In which Fleur maybe wins the whole thing right here. DON’T BELIEVE ME, JIZZWADS?
As much as it feels like a sign of weakness to admit this, I was totally on board with both of these themes. I love Christmas songs (apart from ‘Wonderful Christmastime’, ‘Never Do A Tango With An Eskimo’, and any version of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ that does not feature Bananarama), and I’ve always had a soft spot for the sheer cynicism of “songs to get you into the final” – it doesn’t have to be a good song, or a song that particularly suits you, just a song that will resonate enough with the plebs at home to get them to vote for you. It’s The X Factor in a nutshell. Speaking of which: Dermot tried to convince us that the competition was still anybody’s game this week by announcing that the bottom two changed four times last week while the show was on the air. Perhaps I’ve just seen far too many of these shows over the years and now I’m always sceptical regarding their tactics, but I always try to think about what they don’t say, and I notice that Dermot did not say that four of the five acts were in the bottom two, just that it changed four times. For all we know, it could have just been an endless cycle of Lauren/Andrea/Stereo Kicks, with one combination of the three featuring more than once. Just saying.
Simon Cowell and the Overs
It feels pointless to even bother discussing Fleur Easts performance in the Christmas songs round because it had become entirely irrelevant before the show was even over, but in the interests of completism, let’s talk about it. Fleur was given ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ by Mariah Carey, which is quite possibly the greatest Christmas song ever written, but was also completely the wrong song for Fleur to sing. The show seems to have mostly realised by this stage that Fleur is a Rihanna rather than a Mariah or a Beyoncé – that she has a passable voice rather than a powerhouse one, and that she’s far more likely to carry a tune based on the strength of her personality than the strength of her vocals – but it seems like somebody forgot that this week. Maybe it was just because there was a Mariah song up for grabs that hadn’t already been nabbed by Andrea, and everyone got a bit giddy as a result of this unexpected turn of events. The judges’ comments weren’t entirely positive, but even the criticism was couched in optimistic tones – along the lines of “that song was maybe a bit too big for you, but you gave it a go and we love you for it, and ooh what a performance”. More importantly, Fleur is now a total pro at handling the chat-with-Dermot stage of things, and was basically charm personified as she spoke of her surprise and excitement at having made it this far in the competition at all. (Couple this with all the coverage of Fleur’s large, loving and very proud family in her VTs over the last few weeks, but this week especially, and you’ve suddenly got a humble-next-door-type-who-could-also-be-a-great-popstar narrative to rival the one they’ve been building for Ben all series.)
Then in the next round, Fleur sang ‘Uptown Funk’ by Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars, and suddenly everything changed. The pre-performance VT played this up as a risky strategy – she’d originally been down to sing ‘Super Bass’ but the song got changed at the last minute (according to Simon, this was because Mark and Bruno were due to perform on the final, but when they pulled out during this week, he realised the song was a perfect fit for Fleur and it was too good an opportunity to miss). It had an inauspicious beginning: not only was it an unreleased song that I’m guessing most of the audience weren’t previously familiar with (I know I wasn’t), but it also opened with Fleur backstage, doing a bit of business “talking” “to” “her” “mum” “on” “the” “phone”. But this was all part of Simon Cowell and Brian Friedman’s evil genius plan – after spending so much time with Fleur’s family in the VT, here we get to see her behind the scenes as a regular girl on the phone to her mum right before she suddenly erupts into a series-defining performance. If anything, I think it helped that we didn’t know the song before – it suits Fleur’s voice better than it suits Bruno Mars’s, and his version actually suffers by comparison. (Also, not quite knowing the lyrics was half the fun, and I still think “don’t believe me, jizzwads?” sounds much better than “don’t believe me? Just watch!”, but apparently I’m alone in that.) I think it was also very clever of the show not to put this in the pimp slot – perhaps having learned a lesson for trying to create A Moment with Fleur’s reprise of ‘Bang Bang’ in week six, slotting this in as the sixth performance of eight made all the excitement feel more organic – we weren’t expecting a gut-punch, but we got one anyway. Cheryl tied the bow on the performance by alluding to her “friend who’s not from this country and hasn’t seen anything” (has she blindfolded them?) who was in the studio for the dress rehearsal, and who apparently asked whether Fleur was a contestant or a guest performer. And as scripted as that comment sounds, it was thoroughly deserved: this was the sort of performance that belonged on the Sunday night show, just before Fleur plugs her new album and her tour and tells us who she wants to win. Whether this performance wins her the whole series or not – and I think there’s a good chance that it did – it certainly made a watertight case for giving her a record contract and an album full of cracking pop songs. GET ON IT, COWELL.
