Talkhouse Contributing Writer Norman Brannon is a musician, writer, and educator in Brooklyn, New York. Best known for his work in bands like Texas Is the Reason, New End Original, 108, Shelter, and Ressurection, Brannon has also maintained a steady, albeit whimsical career in music criticism, worked as a TV presenter on a gay cable network, and has been recognized by his music-loving students while working as a university lecturer. You can follow him on Twitter here.
At some point in the fall of 2010 I realized that, with the help of the right websites, I could start watching U.K. television in semi-real time. By then I had already spent an arguably pathological amount of money on DVD box sets for shows like Wire in the Blood or Coupling, but having access to only those episodes that the BBC decided to code for my region was nothing if not unsatisfying. Delayed DVD viewership was never going to put me in touch with the country’s passing cultural zeitgeists; it was never going to grant me entry into the privileged discourse of a resident.
Why I craved that type of access (or precisely what I hoped to get from it) is still not entirely clear to me, but I somehow believed that this prospect of pop-cultural immersion — which apparently included the license to watch U.K. television casually, as if I were a Londoner laying about in my flat, wondering what’s on ITV — was exactly the kind of dissociative escape I needed at that moment in my life. Because for all my talk of realism and brute practicality, I still understand that my creative work depends on that part of my psyche which is stubbornly fantasist. This is the way in which I came to watch season seven of the U.K.’s talent competition program The X Factor and, if I’m being honest, every season since.
To the casual X Factor observer, season seven is better known as “The Year Simon Cowell Formed One Direction,” and that’s fair enough. Theirs was a stunning transformation: In just 10 weeks, the members of 1D went from being awkward teenage solo artists with questionable rhythm to a shaky but confident vocal group with questionable rhythm and awesome hair. That they only came in third says more about their competitors than themselves: Rebecca Ferguson, the 2010 runner-up, sings with the kind of authentic smoky pop/r&b vocal that Duffy would break a kneecap for, while Matt Cardle, the eventual season champ, was staunchly — and almost irrationally — favored by the highly coveted girls-and-gay-men voting bloc. This fact was so widely known that in the middle of Cardle’s televised coronation, 1D’s Harry Styles allegedly whispered into his ear, “Think how much pussy you’re going to get!”
Cher Lloyd was season seven’s fourth-place contestant, which is to say that no one ever thought we’d hear from her again. Indeed, her longevity on the show was baffling to almost anyone who watched. As far as singing contestants go, she was kind of a trainwreck — tone deaf to seemingly everyone but the judges, who raved about her singularity as an artist. (Girls Aloud member Cheryl Cole, who also mentored Lloyd, frequently repeated some variation of a remark like, “We have never seen anybody like you on The X Factor before!”) As far as rappers go, she was a faux grime artist at best and a total con artist at worst. (A video on YouTube called “Cher Lloyd: Liar, Fraud & Unoriginal,” which has received almost two and a half million views to date, catalogues her more egregious plagiarisms.) And yet, as far as reality star archetypes go, Lloyd was a natural. She mined a near-perfect concoction of tragedy, tribulation, and transformation that supplied more than enough grist for the show and tabloids alike. She cried in almost every episode. She even publicly disavowed her own chances of winning at a press conference by saying, “I know I’m not gonna win. I’m a rapper.”
But the teenage Lloyd’s story proved to be more complicated than that, and the more of it that rolled out, the more of a kinship I felt towards her. Cher Lloyd’s star was so improbable, I actually wanted her to have it.
Lloyd is, as the tabloids breathlessly reported, of Romany descent — colloquially, a “gypsy” — who spent her childhood living in a caravan while her parents did odd jobs or sold scrap metal to survive. Later, as a tween, she settled in Malvern, a small town in Worcestershire best known for its natural spring waters, but also for its high concentration of “chavs” — a pejorative used to describe a subsection of working-class Brits who, according to a New York Times review of a book on the subject, “essentially means ‘ugly prole’: loutish, tacky, probably drunken and possibly violent.” At the center of these two widely maligned identities, in an almost perfect condition of in-betweenness, Lloyd’s television arc practically wrote itself. Despite receiving an average of 10 percent of the public vote each week, which is remarkable, Lloyd also received an insanely disproportionate amount of the public beating: #HateCher became a regular aftershow hashtag, trending on Twitter worldwide every time she beat elimination. Message-board punters regularly called her a “pikey slag,” peppering their racism with misogyny. She found herself on the receiving end of death threats. As it turns out, in terms of intersectional identity, Cheryl Cole’s early observation was technically astute, but for all the wrong reasons. If we’d never seen anybody like Cher Lloyd on The X Factor before, it was only because no one had ever seen a 16-year-old gypsy-chav-pop singer before.
Unfortunately, the things that eventually endeared me to Cher Lloyd are the same things that are conspicuously absent from Sorry, I’m Late — her second album since The X Factor, and her first without Simon Cowell’s involvement. Perhaps it was Cowell who understood that Lloyd’s gentle resistance to polish — the over-determined brogue on “Want U Back,” the unapologetic (and basically unbearable) chav anthem “Swagger Jagger” — was, in fact, as much of what pulled people towards her as it was what pushed them away. Her debut album Sticks & Stones — presumably named after the verbal abuse she faced on The X Factor — was a creative win not only because it became an international hit, but because it still communicated marginality through a thoroughly mainstream lens. Sadly, on Sorry, I’m Late, those rough edges are so smoothed out that one barely gets the idea that Lloyd is British, much less a member of an ethnic or socioeconomic minority.
In fact, almost every song is haunted by contemporary American pop specters, and they work like intrepid interlopers: The jungle breakbeat that anchors “Dirty Love” feels promising until it doesn’t, delivering a finished product that hews closer to Avril Lavigne than LTJ Bukem. A Beth Ditto co-write looks great on paper, but in practice, “Sweet Despair” is a disappointingly banal retread of Katy Perry’s “E.T.” Even the album’s most recent single, “Sirens” is just fine — in the way that most Scandinavian-penned pop songs are objectively delightful — but it says nothing about the girl I was rooting for from season seven. Of course, one might rightfully argue that Cher has matured, that she is no longer that girl, and I’d be inclined to agree. It’s just that the 20-year-old Lloyd’s version of maturity, for some inexplicable reason, sounds a lot like Demi Lovato’s.
Late last year, Lloyd sat down for a feature-length interview with Larry King. Having moved to America to better serve her career, Cher’s resistance to polish is now all but gone; her West Midlands accent greatly, curiously, reduced. If you believe Cher Lloyd now, her greatest struggle in life centered on taking her creative freedom back from Simon Cowell. If you believe Cher Lloyd now, she was never a rapper. (“Really, I’m a singer,” she told King. “I don’t take the rap thing too seriously. It’s funny to me.”) Whereas everything that made Cher Lloyd an intriguing artist at least partially hinged on her personal and creative embrace of hybridity, the Sorry, I’m Late-era Lloyd appears to be all about stubbornly choosing sides. Whoever coined the phrase “the tyranny of the binary” could have never seen it play it out like this.