This has not been a great year for Simon Cowell and the X-Factor. Low ratings, controversial acts and a general sense of public ennui has turned this once unassailable ratings juggernaut into something of a white elephant. In its sophomore year, the US version of the show has fared little better, suffering from hyperbole overkill and general talent-show fatigue. Since its first season was less than stellar, Simon axed all the onscreen talent with the exception of fellow judge/mentor LA Reid, and announced an exciting new line-up.
The big shock was that Simon deemed Britney Spears capable of cogent thought and worthy of a $15 million salary. Her appointment to the judges’ table was the greatest piece of stunt casting since someone said “Now, I like the look of this Lee Majors guy.” With the spare change left in his pocket, Simon also hand-picked Demi Lovato, a twenty year-old former Disney brat who’s only known outside of the US for being a temporary beard for one of the Jonas Brothers. Demi has also spent time in rehab for various issues, making this the first season of the X-Factor where viewers were more concerned over the wellbeing of the mentors than any of the contestants. To her credit, Demi has proved to be a reasonably entertaining foil for Simon, who clearly enjoys having someone to pick on. Britney on the other hand, has displayed all the self-awareness and insight of a guppy with mild concussion.
However, not everything to do with the show has been a complete disaster. The on-stage talent (excluding the hosts) has been predictably exceptional, particularly in Britney’s teenage category. And if you wondered why Brian Friedman’s distinctive brand of choreographed insanity was missing from the latter stages of the UK competition, it’s because he was drafted in to support the US version, where he proceeded to fling his glitter-drenched faeces at anything that wasn’t nailed down. Another improvement to the format came in the speed at which contestants were eliminated, beginning with a top sixteen but axing two acts per week. As well as raising the stakes each week, it also prevented the show from wearing out its welcome. Finally, and perhaps most controversially, every results show ended with a reveal of the voting statistics for that week. This may have killed some of the suspense, since the top two acts remained constant throughout the season and eventually fought it out for the crown in the final, but it meant that we didn’t have to endure endless accusations of ‘fix’ every time someone got saved.
So after eight weeks of manufactured drama and enough tears to cause a nationwide dehydration epidemic, here we are at the grand finale – another four hour epic of over-familiar songs, insincere links and thanks to God. The first show opens with a sober introduction from Simon Cowell, who says “Our hearts go out to the families of Sandy Hook.” It must be true, since his has already popped a couple of shirt buttons. This leads into a maudlin rendition of You Are Not Alone by the newly reunited finalists. The stylists have been going mental this season, so half the female singers look like avant-garde Christmas cakes, rather than potential chart toppers. And although the performance is a little turgid, it’s still a powerful reminder of how exceptional the line-up of talent was, especially when compared with the woeful selection that took to the stage in Manchester a couple of weeks ago.
As voice-over guy summarises the story-so-far in his distinctive movie trailer rumble, we’re reintroduced to our three finalists. They’re all talking about winning the competition, which is the biggest difference between the US and the UK, since we find champion talk to be almost distasteful, even in a competition scenario. Demi Lovato is the first judge on stage, since she has no acts left. Britney is out next, with Carly Rose Sonenclar, the 13 year-old powerhouse. LA Reid has his chunky country singer Tate Stevens, and Simon is swamped by his cut-n-shut girl band Fifth Harmony. Finally out comes Mario Lopez and Khloe Kardashian Odom. She’s gone for a rubber school girl outfit, and he’s still reading the autocue like he’s waiting for Babelfish to translate it into English. Khloe describes an “epic struggle between a schoolgirl, a family man and five girls who never gave up,” which must have Peter Jackson making plans for his next trilogy, then we revisit each of the acts’ hometowns. This gives Khloe and Mario plenty of chances to say ‘Wow’ with all the enthusiasm that I muster when I unwrap a pack of socks on Christmas morning.
