The X Factor hangover (OR How the banjo killed pop music)
About 2 months ago, my grandma informed me she’d discovered this new band that she thought would be ‘right up my street’. She couldn’t remember their name, but she’d bought their album and insisted she would play it to me the next time I saw her.
Her excited announcement left me feeling bemused; partly because the idea that my 67-year-old grandma was discovering music I might like before I was, was as hilarious as it was concerning (I must be slipping, too much time wasted on silly old journalism), but largely because the only albums my grandma has bought in the last 40 years, not released by artists who died over two hundred years ago, are Katherine Jenkins’.
Her reason for this, is that she hasn’t felt music, since The Beatles, has been worth listening to; certainly not in the last 10/15 years anyway. And I don’t really blame her. (The band by the way, was The Lumineers.)
Increasingly over the last 20 years, trying to find good music has become harder. You can’t rely on the various music charts to provide it, because charts are based on sales, and as such, only music produced with the sole purpose of making money makes it into the top 40 (generally speaking).
Trying to find music made with passion and skill, by an artist who has actually written the songs themselves, can make you feel like a smack addict desperately burrowing into a skip, searching for discarded needles that might have just the smallest remnant of precious euphoria.
Now, it might surprise you to know that my über-technophobic grandma doesn’t spend her time scouring these proverbial skips, and so the only current music she hears is what she’s exposed to on TV, in shops and on the radio. This usually means chart music. Which usually means it’s all a load of shite.
“Only sick music makes money today” – Friedrich Nietzsche
I firmly believe that this situation is shared by most of the general public. I believe the average person doesn’t have the time, or the desire, to actively seek out alternative music to what they hear on TV or on the radio, and as such, they start to think that’s all there is. If there’s no variation in the charts then that must be the only type/genre there is, right? Well no, there’s also that sort of semi-dance/semi-R’n’B music that’s played in nightclubs and bars now.
So by some kind of aural osmosis, our brains (well not mine, because mine’s better than the rest of your maleable, idiot brains) have absorbed all the shitty music out there and decided that that’s the standard. That’s what music sounds like, and who are we to argue? After all, if it’s in the charts, that must mean everyone else likes it, which must mean it’s good, so we should listen to that.
Now, I’m not blaming Simon Cowell alone for the rise of all this shitty pop music (which from now on will be referred to as shitpop – clever, eh? Noel Gallagher will love that one) and the demise of quality music, but he is certainly the chief perpetrator. Cowell, the brain behind Pop Idol and the X Factor, specialises in producing the kind of shitpop acts that will sell millions of records then fade into obscurity.
Pop Idol and the X Factor (for those joining me from the 19th century) are essentially enormously large, terrifyingly menacing factories that, once a year, produce an array of faceless mannequins. Cowell then slaps a wig onto the mannequins, writes a heart-wrenching background story for each of them, then places them on a stage where an audience will ecstatically clap, and usually cry, as the mannequin performs a moving rendition of another artist’s song (which is programmed into the mannequin via a USB stick rammed up it’s arse). Sure, the mannequin isn’t singing anything original, but it’s no less powerful, because we know how tragic this mannequin’s backstory is, and the song obviously represents this. Over the next few weeks, the public then votes for which mannequin has the saddest back story, or for the ugly one that looks a bit mental but you vote for them to show you aren’t judgemental (well done you, you’re just a great person), and the winning mannequin is awarded an album written, recorded, produced and for the most part, performed by other artists, but with their face plastered on the front. The album sells millions and the mannequin becomes a star.
However the next year, a new lot of mannequins are released, and everyone forgets the last one. Anyone remember Steve Brookstein? Still buying Shayne Ward albums? No? The process then repeats, year after year.
Of course, this is just an exaggeration (though not a big one), but hopefully you see my point. X Factor and it’s fellow talent shows aren’t producing artists with longevity, because that’s not the point. Ultimately the X Factor is not a music show. It’s first and foremost, an entertainment programme, and ultimately the show, and everything it produces, is designed with the sole purpose of making Simon Cowell a bit of spending money; for sweeties and toy cars and such.
