Simon Cowell

Tonight, as anyone who’s been near a TV in the past month already knows, the much-hyped Fox singing-competition show The X Factor makes its debut. The Americanized version of the hit British show might be new to us, but then again, it’s not really new to us. Simon Cowell is the man responsible for putting the show together, and he’s brought back his former American Idol colleague Paula Abdul. As someone who’s spent a shameful amount of time watching (and writing about) American Idol and its imitators, I’m way more excited than I probably should be.

So, in honor of this inanity, here’s a fun little party game: Which indie rock types would do well on X-Factor or one of the many, many other big singing shows we’ve seen lately? And which ones would bomb spectacularly? It’s not impossible to imagine an indie rocker winning on one of these shows; Dia Frampton, one half of the mid-’00s alt-pop duo Meg & Dia just came in second on the first season of The Voice. So after putting the question to my Stereogum colleagues, I’ve come up with a list of five of each. Check it out below, and argue your own cases in the comments section.

First: The five who would do well.

1. Justin Vernon

Here’s something I’ve long believed: If he’d made a few different decisions in his life, the Bon Iver frontman could’ve been one of the greatest American Idol contestants of all time. He’s a great singer in all the most obvious ways: Creamy and expressive, showy but never overbearingly so. He sells his songs, which is probably even more important than hitting big notes. Part of the deal with shows like this is that you need to be able to sing country songs and disco songs and Barry Manilow songs depending on whatever the week’s theme is, and Vernon is both gifted enough and affable enough that he could pull that stuff off without letting his attempts seem forced. He also has a secretly goofy middle-of-the-road taste profile, which would serve him well. And finally, American Idol has been awfully kind to good-looking, affable, polite, and nonthreatening white dudes in recent years; that description fits the last four Idol winners, and it also fits Vernon. He would destroy.

I was in the audience when he and DeYarmond Edison, his old band, reunited at the Fader Fort at SXSW this year and covered Carole King’s “You Got A Friend.” It doesn’t sound perfect in YouTubed form, but it was breaking hearts live. Observe:

2. Neko Case

Reality TV loves hard-luck stories, and even though Case has had plenty of success in her life, she still carries herself like a tough Southern waitress who just got done working a double shift. She also has a gigantic raspy bazooka of a voice, and that, combined with her natural personality, would make her a beautiful fit, just like The Voice’s Beverly McClellan or Idol’s Crystal Bowersox before her. It’s almost too easy to imagine Cowell calling her “authentic” and then telling all the other contestants to learn from her.

3. James Blake

Dudes who can sing in falsetto always last a couple of weeks longer than they probably should on these shows. Falsetto is where Blake lives. He’s also sophisticated enough to put weird minimalist twists on every song he’d cover on one of these shows, so if he didn’t completely flummox the judges, he’d get big praise for being original and contemporary. It’s also not terribly difficult to see him gaining a huge following among 13-year-old girls, which seems to be the key demographic in every American Idol voting base.

4. Janelle Monáe

This one is a bit of a cheat, since Monáe was a music-business pro years before the Indie Nation figured out who she was. But she’s friends with of Montreal, so whatever, she counts. Monáe is a tremendously gifted singer in just about every conceivable way, she’s a mesmerizing performer, and the only real reason she isn’t higher up on this list is that she’s almost certainly too weird to win one of these shows. That gigantic pompadour wouldn’t win a ton of teenage-girl votes, but she could easily become a Siobhan Magnus-type dark horse, and her version of “Smile” could be an iconic moment on the show like Fantasia doing “Summertime” or Jason Castro doing “Hallelujah.”

5. Hamilton Leithauser

The Walkmen frontman looks good, dresses sharp, carries himself with a certain sense of poise and elegance, and absolutely fucking wails, especially live. I’m not saying he’d win one of these shows, but he’d at least make it past the first few rounds.

And now, the five who would flame out most spectacularly.

1. Chan Marshall

She’s made huge strides as a live performer over the last five years or so, and she has a magnificent voice, but a TV show like this would absolutely wreck Cat Power. As far as she’s come since the days when she’d hide behind her hair onstage or run out of venues crying, Marshall would not be able to withstand more than three pithy put-downs from Simon Cowell, who seems to have an innate gift for preying on the worst insecurities of insecure performers on live TV. After a week on TV, she’d never be the same.

