Sadly not 13 back-to-back-to-back performances of the Demi Lovato Camp Rock anthem. It’s like this show doesn’t even know its audience any more.
So, just to get a bit of blog admin out of the way: yes, once again, we have arrived at live shows and I still haven’t recapped the Six Chair Challenge or Judges’ Houses. As you can see from my fevered attempts to catch up over the weekend, I’ll do my best to get them covered and up here as soon as possible, but in the meantime, let’s crack on with live shows before I get even more behind.
There was a great deal of excitement about the live shows this year, primarily because the show kept us guessing about what sort of form they would take. Would there be a fifth, or even sixth, judge on the panel? Would there be some sort of Strictly-esque scoring system? Would there still be wildcards when the show’s already behind schedule and due several double eliminations? Who’s going to be reading the contestants’ names out in a bombastic fashion now that Peter Dickson’s been sacked? As the first live performance show progressed, the answers came as follows: no, no, yes, and Peter Dickson because he got rehired, apparently at the last minute. It’s nice to know the wheels haven’t completely come off just yet.
That said, there was quite a lot wrong with this opening episode. For starters, there was the theme: “this is me” is, at its heart, a decent idea for a theme because it’s relatively open-ended and allows the contestants to set out their stalls for how they would like to present themselves as a future pop star. The trouble was, the VTs made it very clear that in the majority of cases the contestants had had the songs thrust into their hands without much in the way of a conversation, making it not so much “this is me” week as “this is you” week. It also made things very awkward when certain contestants ended up performing songs that were completely alien to them, didn’t suit them at all, and were almost certainly a country mile away from what they’d have picked for themselves.
Then there was Olly Murs. Love or hate Caroline Flack, she’s an experienced presenter of live TV who knows what she’s doing. The fact that Olly’s only prior experience was on The Xtra Factor seemed very conspicuous this weekend as he struggled to find his way with things like the teleprompter. It’s early days, of course, but when there are fewer live shows than usual to begin with, he doesn’t have much time to catch up.
Then there was the voting. We all knew that to get this over in time for Christmas we’d have to have a double elimination here or there, but no mention was made of a double elimination ahead of Sunday night’s show. I doubt it would have affected the results that much in raw terms, but it felt like a rather unsporting moving of the goalposts all the same.
While I wouldn’t count this as something “wrong”, per se, there was also the matter of Ben Haenow returning to do his victory lap with a performance of his debut single ‘Second Hand Heart’. The song is a hot load of nothing and when so much of the hype machine has revolved around the fact that it’s a duet with Kelly Clarkson, it was a bit of a shame not to actually have her there for this (though obviously I appreciate the logistical, pregnancy-based reasons why it wouldn’t really have been possible). Also, that floral shirt he was wearing needs to be burned immediately because it did nothing for him – and Ben is one of the few men in the country who can convincingly pull off leather trousers, it can’t be that hard to dress him. So as much as I still have a soft spot for Ben, who seemed genuinely sweet throughout series 11, his return undermined the show a little bit by suggesting that what the winner has in store for them in just under 12 months’ time is a half-formed concept of their own identity and the coattails of an actual pop idol to ride upon in the meantime. (Perhaps some of them felt slightly more inspired by the return of series eight champions Little Mix, but I’ve always found them disappointingly unspectacular so I’m probably not the best person to comment on that front.)
Anyway, shall we look at the acts themselves?
RITA ORA AND THE GIRLS
Serving as the opening act in the very first live show of the series has never been a particularly enviable position, but at this precise moment in The X Factor’s history, where it’s having its arse handed to it by Strictly Come Dancing twice a week, especially during an overlap, it feels less of an oversized obstacle and more of an actual death sentence. So I was surprised to see Lauren Murray sent out to get things underway while Helen George from Call The Midwife was still doing her Hallowe’en samba over on the other side, because I thought Lauren was one of the favoured ones this year. Perhaps it was because the producers felt that they’d given her enough of a running start throughout the audition process that she’d be safe, perhaps they wanted to see how solid her fanbase was while they were still deciding who to throw the full weight of their support behind, or perhaps they simply felt that a fairly standard rendition of ‘I’m Every Woman’ was the opening that the show deserved. My teeth were itching slightly during her VT as everyone grinned about how Lauren had been given this song because she’d made it very clear that she wanted to “do Whitney” on the live shows, and I had to be forcibly restrained from whipping a fun-size Milky Way at the screen (hey, it’s Hallowe’en) and shrieking “this is CHAKA KHAN, you philistines!” It was unexciting, but solid and serviceable, and sold itself on Lauren’s brimming enthusiasm as much as anything – and fortunately for Lauren, enough of her rivals biffed their introductions this week that “competent” was more than enough to secure her safe passage to the next round.
