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.