2. Isaac Brock

That scratchy-yowl indie singing style, which dominated so much of the past decade? Brock pretty much fathered that style, and it would get him in instant ticket into the American Idol funny-rejects reel. I would pay at least $10 to see Simon Cowell’s face after he heard Brock sing.

3. Panda Bear

Similarly, the whole Beach-Boys-on-Xanax thing, which is currently running shit in indie circles, is exactly the sort of thing that would drive Cowell to red-faced frustration. Panda’s probably the most visible proponent of that style, and he also resolutely refuses to make eye contact with anyone while performing, which would also drive Cowell nuts.

4. Sufjan Stevens

He would have to stop whisper-singing to do well on one of these shows, and he will never stop whisper-singing. Also, if he wore the neon-tape/angel-wings getup he’s been rocking at recent shows, the judges would not stop laughing for long enough to hear him sing.

5. Damian Abraham

Cronyism alert: The Fucked Up frontman is both a friend and maybe my favorite frontman in indie rock. But his hardcore-punk gorilla-bellows would just scare the shit out of everyone. I’d originally reserved this spot for James Murphy, but James Murphy would not cause Paula Abdul to flee the studio in terror.

Comments (65)
  1. Act that would do well: Annie Clark.

    Act that would not do well: St. Vincent.

    If it were left to singing, she’s got the look, the voice, everything. If she sang AND played St. Vincent songs, I think that scratchy, angular, experimental shit would freak them the fuck out (though I absolutely love it).

  2. This is one of the strangest articles I’ve seen on Stereogum.

  3. Act that would do well: Lana Del Re…oh wait, she’s already a product of the Machine

    • Yea man our phones are tapped bro!!!! you can’t leave the matrix if you don’t know you’re in there!!!! we are all babies being harvested for energy *holds up battery*

  4. I still listen to Fucked Up’s latest like everyday still…the best.

    • ddogdunit  |   Posted on Sep 22nd, 2011 +11

      cool…what other bands in this post do you like / what else are you listening to? let me know.

  5. I think Regina Spektor would be able to do well, probably finish 4th or 5th place. And the used-to-be-skinny-now-fat guy with glasses from Gomez has a great bluesy voice that would probably get him to the final 12, where he’d be eliminated in the first round (not cuddly enough). The guy from We Are Scientists might do ok, but he hasn’t shown a ton of range that I can think of.

    Karen O would do poorly.

  6. Act that would do well: Tunde Adebimpe
    Act that would not: Alec Ounsworth

  7. This article is awesome, in that I can tell it was bourn of some late night smoking session.

  8. I think Robin Pecknold would fucking own this show. Pipes and likeable/modest dude. Yim has the pipes too but might be a little too weird. There’s my 2 cents. Hilarious article.

  9. I think Thom Yorke could win American Idol in a second.

  10. Michael_  |   Posted on Sep 21st, 2011 +8

    Would: Zola Jesus
    Wouldn’t: Joanna Newsom

    Would: Dee Dee Dum
    Wouldn’t: Bethany Consentino

    Would: Dan Boeckner
    Wouldn’t: Spencer Krug

    Would: Robin Pecknold
    Wouldn’t: Cass McCombs

    Would: Wes Eisold (Cold Cave)
    Wouldn’t: Wes Eisold (American Nightmare)

    • Oh god I would PAY MONEY to see Spencer on this. Then I’d be inevitably angry when Cowell hates his awesome paranoid mumble-singing. Still though.

      • Wait, Dan Boeckner would do well and Spencer wouldn’t? I feel like Spencer could sing traditionally better than Dan if he tried. He belts it out sometimes (“You Go On Ahead” is a good example), whereas Dan kind-of alternates between talky, barky, and shouty.

        Anyway, I think both would be good examples for the Wouldn’t list, though. Their voices on “Apologies to the Queen Mary” are so spectacularly weird and awesome. They’ve kind of evened their voices out in recent years.

