Wednesday, September 22, 2010

All About Joe McElderry

I've wanted to write about last season's X-Factor winner Joe McElderry ever since he came out as a member of the homosexual race a few months ago, but, like many of my ideas, that ended up in the long list of Great Posts That Never Were. I thought it was a particularly brave and shocking decision given the fact that he's only 19 years old and had just won his country's biggest singing competition show. I never cared for him when he was on X-Factor (he always felt too safe and mundane to me week after week while Lloyd and Lucie were the ones who took chances and made much bigger impressions), but dropping the gay bomb like that definitely got me interested in him. Yes, I realize this makes me sound like one of those horrid After Elton gays who only supports gay artists simply because of their sexuality. To be honest, I was simply proud of him for coming out so early in his career when he clearly didn't have to. It's 2010 and a singer's sexuality shouldn't matter but it still does and that's something that can only change with time, patience and more people in Joe's position saying, "Fuck my sexuality. How about you judge me on my music?" After his announcement, an even bigger question arose: how on earth was Simon Cowell going to market him now that he's an out musician? Simon gets a lot of shit for his views on what "good" music is and the way he manages to get dire covers of dire ballads to #1 all the damn time, but he's definitely not stupid and not averse to switching things up. Remember when everyone thought Alexandra Burke's album was going to be another Leona snoozefest and it was instead filled with clubbanger after clubbanger? Simon still has a few tricks up his sleeve so his Joe McElderry project had the potential to be interesting. Was he going to stick to the Leona-style balladeering he became known for on X-Factor or would Simon turn him into a screaming queen á la Mika and Adam Lambert or would he do something completely different and unexpected? The questions were many, the answers were few and we could do nothing but wait impatiently while Joe got to work on his debut album.

And for months we waited. Suddenly, however, within the past couple of weeks, Joe flooded the media with new stuff as fast as Nicholas Hoult did after the premiere of A Single Man. First was the news that Joe had taken a side job as a male model while recording his album. I was initially skeptical, but his pictures are surprisingly amazing. His somewhat generically pleasing good looks in real life somehow become absolutely stunning when he's in front of the camera. Joe is like one of those America's Next Top Model hopefuls who Tyra & Co. find kind of boring during judging but are left speechless when they see that week's photo. Next came the release of the absolutely gorgeous album cover for his upcoming debut, Wide Awake. His face was just meant for black and white photography, I swear. Whenever you see him on TV or in a color photo, his beauty never pops quite as much as it does in black and white.

Finally, over the weekend came the first listen of Joe's first single, 'Ambitions.' The song is a cover of a fantastic song from last year by this Norwegian band called Donkeyboy. When I first heard this, I was leery because if there's one thing about the UK music scene I just don't understand is their love of song covers. Every year, whether it's because of X-Factor or the Comic Relief charity single or some worldwide catastrophe that needs a relief single, at least four or five covers top the chart. I wouldn't have a problem if these artists actually changed the song to make it their own, but every damn time the cover is just a lifeless karaoke version of the original. The example I always cite is The Saturdays' recent hit cover of 'Just Can't Get Enough.' The song is cute enough, I guess, but what exactly did they do to the song to make it their own? Females are singing the leads this go-around and the sound is updated to be more "now" but other than that? Absolutely nothing. 'Just Can't Get Enough' sounds exactly like something a couple of my friends and I could produce after a round of drinks at the local karaoke bar. Yes, it may be a good time, but it not what I would call a "successful" cover. In order for a cover to be good in my book, I think the artist either needs to have a distinctive enough voice that whatever they sing automatically sounds like them or the artist needs to reinterpret the song either emotionally or musically. For the former, I like to think of Britney Spears. Her covers over the years of '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction,' 'I Love Rock 'N Roll' and 'My Prerogative' never deviated much from the original versions, but Brit's warble is so distinctive each of those songs sound unmistakably hers. As for the latter, Whitney Houston's megahit version of 'I Will Always Love You' turned Dolly Parton's slow, melancholic original into one of the biggest power ballads ever recorded. And then there is Kris Allen changing Kanye West's 'Heartless' into a surprisingly awesome acoustic jam. Simon Cowell is usually the one to blame for all of these covers, but occasionally he gets one right, as he did with Alexandra Burke's 'Hallelujah' and Leona Lewis' 'Run.' So why can't he do it more often?

I was initially afraid that Joe's first single was going to fall into the same trap as many of Simon Cowell's covers. And from the moment I first heard the song, my fears were quickly realized. Joe's 'Ambitions' wasn't bad, as no cover of a song that amazing could ever be truly "bad," but it was so faithful to the original, I could hardly see the purpose of it. I was resigned to simply chuck the song and hope that his album would quickly erase the memory of it, but something about his 'Ambitions' pulled me in. I listened to it again and liked it a bit more. Then I listened again and the same thing happened. Finally, 16 plays later, I have come to the conclusion that I now love this song. The more I listened to it, the more I realized that Joe's version actually differs in small ways which make the song completely different from the Donkeyboy version. Where the Donkeyboy version of 'Ambitions' is more or less in the same dynamic range the whole way through, Joe's version decrescendos slightly after the first line of the verse. Then, right before the chorus, you can feel the song building up into a mini explosion in the chorus, giving Joe's version a more pop-y feeling than Donkeyboy's while fulfilling Simon Cowell's love of big emotional choruses. I don't mean to give the impression that one version is better than the other; all I'm trying to say is that whereas I once thought Joe's 'Ambitions' was a copycat, I now see merits in it that sets it apart from the original. I think both versions are great for what they are and to compare them is almost unfair. Now I'm waiting on bated breath for the music video which, judging by these behind the scenes pics, looks to be a good gay ole time. You go, Joe, and be as gay and amazing as you want to be. And in the words of Popjustice, "WE LOVE YOU, JOE."

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