x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

A familiar tune

After Susan Boyle's performance of the Rolling Stones' Wild Horses, we wonder if talent show stars must cover a familiar tune for long-term success.

Susan Boyle poses singing with a hairbrush at her home in Blackburn, Scotland.
Susan Boyle poses singing with a hairbrush at her home in Blackburn, Scotland.

Britain's Got Talent's Susan Boyle has been accused of many things in her incredible rise to fame, but having a decent record collection? Surely that was beyond the realms of anyone's imagination. Yet, as she recovers from the sensational reaction to her performance of The Rolling Stones' 1971 hit Wild Horses on America's Got Talent, only one conclusion can be drawn: this enigmatic woman truly understands the lovelorn sentiment behind Mick Jagger and Keith Richards's brilliant song.

Putting the surprisingly sensitive song in Boyle's hands is a canny move from the pop music executive Simon Cowell. It's not the first time he's used a cover of a well-respected tune to launch the career of his talent show picks: the X Factor winner Alexandra Burke sold millions of copies of her version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah last year, proving that a musician can have success with a restrained (the first two-thirds is restrained, at least; then it goes bonkers) version of a classic rather than a loud Whitney Houston ballad.

Certainly the first reaction to Boyle's version of Wild Horses is one of relief that she hasn't murdered it by trying a Jagger impression or attempting operatics. Instead, it's a very tender reading of the song, pretty much unrecognisable from the original. Listen again and some rather moving details are revealed: a plangent piano, swelling but not overblown strings and lyrics that make some kind of modern sense, too. They were supposedly about Jagger's break-up with Marianne Faithfull, but they also serve as a comment on the public's relationship with Boyle and her hugely emotional story. What is "I watched you suffer a dull aching pain" if not the experience of millions who watched her breakdown on a television talent show?

So is a cover the only way a reality TV show star can launch a career? Two other X Factor winners, Shayne Ward and Leon Jackson, debuted original songs that were wildly successful but the singers' ensuing careers were less so: the record label Sony dropped Jackson earlier this year. The X Factor winner Leona Lewis's version of Kelly Clarkson's A Moment Like This, however, became the UK's fastest-ever selling single in 2006, and the record has since sold over 6.5 million copies worldwide. Lewis is working with Jay-Z for her forthcoming album: that's quite a career trajectory for a former talent show hopeful.

It's not surprising that things should work this way. What are talent shows if not glorified karaoke? The whole competition is, after all, largely based on how good the contestants are at singing other people's hits. And as viewers' heartstrings are pulled with stories of chokingly terrible lives that can only be rectified by Cowell's enduring love and record contracts, old favourites take on new meanings.

Pity poor Steve Brookstein, then. The 2004 X Factor winner received Cowell's approval and released Phil Collins's Against All Odds as his debut. So far, so good, until you actually hear the song - a dreadful, overwrought and obvious cover of a song that did not exactly mark a high point in Collins's history. Last we heard, Brookstein was singing on cruise ships and serenading diners in Pizza Express.

So, if you're after lasting talent show success, it pays to either do something special with a cover (Burke's Hallelujah worked, despite its slightly ridiculous vocal gymnastics, because she's a woman and Cohen is a man - likewise with Susan Boyle and Mick Jagger) or something so miraculous that pop is changed for good. So it was with Girls Aloud, the Popstars: The Rivals winners whose Sound of the Underground literally sounded like nothing else in 2002. Millions of record sales later, they're probably quite pleased that they paraded a slightly disappointing version of The Pointer Sisters' Jump four singles in.

Why, though, does it seem that more and more covers are invading the charts? Perhaps it has something to do with songwriters becoming more willing to say yes when they are asked if a reality winner can have the rights to a famous tune. Once upon a time, they might have snootily rejected such permission, but the week Hallelujah was No 1 for Burke, it was No 2 for Jeff Buckley and No 36 for Cohen (his first-ever Top 40 hit). The royalties must have been streaming in.

Of course, there can be a downside to a sudden surge in popularity. As Cohen said at the time on Canadian radio: "I was happy that the song was being used, of course. But I was just reading a review of a movie called Watchmen that uses it, and the reviewer said: 'Can we please have a moratorium on Hallelujah in movies and television shows?' And I kind of feel the same way. I think it's a good song, but I think too many people sing it."

Jagger may be having similar thoughts about Wild Horses; the list of people who have covered it is as wide-ranging as it is staggering. Fancy a hard rock version with stupidly long guitar solos? Guns N' Roses can oblige. Something a bit more middle of the road? Try Sheryl Crow's or Deacon Blue's versions. And if you want to get all dreamy and indie, The Sundays, Mazzy Star and Iron & Wine all peer out through floppy fringes for their takes on the classic.

It is interesting that you can hear all of these covers on YouTube, and for all the cachet of the many artists involved, none are half as good as the effort from an impossibly uncool 48-year-old woman from West Lothian, Scotland - and it's not just down to the production dollars Boyle's team clearly threw at Wild Horses. There's something genuinely gripping about her performance; it comes from someone who isn't just knocking out a cover for a laugh but genuinely believes in the power of the song.

All this from someone who didn't even win Britain's Got Talent.