  11. I feel like Spencer Krug, Carey Mercer and Dan Bejar belong on this list.

    • Team Swan Lake definitely would be a good Wouldn’t choice. Although, if Bejar performed like he reportedly sang on Kaputt, he’d win points for style:

      “I did most of the vocals while fixing myself a sandwich… I found that I could get the relaxed quality I wanted for this record while I was, like, lying down on the couch.” (via P4K interview)

  12. “Cronyism alert: The Fucked Up frontman is both a friend and maybe my favorite frontman in indie rock.”

    I don’t think you need to journalistically disclose possible bias when it’s a Fantasy Indie Football League article.

  13. I think The Walkmen can do well anywhere

  14. Sufjan has a great voice though, and he doesn’t really whisper sing anymore. Have you listened to the Age of Adz? He still has his moments of his delicate whisper on the album, but he’s definitely unleashed a much more full force singing voice.

  15. The Weeknd would win easy

  16. ahhh neko case such an amazing voice…. Robin pecknold would do good too

  17. a.) I think I’d rather see what Neko Case would *say* about being on American Idol.
    b.) I actually don’t follow why James Murphy is almost number 5 on this list.
    c.) Robin Pecknold fucking owns everything.

    • My guess is because James would shuffle up to the microphone with all the gogettem’ fervor of a human duvet and then let the beat build for nine minutes before he even *started* to talk sing about how much he despised the superficiality of the endeavour.

  18. so…..yeah…..this needs to actually be a show. ….i’d watch. lol
    also, i think panda bear definitely has the voice for American Idol, but stylistically, it would leave the judges like “what the fuck???”……same goes for Sufjan

  19. i think..

    would : sondre lerche will do a fine job
    wouldn’t : shugo tokumaru ( his point of strong is on his music not his voice )

    for the girls

    would : feist will be the winner
    wouldn’t : M.I.A, reason : it’s M.I.A evberybody

  20. Stephen Merritt would creep everyone out if went on it.

  21. Yay: Colin Meloy

    Nay: Craig Finn

  22. how bout the ladies from Dirty Projectors
    esp. Amber Coffman — she’s practically indie rock’s Mariah Carey (voice-wise, not so much with the crazy)

  23. ddogdunit  |   Posted on Sep 22nd, 2011 +1

    i love hamilton leithauser as much as the next prick on here, but c’mon, his voice is in NO WAY “traditionally” good. that’s why whenever i’ve played the walkmen for my friends over the last decade, half of them wrinkle their nose and either say “ugh, he’s sounds like a B-version of bono” or “omg he sounds like a dying yowling animal!”

    i mean, i think he’s the greatest frontman / greatest singer, but in no way could he succeed on the x factor singing a song like the rat or something, let’s be real here. his voice is too weird and crazy (which is why he’s great), no need to succeed on a silly tv show (or this sillier article)

    • I think Stereogum are basing this on his stage presence though, which doesn’t come across on record, of course. As they said: he’s a handsome dude, he dresses smartly, carries himself well and puts a lot of power behind his vocal performance (I know, I know, “if I like him so much, why don’t I marry him?” etc, etc). Plus, as anyone who’s witnessed their live performance of ‘All Hands And The Cook’ will testify, the guy can hold a throat-rippingly high note for a ridiculous length of time:

  24. Lead singer from Ra Ra Riot has some decent pipes. I think he would do well. Also the lead singer from Elbow would get through the first few rounds. Then have to get a makeover to continue advancing.

  25. A guy I knew in high school who unironically listened to the Goo Goo Dolls and Third Eye Blind made fun of my friend and I for singing along to a Pixies song. Makes me think that Black Francis would get ripped apart by Black Francis. Also, Daniel Johnston on American Idol would be super tragic.

  26. how did shabazz palaces not make this list? they transcend opinion. shabazz. It’s like how can you say that you don’t like the pinnacle of the culmination of the greatest factors known to the human ear? palaces. If I didn’t know better, I would bet that simon colwell is the man behind shabazz palaces. Shabazz.

