The Truth about the X Factor

Out of The X Factor’s many annoying qualities it is perhaps the disconnect between what happens on stage and what is then said in the judge’s comments afterwards that is the most life-crushingly annoying one.

Song after song and week after week we are subject to litanies of ‘you made that song your own’; ‘you owned the stage’; ‘I could see for the first time you were nervous up there’; ‘you sounded so contemporary’, and so on, when what we have actually witnessed on stage seems to directly contradict these appraisals. The judges may as well make their comments before the actual performances commence such is their apparent total detachment from happens in them.

It is not that we could expect a show as populist and as (frequently) demagogic as The X Factor to employ actual trained music critics on its judging panel. No, that would be so Strictly Come Dancing of it. But when a show features as a vocal coach someone so clearly bereft of musical discernment as Yvie Burnett is, then something constructive really needs to be said in opposition.

I won’t bother raking up past judging howlers here. I’ll instead limit the focus as much as I can to the four remaining contestants in this year’s competition: Matt, Rebecca, One Dimension (sorry, One Direction), and Cher.

Let’s start with the contestant who almost Bachically transcends criticism, Rebecca. Rebecca seems like a charming woman whose stage presence flirts with charisma without ever quite attaining it, and whose voice flirts with the notes she’s supposed to be singing but only rarely hits them. It’s a rare event indeed when she manages to seize the centre of the note, and rarer still when she is able to produce any sort of modulated colour to her singing. Of course I’m exaggerating for effect here. Rebecca is a good and interesting singer, but it’s frustrating to watch the praise heaped on her week after week without any hint of a remark being made about her not insignificant vocal problems.

That praise is given largely, it would seem, because Rebecca’s Billie Holiday-recalling voice is so different to the archetypal modern pop vocal style of forthright dynamics and outlandish melismas. She benefits from her difference rather than because of any particular vocal richness. Unlike last year’s winner Joe McElderry, I might add, whose broadly common voice bears an unapproachable richness, a combination apparently not as popular with the buying public as it was the voting one.

I don’t have too much to say about Cher. Her voice has been horribly exposed these past few weeks in terms of sheer timing, pitching, and intonation, but I don’t think that’s her point. Out of all the contestants Cher is regularly the most interesting to watch. She prowls around the stage with no little fluency, injecting spunk into the songs through lazy phrasing and vocal mannerisms that come straight from adolescence. Whether she holds attention through talent or sheer force of arrogance it is hard to say, but that she can perform with so much confidence at 17 is surely notable. Cher is also a passable rapper.

Matt, the favourite, has this year’s best voice. His range extends up in the head voice to at least a B above Middle C, comfortably and without much loss of vibrancy in the upper notes, whilst his falsetto rises up to the gods. His ability to produce fully-rounded notes in the range an average mezzo would strain just a little in is remarkable. But is this quality enough? I don’t think it is. It’s not that Matt’s voice is totally lacking otherwise.
But there is little culture to his voice production. He has the notes, but not the emotion. Or, rather, he has way too much of one type of emotion. Still, Matt to win.

Now, One Direction. Again, they seem like nice boys, and are lovely to look at. And I can see why they’ve created all the fuss they have – it’s rare to get a group that seems as cohesive as they do, especially one manufactured by the show as they were. But they can’t sing together. Admittedly Harry’s voice shows some character, and Zain’s, apart from his head-wobbling, has a tonal quality that is immediately appealing. Put the five of them together, however, and things fall apart quite quickly.

Their Viva La Vida was a horrorshow of missed entries, shaky ensemble, and tuneless backing. I have yet to hear them attempt much more than unison singing – which they even manage to mess up quite regularly – and their performances frequently benefit from massed vocal backing tracks. Doomed band Belle Amie, by contrast, were for almost all of their songs left without backing tracks and with tricksy two and three part harmonies (which they coped with rather well). All of this and One Direction have not once been in the bottom two. Their presence in the programme has come to embody so much that is wrong with it.

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