The dog days of January have traditionally been a fallow period for the British music industry. Recent years, though, have found the press cycle dominated by what seems to be becoming an annual ritual in lieu of major news or high-profile releases. The BBC's annual "Sound of..." countdown is a poll of critics, industry figures and other such shadowy "tastemakers" that throws up a handful of names (this year, a longlist of 15 nominees and a main top-five list) - the "new" acts who will capture the public's imagination over the next 12 months. In practice, its choices have had mixed success: Keane and Adele (winners in 2004 and 2008 respectively) have carved out multiplatinum careers, but memories of The Bravery six years on from their triumph are, thankfully, faint and distant.
Over the years, though, the poll has metamorphosed from an haphazard eccentricity into a bigger deal entirely - at least in terms of capturing disproportionate column inches for the artists lucky enough to be included. And as it has become more of a self-fulfilling prophecy, so its contradictory blend of artistic legitimacy and PR-led hype has become more uneasy. Are the artists it showcases there because they are singular talents deserving of recognition, or because it is common industry knowledge that they have had a ton of major-label money invested in them, with a spot in the BBC list just another cog in the wheel of the promotional campaign?
Despite its increasing influence, the Sound of... poll seems to be in a bit of a muddle as regards its own purpose. According to a leading critic who participates each year: "They make it very unclear in the nominations process about whether you're meant to choose people you like but have limited appeal, or people you hate who will do well."
The underwhelming quality of the acts bears this state of affairs out. On the 2009 shortlist was Dan Black, an entirely reprehensible hipster parody whose signature song was a smugly awkward indie-boy rendition of the Notorious BIG's Hypnotize over an instrumental of Rihanna's Umbrella. In 2010, the poll was won by Ellie Goulding, a singer-songwriter so bereft of personality or point that she was eventually reduced to releasing a saccharine cover of Elton John's Your Song in order to gain a foothold in the public consciousness. And this year, the UK's so-called musical cognoscenti have bestowed upon us tedious landfill indie (The Vaccines), an Annie Lennox tribute act (Clare Maguire) - and, perched at the top of the list, a professional Essex cheeky chappess by the name of Jessica Cornish, aka Jessie J.
The Jessie J machine has been a long time grinding. She's put in the hours plying her trade as an industry songwriter-for-hire - though despite her biography trumpeting that she's written for Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera, her only notable work in this capacity to date is a co-writing credit on Miley Cyrus's Party In The USA. No matter. With almost indecent haste after she was announced as the poll's winner, the publicity machine went into overdrive (almost as though it had been planned all along). Suddenly, she was ubiquitous; strategically placed stories about being bullied at school began to spread across the tabloids, accompanied by pictures announcing her Wacky and Unique Fashion Sense (which appears to consist of dressing like a Primark version of Nicki Minaj). And now witness the chart performance of her debut single, Do it Like a Dude. Having peaked at an unremarkable No 25 in the UK charts, it was on its way down. Then began a rebound, as the poll's shortlist began to dominate the music press. In the week of her win it rocketed into the top five.
The hype surrounding Jessie J hype may appear contrived, but it has nothing on her music. Do it Like a Dude is a deliberately in-your-face introduction to her - but instead of thrillingly brash, it comes off as a spectacularly obnoxious and ill-advised blunder through the minefields of gender and race. Jessie J mistakes phallocentric essentialism for gender subversion. After all, as statements of female empowerment go, boasting that you can be like a man is hardly the most galvanising. When pop stars from Ciara (Like A Boy) to Beyoncé (If I Were A Boy) have used putative gender-swaps to sing about the nuances of social expectations of gender - and 10 years after trailblazing rappers such as Lil' Kim and Trina fantasised about avenging themselves on men in improbably physical ways, this song feels both inadequate and regressive.
Even more problematically, Jessie J's reference points for masculinity are markedly Afro-diasporic: the song was apparently written with Rihanna in mind, but an Essex girl gunning that she can "do it like the man dem, man dem" in a sneering tone sounds ignorant at best. Whether her appropriated patois is meant to indicate that she can be as good as black men or to mock their signifiers is anyone's guess.
Do it Like a Dude is also a red herring. Jessie J makes no further attempts at hip-hop swagger on its accompanying album, Who You Are. Sadly, this doesn't mean that this collection of 13 tracks gets any better. She has an astonishing knack for hijacking the worst tics and idiosyncrasies of other successful female artists, like a reverse magpie: thus, we end up with an artist who combines the bland sunniness of Natasha Bedingfield and the grating mannerisms (and harsh vocal timbre) of Katy Perry, with Lily Allen's mean streak thrown in for good measure.
What Jessie J brings to the table herself is empty, glib songwriting with all the depth of a puddle. Big White Room is an abominable acoustic ballad about "going crazy". Unable to remotely convey any sense of this in words, Jessie J essays a series of truly execrable stutters and senseless vocal runs. It gets worse when she tries to Say Something Important. On Rainbow, for instance, she sets up a dichotomy between a rich son of privilege in the first verse, and a "mummy in the ghetto" in the second. The conclusion this seer of social commentary comes to? "What I'm saying is we're all alike, we're the colours of the rainbow." It may well be the most staggeringly stupid song you hear this decade.
For sheer hypocrisy, though, the sententious cant of Price Tag comes close: here, Jessie J rails against a money-obsessed music industry full of "low blows and video hos". Why yes, that would be the same music industry to which she has enthusiastically contributed and of which she is entirely a product. Moreover, this would be the same woman who sanctimoniously finger-wags in interviews that: "If you steal music I can't then give you more, because I'm not proving to the label that I'm someone that's going to earn them money for them to keep me."
Jessie J is also fond of ostensible self-empowerment anthems, though tellingly only seems to bring them to detailed life when they hinge on putting other people down. Otherwise, she brays empty couplets such as: "You're as old as you feel you are/And if you don't reach for the moon, you can't fall on the stars." One begins to suspect that Jessie J doesn't really think much of self-empowerment anthems as a concept, so lazily empty are her own takes on them.
On top of Jessie J's unconcern with details that would actually flesh out her songs come her faux-spontaneous ad-libs on L.O.V.E., which smugly inform us that "I actually wrote a song about love, and it's completely honest!". It's a song that, for all the world, seems filled with the belief that the sentiments it expresses aren't as generic as any of the other love songs its writer seeks to decry - and, indeed, forgets that it's the fourth love song to crop up on Who You Are.
Over the album's course, it becomes apparent that Jessie J's entire modus operandi is a particularly cynical one: she sets her sights on a normative Everygirl aesthetic that singers such as Allen and Bedingfield, for all their faults, actually seem to inhabit. But - in case Price Tag didn't flag it up sufficiently - Jessie J's own contempt for the form and misguided attempts to compensate with overwrought, grating delivery make this one of the most wretchedly bad albums 2011 is likely to throw up. A fitting winner for that poll, then.
Alex Macpherson is a regular contributor to The Review. His work can be found in The Guardian and New Statesman.