Friday, 8 January 2010
The whole package?
After the now-standard year of top secret X Factor grooming and recording, Alexandra Burke was unleashed on the world last autumn in a glossy, choreographed whirlwind of slick R'n'B. Record execs probably hoped that in her ten month absence we'd forgotten the tear-stained, overwhelmed girl who appeared on the audition shows, but to me it seems a massive image overhaul. You could see the dollar signs in Simon Cowell's eyes as the formerly au natrel, make-up free, demurely dressed auditionee donned a sequinned minidress and scraped back ponytail to perform Toxic in the live rounds; while former winner Leona Lewis refused to play the plastic popstar game, this was a girl to be moulded and shaped from Islington clay into a world-class diva.
She had a suitably Whitney-esque tone, luminous dark skin, and the confident, girl-next-door charm that is every PR's dream. Unlike shy Leona, with her dull vegetarian views and family values, Alex's PR mission is clear - be as loud, proud, single and fierce as you can. Her Twitter page is all interviews, gigs and 'let's partay!' optimism, communicated in a baffling flurry of exclamation marks and OMGs. Modest Management, who also represent Leona Lewis, couldn't have found a better money-spinner if they'd designed her themselves and grown her in a pod. Still, it's all a little transparent: the demographics (teens, gay men, Beyonce fans) the look (wet-look, slicked-back, high-heeled, fierce) the press persona (giggling, extrovert homegirl). Still, I'm not really being fair to Miss Burke; I enjoy her music and her performances, particularly the appearance with JLS on last year's X Factor - I just resent the image machine it takes for a decent singer to make it into the charts at the moment.
However decent, Alex's talent isn't quite remarkable enough to give her leverage with her record label. If Leona wants to carry on wearing ethereal Vivienne Westwood frocks, she will. If she wants to stand still on a platform, letting her vocals do all the work, she can. If she wants to stay a curvilicious size 12, she damn well will, because everyone will still pause a moment to hear that voice - however tawdry the songs (excepting her cover of Run and break-out hit Bleeding Love). That girl can do things with her limitless, caramel voice that make the very laziest pop composition ipod-worthy. She is even better live, with a poise and control that makes subsequent X Factor winners look like redcoats.
It drives some people mad that Leona has 'failed' on the PR front; audiences invariably tune out when she speaks, and who didn't cringe at the simpering 'I don't want to pick a favourite' speech when she returned to the show that made her? No one's that nice, surely. But I'm secretly rooting for team Lewis. For every time she makes her record bosses sigh in exasperation, she gains a little more power. People keep buying her albums and booking her appearances whether she's wearing Herve Leger or Topshop, whether she's bubbly or bland, and whether she's outrageous or innocuous... and that really says something in our image-obsessed music industry.