NFB Listens To Number Ones: “Impossible” – James Arthur

I know the second the RNG threw up the last week of December in 2012 – one of five weeks this was at the top – that I would have to talk again about what we might call the “The X-Factor factor”. There was that period between 2007 and 2013 when the X-Factor winner always topped the – at that time anyway – lucrative Christmas #1 spot and it was very much a case where you can add “for better or worse” at the end of that sentence. The X-Factor, more than any other reality talent show, was responsible for the beginning of popular music in a modern era, where fame is expected quick, talent is subordinated to having a good backstory and it’s all about marketability. Hence why, for the song that the winner of the competition was guaranteed to have a hit with, they very often played it as safe as possible.

Which is what “Impossible” is. It’s a cover of an already successful song, and I daresay maybe slightly better than the original( I think the booming male voice suits the message of the song more than a quieter R’n’B style). It’s designed to show off the voice of the singer as much as anything, and “Impossible” does that, being a vocally driven piece. The opening is striking in its limited backing, and the song comes back to that in its finale just to bookend the sentiment. The tune also has that kind of “walking up a stairs” feel in the way that Arthur trips over the lyrics in an ascending pitch, before he gets to reach levels that we could describe as vaguely on par with power ballad. What I mean to say with all of that is that “Impossible” is designed to catch the ear quickly and make you appreciate the range of the singer, more so than to think that the song itself is pretty good. It’s a promotional exercise for the person, and the art is secondary. Just look at the official video, which is an X-Factor highlights package.

Oh, but there are some clunky lines here, where original songwriters Arnthor Birgisson and Ina Wroldsen take the blame. “Falling out of love is hard, falling for betrayal is worse” is one of those lyrics that looks bad on paper, and I have no idea how it got to the point of sounding bad on a recording. Even someone with a voice as good as Arthur can’t make that work. And that is the frustrating thing about Arthur, and every other X-Factor winner: they all tend to be good singers, they’ve just been packaged and homogenised and had the edges shaved off so completely that it’s difficult to be anything other than dismissive of them. “Impossible” is a decent song I suppose, but it will always be attached to one of the worst things to happen to music ever, an era where Simon Cowell’s grimace was a bigger driver of musical domination than talent.

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