So the Dean’s Media Network wanted me to contribute something on the X Factor. But I thought the news about Darlene Love was more important:
Last weekend over 20 million British television viewers tuned in to watch two young women and six young men compete to earn the title of X Factor Winner 2010. No matter how unpolished these performers were before they entered the competition, by the time they had reached the final, both their on-stage and off-stage personae had been well honed by publicity staff, stylists and music consultants, all under the direction of über-guru, Simon Cowell. Throughout the competition, they have sung the songs they have been given to sing, worn the clothes they have been given to wear, and generally behaved for the media in the way they have been instructed, all to fulfill a well-defined niche: Cher, the teen minx with attitude; One Direction, the modest, wholesome band of brothers; Rebecca, the wallflower single mum connecting with her inner diva; and Matt, the unpretentious and sensitive labourer determined to get his break.
Clearly, as finalists on the most widely-viewed reality show in the UK, these singers have had a huge amount of publicity. If their voices don’t make them distinct, their faces are instantly recognizable – if not from television exposure, due to their almost daily appearance in the tabloids – and their personae are well known and appealing to their target audiences. Consequently, regardless of whether or not they have won, they will enjoy (if that’s the right word) the rewards of the limelight and the chance to continue in pop music at a very high level, should their talent and their ability to navigate the business warrant it.
But was it always thus? By coincidence, today (Thursday 16 December) the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced its 2011 inductees, those musicians who have been deemed by the music business establishment worthy of the honor of being included in the Great and the Good of rock music. The list is uncontestably impressive: Alice Cooper, Tom Waits, Neil Diamond, Dr John, Leon Russell, and producers Jac Holman and Art Rupe. And (as usual), one woman, 72-year-old gospel singer Darlene Love.
Love’s name is not familiar to many in Britain, nor is her face – not even to the baby-boomer generation who bought records that were made million-sellers by her remarkable voice. Love – who sang for Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Elvis Presley, and Tom Jones; whose group, the Blossoms, appeared weekly on Shindig! as the house back-up group; who (as part of Phil Spector’s stable of heavily exploited singers) sang an uncredited lead on The Crystals’ “He’s A Rebel,” which reached the No 1 spot on Billboard – only achieved some kind of national recognition in the 1980s, after spending years out of the limelight, taking cleaning jobs to make ends meet while her records earnt Spector millions in royalties. In 1986, David Letterman invited her to perform her signature track from Spector’s 1963 A Christmas Gift to You from Phil Spector, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” live on his last TV broadcast before Christmas – a performance that has been repeated annually ever since. But even once returned to the cultural consciousness, Love has remained unacknowledged by her peers until now.
There have been strong rumours that, for many years, Spector prevented Love – and her fellow Spector artists, the Ronettes – from being nominated as Hall of Fame Inductees, wielding power as a member of the museum’s Board of Governors. Now serving a life sentence for murder, Spector has lost his influence, and the music business has regained its pop muses: the Ronettes were inducted in 2007. A girl group first topped the charts in 1961: fifty years on, rock seems to have begun to realize how important girl groups were, not just for their contribution to music itself, but as role models for working-class and non-white girls who wanted to emulate their success.
It’s hard to imagine Cowell turning down any publicity opportunity for his singers, however ephemeral their success might turn out to be. Nevertheless, the X Factor finalists should take a long, hard look at Love and what her career can teach them about the fickleness of the business, about power (when you don’t have it), about longevity and about artistic integrity. Time will tell whether the X Factor’s instant stardom really is a replacement for Love and co’s hard graft. But those that decry the X Factor as the totemic symbol of all that is bad about popular culture might also take time to consider what cultural change was wrought by Love, Ronnie Spector and all, even if at the time they were only cogs in the machine.