The X Factor – Series 11: The Final Part 1

Haenow, Haenow, don’t dream it’s over. (Oh shush, you.)

Yes, yes, I know, the final was over a month ago, and this is about as fresh as your average Popbitch “gossip”. But I’m nothing if not a completist, and besides, I have lots of incisive important compelling things to say, so I’m just going to go ahead and say them. Indeed, timing is a tricky thing. Not only is this blog post fashionably late, but I ended up posting my “maybe Fleur just won it with that performance of ‘Uptown Funk’?” update around the same time that the Daily Star leaked the voting stats which revealed that Ben had basically been in the lead every week for ages, and nothing short of the untimely revelation that he was Hitler’s secret lovechild with Osama Bin Laden was going to derail him at this point. So we’ll just go ahead and file that prediction under “oops”, I suppose. Well, at least I was right about Paul Akister. No one can take that away from me.

So, let’s get on with the performance show analysis. Since there are only three people to cover and two of them share a mentor, I’m going to break with tradition and separate them by contestant instead of by judge. Yeah, look at me, shaking it up for sweeps week. But first…

No-o Mel, no Mel, no-o Mel, no Mel…

The most newsworthy aspect of the final had nothing to do with any of the contestants (which probably says quite a lot about the show this year), but rather the absence of one of the judges: Mel had been rushed to hospital and was not expected to be well enough to take part, so the producers had to call in a stand-in to serve as proxy mentor for Andrea for the evening (a thankless task, since his third-place elimination was all but confirmed before the lines even opened). Sadly Alexandra Burke Dot Com was busy finishing off The Bodyguard (phrasing), so while Sinitta sat anxiously waiting for the call that never materialised, instead it was Tulisa who got the summons. And this makes a certain degree of sense – since she emerged from the sea at Judges’ Houses, there’s been a feeling that both the show and Tulisa wanted to prove there were no hard feelings over her departure from the judging panel, so this way everyone got to show what a good sport they were. Tulisa didn’t really have much of value to contribute, sticking mostly to telling everyone how well they’d done to get this far and what amazing voices they have, but in her defence: none of the judges have said anything worth listening to in the finale for a long, long time. So even if she and the show part ways for good after this, at least it feels like a nice, neat, amicable coda to wrap up Tulisa’s X Factor journey. Hey, it’s more than Christopher Maloney got.

Ben Haenow

Not suggesting for a second that the final was bloated beyond belief, but Ben gave us our first competitive performance of the evening around 25 minutes after it started. After a quick reminder of everyone’s auditions, (shorthanded: Ben had half of one eyebrow shaved off, Fleur was entirely unmemorable and Andrea was PUGS!), we went into Ben’s first VT, in which he returned to Croydon in his BATTLE BUS to rally his supporters, because this show persists with the bizarre idea that success ultimately comes down to whether the people in your hometown vote for you or not. Ben’s narrative has always been “normal bloke living the dream” (indeed, he said those exact words to Dermot at the top of the show) and his VT followed that line admirably: he went to Sainsbury’s, where his mum works, to surprise her by inviting her to join him on the campaign trail. (This was all very lovely and everything, but it did rather play against the storyline from a few weeks ago about how Ben’s mum never gets to come and see him on the show because she works several jobs – clearly at least one of her employers was happy to negotiate once The X Factor got involved.) Meanwhile, Ben was besieged by requests for selfies, and then they went to the pub where Nonna Rita did a bit of crying and everyone talked about how he used to sing there with his brother until his brother got tinnitus because LIFE IS SO UNJUST. Eventually we got to the actual performance (and in the first round we were led to believe that they were selected by the contestants themselves) of ‘Demons’ by Imagine Dragons. Ben began it inside a glass box, which was pleasingly Eurovision of him, but he did slightly ruin the awesomeness of the inevitable moment where he kicked his way to freedom by instinctively covering his valuable face with his arm as the glass shattered. Wuss. Wardrobe’s laziness was evident once more in the form of Ben wearing a black leather jacket – I know he’s *rawk* and everything but surely you have other options beyond that? Still, his vocal was decent and if this ends up being the sort of record he makes as a Recording Artiste (spoiler: it won’t), I’d be quite happy with that outcome. I probably wouldn’t actively buy it, but I wouldn’t skip over it on Spotify. (NB. This is how old people like me say “I wouldn’t switch off if it came on the radio” when they’re trying to sound young and happening.) And of course because this is the final, Sarah-Jane was planted in the audience with the Croydonites, where we got a closer look at the official Ben Haenow sausage, although probably not in the way that most of the female audience and around 3-5% of the male audience would have preferred.

