X Factor V Nirvana... who'll get the Christmas No.1?
Will Simon Cowell triumph, or will the grunge rockers' fans push their 90s hit to the top spot, asks Ed Power
Published 01/12/2011 | 06:00
Whatever happens Simon always wins. This seems to be how it goes in the music industry lately. With the battle for Christmas Number 1 about to get serious, it's anybody's guess who'll be perched smugly and snugly at the top of the charts come December 25.
One thing we do know is X Factor supremo Cowell will almost certainly have done well out of things.
From his perspective there is no downside. If the X Factor winner shoots to the top he rakes in a fortune. Should the anti-Cowell shower succeed in another 'anyone but X Factor' campaign he can sit back and bask in the free publicity. Everyone thought Joe McElderry was finished after Rage Against the Machine, rocket-propelled by a Facebook protest, edged out the X Factor winner to claim a Yuletide Number 1 in 2009.
Two years later, he is on course to have a hit album while RATM . . . well, actually nobody knows what they're doing. One thing is for sure: they aren't selling a whole lot of records.
Cowell's genius has been to co-opt the annual chart smackdown into the X Factor brand. Time was, the fight for Christmas Number 1 boiled down to a tussle between a 'quality' song and a bit of novelty pap (with a Cliff Richard dirge the occasional horror-show third option). However, in a post-X Factor world, all the quirkiness has been smoothed out.
There is no space for Mr Blobby, Bob The Builder or Shane MacGowan blubbing into his pint as Kirsty MacColl warbles in the background. The closest thing to an old-school novelty smash recently was Rubberbandits' Horse Outside. And that lost to -- see a pattern here? -- X Factor champ Matt Cardle.
Will 2011 be any different? Don't bet on it.
The X Factor winner won't be decided until December 11 but, with the franchise's popularity showing little sign of flagging, it would be foolish to wager against the eventual winner catapulting to Number 1. Inevitably, this year's Stop Simon groundswell has started already.
Fans of Nirvana, surely the least seasonal band ever, are pushing grunge anthem 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' as an alternative to another X Factor Number 1. Kurt Cobain blasting out from your stereo on Christmas day -- it's a bit like having 50 Cent over to sing happy birthday when your gran turns 90, isn't it?
Of course, there is a distinct possibility neither will win. Amy Winehouse's posthumously released cover of the 60s standard 'Our Day Will Come' has to be in with a yell. As does Lady Gaga 's surprisingly classy take on Irving Berlin's 'White Christmas'. Nor can we forget helmet-haired heartthrob Justin Bieber and his super-syrupy ballad 'Mistletoe', wherein he informs the listener "Ah'ma be under the mistletoe, shorty, with yoo-oo" (it's merely one of two Bieber punts -- he duets with Mariah Carey on 'All I Want For Christmas Is You').
Appealing to non-believers, meanwhile is Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals, who has released a four-track Atheist Xmas EP. He's an accomplished writer and this is a witty, diverting collection. Still, he'll have a job attracting the floating vote. The best song on the EP is a charming ditty called 'Slashed Wrists Xmas'.
Bieber's contribution aside, songs in the running for Christmas Number 1 are notably low on seasonal sentiment -- a fact that rubs some the wrong way.
"I like Christmas songs being Number 1," says Rebecca Ferguson, the X Factor graduate who is about to put out her debut LP. "As a listener, I always like to hear proper Christmas stuff on the radio at Christmas."
Away from the singles market, a whiff of generational combat tinges the upcoming chart rumble.
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On the album side, youngsters such as the aforementioned McElderry (20), Rihanna (23), The Saturdays (oldest member Una Healy is a withered 30) and teen boyband One Direction face off against Seal (48), Andrew Lloyd Webber (63) and the Bee Gees (combined age of two surviving members: 126), shortly to unleash an umpteenth Greatest Hits in celebration of singer Robin Gibbs' recovery from cancer.
"Christmas records have always had a cheesy, manufactured aspect to them, so you could say that X Factor's takeover of the charts is actually in the tradition of premeditated seasonal junk like 'I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus' and Wham's 'Last Christmas'," says Ian McCann, editor of Record Collector magazine.
"Christmas is controlled by consumerism -- so why shouldn't music be just another meaningless product? There have been some brilliant Yule tunes, but they are drowned out by the same old jingles.
"Twelve years ago, the rapper Princess Superstar released a song that said it all -- 'I Hope I Sell A Lot Of Records At Christmastime'. At least she was honest, but the record sold about four copies."
Regardless of how things pan out, Cowell is unlikely to end up on the streets. As creator and owner of the biggest brand in both music and reality TV, the 50-year-old mogul is wealthy beyond the comprehension of mortals. This son of a mid-ranking English record-company executive is worth an estimated €500m and lives in a €2.5m Beverly Hills mansion (he has further properties in London and the South of France) .
In his final year judging talent show American Idol -- a spin-off of Britain's pre-X Factor Pop Idol -- he was the best-paid performer on television, trousering €80m for 12 month's work. The deal he closed with Sony to bring the X Factor to America is understood to have involved a €30m annual pay increase (this includes his fee as owner of the format, the producer and judge).
That's in contrast to the pittance X Factor performers can often look forward to earning. Last year it emerged contestants on the UK version were being paid around €50 a week for their time. In a remarkable interview, Mary Byrne -- at that point yet to be eliminated -- revealed she was still depending on her job in a supermarket to cover day-to-day living costs. "Good old Tesco -- I don't know where I'd be without them because they're keeping my wage going in so I can pay my bills."
Come the 25th, will Cowell be wiggling his mono-brow in celebration at an umpteenth X Factor Christmas chart-topper?
Well, there is one potentially massive hurdle. In the UK, the announcement of the year's most important Number 1 has been put back a week, to Christmas Day itself. This means X Factor won't be able to count on its traditional first week momentum. Zooming straight to the summit of the charts isn't going to be enough -- it will have to stay there.
One Christmas contender we haven't mentioned is 'Wow Oh Wow', the new single from the Brothers Grimes. With Hollywood C-lister Tara Reid in the video, the tune is potentially the biggest of Jedward's career. Whatever about the UK, where their appeal has turned more 'selective', it will almost certainly be in the shakedown over here.
This raises the possibility of Cowell's latest protégé, whoever they are, being torpedoed by the X Factor act he bad-mouthed at every opportunity. It's a twist straight out of reality television.