Friday, 23 October 2009

A Terrible Case of the X

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 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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  1. The call for authenticity in pop music historically lacks an audible volume. And arbguably that's an ok thing. Pop music from 1963 to now is produced to provide teenage boys and girls something to sing along to. these teenagers care not for authenticity or authorship. The composers, producers, promoters, record labels and radio dj's singlularly lack a semblance of caring for where the songs come from. Is this ok? Yhes it is. 'Rent a Pens' are a legitimate part of the pop music process and always have been. The Beatles, the greatest pop group the world has ever seen udesd 'rent a pens' in their early career on song such as Twist And Shout. They also subsequently used songs written by Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. The Rolling Stones, the world's second most famous pop band performed the Beatles-penned track 'I Wanna Be Your Man' and many other tracks by 'rent a pens' in their early career. Michael Jackson, Madonna, George Michael, The Spice Girls. New Kids On The Block, Take That, S-Club Seven and nearly every other pop phenomenon you can think of did not write their own songs. this is understood and accepted within the music industry and amongst the song writing, legal, marketing and PR teams as commonplace. While I see this as acceptable I also see it as fairly duplictitous because the real composers remain, in most instance, publicly unaccredited (though privately heavily remunerated). This leads the young fans of said groups to believe the artists (Madonna and co) are musical geniuses. They are not. They are performers. They are dancers. They are singers.

    Cheryl Cole, the villain (and I use the wor advisedly) of this piece has NEVER written a song in her life. She performs. Much like a barking sea lion would. She 'dances' (translation: moves her bottom and legs in time to a backing track), and pretends to sing. Mimicry or pretence is not a new element of pop music performance. Top Of Th Pops until the mid 90s had a uniform policy that no act would ever prform live. Thus, The Smiths, Stone Roses, Rolling Stones, Madonne et al performed to backing tracks, on what was ostensibly a 'live' music show. Again, this is fine, though duplicitous and to some extent a sham (continued...)

  2. (continued...) What is not fine, as I believe is the point of John’s article, is that this mimicry and performance severely damages genuine original artists who write songs and are subsequently obstructed from ever performing them, releasing them or commanding exclusive royalty fees because of the commercial, materialistic and capitalist nature of the music industry. A talented artist may never get to perform and take credit for their composition because they may not be attractive enough, fashionable enough, white enough, black enough, stylish enough etc. etc. This is sad but this is pop music. It’s not a fairy tale story. The other side of the coin is that the actual composers of the songs sung by Girls Aloud or Justin Timberlake make a substantial living off of their compositions and are still able to live the anonymous, untroubled lives that the stars are not.

    For me, the greatest crime of the pop biz is not that the stars are talent less non-musicians, it’s that their credentials go unquestioned. Cheryl Cole is a talent less idiot. That’s fine. What is not fine is that she is a violent racist ( carter). This is the true hidden hypocrisy of the entertainment business and the real sadness of shows like X Factor - that the public and the viewers really don’t care about the real values, beliefs or talents of the performers or presenters as long as they are ‘entertained’.

    Cheryl Cole is a vile, talent less, shallow, self-obsessed yuppy who has positioned herself quite cunningly within the shallow, unthinking world of Saturday night entertainment, married an equally greedy, shallow and self-obsessed cretin (Ashley Cole) and done very well for herself financially by duping the British public into believing the falsehood that she is the girl-next-door come good. That, and not the fact that she demonstrably cannot sing, is her biggest flaw. A flaw all too readily overlooked by the British public.

  3. Although I would agree with most of the sentiment of Joshua's comment, I do think it somewhat misses the point. I'm not sure that John was necessarily bemoaning the use of rent-a-pens (nice turn of phrase by the by), but more that he was asserting that even within this most secretive of trades there should be a code of ethics, some kind of sureity that protects both artist, writer and listner.

    So crap songs should never be brought into the public domain regardless of which pretty face is selling it. Writers should not be allowed to recycle material in such a mercenary fashion, and artists (I use the term loosely in this case), should not want to use this kind of regurgitated tripe. Music goes to the heart of every society and the industry should be working togther to safeguard its integrity. And we as the buying public should fight for our (muscial) love... sorry, I couldn't resist it.

    The other very interesting point that Joshua raised is our willingness to overlook our "star's" previous wrongdoings. But haven't we all quietly accepted that that's ok? Very quietly admittedly, but it does seem that if someone is able to perform or produce something that we warrant to be worthy, then we'll ignore their private life and instead hail their professional achievements? I love The Beatles but I choose to ignore the rumours about the way John Lennon used to abuse the women in his life. People who would have put a continent and a dozen rabid dogs between their children and Michael Jackson came out into the streets in one of the most bizarre examples of global grieving that I have ever seen, I was not among them. Week after week we keep going back to our football stadiums and put aside our newspapers that point the finger at one of our most promising player's latest rape allegations. Now far be it for me to defend Cheryl but it does seem a little unfair to single her out as someone who has managed to successfully gloss over her past.

  4. Terrific stuff John, an interesting take on this whole bluster.

    I absolutely agree that it's a pretty big shock how absolutely rubbish the song is - it's almost incredible that anybody would have let her go ahead and choose that as her lead solo single. Her voice sounds fairly awful on it and the verse that goes something like 'life ain't a picnic, love's not a walk in the par-ar-ark' is just hilarious. It's just nowhere near as good as any Girls Aloud single ever!

    As for her general PR success after her not very pleasant introduction to public life (the likes of me had never heard of her until the whole toilet incident) - I think this can be very easily explained by her choice of husband! Associating yourself with such a prize prick is 90% of the way towards ensuring that people feel sorry for you and admire your loyalty/strength/whatever the hell else makes her so determined to fight for this etc. etc.

    Having said that, I can't wait for Dead Man Walking. Any project with Rio on board has got to worth considering! And 50 Cent is such a powerful, natural, charismatic actor - very much in the Brando mould.

    But yes, this idea of a highest bidder for songs is a bit of a depressing one, no matter how much you might know that it’s always gone on to a certain extent. It’s hard to be truly touched by a big ballsy ballad, for instance, if you know that it has been procured in such a manner, rather than from the singer’s heart (or at least the heart of somebody in their band!).

    However, once we start arguing about ‘purity’ in music one does worry that we’ll all end up at a particularly depressing festival in a particularly depressing English county listening to a band called something like Pencil trudge through their latest freeform jazz opus… See you all there!

  5. I'm starting to think there's something wrong with the XFactor stage. I mean think about it:

    Robbie: weird

    Whitney: drug fuelled mess

    Cheryl: so bad most people have assumed it wasn't prerecorded - apparently it was half recorded half live. Don't take that as gospel though, it's possible that I'm just spreading
    Evening Standard rumours.

    Bon Jovi: oh so boring

    JLS: if you can't dance in time boys, don't attempt synchronised dancing. Rule for life.

    Seriously though, maybe it's deliberate sabbotage to make the contestants look better. Tchk and I don't believe in conspiracy theories. Ha!

    Who do we have next week? It doesn't really matter, I guarantee it'll be awful.