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Notes On The X Factor #6

This week (also, it should be pointed out that PM’s predictions have become pretty damn near spot on in recent weeks and, though there’s no real proof of this ‘cos our recent holiday scuppered any posting, you can rest safe in the knowledge that Diana Vickers was always the prediction) The X Factor truly left behind any notions of being a contest about singing. The emotional inflammation of Eoghan and Diana’s apparent UNBREAKABLE BOND reached an embarrassing zenith when, during Vickers’ final performance (above), The Quigglett or The Quiggsty or Quiggsy Malone or Who Let The Quiggs Out or whatever Louis Walsh called him this week ran onto the stage and gave her a damp hug and slobbered into the crook of her neck something about “guddamishooosooomush”.

This aside, it could be time to consider why Vickers went from the bookies’ favourite to a tremendous let-down, the popularity of which will never be recovered. Cruel though it may sound, the impression she has created of herself can’t now be reversed, and the public generally seem to think she’s nothing more than a Bjork-sounding waif. Her versatility proved reasonably non-existent, ranging only from quiet versions of big songs to not-quite-as-big versions of other big songs. Her version of White Flag this week did not work because it was too close an interpretation to the original recording. Almost identical, in fact. The same could be levelled at her earlier performance of Avril Lavigne’s devilishly insipid exploded cheerleader anthem Girlfriend. As PM has stated before, the songs in which she revised an arrangement to an unexpected (but also predictable) level were the most successful. This is why Man In The Mirror and With Or Without You worked, and Patience really, really didn’t.

Behind such trivial issues as SONG CHOICES in a SINGING COMPETITION, though, are the inevitable reality TV plots and editing tricks that made her appear to be out of the running as soon as Mariah Carey week saw her simultaneously slumped in bed like a plague victim and shrieking like, well, an angry plague victim at bonfire night. The revelation that Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is to be the winner’s song and Christmas no.1 shoe-in revived some hope that she might make it, but everyone knows that Eoghan’s getting the most votes. The only hope for the final is that people will finally be bowled over by Alexandra Burke‘s superior performances and make her a just winner, a la Leona Lewis two years ago. But it’ll probably be the little Pat Butcher kid.

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Notes On The X Factor #5

It seems futile to continually harp on about how Rachel Hylton was literally incapable of delivering a thoughtful and appropriate performance of any of her songs, so these notes will ignore her from now on. She’s gone anyway, so we can all breathe out a little bit. News that she intends to fully capitalise on the boost in profile The X Factor means that we will have to revisit her at some point, but until then may she work hard and prove herself capable of more than one dynamic level.

Instead, we can now focus on possibly the best performer remaining in the competition, Alexandra Burke. Her interpretation of Take That’s Relight My Fire (above) was charged with rare energy and vigour and – importantly – none of it was contrived. If taken in the context of a song in the disco genre (and we should, it sounds like one), then the performance yields interesting results under analysis. The balance between ad-libbing and pure grit has always provided the perfect disco vocal aesthetic, and Burke shows with this performance that she is capable of perfecting it. 

Roy Shuker states that disco is fundamentally a genre led by the beat and the following of it for dancing. This explains the relatively small number of disco stars in the world that aren’t producers or ‘hit-makers’ in comparison to other genres with an emphasis on self-authorship. Because Alexandra Burke was able in her performance to add such virtuosity, such an emotional connection (in the gritty sense mentioned above), the performance becomes much more than an excuse to dance. Palpable drama, albeit heightened by a camp routine, is the product of all the greatest disco performances, and this one contains all the basic hallmarks.

Elsewhere, Eoghan Quigg (or, as Louis Walsh creepily dubbed him, The Quigglet) showed a slightly clueless shade when he was challenged with entertaining the crowd, Live Aid style, towards the end of his performance of Never Forget (above). Aside from his ‘narrow eyes equals emotion’ stances and terribly 5ive-esque bobbing dance, his interaction with the studio audience during the breakdown section was a little embarrassing. His voice has improved considerably as his songs have gotten bigger, but the queasy We Will Rock You handclaps and ad-libbed vocalisations made the stage seem terribly empty. However, the positive comments and continued hyperactive support from a nation of biddies will keep him in.

Predictions for next week: Ruth and JLS in the bottom two, Ruth to go.

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What Is It About Leona’s ‘Run’ That Makes It So Good?

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.

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Notes On The X Factor #4

It seems, as Daniel Evans finally takes his forced leave from the competition, that PM’s predictions are becoming slightly more destined. After a severe backlash (also predicted) that saw Evans fall from slight student joke to washed-up pool cleaner with dubious familial entanglements, the Great British Public decided that enough was enough. Speaking of enough, the descriptions of exactly why Evans’ performances were so lacklustre throughout the series have been  plentiful here, and so focus will turn to other areas.

