Nobody will be mistaken for a free radical in decrying talent shows. Fair to say they are the most confounding and damning hallmark of our generation, a mixture of public shaming, cathartic release and bland populism.
While this bizarre cultural mish-mash make shows like The X Factor a tele-marketer’s delight, their impact on pop music has been lamentable.
Pop music is not being widened by the format’s broad appeal but rather it is being compressed. What makes a good talent show winner is bleeding into what makes a good pop star, and these are two very different things.
Though the talent show format has been rattling along for at least fifteen years, the same singer has won every time. And the remarkable thing is you can look overseas and see the same thing.
The format is pre-disposed to one voice. The singer with the big, booming voice that has become synonymous with the format; imagine some clot hammering out ‘Thinking Out Loud’ to a rapt studio audience and you can picture it.
If you listen to the singing of Stereo Kicks above, a cruel and unusual punishment I know, you can hear it.
This is called melisma, and it’s where a single syllable is sung using a succession of different notes. When you hear a singer dragging out a note to show off their chops, that is melismatic singing. Pop in the 90s was dominated by Whitney and Mariah, who are perhaps the classic contemporary references for this style.
You can hear this throughout the cover of Dolly Parton’s ‘I Will Always Love You’, and especially in the chorus, where the melismatic ‘riff’ gives the performance its iconic power.
This was continued through the 00s, most memorably by Christina Aguilera, whose famously ostentatious style earned her a nod on Family Guy.
Melisma is old as dirt and has been around since at least anicent Greece. However it has never had such massive public appeal. The kind of huge power associated with melisma can communicate strong emotion but only in the most broad way possible. Hence why melismatic singers always dominate talent shows; put singing down to majority rule and the most blatant approach will win.
Melisma and the singers who utilise it are not the problem. The problem is that these voices have risen to prominence at the expense of all alternatives.
When you think of great pop vocalists, you realise most of them wouldn’t get past the X Factor boot camp. Would the histrionics of Kate Bush leave an X Factor audience in awe? Bemusement seems more likely.
Take it bigger; no, the biggest. If Prince took the stage, with all his weird quirks; falsetto screeches and corny innuendo, to sing a rendition of Snow Patrol’s ‘Run’ to an arena crowd in Middlesborough, you think he’d go through?
The winning formula for the talent shows has become the quickest way to Top 40 stardom, a truth borne out by singers like Jessie J, Adele, Sam Smith etc. This is the underlying problem; that good singing has become synonymous with this one very bland, very limited style, and the causes are many.
The fact that music by it’s very nature cannot be contested and so a talent contest is inherently rootless.
That The X Factor is the only mainstream TV platform for music. Where Top of the Pops showed a whole plethora of singers and styles, a platform shared by The Rolling Stones and The Spice Girls, The X Factor shows just a slither of what sort of music should be celebrated. We have a generation growing up whose early experience with live performance is exclusively through talent shows.
X Factor Melisma is nothing new but it has never been so suffocatingly concentrated. Nor was it ever intended to be synonymous with ‘good singing’. It is one style among many, and is intended as a style to embellish with the individual quirks of the singer. Bald melisma is the most crushingly dull way to approach pop, and it shows no sign of abating.