Ironically, the person whose game was possibly nuked by Fleur’s stratospheric rise this week was Simon’s other candidate, Ben Haenow, who – in his position as a good-looking young man who loves his mum and has credible rock aspirations – seemed like the most obvious candidate to take the top prize prior to this week. That’s not to say this week was a disaster for Ben; it’s just that while Fleur was showing us why she deserves to win, Ben was only showing us why he deserves to be a finalist. I still give the show full marks for its marketing of Ben, though: this week his family (including his hot brother) came to visit Ben at the contestants’ house so they could spend a lot of time talking about how much fancier it is than the place where Ben and his brother were raised. While they shared a family dinner around the table, Ben’s mum and brother talked about how people are always coming up to them and wanting to talk about Ben, and expressed how weird this is for them because he’s still just Ben to them, and Ben was all “yes, that’s exactly how this is for me too!” That’s some canny humility right there. Well-played, Haenows. Well-played indeed. Music-wise, Ben drew ‘Please Come Home For Christmas’ for the first round, and while it made total sense on paper, I don’t think this was a great choice for him. I know there isn’t exactly a wealth of rock-tinged Christmas songs, but everything about this just felt forced, particularly the grit in his voice. And he was all dressed in bloody black again (although no leather jacket this time, so that’s progress of a sort). Then again, the judges creamed themselves over it, with Cheryl going out of her way to declare him the nicest man in the history of forever, and Simon echoing that all this niceness reminds him of working with Olly Murs. I don’t think I’ve ever felt less inclined to vote for someone than I did after that comment.
Now, I’m not saying that the VTs in this weekend’s episodes were biased in favour of certain contestants, but while the show was reminding us that Andrea is a FUNNY FOREIGN FATTY FAT FAT, Ben was the one gifted the opportunity to narrate how the contestants all got to go to a children’s hospice to support this year’s official X Factor charity, Together For Short Lives. Lots of shots of Ben with bloodshot eyes and tear-stained cheeks? Check. Talking about how this makes him appreciate his family? Check. Rewatching his audition to see how far he’s come (and how much his grooming regime has improved since then)? Check. This was followed up by a performance of ‘Hallelujah’, and while you could argue that giving him a former winner’s single was kind of on-the-nose, it’s the sort of tactic that’s just as likely to backfire as it is to succeed, and on the whole I think he made it work. It definitely suited him more than his first song, and it felt like as good a deployment of his throaty vocal style as we’re ever likely to get – and it also gave him an opportunity to get all teary again at the end. Confirming her status as Opposite Me, Mel announced that she hated everything about this performance because it wasn’t FULL ROCK, and that she was just going to pretend it had never happened. Oh, Mel.
Cheryl Fernandez-Versini and Lauren Platt
This particular round of the competition was only ever going to end one way – in the elimination of Lauren Platt Right-Swiped You On Tinder, who felt so very superfluous to everything that was going on all weekend. Essentially the entire show was a pat on the head to her for getting this far, with the full knowledge that she was going absolutely no further. Once again, she got given the worst performance slots (second and fifth) and the most apathetic VTs. Example: she started by reminding us that this is the first Christmas in six years that her parents will be together, and that she usually spends it with her nan and granddad. I mean, that’s nice and everything, but compared to what everyone else was up to, it barely even registered. Then she got given ‘Stay Another Day’ for her Christmas song, not particularly because anyone thought it was a good song for her, but because singing lead vocals of Girls Aloud’s cover of that track was Cheryl’s bonus prize for getting the most votes in the Popstars: The Rivals final, and because we can only ever be expected to relate to Lauren in terms of Cheryl. I’m not sure what was going on with the staging for this song (the theme seemed to be “field of pink glitter ponies”), or indeed with the vocals (rough as arseholes), and just to compound Lauren’s utter irrelevance, Simon called her “Fleur” by mistake during his critique.