 

Rachel Hylton‘s consistently overbearing vocal found a relative home this week during her performance of Amy Winhouse’s  Told You I Was Trouble, but it wasn’t enough to keep her out of the bottom two – resulting in her attempt to salvage herself with U2’s One Love (albeit in Mary J. Blige’s guise). The simple fact is that, at the extremes of the phrases, Hylton’s voice is too loud. Each time a higher, louder note is followed a lower, quieter note, the force with which the first is delivered obscures any merit in the second. This creates a sonically confusing, amateurish sound that, when Hylton’s continually dubious tuning is factored in, can only leave a negative lasting impression. As the climax of the song (in video, above) approaches, Hylton’s grasp and confidence of the notes completely disappears – she snatches, loudly, at Blige’s “love is a temple” section with embarrassing results. Unbelievably, Daniel Evans’ performance of Bridge Over Troubled Water was, though mawkish, infinitely preferable to this misguidedly breezy and ill-executed episode.

 

Diana Vickers‘ confused interpretation of Coldplay’s Yellow was, undoubtedly, partly due to her previous illness (continual protestations in blogsville and beyond that she wasn’t really ill seem a little unjustified), and partly due to the actual choice of song. Though none of the judges cared to admit it, this choice is the least complimentary she has endured so far. A song such as Yellow, one so close to what Vickers herself might listen to, even buy on record, is exactly what an audience might expect. If she were next week to perform a Damien Rice song, the problem would be the same. Vickers’ charm amongst viewers and commentators comes from her interpretations of songs that she wouldn’t be expected to perform. U2’s With Or Without You and Blondie’s Call Me are reasonably far-removed from the (probably) Kooks-loving blonde’s realm of expectation and, therefore, when hushed and dimmed in performance, are imbued with tangible novelty and surprise.

Predictions for next week – Rachel and Ruth in the bottom two, Rachel to go.

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Notes On The X Factor #3

PM’s predictions were, again, proven to be misplaced on Saturday night as Laura White shockingly was eliminated from the competition. While White’s performance was not as stirring as fellow sing-off competitor Ruth Lorenzo‘s Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door and she deserved to lose, the fact that she was in the bottom two alone shows an interesting compliance on the part of the public to side with the story, not the substance.

 

Rachel Hylton‘s performance of Against All Odds (above) further showcased her inability to emote through song. Upon her original audition, she performed a ‘no-nonsense’ style song with characteristic bravado and confidence, but it’s since been proven that she has difficulty expressing anything beyond that. With Against All Odds, Hylton again neglected the lyrical intentions in lieu of sheer force and effected sincerity. Volume alone cannot provide the emotional intensity she craves to convey. As a result of her forcing the volume, several notes were unacceptably out of tune – listen particularly to the second verse, just before the choir’s entry.

Undoubtedly, Hylton is the biggest disappointment from the producers’ point of view. Her combination of exhilarating first audition and alarming background of drug abuse and imprisonment was the perfect entrée to the ultimate rags to riches story but, justly, it has been ruined somewhat by her lacklustre performances so far. Still, the public maintain unwavering faith that she will improve by continuing to keep her in the competition.

More incredulous this week, predictably, was Daniel Evans. Again, the public continue to show support for nothing more than consistently glorified misfortune. Though his performance of Open Arms (above) was by no means as ill-judged as last week’s shambolic misinterpretation, it still maintained Evans’ tendencies to over-emote (though with a different result than Rachel Hylton) and continually wink at the camera.

Possibly the worst aspect of the Evans’ debacle is that Chris Moyles has mounted a potentially damaging campaign to keep him in the competition. This is based on nothing but obvious irony and almost frat-boy dedication to his terribly old-fashioned charm. Evans will soon realise that the reason anyone is getting behind Moyles’ campaign is because they think he is a hilarious idiot, traipsing unknown from week to week, winking merrily through unchallenging material and managing to make his inevitable failure more spectacular when it finally arrives. 

Predictions for next week: Ruth and Daniel in the bottom two, Daniel to go.

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Notes On The X Factor #2

This week’s disco-themed X Factor, contrary to PM’s prediction, concluded with Daniel Evans still a participant in the competition. His version of Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes’ Don’t Leave Me This Way (above) could have been an excellent choice of song – considerably more upbeat than his previous song choices, and possessive of far less gravitas than the manipulative performance of Josh Groban’s To Where You Are that wrongly triumphed over the judges’ common sense in last week’s sing-off. Evans appears so vastly divorced from his fellow contestants – his constant grinning and assurances that he’s just ‘an average bloke with a chance’ are out of step with the comparative professionalism and verve of many of his rivals.

