Bitterly cold winds whipped across Bristol’s city centre as we walked towards ‘The Syndicate’, eager to see Cher Lloyd perform only a few days after reaching the last four acts in the dramatic conclusion to ‘The X Factor’ 2010.
A strange trepidation filled me as we hustled against the chill, getting ever closer to the club; this was the same trepidation that had caused me to hesitate before booking tickets the day before. Despite, or maybe as a result of its huge viewing figures and hype, ‘The X Factor’ is the show people love to hate. Watching the show is for some a sin in itself, but I was aware that my actions tonight meant I was crossing a line further still!
Two extremes seemed possible to me as I was about to round the final frosty corner of the cold, tall buildings that channelled a whistling wind. Either the club would be packed, overflowing with eager fans thrilled to see their idol fresh from an impressive finish in the recent final that gripped the nation, or alternatively, I feared that the club would be eerily quiet, but for the staff eyeballing me with scrutiny, wondering why a 23 year old would venture out on such a night to see someone from yet another clichéd series of ‘The X Factor’. On such an unforgiving evening, not many performers could have proved sufficiently interesting to tempt me outside, but as well as being a fan of her unique style and charisma, I was fascinated to see the reality that is left behind in the wake of one of the nation’s most popular shows, after its increasingly strong cultural wave crashed its crescendo recently as Matt Cardle was announced the 2010 winner.
Having reluctantly fallen for the glossy allure of the show again this year, with its slow-motion montages of proud families, adoring fans and otherwise insurmountable personal journeys, I was keen to see whether I had been part of a process that had genuinely enriched someone’s life, or whether I was complicit in the exploitation of someone’s dreams. From the first show of the current series, I longed to recognise the signposts for cued empathy so that I could avoid investment into a template I have seen repeated and refined ruthlessly over the past few years. Swiftly highlighting any potential emotional narrative in contestant’s motivations as early as possible, any true poignancy of their story is almost cheapened through the shows now routine ‘dramatic’ presentation. I was unsure if I wanted to start watching something so familiar again, especially knowing that for the contestants themselves the process is often a double-edged sword, leaving many previous finalists high and dry after a tantalising glimpse of a dream near-fulfilled. It seems inevitable most will depart tarred with the expectation of short-lived success and often the resentment from industry peers, although as with many rules there are exceptions.
However, in spite of these acknowledgements, I couldn’t help but enjoy watching! The seemingly essential importance of an ability to perform on ‘The X Factor’ as the means to achieving self-actualisation, strengthening a family and establishing a legacy proved just too large and compelling a gravity for my cynicism to oppose. Despite the familiar clichés, I was in – hook, line and sinker.
As well as proving entertaining, I hoped tonight’s performance by Cher Lloyd would validate or dispel any such further guilty consumptions of similar television shows.
As it happened, we reached the roped queue section beside the entrance and strolled straight through its empty guidance to a patronising ID check; an indication of the age range expected for the evening. Once inside, I was struck by how thinly people were spread about the sprawling expanse of one of Bristol’s largest club venues. The dance floor bounced self-consciously en masse near the DJ booth, whilst groups of people peppered themselves amongst seats and bars around the edges of the room. It struck me as a harsh blow to see the venue not as packed as it could have been, as having been enamoured with Cher’s on-screen performances, I wanted the place to rock through to the foundations both for her as an artist, and for myself as a punter. Given the hype surrounding ‘The X Factor’ and the final in particular, I assumed that the buzz for the competitors would long continue, and that their shows and appearances would draw impressive crowds, at least for the first few months, whilst still riding high on their rampant media coverage. Based on the attendance I saw in Bristol, it would seem that my expectations were wrong, at least on this particular evening. Such a revelation blew apart the constructed reality so expertly woven by the remarkably polished, grandiose TV shows which suggest that by the final, a competitor’s status and future career is virtually guaranteed, reinforced by enthusiastic predictions of record sales by the judges. Such claims at the time of broadcast don’t seem to be too big a stretch of the imagination – after all, the finalists are performing for many weeks at a high standard, under great pressure, and are broadcast to a large percentage of the country. From the sofa, these appear to be sufficient credentials, yet without the cumulative excitement of the televised competition, its associated hyperbole in the media and the ‘water-cooler chat’ of the general public, it seems the momentum takes a sharp hit. It was both surprising and disappointing so relatively few had ventured out to see the performer they’d voted for in their thousands on so many occasions in preceding weeks.