Later, everything about Ben’s performance in the Duets round was unsurprising. Well, almost everything, because he wasn’t actually wearing a leather jacket for this one (he was actually wearing a rather nice navy blue suit and generally I think he should wear suits more often that’s just a little style tip for you there Ben Haenow you are welcome). Other than that, it was of course Ed Sheeran who got wheeled out alongside Ben as he sang ‘Thinking Out Loud’ again. Ben introduced Ed as “the most incredible man in the world”, and obviously I get that there’s an element of hyperbole in play when you get to this point, but come on. Seriously, Ben, don’t let’s fall out when we’re so close to the end. Ben sounded all Will Young-y just like he did the first time he sang this, Ed thanked Ben for singing his song on the show and making him the top of the pops again, and I briefly felt sorry for Ed Sheeran having to stand next to Ben, because Ed’s kind of hobbity-looking at the best of times but that’s not a comparison you want to invite, is it? Then again I’m sure Ed went home and weeped into his money-Kleenex. More often than not in an X Factor final, the finalist who gets the most famous duet partner ends up winning (Leona/Take That, Leon/Kylie Minogue, Alexandra/Beyoncé, Matt/Rihanna, Sam/Nicole Scherzinger – we won’t count the mentor duets from the wilderness years because that muddies the waters a bit) and I’d say it’s very clear that Ben’s partner was a little bit more impressive than who they wheeled out for Andrea and Fleur, so you can say it was all decided here if you like.

Andrea Faustini

Tulisa did her best to fill Mel’s shoes on the hyperbole front by introducing Andrea as “Britain’s favourite Italian” (hi there, Gino D’Acampo would like a word with you – also it seems Nancy Dell’Olio is making some obscene gestures from her usual spot on the corner of the bar). Andrea’s Battle Bus journey involved being ferried to an Italian restaurant for a surprise meet-up with his family (but not his dad, who couldn’t make it, so he sent a message of support to say how proud he was. Andrea then invited a whole big crowd of people onto his bus, and instantly made it look much more fun than Ben’s. Sorry Ben, but those are the facts. Since it wouldn’t really be feasible or sensible to send him to Rome for his homecoming performance, Andrea went to Leicester Square instead, where Dermot took on introduction duties for him in Mel’s absence – and brought along some PUGS! to distract Andrea into the bargain. Still, Andrea arguably won the venue battle over Ben and Fleur by going on to sing ‘Hero’ at a charity Christmas concert at the Royal Albert Hall (and Mel actually did manage to make it to that one). In terms of his performance at Wembley, he sang ‘Feeling Good’ and the staging had a sort of “twisted Vegas” theme to it, so I guess Andrea was an evil croupier or something? Don’t ask me to parse what goes on inside Brian Friedman’s head. Afterwards, Sarah-Jane spoke to Aldo Zilli in the audience in his role as The Voice Of Italians In Britain, and there was a pizza (obviously) but not with Andrea’s face on it, which seems like a total half-arsing of the whole idea if you ask me. Also, Andrea’s mic wasn’t working when Dermot went in for the post-performance interview, which seems to be a recurring theme. I’m not going to cry “sabotage!”, but you can if you want to.

There was much to be amused about in Andrea’s pre-duet VT – not least because Ella Henderson was the only star guest to bother to personally call the contestant for the reveal, but also for Andrea’s reaction that he “thought it was a joke”. I’m sure he meant it sincerely, but I could easily imagine him thinking “ELLA FUCKING HENDERSON? IS THAT IT?” Actually, perhaps the most apposite moment of all was when Andrea declared “I love Ella, I love that song”. Just that one song, mind. To be fair, Andrea and Ella did work pretty well as duet partners, and Ella was very good-natured about the whole thing. In her position, I’d be all “oh, so THIS is what the X Factor final looks like, is it?!” And for his final appearance in the competition (because as everybody expected, he was eliminated soon afterwards), I feel like this was a nice moment for Andrea – reminding us that he’s not all about bellowing those vintage diva classics. Sometimes he’s about bellowing those recent diva probable-future-classics. (Also: after swishy, divas-and-pugs-loving Andrea got booted and we were left to choose between Fleur and Ben, Dermot announced that it was now a “straight choice”, which was…unfortunate.)

