What Cheryl Cole’s X Factor Dismissal Means For British Pop In America


Deep at the heart of Cheryl Cole’s abrupt dismissal from the American edition of X Factor earlier this week is a twisted take on My Fair Lady. Here we have a pop star who takes leave from her U.K. homeland–where she’s a household name thanks to her tenure in the hit-making girlband Girls Aloud–because she sees a chance to make her career global. She uproots her entire life, moves to L.A., presents herself with poise, and avoids getting into any trouble really. And then she gets axed, allegedly over reasons that would make people in traditional workplaces would call up a lawyer–having a thick accent, not connecting to a co-worker whose reputation for self-medicating precedes her.

In this case, it seems like Fox was trying to make Cole out to be an irreparable Eliza Doolittle–and her “The Rain In Spain” moment was flawed from the outset. She wasn’t a big name like Mariah Carey; she was an unknown, and the non-Simon Cowell constituent of X Factor resented her for being an unknown. She was an unknown that spoke funny.

Worse, she was an unknown whose musical oeuvre and choreography–solo and as part of Girls Aloud, which was formed in 2002–weren’t defined by the do-anything-to-succeed mantra that’s ruled the career of her replacement, former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger. Instead, she wanted to stay classy as she globalized her brand, as was in keeping with the aesthetic she’d established as one-fifth of Girls Aloud; take the group’s 2008 single “The Promise,” which winked at vintage notions glam both sonically and in its video, and contrast it with the Dolls’ lead single of that year, “When I Grow Up,” a brute-force tantrum about wanting fame that had people puzzling over whether Nicole and her army of backup dancers were demanding “groupies” or “boobies.”

But Cole’s axing is part of a bigger trend of the U.S. showbiz machine flipping the bird to older British ladies trying to sell catchy pop to Americans. In the real world, of course, 27 isn’t old. But the entertainment industry isn’t the real world. Not to mention that in mass-market pop over here, there’s very little room for the kind of quirk that makes British pop so… well, British.

This whole ordeal brings to mind the travails of five other women who have since, unexpectedly, become immortalized as icons. Cole’s girlband foremothers in the Spice Girls pretty much petered out when they broke up and made the mistake of trying to be taken seriously as individuals.

As a band, the Spice Girls worked well–accents and all–because they embraced their kitsch. They didn’t mean to dance their way into the history books; it just turned out like that. But as five separate entities who were, following Geri “Ginger Spice” Halliwell’s abrupt exit in 1998, ranging from their mid- to late-twenties, they had to regard pop as something much more terrifying as a shortcut to showbiz: It was now their nine-to-five. Because they were now doing pop “seriously” instead of “for fun,” they had become as eccentric to marketers as Edina from AbFab.

Which is why in 1999, when Halliwell tried to break America with her initial solo offering, the brassy “Look At Me.”

–it got no further than No. 12 on the Billboard dance chart; subsequent singles weren’t pushed Stateside. Haliwell’s bandmate Victoria “Posh” Beckham tried to crack radio playlists on her own as well, and later renounced her attempt to do so. Melanie Chisholm (Sporty) and Emma Bunton (Baby) enjoyed success in some sense, again, in the ghetto of the dance music charts. Although it was Melanie Brown (Scary) who enjoyed the most success inasmuch as solo careers are concerned; this collaboration with Missy Elliott peaked at No. 25 on the Hot 100.

The Spice Girls became prominent as individual characters in America when they worked outside of music; Beckham became a fixture in fashion, while Brown fled to reality tv. They finally became America’s sweethearts again when they reunited in 2008–at which point, they started selling out arenas.

And in this lesson in Spice Girls numerology is a bitter truth for Cole: Because Girls Aloud never bothered cracking America, their signature kitsch never really penetrated the country’s cultural consciousness. When Cole decided to try to make it over here, she didn’t even have the girlband cachet to scrape the dance charts.

Not only did Cole lack the kitschy reputation in America, she also took herself too seriously from the start. By forgoing the kitsch of her Girls Aloud days, she walked away from one of the few roads British pop acts have into the American music industry; by taking herself so seriously, she came off entitled. But again, it’s not entirely her fault.

Cole’s thick Geordie accent has been seen as one of the reasons for her dismissal. But this is a red herring–she could, with enough production magic, go the Lily Allen route and Geordie her way to indie supremacy.

It’s not clear whether Cole’s camp or the marketing department at X Factor is responsible for the screwup. Whoever it was forgot this crucial maxim: When introducing a complete unknown to an entire population as a star, it’s important to make sure the sales pitch is convincing enough to connect star and public. The medium was there; the message was not. The only person who seemed ready to sell Cole was X Factor head honcho Simon Cowell–but even he was making his pitch only to Fox bigwigs, and not to the American X Factor‘s potential audience.

Perhaps Cole didn’t think that she’d need to engage in a little bit of defensive star-making. Although her colleague Cowell rolled out the red carpet for her, the impetus was on Cole to sell U.S. audiences on her personal brand, which spans much more than her being one-fourth of a singing competition’s judging panel. And with in her corner, though curiously quiet during this entire ordeal, she could’ve deployed “3 Words” as a buzz single and had the Fox publicity machine amplify its release through their many avenues of self-aggrandizement–a guest spot on Glee, a live spot on that Idol finale two nights ago, or a full-hour TV special á la Victoria Beckham’s Coming to America on NBC. It’s a strong enough track that, if promoted properly, could’ve secured a breakout single for Cole ahead of X Factor‘s U.S. debut this fall.

It means that we’re doomed to more attempts to make America love Nicole Scherzinger as something more than “that woman dancing in front during all the Pussycat Dolls videos,” despite stubborn resistance on the part of musical consumers. It’s a shame, too, since she has it in her to be a very good pop star–if only she weren’t so boring.