I deduced the middling attendance to be the result of the Arctic weather tightening its grip outside, the surprising lack of promotion locally and the late timing of her 1am set, which made the appearance a tentative option for the ‘9 to 5’ public on a Thursday night. Furthermore, the 18+ door policy was reported to cause problems to groups of younger fans who wanted to get involved but couldn’t enter the adult, nightclub arena; ironic, given that Cher is not in fact 18 yet herself. It is this cross-section of fans, the middle-teen’s, that I anticipate to have formed the majority of her voting demographic – her contemporary style reflects their interests and tastes, and her recent achievements are likely to resonate with their own personal aspirations. That they would not be eligible to watch her perform seems a perhaps costly oversight, effectively bottlenecking both the clubs ticket revenue and Cher’s available momentum post ‘X Factor’.
Those potential explanations aside, I also wondered if perhaps people were not voting for the artist themselves, but rather their narrative and the hope they represent. It could be suggested that the votes for Cher Lloyd, for example, were in fact the votes of people a similar age hoping to validate and render achievable their own ambitions. Are we voting for surrogates of our own desires?
The stories of 2010 Winner Matt Cardle and Runner-up Rebecca Ferguson are textbook ‘rags to riches’ journeys; relatable, emotional gold – they are both by all accounts the most honest and grounded individuals who have worked hard for years, but never quite gotten their opportunity to shine. To these characters the public can relate; we know people like this; we are people like this! Upon their fateful meeting with ‘The X Factor’ machine, they have been given the opportunity to finally embrace their dreams and flourish spectacularly at the hands of the British public, who famously enjoy the rise of the underdog. But would they have been so successful in the show had they been introduced to us with a contrasting background such as a wealthy heritage, an education at Eton and a Porsche for their 21st birthday? Isolating their talent from the equation, it’s much more difficult to imagine as many people supporting such an alternate back-story to their moving and inspirational tales which captured us so willingly. In a fascinating interview with Steve Brookstein, winner of the first series of ‘The X Factor’, journalist Paul Morley noted, “That’s the ultimate ‘great illusion’ of the show – that it appears very directly to be about singing, but in a way, that’s the last thing it’s about”.
For Cher Lloyd last night, it seems that the hundred or so people in attendance may not fulfil the dream suggested so achievable by an audience full of gushing judges and feverous fans. It’s interesting to see that the competition spends months televising the entrant’s ascents to victory, yet stops abruptly once this has been achieved. Whilst post-final media appearances are evident amongst screen, radio, print and online, few fall under the official ‘X Factor’ banner, with the associated sparkle, controversy and prime-time coverage. It’s as if the rags-to-riches narrative has been completed, at least at first glance, and so the process is reset abruptly for a brief hiatus. Once people move on and memories of the competition have cooled, we eagerly lap up the next ascension to tabloid deity/fodder when Britain’s Got Talent takes its turn on our screens, feeding us the same template with a different name-badge.
After all, it is the program and its winning template that has stood the test of time greater than the thousands of people that have auditioned, and the dozens that have become household names for a few months, only to fall by the wayside. It is the template that continues entertaining long past the end of record deals handed to former contestants, it is the template that continues to employ highly paid judges and countless others, and it is the template that continues to draw some of the most consistently high viewing figures and advertising revenues in UK television, soon to do the same across the globe as ‘The X Factor’ moves to America.
Yet, whilst the show is reaching seemingly ever higher levels of popularity, I am drawn to Newton’s law, ‘every action has an equal and opposite reaction’... though perhaps not in the context he had intended! Such evidence of the backlash against what ‘Rage Against The Machine’ singer Zack De La Rocha described as the shows, “sterile pop monopoly”, is perfectly illustrated by ‘anti-X Factor’ movements such as the successful campaign last winter to defeat the shows recent dominance over the ‘Christmas Number One’ spot with the classic rebel-anthem ‘Killing In The Name’.
More recently, unexpectedly high numbers of votes for the uniquely charming Wagner, a huge outsider to make any significant progress within the competition, appeared to be another attempt to ‘rock the boat’. Week on week people seemed both more surprised and indeed more thrilled to see how many precious competition spots he could usurp from more likely candidates, in spite of his ‘novelty’ performances. Also, ‘Cage Against the Machine’, a campaign to keep ‘The X Factor’ out of the Number 1 spot in favour of John Cage’s four minutes and thirty three seconds of orchestral silence, was embraced by many famous musicians and over 16,000 sales. Whilst the movement was entertainingly unique and charitable with its generated revenue, it ultimately buckled to the huge, and I believe deserved, public affection for this year’s competition winner Matt Cardle.
