It’s popular sound not new sound which wins contracts


Another year, another christmas number one won by an artist I can’t stand. I loathe the X Factor, and every song it has ever produced. I detest it with a passion. To me, it represents everything that is wrong with the music business today, as those who know me hear time after time whenever it is on TV. Somehow, every year, I get drawn into it, like a moth to a flame, simply to give myself something to hate. Personally, I find the idea of the show, that one person, debatably chosen by the public and Simon Cowell, immediately transitions from being your average student/hairdresser/Brazilian P.E. teacher into a superstar, to subvert the most important and defining time in an artist’s career – the period before they break through.

Nowadays, it has become common for acts to perform on several live shows, win a televised talent show, and to start churning out records. However, there is a problem with this. Take Alexandra Burke, a reasonable singing voice, winner of the X Factor, and simply dull. She hasn’t pushed the boundaries in any way, to break the formula, to try something new. She is a photocopy of acts that have gone before, of the best features of other acts. Her act has no soul of its own, nothing that hasn’t been tried and tested before. Perfect in a market situation, where the act is essentially a risk-free sell to musical executives, but in an artistic context, she hasn’t contributed anything truly original. If artists don’t have success thrust upon them like this, then instead they need to search for something about themselves, anything, which gives them that unique sound, style or emotion – something that separates them from the rest of the acts on the shelf in HMV.

This is not to say that taking features from what has gone before is bad, of course. Many good artists have taken influence from what is currently popular and what has gone before: the Beatles Back in the USSR and Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da famously being born as a parody of the Beach Boys and a reggae song respectively. But this isn’t all that they are, there is a part of the artist’s soul in them, something that I don’t see in the work of most manufactured artists.
This isn’t to say that I’m a musical snob, I will like music of any sort, provided it is good. My personal preference is, in general, 80s-90s alternative rock, but my iPod is full of hundreds of different genres, from pop to jazz to heavy metal. I will listen to Lady Gaga, an artist that I consider to be a voice of originality in a stagnating genre, where everything is slowly becoming homogenous and dull.

Of course, I’d be silly to blame all of this on the X Factor, a single TV show producing a single act each year. There are far more acts coming to the fore than can be churned out by Cowell and co. The principle culprit is the musical system in itself. An executive will choose an easy sell over a hard sell any day, and if that means more of what the public already like, and less boundary pushing, then that is what the music business will do.

To me it is upsetting that after centuries of development in music, with countless new innovations coming in the 20th century, that we have stagnated like this. We have gone from Mozart daring to compose an opera in German to foreign artists writing all of their songs in English to appeal to larger markets, from the constant innovation of the Beatles to Scouting for Girls releasing the same song a billion times with different lyrics for each.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that this will ever change. I guess I will have to accept it as a fact of life that music has changed from being about the new sound to being about the popular sound. This may not be the X Factors fault, but it’s a symptom of the problem, and a figurehead for what I see as a grave issue in music today.

Or maybe I’m still bitter that Alexandra butchered Hallelujah.

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