Global Songstress – An Open Letter to Simon Cowell

In Commentary, HOME, MUSIC by Sam Prance

I’ve found myself re-watching old clips of The X Factor on YouTube recently. I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps it’s because I’m slightly disenchanted with the new series. Perhaps it’s because I’m on a year abroad and the familiarity of these clips is quite a good cure for the odd batch of homesickness.

Cher Lloyd’s bonkers rendition of ‘Viva La Vida’ will always hold a special place in my heart.

‘I hear Jerus-a-lem/bells a ring-a-ding-ing’

I’ve always enjoyed The X Factor. Some might say that I’ve been obsessed with it – crying when favourite acts leave, running up my Dad’s phone bill to vote for contestants and attempting to stage/judge my own version of The X Factor with friends at school  – this didn’t take off. One of the best surprises of my pre-teen life – was when my dad told me he was taking me to a football game but was actually taking me to The X Factor tour. And if you go back far enough on my Facebook feed, you will see gems such as this.

Pictures1You see, I have a lot to thank The X Factor for. It’s thanks to its dodgy and occasionally rather good cover versions, that I’ve been introduced to the likes of Whitney, Mariah, Céline. It’s a show that has provided me and the family with much amusement over the years. And, perhaps most importantly, every now and then, unlike The Voice, it produces a very good popstar. And the thing is – when we the record buying public bother to invest in a show/contestant, it’s quite nice to get a legitimate popstar out of it in the end.

The only trouble is, The X Factor’s track record of producing stars is declining. Yes, One Direction still semi-scarily rule the world, Little Mix know their way around an excellent pop-tune and Olly Murs does pretty well for himself for better or worse – but its early successes are fading and Simon Cowell can’t jizz over One Direction in every other sentence for too much longer. ‘Fireproof’ is quite nice mind.

Now, if we’re honest, Cowell has never had a good track record with solo boys (Leon Jackson, Joe McElderry, James I-should-probably-think-before-I-speak Arthur) but he has, on occasion, got off to a very good start with his girls. Let’s start with Leona Lewis. Leona was the , sweet girl with the big voice. The pizza-hut waitress who could sing vocal runs worthy of the greats. The most successful winner of The X Factor to date.

I remember the moment clearly. My family and I were sat in our living room – waiting for the result to be announced. Kate Thornton *sadface* said ‘The Winner Is…LEONA’. We all simultaneously stood up and screamed: ‘YES’. It was quite the moment. Like some sort of camp group of football supporters, we all chanted in unison. This and karaoke covers of the YMCA are about as macho as our family got/gets.

It was a big moment though. It was the first time that a girl had won The X Factor and it was the first time that the show had produced someone who could feasibly do well in the States (sorry Shayne). Well aware of this, Cowell hooked Leona up with music’s best (Dallas Austin, Stargate, Ryan Tedder) – the result was a brilliant debut. Yes there were some soppy songs, yes there were some covers and yes there were some budget Beyoncé moments – but there were also some look I’m going to take over the world moments too.

Spirit went onto sell over 10 million copies worldwide. Leona had become, in the words of Cowell, a ‘global songstress’. A beautiful cover of Snow Patrol’s ‘Run’ and a successful U.S. repackage later and Leona had become the X Factor’s figure head. The U.K.’s talent-show equivalent to Kelly Clarkson. Come album two, however, Cowell got lazy. In a bid to repeat the success of ‘Bleeding Love’, he effectively attempted to have it recreated for Leona 12 times over. The result was a good but rather depressing collection of songs: Echo. It went on to have a fraction of the sales of Spirit and when album three, Glassheart, came along – glorious and experimental in parts – the support that Leona had once had, had almost disappeared.

A Christmas album followed and Leona parted ways with Cowell earlier this year. To rub salt in the wound, it’s been revealed that she recorded HaloWe Found Love and Burn, only to let them go on and realise their fates with Beyoncé, Ellie Goulding and Rihanna respectively. Nevertheless, Leona is now signed with Island Records and seems much happier. Still if someone had just released ‘Glassheart’ as a single…I digress.

