Week after week, Emblem3 made teenage girls swoon as the band played sunny renditions of other artists’ hit songs on the Fox competition ‘The X Factor’.
A fusion of pop, ska and hip-hop — think Sublime, only dreamier with washboard abs and tousled hair — the young Huntington Beach trio was also a favourite of the judges.
Yet, in a move as puzzling as the success of the show itself, the band was eliminated, losing its potential spot in the final three to an underdog act.
So, why weren’t Emblem3’s members devastated by the loss? Because these days it’s often better to be a finalist in a singing talent show than an actual winner.
Look at One Direction, Jennifer Hudson, Daughtry and Adam Lambert — all losers who ultimately ended up becoming bigger stars than the winners of their respective competitions. It’s likely that as this year’s ‘X-Factor’ winner (country crooner Tate Stevens) signs a $5 million (Dh18.4 million) recording deal through Sony Music and ‘X Factor’ judge Simon Cowell’s Syco Music, Emblem3 will secure a hefty contract of its own with the help of Cowell.
Cowell mentored the trio throughout the show, meaning that Emblem3 had the advantage of being developed by someone who’s mastered the art of catapulting acts from reality shows to the charts. So, it makes sense that the band — brothers Wesley and Keaton Stromberg and best friend Drew Chadwick — was eager for its run on ‘X Factor’ to end.
“Going into the competition, I personally didn’t think it would go anywhere,” Keaton Stromberg, 16, said a week before the trio was kicked off the show. “I went in thinking, ‘Whatever happens, happens.’ It’s going to get us exposure, no matter what.”
“We just needed the jump,” interrups Chadwick, 20. “You sacrifice some things doing the show, but it’s an awesome way to get your name out there. We just kind of took advantage of it.”
Some of those sacrifices? “Singing Katy Perry songs,” Chadwick says with a shrug.
The three, originally from Sequim, Washington, prefer the punk music they grew up listening to. They began emulating the style in their own band as pre-teens. “Blink-182, stuff like that,” Chadwick said. They moved to Huntington Beach to be closer to the industry. They spent the last year gigging at landmark venues such as the Roxy, the Whisky A Go Go, the House of Blues and the Hard Rock Cafe. They won Rock N’ Road’s Orange County battle of the bands in 2011.
There was hesitation, they say, to step in front of reality television cameras (this year, they tried out for NBC’s ‘America’s Got Talent’ but dropped out), but after producers asked them to submit a video audition, they saw it as a sign.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Keaton said. “It could all work out and the TV side could make you look awesome and you could work perfect or...” “We were scared of being turned into a boy band because they edit things,” Wesley interjects. “We love the show, they are awesome, but they can edit and make it not what you were going for.”
Despite reluctance, the trio gave it a shot. They wowed the judges with a jazz and R&B-inflected rock original called ‘Sunset Boulevard’. An acoustic take on the Police’s ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’ secured them a spot on Cowell’s team of groups.
Since Cowell was responsible for their song selections, comparisons to One Direction (which was put together by Cowell and placed third on the British version of ‘The X Factor’ in 2010) and criticisms that Emblem3 had become another manufactured boy band came fast and furious, especially from judge Demi Lovato.
It didn’t help that one episode featured a clip of Emblem3 being mobbed by fangirls at the mall before a performance of the Monkees hit ‘I’m a Believer’ (even if it was Smash Mouth’s take).
“They aren’t like One Direction in the slightest,” Cowell said. “They’re very West Coast. They represent that surfer kind of vibe. And they do write their own material.”
“We want people to respect us because we are musicians...not because we are quote unquote ‘cuties,’” said Chadwick.
But being “cuties” has worked.
‘Sunset Boulevard’ soared to No. 16 on iTunes (sandwiched between songs by Green Day and Foster the People) after Emblem3’s audition, before the show took the track down.
Still, the boys couldn’t hide their growing aggravation over the antics that came with a reality competition. They huffed when asked by production to skateboard past a fellow competitor for a silly (and staged) gag that took more time than they cared for, and at one point, they were admonished for complaining about being interrupted by production for this interview. They were reminded by show personnel that when participating in a national television programme, “we don’t always get to do the things we want.”
Despite their grumblings, band members are grateful they’re getting to showcase the group. Even if they feel they’ve lost some of their essence.
“We were kinda like, ‘Where is this going now?’ We never wanted to be a boy band and we were looking back at our [performances] like,... ‘Are we starting to turn into one?’,” Wesley said. “But we are just playing the game right now.”
During a recent taping at CBS Television City, the largely female audience screeched at the mention of Emblem3. Many of them hoisted bright signs in the air or held up three fingers. The screams became deafening when the boys sauntered onstage. They offered an energetic take on the Beatles classic ‘Hey Jude’.
Though Cowell was tight-lipped about whether he’d sign a deal with the band, he’s made it clear that he wants to continue working with Emblem3 and that he has high hopes for the trio. Two of the acts Cowell’s mentored from the UK edition of the competition, Leona Lewis and One Direction, have achieved global success, and he sees the same for Emblem3.
“No one has tried to style them. No one has tried to influence them,” he said. “If you want to go out and do what people like One Direction have done... you’ve gotta make a decision in your career: Do you want to be popular or do you want to play for your mates in the garage?
“Obviously, I want them to be a global success, and the whole point of putting them on the show is to get people to know them to understand them. I don’t think they’ve compromised themselves, and they’ve become incredibly popular.”
The trio hope to have a single out within the next couple of months and say that a number of heavyweights have expressed interest in working with them.
“The experience we’ve gained from this competition actually surpasses the $5 million prize at the end,” Chadwick said. “Everything has paid off — all the highs and lows.”