You know how the politicians always lament that more people bother to vote for TV reality shows than in the national elections? Well, if the government wants to learn anything from shows like X Factor, they could start by noticing that these properties only ever offer an illusion of democracy. Take the much-PR’ed Audience Takeover for this week’s song selection. The performers might gasp, open-gobbed, and marvel at how the public could get it so right, but it’s hardly a surprise if the viewers at home are only offered three choices, all of which have been pre-vetted by the singers themselves. OK, that’s my cynical two-penneth out of the way – now let’s see what wonders ITV has for in store for us tonight.
The opening few minutes are given over to the usual pre-show blather, as Louis bleats that the stakes have never been higher, which is somewhat tautologous when an act is evicted each week. Increased stakes are kind of the point of the show. Likewise, Gary does his best Doris Stokes, gravely warning that “some of the acts are going to be in trouble.” Still, if you think you’re bored, imagine having to put up with a dress rehearsal as well as a live show – these judges have earned our empathy. So I’m a little worried to see them greeted with jets of flame, which mean that Nicole’s hair, Sharon’s lips and Louis’ suit are all in danger of spontaneous immolation. Each of our acts will be performing two songs tonight – one selected by the viewers at home, and one by their own musical heroes. So be warned, the following text may contain Mumfords. Stand by with an epinephrine pen, just in case.
First to perform tonight is Nicholas. Asked to introduce his act, the best Louis can muster is “He’s from Scotland.” Hardly the most effusive of heralds, but the poor old dear seems to be having trouble with his teeth. As he spits and clicks his way though “I’m here to tell you what the audience have picked for you to sing,” I’m just hoping that his Fixodent can make it to the end of the segment. Little Nicky is delighted to be singing “Just The Way You Are” by popular Leeds actress Angela Bruce. In spite of his enthusiasm for the song, the vocals are a mixed bag. It’s good in places, but in other parts he’s straining like Dermot’s trousers. The judges are predictably enthused, although Sharon’s gone full Marcel Marceau, which is the only way she can convey emotion now. She calls Nicholas a lion, which is the first of many animal references she’ll pull out of her arse tonight. Then again, she’s got easy access to it, since it’s now the nape of her neck. More worryingly, Gary complains that it’s all a bit ‘middle of the road.’ Coming from someone who’s practically a cat’s eye, that’s quite the insult.
Since it was Nicholas’ birthday last week, Louis decided to splash out on a birthday present for his pubescent protégé. Nicholas excitedly tears open a learner plate – “It’s a driving lesson” his mentor explains, nipping in the bud any expectations of a present he can drive home when the show’s over. For his second song, he’s chosen Greatest Day, by one Gary Barlow. “I’ve always looked up to Gary,” he explains. Not as remarkable as it sounds, when you consider that he’d have to stand on tiptoes to make eye contact with Warwick Davies. Interestingly, the weak spots only serve to remind us that Gary isn’t quite the legendary songwriter he’d have us believe him to be. Nicholas is really struggling with his falsetto - like most people, when he can’t find the right key, he’s happy just to elbow in the window. By the time Louis says “You remind me of a young Gary Barlow,” it’s clear that the old X Factor bingo is too blunt a tool for this kind of meta self-referencing.
As usual, Sam Bailey’s story is all about how fucking ordinary she is, as if we need to be reminded that her entire life is something Alison Steadman would do to win a BAFTA. Now, of course, all that’s changed. Sam talks about how hard she’s working, which amounts to little more than eating toast while walking through a kitchen. She’s doing her best to make it sound like effort, but I’m sure nicking off to a film premiere is less stressful than checking someone’s weave for hypodermics. Unfortunately, the more she goes on about how normal she is, the clearer it becomes that she’s less a popstar in waiting, and more the next Queen Vic barmaid. She’s singing How Will I Know? because Whitney was her idol. It’s odd to see her doing something upbeat, and much is made of her ‘choreography,’ which involves little more than walking back and forth, then standing with her legs apart like she’s trying to piss standing up. The vocals are fine, but there’s nothing distinctive about the performance or the arrangement. In fact, the best anyone can say is that at least it wasn’t a ballad. And that’s precisely what Gary offers as his feedback. Louis is doing his thing where he EMPHASISES random WORDS, and Sharon gets testy with Nicole, for referring to Sam’s performance as “a bit cruise ship.” Meanwhile, Dannii Minogue’s sitting at home saying ‘Nicole, you in danger girl.”