In Leona’s wake, came Alexandra Burke. Cracking vocals, the ability to dance and a duet with Beyoncé meant that she won the whole thing in 2008. I was with my family in Australia at the time of the final and remember being in absolutely agony not knowing whether she had won or not. Her coronation single, a cover of ‘Hallelujah‘, remains one of the best selling singles in the U.K. ever – and, whilst slated by music critics for missing the point, it still makes for a top-notch in shower sing-along. Following this resounding success, the Leona treatment was given (RedOne, Stargate, Ne-Yo) and chart-topping bangers were made.

In spite of this though, Cowell never gave Alexandra the chance at having a crack in America. Perhaps because the U.K. album sales, although impressive (800,000), were only a fraction of Leona’s (3,000,000), perhaps because she was creating watches with Argos on the side, perhaps because he’s a nutter. Burke parted ways with Cowell’s label and album two bombed. A recent stint as Whitney (Rachel) in The Bodyguard on the West End and it seems as though Alexandra is having a good time. Still, much like Leona, you can’t help but wonder that with the right care and attention, she too could have become a ‘global songstress’.

The main X Factor successes since Burke have been One Direction, Little Mix and Olly Murs. Rebecca Ferguson and Cher Lloyd have had their deserved moments too both here and in the U.S. – but, due to Rebecca’s musical maturity and Cher’s lack thereof, both seem as though they will never truly be global songstresses in the sense that Leona was. Their fan bases are too age specific.

‘Sirens’ is beautiful and enormous though. Well done Cher.

We do now, however, have Ella Henderson, under Cowell’s management. She, like Leona and Alexandra Burke before her, has the potential to be a ‘global songstress’. She entered The X Factor in its ninth series, sang a song for her granddad, made us all cry and came sixth in the competition or something ridiculous like that. She was in the bottom two with James Arthur and, when taken to the public vote, Arthur was saved and went on to do things like this. Well done everyone. Nonetheless, Cowell signed Ella to his label.

Under the hands of Cowell, Ella’s debut album, Chapter One, is out this week and is already headed to number one in the U.K. She too has received the Leona treatment (Babyface, Steve Mac, Ryan Tedder) and the album really is quite special. Modern but soulful, hints of Adele, distinctive enough to give Ella her own place in the market – it’s fresh and classic. It’s lead single, ‘Ghost’has been the U.K.’s song of the summer – and, given the right promotion in America, has every chance of climbing the charts there too.

However, if Cowell gets lazy, like with Leona and Alexandra – Ella’s career could dwindle. Luckily, she seems to be more creatively in control than her predecessors and quite a gifted writer herself; she should be able to take this whole conquering the world thing into her own hands, should she need to. But, she will ultimately have a better chance of doing so, if Cowell takes her longevity as an artist seriously.

In Ella’s wake lie the roster of girls on the current series of The X Factor, who, bar maybe Fleur East, are yet to prove themselves as potential ‘global songstresses’. Then of course, there is series 10’s I-forgot-my-words-a-couple-of-times-but-could-be-the-closest-thing-the-U.K.-gets-to-a-Rihanna – Tamera Foster.

Often on The X Factor there are good singers, but every now and then, there is a potential ‘global songstress’: a Leona, an Alexandra, an Ella…a Tamera. And yet, more often than not, Cowell fucks up their chances at longevity. So this is a proposition to Cowell to perhaps think about the long term careers of Ella, Tamera and their successors. Think about them so that he can reap the benefits. Think about them so that great pop can be made. Think about them so that the next time mine or any other family, sitting in their living rooms, screams ‘YES’ as a potential ‘global songstress’ wins that show of his – it means something.

Sam Prance

Sam is the Editor-in-Chief of PTL. He likes adapting surnames into brand names and pretending to be professional. His favourite novel is Cloud Atlas and he has Madonna marathons on a regular basis. Sam tries to make out that he has his shit together but more often than not can be found crying watching Desperate Housewives reruns. Some episodes are really sad okay.

If you want to stay posted with PTL content and musings, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

If you’re interested in getting involved with PTL – drop us an email on

(Image sourced from: