Throwing a key change into the Little Mix really grinds our gears
I’M STILL psychologically scarred by Alexandra Burke’s Hallelujah. When she released the song as her X Factor- winning effort in 2008, the producers (probably just obeying orders in the Simon Cowell new world order) changed the key of the song towards the end. Technically this is known as “modulation”, and it has become a Cowell/syco trademark. It’s that moment when the string section swells, the lights are put up to 11 and (optional, this) a choir of orphaned children appear.
They did it again this week when Little Mix (I’ll give them three weeks max) released their atrocious version of Damien Rice’s Cannonball. They also shifted the song up a key towards the end – even though it’s the very last thing Cannonball requires.
This key change is known as the “truck driver’s gear change”. There’s a whole website devoted to this musical abuse and contemporary curse (see gearchange.org), with plenty of horrifying audio examples.
The big argument the site has with the truck driver’s gear change is this: while modulation per se is a vital ingredient of great songwriting, it’s only that temporary type of modulation whereby the song moves away from and then back to its given key centre (Cole Porter and The Beatles excelled at this trick) that has any musical worth.
The X Factor gear change, by contrast, indulges in “final” modulation, which songwriter Jimmy Webb describes as “modulating without returning to the original key – usually for suspect, overly dramatic reasons”. It used to be most beloved of amateur dramatic companies, which never had a problem shifting a song up two or three keys for faux-dramatic effect, but The X Factor has refined the art.
Because it’s more a visual than an auditory experience, The X Factor fetishises the gear change because it’s supposed to signal a “show-stopping” moment. It is typical of the programme’s meretricious value system – a cheap showbiz way to say “we’ve run out of ideas, so let’s just flash the big lights and shift the song up a key”.
The gear change is a sugarrush throwaway. You’ll hear it in Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl, Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer and almost everything by Barry Manilow, who wouldn’t have a career without it. You’ll also hear it being used by REM ( Stand), The Jam ( Going Underground) and even Led Zeppelin ( All My Love).
Significantly, All My Love is only one of two Led Zep songs on which Jimmy Page doesn’t have a writing credit. He hated the gear change on All My Love. “I was a little worried about the chorus. I could just imagine people doing the wave and all of that, and that’s not us.”
But the most egregious modern example of the gear change has to be Little Mix’s Cannonball. Granted, the members were selected for the group more on how they looked than how they sang, but it seems as if their only mode of vocal expression is in the r’n’b diva vein.
And while their Syco puppeteers will have selected Cannonball for them, one would have thought that an indie-folk ballad was perhaps not the best vehicle for them and whatever talent they may possess. There’s no reason to crowbar a gear change on Cannonball except that it is now a requisite of the X Factor franchise sound. And because X Factor singles sell in such huge quantities (for however limited a period), you now hear about A&R people instructing their pop charges to throw in a gear change or face not having their song released.
Distressingly, when it came to the big chart battle between Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, Jeff Buckley’s version and Alexandra Burke’s Tdgc-enhanced cover in 2008, it was the X Factor winner who captured the No 1 slot. Just like in Vegas – the house always wins.
Keep on truckin’: Little Mix