Fleur East

Fleur of course went back to Walthamstow on her Battle Bus, where she had a brief break to talk to her family about how hard she’s worked for all of this before reboarding, at which point it was filled with friends and family and everyone was singing as they drove along. Official Battle Bus Fun Ranking: Fleur > Andrea > Ben. Actually, Fleur’s crowd genuinely seemed like the most invested of all three: while Fleur was doing an interview for MTV, they hijacked her bus and went out to do further campaigning off their own backs. Now that’s commitment. Fleur’s homecoming concert was to take place at the Walthamstow Assembly Hall, which Fleur assured us had always been a dream of hers: “it’s not The O2, it’s not Wembley, but it’s so important to me.” Fair enough. Fleur’s staging for her opening song of the night – ‘Can’t Hold Us’ by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis – was arguably the most extravagant of the night, as she was gifted with a post-apocalyptic wasteland, hoardes of dancers, banners reading “CHAMPIONS” (which probably didn’t to much to quieten those quarters of the internet who have considered the entire competition to be a total Fleur pimpfest for the last couple of weeks). Still, it was memorable, and much like Ben’s performance, it’s exactly the sort of thing that Fleur ought to be doing as a professional pop star. In Fleur’s corner with S-J were Fleur’s grandfather from Burma, who’d flown over just to be here for the final, the Mayor of Walthamstow, and Merry Christmas JLS.

Fleur’s Duet had the most shamelessly-contrived introduction of them all, where Simon asked her to just randomly name some of her favourite duets from recent years and Fleur mentioned Labrinth and Emily Sunday, WELL WOWSERS WHAT A COINCIDENCE, THAT’S WHAT YOU’LL BE DOING. (Apparently Labrinth specifically called Simon to request this, and I guess that’s one of the advantages of being on his label.) Again, the performance didn’t do a lot to dissuade those who suspected Fleur was getting preferential treatment, because it was the only performance of the night (possibly the only performance ever?) where the guest singer actually introduced the contestant. I mean, the structure of the song pretty much demands that it happen that way around (unless you take the easy solution and just have them both on stage from the beginning), but it still didn’t look great for her. It also didn’t sound great for her, or for anyone else, because they were both pretty off-key throughout. I don’t think this was a great choice of song for Fleur, to be honest, and it might have been one of those occasions where Simon should’ve considered calling in a favour from further afield rather than just scanning through the “recent contacts” list on his phone.

Special Guest Performers, Heartily Endorsing This Event Or Product

It wouldn’t be an X Factor final without a parade of very special guests turning up to plug their new single (or in several cases, their old single which is still available on iTunes nonetheless) and express the vaguest possible approval for one or all of the finalists. We opened with Take That, crushing my hopes that we could get through an entire series without Gary Barlow ruining everything, now threepieced in number as well as in wardrobe. (And speaking of wardrobe, if anyone can please explain why it was necessary for Mark to turn up dressed like he was about to lead four naughty children and Charlie Bucket on a tour of his chocolate factory, that’d be super.) They sang ‘Rule The World’ and were joined by the three finalists halfway through, though it felt less like a gesture of solidarity between the established popstars and the wannabes on the cusp of something bigger, and more like Gary, Mark and Howard desperately trying to fill space on the stage now that they’d realised how lonely they look by themselves. After the first round of performances, we were treated to Meghan Trainor performing ‘All About That Bass’, presumably to give the contestants a taste of the sort of one-hit-wonder lifestyle that could be theirs too if they just put their mind to it. The finalists also appeared in this performance – for all of about 20 seconds, which felt like a very worthwhile use of their time on this busiest of nights. Our third performance of the night came from Ed Sheeran (again!) singing ‘Photograph’, and I’d love to tell you all about it if I’d even paid the slightest bit of attention, but why would I do that?

Finally, of course, we had the Parade Of Weird to remind us of What’s Really Wonderful About A Show Like This. I’m slightly weirded out by the form that this segment takes these days: on one hand, it’s less distasteful than when it was just “lol, here are all the mentally ill people who auditioned, back to be exploited one last time”, but on the other, I feel like including people who your industry professionals selected to compete in the live shows and who received votes from the public to advance in the competition rather dilutes whatever point the show is meant to be making these days. Nonetheless, a ragtag group of misfits came to perform ‘The Time (Dirty Bit)’: it began with Stevi Ritchie flying in on a lopsided rocket before being joined by his paramour Chloe Jasmine. I was slightly baffled by that, because I thought the show wanted us to see Chloe as an oddball outsider contender rather than a Komedy Kontestant, but I guess revisionist history is what it is. Anyway, her presence in this number suggested that she wouldn’t have fared well with most of the theme weeks, because when she can’t get away with jazz-noodling, she sounds absolutely atrocious. Then Diva Fever arrived with bondage boys on leashes (oy), Chico turned up shirtless in a jacuzzi, Wagner played the bongos and did a rap, and then Katie Waissel arrived with a giant visor over her face so that she literally could not see what she was doing. Perhaps this was a kindness on Brian Friedman’s part. And then it ended and Simon grinned that this is What The Show Is All About and Katie mouthed “you owe me” at him and we all sat around and wondered exactly what that might mean. But not for too long, because it got quite disturbing if you thought about it for very long.

Coming up imminently, hopefully: the final final, where everyone tries to pretend it’s a close contest despite all evidence to the contrary, and then I can move on to a new project. Oooo.

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