But then a few years ago, something very peculiar happened. Something that absolutely was not supposed to happen; it wasn’t part of Emperor Cowell’s plan. A few boys from West London; a bloke called Marcus Mumford and his mates, released an album. That album went on to sell millions of copies and win the BRIT award for album of the year.
So why was this such a surprise? Why was this such a blow to the dark overlord’s plans?
This was an album that featured folk-esque stylings, accentuated by a double bass and a banjo, with lyrics taken straight out of Shakespeare. Leona Lewis this was not.
To further hammer home the significance: the album that preceded Mumford & Sons’ debut album ‘Sigh No More’ in it’s peak position at number two in the UK charts was Justin Bieber’s ‘My World’. Yep, Mumford & Sons knocked tween-obsession, the horrifyingly popular, Justin Bieber off his high horse, and kicked him repeatedly in the ball-sack.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming that Mumford & Sons are by any means the first resurgence of folk, or an alternative genre, in modern music; there are other bands that have been doing it longer and perhaps better (it’s all a matter of taste; except when it comes to X Factor), but none have achieved the widespread, mainstream attention and success that Mumford & Sons have. Could you have named one chart-topping artist whose songs featured a banjo five years ago? No, you couldn’t, so stop trying to be a smart-arse. In this way, those good ol’ London boys, offered a glimmer of hope to those who were tired of the same old uninspired music, that never-ending procession of shitpop they were so used to hearing. And that was just the beginning.
I like to think of the weird limbo phase we’re currently experiencing in music as: the X Factor hangover. Over the last decade or so we, as a culture, have been overly indulgent, in all the wrong vices. Watching these TV talent shows, and listening to the music they produce, has been like one decade long drinking binge. You know it’s bad for you, and you know it’s not a long term solution to the problems in your life, but for now, you don’t care. For now it brings some slight distraction from your despair, and takes away all those nasty decisions you had to make before. Why decide what music you like and want to listen to when the lovely television will tell you?!
Now is the morning after. And we’re all feeling pretty terrible aren’t we? All those pesky regrets and consequences are here. Remember buying that Jedward album? Of course you do, and you feel absolutely disgusted with yourself; as you rightly should.
There are only two ways to make this bad feeling go away. Either plunge deeper into your addiction; begin a life-long binge from which there can be no return; or suck it up, heave yourself out of bed and go and take some paracetamol, then get on with your life. The paracetamol, of course, being good music in this analogy. And it’s more readily available than ever – you can finally give up that nasty smack habit now.
Bands that specifically AREN’T mainstream or don’t conform to the norm are now growing in popularity and, much to the dispair of their hipster fans, become mainstream themselves. Oh the irony.
Already there is a wider variety of musical styles becoming popular than I can remember in my life-time. The Mercury Prize is now among the most highly regarded music awards, and people pay attention to it; it’s no longer that award thing where all the bands nominated are the weird ones your brother listens to that you’ve never heard of.
This year’s winner, Alt-J, are one of the most unique and unusual bands to have achieved commercial success in the last five years or so, and they are fantastic. The odd blend of multiple, and often contrasting, musical styles works perfectly. They are a great example of a band who SHOULD NOT be successful and popular in this music climate, but are.
Another good example is Plan B. He’s been around for a while, but in his last two albums he has managed to do something unexpected and unconventional, and pull it off. With ‘The Defamation of Strickland Banks’, Plan B completely turned away from the style of his first album, and produced an album more full of soulful crooning than rap. It was a shock move, and it shouldn’t have been successful but it was. Then with his latest release ‘Ill Manors’, Plan B again decided to change his game. The result is hard-hitting protest against the government, with reference to the London riots and the disenchanted youth. It’s heavy, it’s nasty, and it deals with some very uncomfortable issues. Again, not the format for a successful album, but here was another artist defying the trend and emerging victorious.
Obviously this isn’t the last we’ll see of shitpop, and despite the rumours that are always flying about that Simon Cowell is considering scrapping the X Factor, I imagine that it, along with all the copycat shows, will continue for many years, even faced with a slow decline in popularity. People are still afraid to step outside of their comfort zone and explore something more adventurous, but it’s a start. We just have to wait out the eventual demise of the TV talent show and then the revolution will be won. People will be forced to discover music on their own, and that can only be a good thing.