Throw­ing a key change into the Lit­tle Mix re­ally grinds our gears

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion -

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

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