While more or less everybody else got a chance to redeem a subpar first-round with a strong second performance, Lauren’s interpretation of One Direction’s ‘Story Of My Life’ was just like everything else she’s ever done on this show – bland, serviceable, entirely forgettable. Even Brian Friedman’s staging reeked of “will this do?” – some video memories telling the (wait for it) STORY OF HER LIFE on the screen behind her. Mel observed, quite correctly, after both of Lauren’s performances that she hasn’t really had A Moment on the show, which is why everyone’s essentially washing their hands of her at this point. Strangely, the closest Lauren came to getting that Moment was on Sunday, when the results were revealed and she was, predictably, squaring up against Andrea in the sing-off. Her performance of Faith Hill’s ‘There You’ll Be’ was the best she’s sounded in weeks, and far superior to Andrea’s frankly painful take on Jessie J’s ‘Who You Are’, but the writing was on the wall by this point and Lauren’s fourth-place finish had been determined long before anyone had sung a note. Still, for all that I’m still not at all convinced Lauren has it in her to be a popstar, I’m glad she at least went out on a high. She deserved that much, at least.
Mel B and Andrea Faustini
I mentioned above about the general craftiness of the VTs at this stage, and Andrea’s are a good case in point – on the surface they’re about him being alone in the UK, and how Mel is his substitute family since his real one is at home in Italy, but it doesn’t take the eyes of a hawk to spot that they frequently show him on the sofa with Fleur, essentially showcasing Fleur as the one who takes up the mantle of Andrea’s friend whenever Mel’s not actually there. It’s a handy way of giving Fleur a bit of a boost while ostensibly promoting someone else, anyway (in much the same way, as I said, that all four semi-finalists went to the children’s hospice, but only Ben got to talk about it on camera). I’m not saying Andrea’s VTs portray him badly, but they do have a tendency to be somewhat reductive, and this week was no exception: Dermot took the contestants out for an Italian meal, which ended up being “LOOK AT ANDREA EATING ALL OF THIS FOOD, WHAT A FAT ITALIAN!”, and then Dermot gave him a pug at the end. (A pug which Simon would later go on to accuse Andrea of attempting to eat – in jest, admittedly, but it all plays to the same general theme.) Having covered all three aspects of Andrea’s personality, he then sang ‘O Holy Night’, which wasn’t a patch on the Eric Cartman version, obviously, but was probably the most successful of all the first round performances because really all it required was volume, and we all know Andrea can deliver that.
His second round VT was slightly more favourable, as he talked about how big a fan he is of the UK iteration of The X Factor, how he watches the performances on YouTube (Alexandra’s duet with Beyoncé in the series five final being a favourite, as it should be), and how it’s his dream to make the final and sing with a guest artist. That’s all very sweet, but it did leave me shouting “AIM HIGHER, ANDREA!” at my TV. (Incidentally, he was joined by Fleur again for this bout of YouTube nostalgia.) After joining Mel and family to decorate their Christmas tree and Skyping with his own relatives, Andrea sang ‘Wrecking Ball’, in a corridor of broken mirrors while wearing a shirt with a broken glass pattern on it. The judges called this a risky performance and a step outside of Andrea’s comfort zone (I don’t see why – Miley Cyrus might not be an iconic diva in the Mariah or Celine mould, but ‘Wrecking Ball’ is still a song that you can basically sell by bellowing the chorus at the top of your voice), and Mel said that he doesn’t know how good he is. I don’t know why everyone always views that as a compliment – Mark Wright has been aggressively not realising how good he is on Strictly Come Dancing all bloody series, and it’s tedious as fuck. Having faced the bottom two for a second time this weekend, Andrea seems a lock for the Saturday night boot next week and an album of covers in time for Mother’s Day, unless anything seriously weird happens.
Next: the bloated final, and either Ben or Fleur winning.