How Leona Lewis Ushered in The X Factor’s Brief Golden Era

How Leona Lewis Ushered in The X Factor’s Brief Golden Era

It's been 10 years since “Bleeding Love”—hate it or not—changed the reality TV talent show for good.
May 16, 2017, 12:50pm

When you think of the The X Factor it's usually in two halves: before "Bleeding Love" and after. Simon Cowell's post-Pop Idol hunt for Britain's next big singing sensation launched way back in 2004, and while the show's first two winners – Steve Brookstein and Shayne Ward AKA two human equivalents to plain bread rolls – enjoyed moderate UK chart success at the time, it wasn't until the third series that winner Leona Lewis went on to become a relative international star. She changed the show's standing in the industry for good – and for better or worse, depending on whether Syco cut your checks each month.

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After landing the coveted Christmas number 1 with her winner's single, a cover of Kelly Clarkson's "A Moment Like This", Leona was given a whole year to work on her debut album. Previous winners traditionally rush-released a follow up single and album within months of winning. But after stern warning from pop's self-appointed wise dad Gary Barlow to not squander Leona's obvious pop star potential, actual time, effort and money was put into making her a star.

A year later in 2007, the R&B-tinged pop ballad "Bleeding Love" came fluttering and falsettoeing into the world. Co-written by OneRepublic's Ryan Tedder and Jesse McCartney (the guy who did "Beautiful Soul"), the song delivered something the previous X Factor singles hadn't. Leona's melismatic vocals floated over Tedder's meaty, modish production, transforming a relatively standard ballad into a song that hit a particular nerve like the zap of electricity when your hand hits the static charge on a car door handle. Leona wielded her voice like both a weapon and instrument on it, going from her potential as "nice voice that can fade into the background" to something much more powerful.

It was remixed for nightclubs and played across every Oceana in the country; the grotty student house parties I went to always seemed to end with "Bleeding Love" and it even earned the singer a degree of credibility from people who hated the show, who begrudgingly accepted that it was a hit. The song was originally written by McCartney for his own album Departure, but he later admitted that he didn't think it would've been such a success if he'd kept it for himself. "A lot of people think a hit song is a hit song for everybody," he said. "Sometimes a vocal or emotion can make the song and she murdered that record – it's still one of the best vocals I've heard in the past ten years."

The numbers agreed. "Bleeding Love" went on to sell over 200,000 copies in its first week of release in the UK and spent seven weeks at number one. It was crowned the best selling single of 2007 in Britain and in March 2008 it clawed its way from number 8 to number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, making Leona only the third UK female artist to hit the top spot with a debut US single. It went on to top the charts in over 35 countries and became the best selling worldwide single of 2008. "Bleeding Love" was nominated for actual Record of the Year at the 51st Grammyss in 2008 and still Leona remains the only act from X Factor to ever be Grammy-nominated.

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But fine, stats are one thing. Depending on how strong a stomach you have for fist-pumping pop power balladry, that wasn't Leona's only major impact. In addition to making Leona a star, the song also introduced Ryan Tedder's signature simple chord progressions and blatant heartstring-pulling production to pop. Beyoncé and Jordin Sparks both enlisted his help for their own hits; have a listen now, and you'll see that "Halo" and Jordin Sparks' "Battlefield" follow pretty much the same sonic formula as "Bleeding Love". In that way, the song changed pop's direction at the time.

By the fifth series of the show, two years after Leona's victory, considering The X Factor a second-rate talent show felt laughable. It spawned an international success in Leona Lewis; it was now a legitimate way into the music industry, and so began its winning streak. In the handful of years following, you could practically feel the grip of Simon Cowell's stranglehold on the music industry tighten in his constant bid to earn Syco the Christmas number 1 and more.

Jesse McCartney talking about Leona's interpretation of "Bleeding Love"

The cultural impact of each year's contestants stuck once Leona set the template. Alexandra Burke won series five and enjoyed three number 1 singles, while runners up JLS achieved four number one singles and Diana Vickers – who didn't even make the final three – reached number 1 with her own deeply average debut single. Olly Murs and Ella Henderson from series six and nine respectively didn't win either, but are still names it's hard to avoid in the industry (including Murs' much-mocked TV presenting career).

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While Simon Cowell churned out pop stars year on year, they weren't quite achieving the same level of international success as Leona – something needed to be done. Enter One Direction. In series seven, five boys who auditioned as solo artists were put together by judge Nicole Scherzinger, not on the basis that they were all great singers but because they looked good and would make a shit ton of money. After One Direction became an instant – almost frighteningly so – pop phenomenon, subsequent series saw the judges search for acts who already had "the look" and the show became a marketing machine instead of a search for pure talent. In order to succeed in this competition, being able to sing became an afterthought.

A rise in the number of gimmick acts further cheapened the show's reputation. Wagner, Rylan, Jedward and Honey G all had zero singing talent, but they generated headlines and got audiences talking; their performances went viral and became memes on social media. Speaking with The Telegraph, Leona said that The X Factor had slowly become a pantomime and the true essence of the show was lost between the props, hashtags and media training. Audiences failed to relate to these acts and no longer saw the birth of a star, but the force-feeding of a brand. And as a result, the show's number of successful acts started to shrink.

Streaming giants such as Spotify have also contributed to The X Factor's weakened grip on the charts. A single doesn't even have to technically be classed as a single for it to chart. Look no further than earlier this year when every song from Ed Sheeran's album appeared in the UK top 20 all thanks to streaming. If the show wants to recreate the success it had with "Bleeding Love", it'll need an album full of songs just like it and pray one of them nabs the top spot. The X Factor aims to showcase new acts, and while newer ones tend to do better in the streaming era, the model of the show is still sustained by and based on a traditional view of the music industry. If Simon Cowell wants another hit single, he needs to reinvent the show's premise completely.

Fast-forward to 2017. The most recent series of The X Factor, its 13th, averaged 7.71 million viewers – the lowest since the show's first series in 2004. Louisa Johnson, who won in 2015, had the lowest charting winner's single in the show's history, landing at number 9. Interestingly, since she won two years ago, Syco is yet to release her debut album for reasons still unknown. Even Leona herself didn't quite match the success of her debut. Follow-up album Echo featured Ryan Tedder again on lead single "Happy", but it reeked of a quick and easy attempt at Bleeding Love 2.0.

This isn't to say the show hasn't produced superstars beyond Leona. Series eight winners Little Mix – with their BRIT Award, four UK number 1 singles and a chart-topping album – have become the UK's premiere girl group and more-than-worthy successors to Girls Aloud. They've recently started their campaign to crack America, joining Ariana Grande on the North American leg of her Dangerous Woman tour. Zayn Malik's solo career has garnered a global number one single and critically acclaimed album. And Harry Styles has officially launched his solo career, well on his way to being one of the biggest pop stars we've ever seen, with the most on-the-nose Jagger blouses in the world.

The X Factor may never have another Leona Lewis or "Bleeding Love". It was a watershed moment not only for reality TV, but also for the music industry and proved that a genuine "I'm about standing still while delivering killer vocals" singer could be found on such shows. It's unlikely Leona herself will ever have another hit like it, but she can enjoy the fact that the shy girl from Hackney defied all the odds and at one point had the pop industry eating out the palm of her well-manicured hand.

You can find Yusuf on Twitter.

(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)