by John Ellul - guest contributor
So, for better or for worse, Cheryl Cole’s debut solo performance came and went this weekend on The X-Factor and the world has continued spinning regardless. After encountering a backlash when it emerged that Cole planned to record the performance beforehand and mime over the track. She then appeared to swerve everyone, presumably in answer to her critics. Her seat was empty at the start. She stayed in the same costume throughout. Some of the vocals were shaky – surely it was live. Were we all had? Does it even matter?
The calls for authenticity on a TV show more artificial than ‘Cosmetic Surgery Live’ are a bit misguided, with some under the impression that Cole should ‘set an example’ by singing live. Perhaps having a stellar career for the last few years gives her the right to a night off – but would the same apply in other walks of life? “I’ve been a brilliant postman for 17 years now. Today though, I’m just going to pretend to post the letters while I play on the swings and you lot can sod off.”
The abiding issue isn’t about the quality of Cheryl Cole’s singing – but of the song. Cheryl didn’t have to write a great song, rather choose one from those offered to her. Ms Cole has the world at her feet and all her army of expert advisers had to do was pick a barnstormer with which to announce herself on the international solo stage. Seeing as “choosing the right song” is about the only tangible thing the mentor has to do for their chosen acts on The X-Factor, this should have been a breeze.
The limp, lifeless ‘Fight For This Love’ is boring, drab sub-R&B album filler at best. So is Cheryl the next Beyonce or the next Mel C? The song will likely get to number one this Sunday thanks to the exposure Simon Cowell can guarantee (in exchange for her firstborn, presumably) but on this evidence a tail-between-the-legs Girls Aloud reunion can’t be too far off. The Daily Mail got it half-right – the song is derivative, but not because it’s a Kelis rip-off.
The man behind the song, Andre Merritt, is responsible for several recent successes (Chris Brown – ‘Forever’; Rihanna – ‘Disturbia’) and his reference demo has been floating around the net since December. In the year since then it’s also been recorded by American singer (and 2002 American Idol contestant) Tamyra Gray. Looking closer into Cheryl’s tracklisting we also find the 2008 will.i.am hit ‘Heartbreaker’, on which she (apparently) sang the chorus, and a cover of Nikola Rachelle’s 2006 single ‘Don’t Talk About This Love’. That’s an awful lot of recycling.
Song-swapping is commonplace in contemporary R&B, a genre Cheryl Cole appears eager to shoehorn herself into. This scene consists of several songwriting collectives and individuals who’ll go anywhere once the cheque clears, ‘rent-a-pens’ with few scruples and even less quality control. Once the song is done, a vocal reference is recorded to demonstrate how to sing it and it’s emailed to whoever wants it. This process often runs into roadbumps. Usher initially hesitated over recording 2004 mega-hit ‘Yeah!’, and when he did eventually ask to buy the rights to the song, producer Lil’ Jon had sold it to rapper Petey Pablo. A hastily-made imitation was thrown together and proved a smash.
So how much of the music we listen to is really ‘real’? I’m pretty confident this musical ‘bed-hopping’ doesn’t take place in other genres. Was ‘Golden Skans’ originally offered to Kasabian before they passed it up? Did ‘America’ sit on a producer’s desk for a year while Razorlight, The Kaiser Chiefs and The Killers argued over it? We used to be able to kid ourselves that our pop stars were at least trying to keep up the charade. Now, not only is the Emperor wearing no clothes, he’s smiling and shaking his dangling bits in our face while he does it.
The British black pop music scene is experiencing exposure and success on a never before seen level. Chipmunk, Dizzee Rascal, Ironik, Tinchy Stryder and N-Dubz have all had recent triumphs and Cheryl Cole stands as the R&B figurehead, alongside Taio Cruz, and her X-Factor cohorts Alexandra Burke and Leona Lewis. Reality shows have served her well and she needs to seize this opportunity creatively or risk solo failure.
Perhaps she is more aware than I give her credit for though. Booking Whitney “I Will Always Have a Problem” Houston to sing directly after you is a masterstroke that ensures few people will remember your own drawbacks. The Evening Standard wrote that Houston “looked flustered” when talking to host Dermot O’Leary. Since when did “flustered” become the accepted euphemism for “on crack”? “Sorry I haven’t been in for work for three months boss, I was flustered. In a flustered den, with my flustered pipe.”
Whether Cheryl’s approach to her album and her career are ‘admirable’, this is of course academic – both the album and subsequent singles are guaranteed sales and financial success thanks to blanket coverage. The naysayers have bemoaned sampling in hip-hop, and autotune in R&B – is a backlash against the invisible business of ‘song-swapping’ far off?
Hubby Ashley, who dutifully sat in the crowd on Sunday night, is to be applauded. Faced with the prospect of their partners embarking on international superstardom, more insecure husbands would feel emasculated. Not our Ash. Although maybe he just wants Cheryl to reach a second album so he and Rio’s imaginary hip-hop ensemble (the Merx Brothers?) can appear as guest rappers and finally “spit some hot lyrics”. And how much exactly would Cheryl pay her beloved Ashley to appear as a guest on her album? £55 grand? Is she taking the piss, Jonathan?
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