Kiera Weathers wasn’t so lucky, being given Katy B’s ‘Crying For No Reason’ as her song for the week – a good track, but not exactly a vocal showcase, and Kiera seemed to be fighting the backing track the whole way through. Then afterwards she had to face Simon telling her that she’s not the strongest vocalist in the competition (true, but she’s also not nearly the weakest either) and doesn’t have a personality like Lauren’s to fill in the gaps that talent left (shaaaaaade), so it wasn’t a huge surprise to see Kiera as one of this week’s bottom three. I don’t really have a lot of use for Kiera, but after Alien Uncovered’s absolute dog’s breakfast of a sing-off, really all she had to go was go out there and not literally die in order to be saved, so it was an added bonus that her cover of ‘Everybody Hurts’ was reasonably solid. Louisa Johnson was allegedly the standout of the week with her rendition of the Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows’ (a song she’d never heard before, which basically sums up “This Is Me” week in a nutshell). Vocally it was fine (though I don’t get the fuss about her at all because she is bland as hell), but I wish she’d paid slightly more attention to the lyrics sheet because then she might not have sung “god only knows what I’ll be without you” and shown a fundamental misunderstanding not only of the song but also of the conditional tense. Finally we had our only wildcard contestant of the year, Monica Michael, who in a just world would have sung yet another samey-sounding self-penned song about a member of her immediate family, but instead sang Ed Sheeran’s ‘Make It Rain’. I would tell you how it sounded, but to be honest I was so alarmed by her physical resemblance to Katie Price auditioning to be the UK’s Eurovision Song Contest entrant in 2005 that I’ve kind of blocked it out. Sorry.
SIMON COWELL AND THE OVERS
If sending Lauren out first wasn’t an attempt to crush her underneath the Strictly juggernaut, putting Max Stone on behind her when people were still watching Claudia Winkleman open the phone lines and read the terms and conditions might just have been. Certainly his VT did not fill one with confidence, since it revolved around the show’s failed attempts to get him to look engaging or charismatic or just ACKNOWLEDGE THE CAMERA IN ANY WAY, dammit. It made Liz Lemon filming the Dealbreakers Talk Show title sequence look like one of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s Golden Globe duologues. After we’d been beaten around the head with Max’s chronic lack of personality, we were then subjected to a reggae version of ‘Someone Like You’ by Adele – and remember, this follows his whiter-than-milk rendition of ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ last week – and bafflingly, the public decided that they would like to see more of this. We get the X Factor that we deserve, don’t we? Elsewhere, Anton Stephans embarked on what will surely be the most rote of X Factor journeys by delivering an overwrought performance of ‘Dance With My Father’ – a song that will be banned from these shows when I am in charge, because it has been DONE TOO MUCH – but at least he made it memorable by getting over-excited when he was declared safe on Sunday and planting one right on Simon’s lips. Simon, drama queen that he is, claimed that he had been “headbutted” by Anton (note to Simon: you headbutt someone with your forehead, not your mouth) accidentally, which of course the online media reported as fact the following day. Still, better that than report what actually happened and have people wonder if you might have enjoyed it, eh Simon? Finally, poor poor Bupsi had the bussiest of bussings since Over The Rainbow prepared that VT where it was strongly implied that dogs didn’t trust Jenny because they could sense her inner evil. Bupsi was given Marvin Gaye’s ‘You’re A Wonderful One’, a song that the audience of this show is unlikely to know or care about, and then handed the most awkward retro-staging to go with it. She didn’t look comfortable for a single hot second of the performance, everyone complained that she wasn’t “nasteh” like she’s supposed to be, and the last remaining traces of “this is me” week died an agonising, wheezy death. Of course, when it became apparent that there was a double elimination, we all knew Bupsi was toast: she finished 13th in the vote and was summarily dispatched without a sing-off or a best bits package. What a shoddy way to treat the contestant who delivered the definitive performance of the Judges’ Houses round. This show, I swear to god.