Such campaigns tally with another collective character trait of the UK public; the enjoyment taken in wiping someone of status from their pedestal, often surprisingly soon after championing their triumphant rise to success. Examples of the way the public can turn so harshly and quickly include the way that the perception of many ‘celebrity’ mothers can swing from angelic matriarchs to figures of ridicule and hatred in such a short space of time, sometimes even swinging back in the public’s favour in the long run. The same can be said of politicians, and practically anyone in the public eye who provides an easy easel on which to paint pantomime narratives. Evidence of such fickle emotion is apparent in Cher Lloyd’s journey through ‘The X Factor’ – despite a positive start, numerous stories were later released online and in print which reported a dark and vicious character. By the end of the campaign, her reputation seemed to have swung from an adorable young girl with an apparent flair for performance to a seething, conniving diva consumed with conceit. This however, was a reputation fed to a public eager to consume controversy, and in my opinion such allegations were not confirmed by her actions when on-screen, whether way back in her first post-audition interview on ‘This Morning’ or anything else available all the way up to her composed exit during the final weekend.
When such negative reports contrast so starkly with what you see for yourself in someone’s behaviour, it naturally sews a seed of doubt in the validity of the reports, but reluctantly also in the person you see on screen. It made me wonder if stories of her alleged poor character both past and present are related to the music she sings, as it is unquestionable that rap music suffers a negative image in the eyes of the societal majority, regardless of the few pioneers that excel and transcend such lazy associations. Faced with such potential inherent discomfort from the public because of her image as a ‘rapper’, probably reinforced by her ‘Alpha-female’, faux-aggressive swagger and almost confrontational confidence on stage, Cher was always walking into a minefield of potential criticism and knee-jerk reactions. What people may forget is that she is a 17 year old girl, performing on stage. If you only ever see her rapping aggressively, swaggering arrogantly and you then read stories of her acting badly, it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to presume the stories are true, given that such sentiments tally with the sometimes harsh professionalism of her stage persona.
Had she sung more effeminate songs, soft ballads or endearing vocals as she did with her superb performance of ‘Stay’, (interestingly, the week in which she gained her highest votes during the competition), I wonder if such negative stories would have been reported, and if so, would they have been so believable to the public?
These stories, frequent and unpleasant as they were, fuelled further my desire to see her live – my experience would not be fed to me with an editorial slant, an implied narrative or a glossy edit. I would see for myself what this girl was about, and what she can do in person.
What I found was as fascinating as I had hoped.
We relaxed for an hour or so sipping heavily iced drinks, trying our best to draw a flavour of whisky from our mixer whilst eager glass collectors circled like vultures nearby. At times, I wondered if indeed the mixers were more potent than I first thought as the dance floor seemed to flash occasional glimpses of multiple Cher Lloyds, but upon closer inspection they revealed themselves to be near carbon-copy imitations of the evening’s performer.
Shortly after 1am, the DJ dragged the record back dramatically and announced Cher Lloyd was taking to the stage. Sat at a table behind the stage area, I saw her walk towards her audience as security guided her path gently. I was struck by the same realisation that hits me whenever I first see someone from television or film; firstly that they are much smaller than I had anticipated, and also that they are a person, not a character. Such detachment can so easily become normal when you watch people’s lives unfold through a screen at your leisure, yet in Bristol her personification was all the more immediate and notable due to her delicate frame, eliciting a further vulnerability and charm that is lost through the sheen of a TV screen or magazine page.
Joining the crowd which was now firmly amassed, I realised that everyone in the whole club was drawn to the performance area, like iron-filings gravitating towards a magnet. Emerging with presence, Cher launched straight into her mashup of ‘No Diggity’ and ‘Shout’, her trademark vocals soaring evocatively, complete with their faint waiver that alludes to a fascinating weakness behind her staunch front.
The number of people with cameras and camera phones making recordings was disappointing to see, almost objectifying the performance, although this is also indicative of a younger audience who perhaps are new to live shows. They seemed to spend more time making one of a thousand poor quality recordings at the expense of their full concentration in the moment; something I’ve never understood.
