I shall start by being a complete and utter hypocrite. This blog is going to spend some time criticising snobbery in music but I’m going to start off by being a music snob. I don’t watch X Factor for some fairly obvious reasons and I’ve got better things to do with my time anyway. However it’s hard to escape the tedious nonsense completely and thus I was vaguely aware that some singing prison guard called Sam Bailey had won the contest and would be Christmas number one with a song called Skyscraper. The song itself – when I inevitably heard it – didn’t strike me as being up to much but … something about it stuck in my head. I think it was the first key change in the chorus. So I decided to investigate further.
I soon discovered that it was a cover of a Demi Lovato hit that made number seven in March 2012. So I checked out Demi’s version. It actually wasn’t that bad in comparison to a lot of stuff that makes the top ten these days; it had a lyric for starters. And Demi Lovato’s vocal performance was superior to Sam Bailey who sounds like she’s singing it in the shower. However, on further listens, there was something about the performance that frustrated me – possibly because the song builds well but at the point where it should go for everything it simply peters off. This was one complaint – but there was something else that bugged me.
Skyscraper is a break-up song. The singer (credit here must go to Toby Gad, Linda Robbins and Kerli Koiv who actually wrote it) is devastated and at rock bottom emotionally but is determined to be strong and rise ago. It’s not an original theme by any means but the imagery – the song was apparently inspired by an image of a solitary skyscraper still standing after an apocalypse – is unusual. It struck a chord with me, possibly because it’s a situation I found myself in in the middle of last year (yes WH I mean you) but Demi’s hair tearing, fretting performance in the video felt wrong, too cliched. Something in me wanted to hear a man sing it.
This blog takes its title from a Rolling Stones song, the B side to Get Off Of My Cloud and there is an irony here in that the Rolling Stones are arguably the most influential band ever in terms of rock music’s culture – real bands write their own material and sing it themselves and the rawness of the performance is what rock and roll is all about. For them the enemy are singers who rely on other people’s songs to build a career and when Boyzone or Westlife or tomorrow’s reality show winner reach for the most obvious cover version for that dead cert number one they have a point.
And yet, and yet. The Stones had it right, albeit on a forgettable B side. It’s the singer, not the song. Until the sixties revolution there was little expectation for performers to write their own material. Frank Sinatra (not exactly a rock singer but he lived the lifestyle harder than the Stones, never mind Miss Lovato) owes his iconic status to his skill as an interpreter, not a creator. For every great song that has rightly endured, a thousand equally great songs arguably lie forgotten in the hope that one day a new singer might discover them and hold them up to the light once more.
Which takes us back to Skyscraper. Curious to hear how a man might interpret it I did some searching on Youtube and came across this. It’s a cover by a guy by Ronnie Bingaman, which proved my original thought – for me it’s a guy’s song not a girl’s. The vocal performance isn’t flawless (but better than Bailey and no worse than Lovato) but where Demi loses the song, Ronnie Bingaman goes for it and hits the emotional bullseye.
So who is Ronnie Bingaman? A little research tells me that he’s the lead singer of a rock band called Skyhawk Drive (who may be on hiatus, apologies if that’s wrong) whose stuff is definitely worthy of investigation. My research also suggests that he breathes a very different fire to this blogger (choosing my words carefully I consider myself a spiritual person but a secular one) and I’m not sure what he’d make of the culture I inhabit. However his version of Skyscraper reached a part of me the hit versions couldn’t.
It’s the singer, not the song. A great song will always be a great song. Often the definitive rendering will rack up the gold discs but maybe a drunken bar singer is doing it better and nobody notices. Such is the beauty and the agony of music.
PS While researching the song on Wikipedia I’ve discovered that there is a version of Skyscraper by Joe McElderry, the only X Factor winner I have any respect for. It will be interesting to hear his take.