CHERYL FERNANDEZ-VERSINI AND THE GROUPS
One of the few acts to actually grasp the “this is me” concept with both hands was Alien Uncovered (or Alien, if you’re just about everybody on the show, or “Alien Nation” if you’re Simon voting in the sing-off) who rejected Cheryl’s original song selection of Gwen Stefani’s ‘Hollaback Girl’ out of hand and requested to do Jessie J’s ‘Do It Like A Dude’ instead. I can’t really get into the state of mind where I can comprehend why anyone would voluntarily perform a Jessie J song – particularly this Jessie J song – but good on them for trying to maintain some degree of creative control. Their performance was fine, but the combination of a death slot (third overall) and a general sense throughout the competition so far that the public might not warm to them terribly easy landed them in the bottom three and in a sing-off with Kiera. I thought perhaps they might survive, since the show seems to have more use for them than it ever had for Kiera, but then their “save me” song was a paint-strippingly off-key performance of ‘The Pressure’ by Jhené Aiko (I’d never heard of it before, and I can’t say this inspired me to seek it out) so the judges were left with little option but to send them home. Or to send “Alien Nation” home, in Simon’s case. Here’s an idea: maybe run all the groups’ names past legal before Judges’ Houses next year so everyone has time to learn them properly?
Elsewhere in this category, Reggie ’n Bollie (why only one apostrophe?) were given Shaggy’s ‘It Wasn’t Me’ and did a respectable job with it, but any performance of that song is never going to rise above the level of karaoke and I’m kind of mystified as to why it was even given to them. The most memorable thing connected with their performance didn’t even directly involve them, anyway: it was Rita, praising them in her own vapid way by telling them about this thing that happens once a year in the area that she grew up in called “carnival”? And it’s really kind of a party atmosphere? And they really reminded her of that. That’s correct, Rita Ora decided to explain to the two guys from Ghana what carnival is. I expected 4th Impact’s rendition of Ariana Grande’s ‘Problem’ to be slick, professional and a little bit mechanical in the way that all of their other performances have been, and was surprised when it turned out slightly rough around the edges: the vocals were a little mumbled and squeaky, and the dancing wasn’t quite as dynamic as it has been in the past. I’m going to chalk this up to opening night nerves for now; besides, anything that stops them from seeming like cheery performing automatons and humanises them even a little bit can’t hurt, right?
NICK GRIMSHAW AND THE BOYS
We were six performances in before Nick’s trio were required to perform, which was a nice little protective cushion for them, I imagine. Ché Chesterman opened for the category with what’s become a tediously predictable mash-up of ‘Tears Dry On Their Own’ and ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’. I don’t even think I can remember the last time I heard someone perform one of those tracks on a TV show without lapsing into the other midway through. This did at least give us another classic Rita moment where she tried to justify her mate’s place on the panel by saying that only a professional DJ like Nick Grimshaw would think of mashing those two songs together. Yeah, just him and the millions of people who’ve already heard it being done countless times, Reets. (Ché’s performance? Fine. I feel like I’m saying “fine” a lot this week but very little got my heart racing in this show, so “fine” is the most I can muster in the majority of cases.) Meanwhile, Mason Noise attempted to get the public back on side after the farrago at the Six Chair Challenge with a performance of ‘Sorry’ by Justin Bieber, and if that wasn’t crashingly on-the-nose in and of itself, he did it standing in front of a screen projecting the word in a variety of different languages and fonts. “Sorry! Désole! ¡Lo siento!” It was hilariously tragic, not least because he did the whole thing in a sleeveless white outfit reminiscent of Justin Timberlake circa 2003. Come on, Mason Noise. You are no good to us meek and humble, we need you to be a hilariously hubristic magnificent bastard. I’m glad you’ve got this out of your system, but please come back next week and sing something by Kanye West that’s all about how awesome you are. Finally, Seann Miley Moore wrapped the show up with an epically theatrical rendition of ‘Life On Mars’ wearing a Liza-esque black trouser suit and a magnificent headpiece that he jettisoned early on in the performance, much to my disappointment. It was hardly going to win him any new supporters, but I’m sure it shot straight into the heart of those who’ve loved him from the very beginning. Certainly, for me, it was just a relief after two hours of blandness to have someone there who looked like he belonged on stage – and that he believed he belonged there. I really hope Seann sticks around because I would find this show a right old slog if he wasn’t here.