Why do X Factor winners make rotten albums?

There's nothing in the setup of modern pop that inherently means X-Factor winners end up with duds. It must be the show itself

It's too early to dance on its grave, but saying The X Factor's popularity has peaked seems a reasonable bet. Swapping the odious (Frankie Cocozza) for the merely tedious (Amelia Lily) has given a short-term boost to weakening audience figures, but the more a reality TV show franchise starts screwing with the format, the more vulnerable it gets. The audience senses weakness.

So it's not premature to ask questions about its musical legacy. Specifically, why former contestants have made – with one happy exception, which we'll come to – such woeful albums. If you're the kind of person who despises pop music, this hardly seems worth asking: the crappiness of a reality-show album is simply part of the natural order. But predecessor show Pop Idol gave us Will Young and Girls Aloud as winners – a respectable soulboy act and a critically adored pop group. There's nothing in the setup of modern pop – in which production and songwriting are outsourced to pros – that inherently means X Factor winners end up with dud material. It must be something in the show itself.

Part of the problem is simply planned obsolescence – The X Factor produces a constant turnover of artists whose audiences cross over. If too many earlier ones are successful, they cannibalise the newer crew's sales. But that doesn't explain why acts with a relatively long career – such as JLS, whose third LP was released this week – barely ever rise above mediocrity. Jessica Popper, an independent A&R person who's worked for boybands like the Wanted, suggests the problem is inconsistency as much as lack of quality: there's a gap contestants fall into between the TV audience's idea of pop and that of the music-buying public. "Alexandra [Burke], Leona [Lewis] and JLS all had some great songs on their debuts but the rest of the tracks were lazy duds," she says: X Factor acts still work off the "hits-plus-filler" model the best pop artists have moved on from.

But The X Factor is also too worried about credibility. Not the kind of artistic credibility last year's winner, Matt Cardle, gets moon-eyed about – but a type that's baked into the show's three-act structure. There's a transition point – we've just reached it this year, with Kitty's departure – where the entertaining no-hopers make way for the potential winners. Fun makes way for po-faced dream-chasing.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that Cher Lloyd's debut album is so enjoyable. Lloyd was 2010's most intriguing contestant – a bouncy, bolshy caricature of suburban youth who might have stepped out of an ad campaign, except that she Obviously adored the music she was making: she auditioned with a Soulja Boy track, not the usual choice of the pop careerist. Her record could easily have been a doomed grab for relevance – instead, for all its genre-shifting, Sticks and Stones is a great bubblegum record.

Bubblegum, like any pop subspecies, is tricky to define. It's sold to kids but has a hotline to adults' memories of jingles and playground chants. It's calculated but rarely knowing. It's modern-sounding but never cutting-edge – Lloyd offers a take on dubstep that's as aggressively sugary as anything else on her record. It converts youth culture into Saturday morning cartoons – sometimes literally (the Archies are the quintessential bubblegum group). It's promiscuous with slang – Cher Lloyd's talk of swagger being jaggered is the descendent of 60s producers calling tracks Captain Groovy and His Bubblegum Army. Most of all, it's about the hooks: every track on Sticks and Stones is direct, ultra-catchy and gets out of the way quickly.

Sticks and Stones suggests Cher Lloyd is the best British bubblegummer since the brief heyday of Billie Piper. What's striking, though, is that it's such an obvious direction for an X Factor graduate to go in, skipping past the credibility traps that have made previous attempts too lifeless. As it stands, though, Sticks and Stones is a one-off – the first decent X Factor album. Play it and be reminded that reality TV and good pop can still sometimes connect.


Tom Ewing

The GuardianTramp

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