For her second song, the audience have picked Clown. Sam’s happy because it makes her think of her kids. I’m less enthused, since it makes me think of Emeli Fucking Sandé. She could have done with some conditioner the last time she showered, but I know such luxuries work like currency in prison. She sells the big notes, but phones in the quieter bits. Someone must have pulled the string in Louis’ neck all the way, because he manages to blurt out his five greatest hits in a single breath: “You’re what this show is about. You’re a world class act. You look like a pop star. This is the vocal performance of the night. You have to get a record deal.” Nicole attempts to squeeze a tear, and Dermot promises Sam’s kids lots of jam tart Wednesdays. Don’t worry folks, that’s not a euphemism.
Nicole introduces the ‘gorgeouis’ Tamera, who’s been shipped off to see a therapist, who’s helping her visualise her perfect performance. Unfortunately, that means she’s stuck watching old Leona Lewis performances in her head. After a few dramatic line readings, including “I’ve had a lot of chances, this week it’s do or die,” it’s time to perform. Dressed in an outfit stitched together from old quality street wrappers, she does a decent job of We Found Love, but it helps that she also found the lyrics sheet. The judges seem happy that she showed her personality, but I’m afraid I must have blinked.
For her second song, it’s the audience’s choice and they’ve picked The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. She’s wistfully remembering the first time ever she performed it, when she was fourteen. There’s some grainy footage from that fateful night, designed to look like old VHS, when in fact it was so recent that there’s probably a Vine of it. She looks amazing, channelling some of Whitney Houston’s willowy grace, and the vocal is pleasant, if a little lacking in nuance. As Sharon goes overboard on the ‘Missus,’ Louis rants that she’s “Got it all,” and all I can picture is the French and Saunders sketch about Jerry Hall.
Luke takes a call from his mentor – he knows it’s Louis because of the ridiculous Irish Jib ringtone he’s programmed into his phone, for whenever the Emerald Eeejit rings. He’s “proper excited” that the audience has chosen Skinny Love for him, but Louis is less thrilled, having heard it too often during the open auditions. The dual pressures of fame and puberty are wreaking havoc on Luke’s skin, so the stylists overdo the make-up, giving him the curious appearance of someone who’s been wrapped in Etruscan Orange woodchip lining paper. As for the song, it sounds like a drunk tramp reliving life’s cruel ironies in his sleep. Sharon thinks he’ll be at Glastonbury next year; I suppose someone has to sell those plastic cups of overpried cider. Nicole calls him a dark horse, and Louis scrabbles around only to come up with last week’s notes, so the best we can hope for is “You stand out from the crowd and I hope people lift the phone and vote for you.” In a moment of spectacularly disingenuous honesty, the grubby little tyke bleats about Glastonbury, “It’s my favourite festival ever and I’ve never been able to go.” That’s authenticity for you, right there.
Brace yourself people – Luke’s second song is by Mumford and Sons, triggering a nationwide Twitter meltdown that leaves several million people staring at a drawing of a cartoon whale. Taking to the stage, he promises to “Luke it up” which sounds a lot like something that’s been redubbed to be watershed-friendly. Given the judges’ enthusiasm for his stompy feet, strummy guitar and tuneless shouting, it’s clear that they’ve never travelled on the Tube and encountered a busker. Gary complains that the judges are starting to sound like a broken record, but to be honest, that’s exactly what Luke’s performance reminded me of. Nicole is back on the balls – this time, they’re hairy and gritty – and the producers are having conniptions.
Last week, Rough Copy did a lot of crying, then taught Gary Barlow the ‘Running Man’ in his socks. You’d be hard pressed to squeeze more cool into a single location. As the choreographer takes them through their moves for a Bobby Brown/R Kelly mash-up, he warns “Vocally, you’re going to be challenged, because there’s so much going on,” which has me wondering why they aren’t similarly cautioned at the start of every week. The Bobby Brown bit is the best they’ve sounded (that’s me damning them with faint praise, if you weren’t paying attention) but the R Kelly bit is terrible. As for their outfits; we seem to have hit a new low. There’s weird pleather, berets and backpacks - like the Jackson 5 went InterRailing across Europe. Sharon compares them to a little “Giselle,” so she probably needs to switch to water for the next couple of performances.
