Adele and Duffy are products of the age of X Factor

You can thank Simon Cowell for the results of the BBC’s The Sound of 2008 poll.

IT’S THAT TIME of year again. The music industry can’t be bothered to release any records, and the first week in January is a touch too early for the end-of-year round-up, so the BBC have printed its increasingly prestigious (Mika won it last year, albeit just ahead of the Twang) the Sound Of… list.

They ask 150 “influential and impartial UK-based music critics and broadcasters” to select their picks for the new year. They compile a list from the replies and, voila, the Sound of 2008, a self-generating news story.

If we’re to trust our influential 150 (and I must declare an interest: I am one of those 150; although so is somebody from whatever Pyro Radio is), then there is a sea change afoot.

In first place is Adele: that’s Adele Adkins, the Brit School graduate who still lives with her mother and whose debut album, 19, is released this month. And in second place is Duffy: that’s Amy Ann Duffy, the former waitress from Nefyn in North-West Wales, whose debut album, Rockferry, is released this month and who claims her songs “will last for 500 years”.

These women have much in common, and not merely their need to be known by one name. Neither of them are camera-huggingly beautiful, but chiefly neither sell themselves on anything other than their voices.

Some might say this reliance on the most basic of instruments began with pre-self-hating-tattoos Amy Winehouse, but it also hearkens to the days when there was only radio; back then when you heard Annette Hanshaw or Beryl Davis, all you heard was the voice.

It seems curious now that the great female singers were always marketed on something other than their voice, with the exception of Dusty Springfield, who remains subject to lazy, thoughtless over-adulation: Joni Mitchell is a songwriter; Kate Bush is a reclusive genius; Lily Allen is all attitude; Diana Ross and Madonna are all ambition; Kate Nash is all talk; Tori Amos is all dreary kookiness; and, right now, Amy Winehouse is the “troubled” soul with the boy-husband. None of these singers is seen as primarily a singer.

Odd, when you think about it.

So why the return to vocal adulation? Partly it’s a regression to basics in a shrinking industry, but that’s too simple an explanation. Here’s the killing joke for all of us who’re a little bit sniffy about their reality television: it’s a by-product of X Factor and those programmes which hunted down a Jason and a Maria. Those shows are inevitably based around a personality-free production line of telegenic wannabees. Ultimately, they’re all roughly the same: the only thing to distinguish them from each other is, yes, their voices. And so, the next-big-thing status of Adele and Duffy is just trickle-down: thank you, Simon Cowell.

© John AizlewoodThe Guardian, 4 January 2008

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