In a frankly lame week for The X Factor, by any applicable distance the finest performance and performer of the night was the only one that didn’t come from a contestant – Leona Lewis. Her incredible performance of Snow Patrol’s Run gravely showed where pretenders to her X Factor crown (we’re skipping Leon Jackson) that they have almost all of that applicable distance to travel yet.
I maintain that the key of this performance (above) is integral to two main factors initially; firstly that she shows remarkable restraint throughout, and secondly that the whole first section of the song sees her at the upper limit of her lower register, making dips into the falsetto sound hushed and poignant. The restraint issue is one that can simply solved by this maxim – the longer a performer refuses to explode, the higher the tension and the bigger the release when it finally does happen. The arrangement is freer and less stately than Snow Patrol’s original, and suits Lewis’ characteristic laconic tempo adherence perfectly – allowing that tension to build very discreetly. The listener must strain to understand these quiet intimations, but we’re confident that we’ll be rewarded. Imagine the reaction of Saturday night’s Middle England if we weren’t.
Indeed, it’s not until a full three minutes have elapsed that Lewis finally does begin to let rip, and even then it’s by no means full capacity, the arrangement making more of a dynamic and textural shift than she does. The noted scholar Simon Frith has stated that the invention of the microphone was the single most important invention to grace the world of 20th Century popular music because it allowed singers to sing quietly over an immense, amplified din. This crucially created a variation in dynamics and tone quality – it drew the listener in because it made them feel that the whisperer has something worthwhile to say. So, when Leona Lewis spends the first two-thirds of Run using that microphone to sing quietly amongst the mix rather than loudly over it (Rachel Hylton, take note), she is in fact urging us to consider more closely what she is saying. More than Gary Lightbody ever did, strangely.
The rest of the performance is what you might call simple-but-effective, with an ambitious scope and bravado considering the care of the first section of the song. But, with an audience growing ever-more expectant, the only way to properly finish the song is to run utterly headlong into it and employ a choir (all holding hands). For Lewis, there’s little more to do than continually improvise melodic fragments and occasionally rejoin the tune (thank God we all know it anyway), with increasing intensity and volume. Easy. In the live popular music scenario, there’s no more gratifying sound than applause after a climax while the music itself still burbles along quietly. Because they’ve already started clapping and Lewis has effectively taken her bow, the reception can be nothing but rapturous. A perfect performance.