The boys’ second performance has been selected by the audience, and unsurprisingly it’s another dull R Kelly track. There’s a huge choir on hand to drown out the worst of their vocal abuses, and the judges seem satisfied that they’ve made up for a below par performance earlier in the evening. Once again, Louis is burbling his regular lines like a malfunctioning Nanette Newman: “Soulful, this is what you’re all about, amazing way to end the show.” Sharon references eagles, having spent the night gradually working her way through a Noah’s Ark picture book. Nicole closes the show, announcing that Rough Copy is “The best group we’ve ever had on this show.” Please, even The Conway Sisters were better, and Simon voted them off despite the fact that they were his act.
The results show begins with a moodily lit line up of our final five. To be honest, they look more like depressed kids TV presenters than pop-stars: “You mean I’ve got to do another series of Why Don’t You?” Backstage Louis is wibbling about being the only judge with two acts left, with that expression of delirious oblivion, like a dog that’s just discovered it can lick its own nuts. Nicole has gone all-out on tonight’s outfit, and Sharon appears to have turned into Cleo Rocos’ Nan.
The finalists grudgingly work their way through another appalling performance singing “We don’t got to worry about nothing…” Well, apart from that imminent eviction. The high notes are staggeringly awful, Tamera seems to be struggling with her lyrics again, and the boys in Rough Copy attempt to distract everyone with some terrible dancing. As if speaking for all of us, Gary claims “We’re waiting for a real wow performance and it hasn’t happened yet.” No shit, Sherlock.
Tonight’s first special guest is Rebecca Ferguson, looking like she’s been rummaging through my Christmas decorations box. She’s borrowed some staging tips from the Blue Man Group, but on closer inspection the drummers remind me more of the shirtless saxophonist from The Lost Boys. Rebecca is a likeable performer with a great tone, but even though I’ve never heard this song before, I’m convinced she’s out of tune. The crescendo of the song (if you can call it that) is accompanied by a weird close-up of the drummer’s nasty abdominal scar.
There’s just enough time for Dermot to point out that One Direction outsold Gary this week (he looks thrilled), then we’re welcoming back James Arthur. The stats are impressive – three million records sold, and almost as many hastily retracted tweets. His performance involves him mumbling bitterly inside a cage; a fairly apt metaphor for his life as an X Factor champ. “Come on X Factor, make some noise” he growls. I’ve switched the dishwasher on, and that helps a little. He seems to be wearing a brace as part of his gradual makeover, but it’s a bit like when Sonia off EastEnders got a boob job. Then again, there’s not much they can do about his alarmingly broad face – it’s not his fault he can only take Selfies in panorama mode. If this all sounds unduly harsh, he started it. There’s a brief act of contrition, as he obliquely mentions “I’ve made a few mistakes, and abused my position as an X Factor winner,” but it’s not enough to stop me wishing that one of those lazers sweeping across the stage was programmed by Goldfinger.
The results are fairly predictable, except for the enduring and inexplicable popularity of Rough Copy. In the sing-off, Tamera goes first and reminds us that watching her perform has become a uniquely uncomfortable experience. She looks terrified, and we’re all just waiting for the vocal to drop out as she has another brain fart. Standing in the wings with Luke, Dermot looks to be waiting for a cubicle in the men’s room at a Yates Wine Lodge.
Asked to introduce his act, Louis says “The amazing, very talented, wonderful person… Luke Friend.” I think someone was struggling to remember his name. The performance isn’t so much a song, as it is a sugar tantrum. In fact, the only positive thing I can say about the whole mess is that at least he’s wearing socks.
Nicole commends him for being so giving on stage, Louis has a wobble and thumps the desk in defiance, and Sharon celebrates him as a “Singer songwriter musician.” Because he has a guitar and doesn’t own shampoo. In the end, Gary takes it to DEADLOCK, and Louis attempts to pull off his own eyelids. Seriously, watch it back – it’s creepy.
There’s a brief recap of Tamera’s best bits, accompanied by the sounds of Leona Lewis, to remind us of everything that Tamera wasn’t. There are also plenty of clips of the various judges going on about what a great pop star she is, and her stratospheric potential. So congratulations to everyone for sending a spotty busker through to the next round instead.