On music

Jude Rogers: The guy with the Beethoven afro trounces Simon Cowell every time

This week, I watched two pop titans battle it out on TV. In the red-curtained corner was an open-shirted, brillo-haired smarmer, watching a procession of youngsters singing big band standards. In the other was an American in his late 60s, bowl-fringed and smart-jacketed, being interviewed exclusively about his eventful career. Both men are known for their tempers, their way with a hit, and their great command over pop, but the similarities seemingly stop, like a breakbeat, right there.

Still, take hold of them together, and Simon Cowell and Phil Spector can teach us a lot about pop. The 20 years between them, for starters - Spector is 69 to Cowell's 49 - mark a huge shift in the nature of the industry.

Start with Cowell. In his dollar-sign eyes, pop is all about business, even when it's not meant to be. Take the cover of Mariah Carey's Hero by the X-Factor finalists, the Poppy Appeal charity single currently moving up the charts. Yes, it's for a good cause, but undeniably it also raises awareness for the show's 12 finalists. The X-Factor audience will boom as a consequence, and when Christmas comes, Cowell will be stuffing his turkey with banknotes.

Then we consider Spector. Unlike Cowell, he is not concerned with business, but art. In Saturday's Arena interview, he talked about manipulating sound in the studio in the same way Da Vinci would paint on a canvas. He even told his groups they were producing art that would change the world. Imagine Simon Cowell doing that with Eoghan Quigg, one of his favourite baby-faced X-Factor charges. I can hear Cowell now: "Well, Eoghan, why not think of Francis Bacon when you're screaming your way through Imagine? That might change the world, too."

I wish Simon Cowell were a little more adventurous. After all, I think he is missing a trick. He forgets that modern pop that lasts doesn't stick to a formula. He forgets that art isn't the enemy of the ringing cash register. What's more, he forgets that experiment and craft can often make bands really work. Look at the recent failure of Leon, last year's X-Factor winner, as a perfect example. Two weeks ago, he was the first winner to fail to get a No 1 with his debut single. A woefully boring ballad-by-numbers called Don't Call This Love, this week it sits at a whimpery No 11. By contrast, this week's No 1 single is by Girls Aloud - the one reality show act to eschew the power ballad parade in favour of something more adventurous. And guess what? They've managed a longer career than any other reality act - The Promise is their 19th consecutive top 10 hit.

So how did they prevail when their reality grandson falls at the first hurdle? As always, it's the magic hand of Xenomania, the pop production team who pack experimental ideas and brilliant melodies around the Girls Aloud brand. They do just what Phil Spector did with the Ronettes and the Crystals: Xenomania recognise the emotional value of pop, but also the need for it to sound grand, vital and fresh. Regurgitating old cliches doesn't cut the mustard.

But there's an irony in all this that we haven't examined. It's the irony that Cowell, more than anyone, thinks he's recreating the good old days. The X-Factor big band week reflected that brilliantly, with all the judges ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the songs of the past. How brilliant, then, that the best performances came from competitors who did something different. Take Rachel Hylton's big-hearted blast through Nina Simone's Feeling Good, or Diana Vickers' wild take on Nat King Cole's Smile. These two women pushed those songs into new shapes, and the votes came with them.

Pop has always been about music that moves the mind and swells the soul. And, yes, sometimes that leads to slushy charity singles. But it's easy to forget that many gems from pop's glorious past have little to do with safe sounds and soulless covers. In the great fight for pop's long-beating heart, the guy with the Beethoven afro trounces Cowell every time.


Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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