Monday, October 26, 2009

Number 1s of 2009: 25 October 2009

It's hard to overstate just how much The X-Factor dominates the charts at this time of year. For the benefit of the Americans reading, The X-Factor is the show that replaced Pop Idol a few years ago. It's essentially the same format with a few tweaks. The main difference is that The X-Factor has four categories - boys 16-24, girls 16-24, 25+ and groups - and four judges, each "mentoring" their own category.

You can't buy the individual performances from week to week, but that doesn't stop people going off and downloading songs that they saw on the show. And they do, in quantities that suggest a lot of X-Factor viewers are evidently not being exposed to music through any other channel. Two proper acts perform on the Sunday night results show, and those slots are far and away the most effective promotion a single can have in the UK.

Last week, the 2008 winner Alexandra Burke entered at number one with her first single proper (not counting her coronation release). It was the fastest selling single of the year. I wondered whether that might be bad news for X-Factor judge Cheryl Cole, who released her own solo debut this week. But she evidently didn't need to worry. The British public love Cheryl Cole. She practically matched Burke's weekly total in her first day.

So, that's Cheryl Cole, "Fight for this Love." (The YouTube version is here.)

Cole is a member of Girls Aloud, the girl band who were formed on Popstars: The Rivals in 2002. The original idea was to form two groups - one male, one female - who would battle it out for the Christmas number one. This shouldn't have worked. After all, it meant taking whoever came first, second, third, fourth and fifth in a talent show. And for the boys, it didn't work - One True Voice crashed and burned after two singles.

Girls Aloud, however, were given decent material and went on seven years and counting of legitimate success in the UK and Ireland. Even the reviewers generally like them. Curiously, they've never managed to translate that into success overseas. But against all expectations, they survived and thrived.

Cheryl Tweedy was 19 when she joined the group. She nearly managed to screw things up almost immediately when, in 2003, she was done for assaulting a nightclub toilet attendant. (She claimed self-defence.) After this rocky start to her career, she ended up marrying footballer Ashley Cole in 2006 and starting a sort of parallel career as a fashion icon.

Her solo career has clearly been in the works for a while. Girls Aloud can't go on forever - seven years is a long career by the standards of most pop groups, let alone reality TV girl bands. She joined X-Factor as a judge last year, and also put in a guest appearance on the UK version of's single, "Heartbreaker", which got to number 4 last year.

Cheryl Cole isn't the greatest of singers, but she's a star in Britain. And I quite like the single. Musically, at least, it's a grower. Now, lyrically, on the other hand, it's thoroughly uninspired - I honestly think this may be a song where literally every single lyric is a cliche. Verse two is dreadful. And the video's all over the place - I almost expect to be hauled into a focus group at the end and questioned on which look I prefer. At least when she did it on the X-Factor results show, they picked a strong visual and ran with it (even if it's a stupid costume). But she's clearly got nothing to worry about so far as her British sales are concerned.

If you count her Girls Aloud output (and the record), this is Cole's top 40 single, and her fifth number 1. Rather disappointingly, the four Girls Aloud number 1s are their debut "Sound of the Underground", a mediocre cover version of "I'll Stand By You", an equally mediocre charity cover version of "Walk This Way" with the Sugababes, and last year's "The Promise." But in a seven year career, they've never had a single peak below 11 - unless you count "Theme to St Trinians", the theme to last year's St Trinian's movie, which wasn't technically a single but did have a video, and crept into the lower end of the chart at number 51. It's a very strange record, not least because it seems to have been produced by complete amateurs (their voices all tail off separately at the end of each line). Actually, being part of the St Trinians revival, it's just a very strange record generally.

In Britain, X-Factor performances aren't available to download. There are good reasons for that. They'd count as singles, so they'd clog up the whole chart. And Simon Cowell doesn't want that, because (a) it'd spoil the coronation single, and (b) he has other acts he wants to promote in the run-up to Christmas. What we get instead is people downloading the songs that are performed on the show. This week's winner: "Hurt" by Christina Aguilera, spontaneously re-entering the chart at number 25.

The most perversely entertaining aspect of the show this year, though, is the state of the Groups category. Relying as they do on pre-existing groups to audition, the X-Factor always has to pad out this category appallingly. But rarely as badly as this year, where Louis Walsh ended up putting through a group of ex-strippers (voted out in week one), a passable group assembled by the production team from the cast-offs of the girls' category (voted out in week three), and John and Edward, Irish twins so unremittingly awful that even the famously adoring studio audience has been known to boo them. But there are enough malicious voters out there to keep them in the show week after week. As they keep surviving more deserving contestants, they're bordering on being a full-blown heel act. Hopefully they get the joke. Still, the sight of this duo as the last group standing is perversely entertaining.