Cher bounced, strutted, hair-flicked, dusted her shoulders and paraded around the stage during ‘Turn My Swag On’, the song that sailed her through her first ‘X Factor’ audition to the animated delight of Cheryl Cole and a thoroughly impressed audience. This TV audition was the first time I saw Cher, and I remember getting goose bumps as I watched her perform – she absolutely blew me away. Having not previously heard the song, I found the Soulja Boy original and discovered, especially for a song reportedly having sold over one million units, that his vocals were monotonous and dull. Both the Keri Hilson remix and that of Alexa Goddard expanded the song hugely with their vastly more evocative vocal range and technical skill, but I prefer the attitude and life Cher brings to the song, reanimating it as her own.
As she wrapped the track up in Bristol, the music and her posturing faded in unison, after which a small, humble ‘thank you’ was mouthed to the audience. For me, this illustrated what I had seen previously on TV – she is great at her role on stage, but her larger-than-life persona shouldn’t be confused with her person. Of course I may be wrong, but my tendency is to see the best in people, especially if they are besieged with seemingly harsh, opportunistic criticisms.
Also performed in Bristol was ‘The Clapping Song/Get Your Freak On’ mashup, which formed a powerful contrast as the bubbly 60’s lyrics dissolved into the gritty, urban beats of Missy Elliot; Cher’s body language morphing accordingly. Playful, cute and innocent, Ms Lloyd’s prancing heels slowed as she puffed her chest up, beckoned the crowd to give her some noise and bounced with attitude as she rapped over Timbaland’s classic production.
An unexpectedly short set, only ten to fifteen minutes long, finished with a surprising trip back to the old school with ‘Boom! Shake The Room’ of Will Smith fame. Mashed up with his daughters hit ‘Whip My Hair’, both songs gave a perfect outlet for the attitude, energy and the persona that has perhaps won as many enemies as it has fans.
Unapologetically entertaining, charged with front and laden with potential, it is all too easy to misread or to snipe at Cher Lloyd as she stands out amongst the crowd; she’s an obvious target for controversy. Some may claim there is no smoke without fire, and sometimes I too find it difficult to differentiate between the ‘Ice Queen’ rapper on stage and the seventeen year old girl caught in a media circus, especially with such wild press coverage. Was clarity needed, I noticed as she closed her set at ‘The Syndicate’ on that cold winter night that a warm, “thank you very much for having me” was spoken humbly into the mic, by a voice endearingly gentle in contrast to such a fierce performance.
Ultimately, people want to label or characterise ‘The X Factor’ in extremes; either being the death of the music industry or the saviour of the struggling, everyman musician who needs his one shot at the title, often otherwise out of reach. I personally believe it is not just impossible to categorise it so clearly, but also foolish to try. With any change comes consequences both good and bad, and people will adjust accordingly. The cultural shift we have seen as a result of such TV programs and competitions in the past decade is here to stay, for better or worse. It seems in conclusion, from a cynic’s perspective, that ‘The X Factor’ is a machine that plays on the dreams of the few for the entertainment of the masses, whilst lining the pockets of those pulling the strings behind the silk curtain. Yet as an optimist, it must not be ignored that ‘The X Factor’ also provides an invaluable flash of hope and opportunity for those willing to step up and give performing a shot, whilst presenting a journey of inspiration for those who are content to stay dreaming on the sofa in the cold winter months.
As for Cher Lloyd, I hope that I haven’t given the benefit of the doubt to the monster so often reported by tabloid media, but rather I saw the best in an adorable young fighter with a genuine talent for performance. Regardless, whilst she can captivate an audience and electrify them with her remarkable charisma, past contestants have shown that reaching ‘The X Factor’ final is just the first hurdle. Fortunately, talk of record deals, high profile collaborations and other interesting outlets for her talents are widespread, hinting at continued opportunities for growth and success after her whirlwind introduction to the public.
‘The X Factor’, whether exploitative or philanthropic, has taken her remarkably far in such a short space of time, but it’s now up to Cher Lloyd to seize her momentum, ‘turn her swag on’ and make 2011 her year.
Darren Paul Thompson
Image Source: www.itv.com
Tickets/More Info for Cher Lloyd can be found here!
Tickets/More Info for ‘The X Factor’ Live Tour can be found here!