The opening lines of the song highlight immediately Evans’ major foible – he pays utterly no attention to the words he’s singing. “Don’t leave me this way, I can’t survive, can’t stay alive without your love,” they go, at any stretch a weighty statement. The protagonist has lost their love, and they will die before they give up getting them back. So, with cheery demeanour, a wink and a smile, Evans sets about destroying the potent sentiment given to him in the aspect of the song that requires some of the most attention. A convincing counter-argument would state that the upbeat, almost euphoric musical accompaniment excuses Evans’ joyous opening, but there’s plenty of evidence (particularly in disco music) to suggest otherwise. How many disco classics have those melodramatic lyrics juxtaposed with pulsing rhythms and danceable tempi? A great many. The difference is that the performances are so often straight-faced – indefatigably determined to maintain the veneer of drama. This is what gives the songs such emotional impact. Think of Diana Ross’ I Will Survive – scarcely does anything more than a scowl come forth.

Evans’ performance continues in unsuitably high spirits. He jollies with dancers and wanders around as much as his portly frame will allow without breaking a sweat, and the attention again turns to the continual manipulation of the audience into thinking of the emotional back-story to Evans’ X Factor journey. Though not as overt as previous performances, the presiding message of the song is loss and loneliness – something that his sympathisers will undoubtedly have taken into account when picking up the phone to vote. And the pathetic Louis Armstrong growl on the words “in my soul” must have been gleaned from viewing the Ricky Gervais/David Brent spoof of If You Don’t Know Me By Now.

 

Next week’s bottom two prediction: Eoghan and Daniel – Daniel to go.

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Notes on The X Factor

This Saturday’s X Factor live heat threw up two interesting and equally indigestible examples of the power of, respectively, the wrong attitude and the wrong approach.

 

Firstly, Rachel Hylton‘s performance of the Nina Simone standard Feelin’ Good  (above) was billed as an expected return to form for the reformed drug addict and convict. A difficult first two weeks saw her tackle, with muted results, somewhat unsuitable songs, with Michael Jackson’s Dirty Diana being of particular note for its mistake-covering excess. With the show’s ‘Big Band Week’ in the offing, however, Hylton was expected to do well. Sadly, so did she.

It begins in perfectly acceptable style, credible and strong, and remains in that fashion until the final phrase. It is natural to labour a pause in a song with such conflict and focus on the creation of tension, but Hylton’s bravado and overconfidence led to her to labour it so much as to utterly spoil the effect of the performance. At the song’s climax, the band’s accompaniment stops to leave the soloist with a simple enough continuation of the tonic, but Hylton holds the silence before beginning for a full seven seconds. She looks one way and then the other, as if to say “You know this is good. I know this is good.” She comes back in nearly a quarter of a tone sharp, a distinctly amateurish mistake considering the atmosphere of self-valorisation she attempted to conjure.

Other elements of the performance grated, from the put-on hip-holding, the tired improvisations and the unforgivable decision to warble, Carey-esque, after the band had stopped playing. This, in particular, signifies that Hylton knew she has fluffed the last note and was desperate compensate and make it appear effortless. Hers is a terrible attitude that bears the mark of a singer with delusions of her own brilliance.

Later, in the results show, Daniel Evans‘ performance of Josh Groban’s To Where You Are (above) was transparently manipulative in securing his survival in the series. It has been laboured throughout the series that Evans’ late wife was the reason for his entering the competition, and his participation has been billed as a sort of tribute to her. Though he personally has not been overly vocal, this performance (part of the final sing-off round) shows that even he is not above using this situation as a way of guaranteeing votes.

The sincerity of the performance is not in question (though it could be argued that it is tastelessly over-wrought), but the reasons for it most certainly are. The lyrics speak of someone who is “gone”, of joining that person on another plain and the sadness of missing them. Evans’ delivery relies heavily on whispers and vibrato, and he can clearly be seen to be crying at the end of the song. Scott Bruton, the opponent in the sing-off had nothing in the way of an emotional back-story, save for a stock rags-to-riches tale that was never completed, and so Evans’ progression to the following week was never in any doubt. Had these singers performed two songs without any contextual factors, the result may have shifted in the other direction.

The point here is that, now he’s sung an emotional song that clearly references his late wife, Daniel Evans now has nothing left to offer the series. When he undoubtedly sings in next week’s sing-off, which song will he perform? Anything in an even slightly similar vein will be criticised for looking even more like taking advantage of his own misfortune, and performing a more upbeat song might not allow him to play to his technical strengths. Because of this position whereby artistic and performance progress is not possible, it’s a safe bet that he will be leaving the show come next week.

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