I was trying to explain to my roommate why I like X Factor so much the other night.
Yes, it’s bloated. Yes, the direction is way off. Yes, America has poor taste and has eliminated some of the most commercially viable acts (Jennel Garcia, Lyric 145 and Beatrice Miller) in favor of a third hand Garth Brooks and Stepford child with the ability to hit notes perfectly, but who is utterly emotionally tone deaf. But…I find the choices that the judges make in selecting acts in the audition rounds and how they try to quickly—without the cushion of demo tapes, modest live tours, focus groups and legitimate stylists or producers—shine the artists up for the public’s approval utterly captivating. I’m particularly fascinated with Simon Cowell’s choices…and with this season’s female Frankengroup, Fifth Harmony.
So, a lot of people entered this season with the theory that this entire she-bang was really just Cowell’s way of finding and engineering the American One Direction. Even though he’s still pushing Emblem3 on us like they are the great surfer dude answer to the blokes from across the pond, and even if Emblem3 somehow beats Carly Rose Sonenclar and Tate Stevens, it’s not as though they are really Simon’s success. They came to the auditions ready made with their own tracks and style. Simon just kept the door open for them and stoked the hype machine. Fifth Harmony is completely, totally and utterly Simon Cowell’s baby and right now they are following the One Direction narrative to a tee…to the point where they’re poised to at best make third place…like the boy band did in the UK.
Even though they’re completely manufactured, I really, honestly like them. And even though they wear cute, demure outfits (and as this Hollywood Reporter essay points out—the cutesification of our pop stars is potentially damaging to feminism), I find their style charming and natural. Why? Well, I think it’s because Cowell was smart. (I’m telling you, Cowell’s choices are fascinating.)
Unlike Demi Lovato, who scrubbed any trace of the humans we met before the live shows from her group of potential pop stars, Cowell really didn’t change much about their looks from their auditions to the most recent show. Ally still wears uncool hats or hipster glasses on stage. Camila still wears sailor shorts and bows in her hair and breaks into goofball voices. Dinah still has a wacky dye job (not pictured). Normani still dresses like a sleek pageant girl ready for her close-up. Lauren’s eyes still occasionally flash with the fire of a starving tiger and then she still tries to giggle and shrug it off like she’s the least ambitious Catholic school girl ever because she’s smart enough to know now is not the time to unleash the beast.
If they come across as too girlish or their personal style a little too JCPenney’s catalog, it’s because they are girlish. They are all teenagers still and they are all (presumably) in the income tax bracket that shops at JCPenney’s. And so, while Taylor Swift’s obsession with high school boys and the Anthropologie catalog seems weird because it doesn’t jive with the inherent worldliness that would follow a twenty-something internationally famous, exceptionally rich pop star who dines with the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Anna Wintour and who has bedded (or at least dated) the likes of John Mayer, Jake Gyllenhaal, a motherfucking Kennedy and now Harry Styles, the stilted, yet sincere coquettishness of Fifth Harmony makes total sense because that’s what they are. Awkward adolescents thrust into the Hunger Games of pop stardom. How else are they going to act? Like The Pussycat Dolls?
Which brings me to another reason why I like them. They can’t dance and they don’t dance. At all. Well, supposedly Normani can, but the rest of them can’t. What they can do is fucking sing. Each of them has a powerful pop diva voice, except for maybe Normani, who is the Posh Spice of the group, but even she can belt it. So, it’s really nice for a change to see a group of young women trying to get a recording contract for pop singers based not their sex appeal or style, but on their ability to sing. This isn’t a strategy you see too often anymore in music. There’s Adele and…no one else. Add to this the fact that they do best when they sing songs about female empowerment and female friendship, and well, I don’t know…I like it.
Anyway, none of this really matters. What matters is they are the only artists on X Factor that make me repeatedly seek out their performances on YouTube after they’ve sung. Like I said, I just like them, yo. And that is Simon Cowell’s victory. The asshole took a bunch of girls with diva voices who were auditioning for their own stardom, humbled them by cutting them, gave them fire by giving them a second chance and then packaged them as the American female answer to One Direction.
I’m sorry, but you can’t tell me this isn’t fascinating. It’s freaking empire building.
Let’s see if all Simon’s strategies and backdoor deals pan out they way he wants them to…and if these girls really can cut a fantastic pop album.