    Fact: Simon Colwell has been in this business a long time.
    Fact: The man knows what sounds good (obvs).
    Fact: Shabazz is the greatest music ever created, except maybe for Shabazz palaces future musicl which could, and likely will, top their current output. they make the beatles sound like a fart, which we can all agree on!
    Hypothesis: Simon Colwell is shabazz palaces and/or shabazz palaces are just a front/face for this genius (e.g., Milli Vanilli).
    Results: We’ll just have to wait and see.


  27. I was already missing the weekly “Justin Vernon news” on Stereogum when this absurdly enjoyable article came in due course of time. Finally! So now I can stop singing my sleeplessness blues.

  28. And here I mixed up X-Factor with Fear Factor. I was about to say, I don’t think any of those guys seem particularly fearless to me.

  29. Hey! Imagine that, Justin Vernon and James Blake mentioned favourably in the same article! I have never seen that before!

  30. I disagree with Bon Iver being in the “do-well” section. His singing range is limited, the judges wouldn’t be very impressed, no matter how good his songs seem to be. Here’s my little 2 cents:

    Would: Bilal
    Wouldn’t: Tunde Adebimpe

    Would: Feist
    Wouldn’t Joanna Newsom

    Would: Robin Pecknold
    Wouldn’t: Elliott Smith

    Would: Edward Droste
    Wouldn’t: Baths

    Would: Tune-Yards (Merrill Garbus)
    Wouldn’t: M.I.A.

    Would: James Blake
    Wouldn’t: Antony Hegarty

    Would: Jim James
    Wouldn’t: Kevin Barnes

  31. Frank Ocean?

  32. Feist, James Blake, Justin Vernon, Robin, Merill, Suf would probably go the furthest. Female can’t win anymore, so my bet will be on Sufjan.

  33. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  34. Don’t listen to the haters, ‘Gum. This is a fun game. And I would watch the esht out of a bizarro universe all-indie-rockstar reality singing competition.

    Would do well: Emily Haines, Glen Hansard, Dan Auerbach
    Would not: Tegan and Sara, Jack White, Regine Chassagne
    Rejects gag reel: Joanna Newsom, Amanda Palmer

  35. Robin Pecknold and Nate Ruess would do well.

    I’d love to hear Hayden Thorpe from Wild Beasts though, that’d be interesting. :P

  36. Shara Worden would clean house. I also think M. Ward and Andrew Bird would do well.

    Alec Ounsworth (CYHSY), John Darnielle, and Jeff Magnum wouldn’t get past the auditions.

    I’d love to see Gogol Bordello, John Ringhofer, and Tom Waits on a gag reel.

  37. This article is almost as embarrassing as all of those mgid ads that Stereogum has going.

  38. I find it shocking that nobody has mentioned Zach Condon, I mean, DUH!!!! Maybe I just missed it.

    It could cut either way actually. He may be too high minded to stoop to the level. But he might just be goofy enough. Teeny boppers would love him and he can sing. Plus he’s talking about how great it is that Singing! is being appreciated by indie-types these days (re: Dirty Projectors, TuNeYaRdS or however that’s done).

  39. Um … since when is Neko Case’s voice raspy? BTW she would win by a loooooong shot. The most amazing voice out there.

  40. Stephen Malkmus would be great, hahahahahaha. I imagine him missing lines and yelling some others!

  41. This article is interesting… all about people you wouldn’t think would do well on the pervasive “Americans vote for their favorite person they wish they could be” type of show, which we all know is bullshit. I am usually not the type to comment on this type of forum, however, I feel strongly enough about this topic that I would be remiss not to.

    Fuck indie types doing well on X factor. How about indie types doing well on indie types. I am ridiculously disappointed to see that not a single artist from the “Drive” soundtrack has been mentioned on this site. Regardless of how you feel about the movie, the soundtrack was an indie orgasm and I think Stereogum really missed the mark on this. The soundtrack as a collection deserves recognition if not at least a few of the songs. Please, by all means, correct me if I am wrong.. if a song actually does appear on this site or every one of the songs on the soundtrack is absolute shit, either way, I look forward to hearing your response.

  42. are you serious? can you print how much you were paid for this please? all of you?

  43. stupid me. i was expecting 10 men with fedoras and whips.

  44. Would: Shannon Shaw
    Wouldn’t: Carrie Brownstein

    Would: Glasser
    Wouldn’t: John Maus

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