in X Factor. Who won in 2004? Steve Brookstein, of course.

Steve Brookstein
Remember the name….next time you’re at a pub quiz

Brookstein followed up his stunning victory with an album of soul music covers titled, *sigh* Heart and Soul. An album that lives on in bargain basements across the nation.

Steve Brookstein - Heart and Soul
Never give your album a punny title

Much like in 2004, the day after Ben Haenow won the X Factor, shops remained open, children went to school and the world continued to turn. Tabloids covered the story, with less enthusiasm than usual; they seemed more interested in the inevitability of another X Factor winner securing the coveted Christmas Number One.

Haenow’s first single, a cover of One Republic’s “Something I Need”, was released the night of the final and performed as expected. The original version only reached #78 in the UK Singles Chart, but with the X Factor machine behind the Haenow version it shifted 214,000 units in a single week. As predicted, Simon Cowell’s evil manufactured pop factory had secured yet another Christmas Number One.

Haenow Christmas Number One

This remarkable feat meant that from 00:01am to 23:59 on 25th December 2014, Ben Haenow had the biggest selling song in the country. The former lorry driver had his first Christmas Number One and can join the esteemed company of past winners such as Mr. Blobby, Shakin’ Stevens and Bob the Builder.

The British public regards the Christmas Number One as a sacred achievement for some reason, and credits Simon Cowell with watering down the talent pool for this prestigious achievement. A quick glance of the #1 Singles during Christmas in the 1990s shows that we can do a lot worse than Ben Haenow.

Christmas Number One
The days before Simon Cowell stole Christmas

Further, if that idiot Bob Geldof can win it nearly four times with the same fucking song, perhaps we should take it less seriously. Especially pointless, are the losers who form the annual Christmas-themed pressure groups, in the hopes of breaking the X Factor’s stranglehold on Christmas Number One.

I think we all enjoyed seeing the lunatics from Rage Against the Machine come back into prominence and cause mayhem on the BBC. But do we really need a Facebook campaign every single year?

Who’s thinking of the Joe McElderrys of the world? Christmas Number One was going to be his only chance to create a lasting impression on British music, nowadays he probably can’t even afford to buy the latest X Factor protest song.

Erasure - Christmas Number One
I think you’re going to need more likes

Let’s talk about The Voice now, this is a show which has seemingly usurped the X Factor’s place in the nation’s heart. It is a programme watched by people who feel jaded by the X Factor’s decreasing talent pool and perpetual emotional porn.

The Voice has grown popular these last few years, due to this belief that it is a programme of steely integrity that values talent over popularity. Moreover, it has serious judges like Rita Ora, who claims that she turned down a £1 million offer from Simon Cowell to become a judge on the fourth series of The Voice.

Rita Ora
I promised my girlfriend I’d be less mean about Rita Ora

The fourth series of The Voice opened with a peak audience of 9 million, higher than any figures achieved by the most recent incarnation of the X Factor. Not too bad for a programme Channel 4(!) passed on for being ‘derivative’.

Auditioning for The Voice appears to be the only option for singer-songwriters who want to avoid labels like ‘manufactured pop’, ‘corporate machine’ and ‘platinum-selling album‘. It begs the question, if somebody wins The Voice and nobody buys their records, does it still make a sound? Compare:

The Voice winners
The Voice winners chart positions
X Factor Winners
X Factor winners chart positions

Aside from Becky Hill’s feature on Oliver Heldens’ “Gecko (Overdrive)”, the Voice winners have had little effect on the cultural zeitgeist. The majority of their singles have been covers, further, the albums of the first two winners have been cover albums. I haven’t listened to either of them, but it’s reasonable to assume they are pants; mostly because releasing an album of cover songs is the quickest and laziest recording option in the history of music.

Following up success on a talent show with a cover album is an option that many have tried and few have succeeded. Unless your name is Michael Freaking Bublé, it is nigh on impossible for anyone to build a career based on reinterpretations of classic songs.

With Voice winners being given such weak backing from record labels, it is not surprising that the show has yet to create a singer of note. However, the winner of the 2013 series, has raised hope for Voice contestants everywhere by promising an album of new material and has compared the creative process to ‘raising a child’.

Jermain Jackman
Once again, ‘like raising a child’…..don’t expect much from the lyrics

The key to the success of the X Factor’s artists hinges on the show’s prize, the opportunity to sign to Simon Cowell’s Syco Music. Signing to this label represents a real opportunity for the contestant and provides an excellent route into the world of manufactured pop. 2014’s finalists, Ben Haenow and Fleur East both signed lucrative deals to Syco, in exchange for their souls and musical integrity.

Syco has the backing of Sony Music Entertainment which can give artists a massive distribution network, plus help from experienced producers and co-writers, to help make the singles radio-friendly. Talent show winners are usually the best singers on the competition, but the success of their careers is dependent on how well they can write original material.

Ella Henderson finished sixth on the 2012 edition of X Factor, she signed to Syco who put her in the studio with OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, they co-wrote “Ghost”, next thing you know Henderson has the sixth highest-selling song of 2014.

one republic
Why does Simon Cowell insist on forcing One Republic on the British public

Finally, I have to talk about Rebecca Ferguson, she finished second to that loser Matt Cardle on X Factor 2010. I also haven’t listen to the Matt Cardle follow-up album, but I can once again assure you it wasn’t great.

Matt Cardle Letters
Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover

Ferguson released her debut album, Heaven in December 2011 and it was hands down one of the best albums of the year. It is a testament to what can be achieved by a singer-songwriter who receives the full backing of Syco and Sony. Many of the producers and co-writers from Heaven were heavily involved in the two Adele albums.

The production on this album feels like a modern take on hip-hop soul. “Too Good To Lose”, features a drum loop found on many old school hip-hop classics like “Paid In Full”; it is refreshing to hear people using that drum pattern again, like meeting an old friend. There are strong singles such as “Backtrack” and “Nothing’s Real But Love”, which, like the album address the heartbreak experienced by Ferguson in her life.

Rebecca Ferguson Heaven

There are also powerful ballads which fully showcase Ferguson’s talents. I really could talk about this album all day, it is truly fantastic and evidence that TV talent shows do sometimes discover truly talented musicians. Rebecca Ferguson managed to create a coherent and consistent body of work, instead of a bunch of singles and some filler tracks. It definitely marks a high point and is at least 8 out of 10 levels of good.

So there, we go, my thoughts on singing competitions. It will be interesting to see the future of this genre and judge whether The Voice can back an artist with the cultural impact of Olly Murs. Or whether Simon Cowell can get people caring about the X Factor once more. I feel that both are doubtful and we are witnessing the decline of public interest in the genre. Why do we need to watch a contrived competition about struggling singers when we can go on YouTube and have a more direct impact?

Also I’d also like to wish my blog a happy 20thpost. One more and it can legally drink in America

Dermot O'Leary Backflip

Host of Culture Hash, writer of music, TV and film opinions

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