Britney introduces her act, Carly Rose, in her now customary monosyllabic style. Carly’s family knew she was going to be a star from a very early age, which probably means about six months ago. Carly has an incredible voice and stage presence far beyond her years, without ever seeming obnoxiously precocious. Britney says she sees a lot of herself in Carly, which should set off warning sirens in her parents’ ears. Tonight she’s revisiting her original audition song ‘Feeling Good’. If this feels familiar, it should, since Simon only has about 25 songs on his iPod, and both the UK and US production crews know it off by heart. Even so, she’s doing an excellent job, although her lower register tends to get a little lost in the mix. More worrying is the ugly outfit they’ve dressed her in – thigh high boots, a lacy sun-hat and an unflattering pair of rubber trousers that crease right across the crotch. After the judges offer their non-commital platitudes, we’re off to Westchester, NY, where the mayor of the town launches into rather lengthy tribute to the pubescent belter, but the bored producers cut him off part-way through his speech.
LA Reid introduces Tate Stevens, saying “The first time we saw him we loved him, and we love him now,” suggesting that he missed the briefing about bigging up the contestants’ journey. Tate’s family keep talking about this being his last chance, because he’s 37. Thanks a fucking bunch guys. Tate is a solid country singer, but he looks like Peter Kay in a ten-gallon hat, and there are singers like him in every honky tonk across America. I know Simon has learned to tolerate country music in the last decade of doing these shows, but this must be pushing him to the limit of what he’s willing to tolerate in the name of making money. Britney gives her customary single-sentence feedback and Demi complements him on a stadium performance. Meanwhile, Khloe and Mario are trying to stir up some energy, but they’ve got all the stage presence of a pair of Belarusians hosting their first Eurovison heat. Khloe attempts to gee up Tate, saying “Your name is on a water-tower!” but she might as well have said “Your face is on a milk-carton.”
Simon Cowell’s one remaining act is Fifth Harmony, an irritating group created from a bunch of girls who weren’t compelling enough to make it as solo singers. They’re incredibly bratty and insincere, and they just don’t match. Simon sits and listens to them blub on his couch, and I swear his hand is in his pocket as he slowly scrapes a blade across his thigh. They’re singing Anything Can Happen, which was their best performance from the season, despite its annoying Mad Hatter’s Tea Party staging. It’s sickly enough to send even a Glee fan into a diabetic coma. Their voices generally don’t mesh particulary well, but at least the song plays to their negligible strengths. Ultimately, there’s far too much posing, hair-touching and coy winking at the camera – so the whole thing plays more like an ad for ITV2’s Christmas line-up than a musical performance. LA Reid has stardust in his eyes, and Britney liked it so much she actually breaks her one sentence rule.
Round two, and Britney manages to pass the gum to the side of her mouth long enough to re-introduce Carly. The young singer misses her cue and flubs the first line of How Do I Live, but manages to get things back on track in time to introduce her special guest, LeAnn Rimes. She’s here to show that it’s possible to start out as a 13 year-old phenom and successfully transition into a home-wrecking anorexic. LeAnn hasn’t had a hit in about a decade, so she’s milking every melisma for all it’s worth. This isn’t really a duet, it sounds more like a competitive eating contest to see who can swallow a live cat whole. For the first time in the season, Carly lets the façade slip for just a second, long enough to show that she’s disappointed with her celebrity pairing. Tate sings a song about ‘motor-boating’ which feels distinctly unsuitable for a family show. Halfway through he’s joined onstage by Little Big Town. For the uninitiated, they’re a popular country band – picture a redneck ABBA, with a blonde and brunette who look like they could be hateful Fox News pundits if they weren’t trying to sing in a pair of gold sequinned flares. Another button has popped on Simon’s shirt as he welcomes Fifth Harmony back on-stage. They’re singing Demi Lovato’s Give Your Heart A Break, so no prizes for guessing who’s duetting with them. Maybe this is just an economy drive, and they’re all expected to take on extra duties – Britney Spears is looking after the valet parking and LA Reid has whipped up some quiche for the after-party. Mario makes a lame ‘Sixth Harmony’ gag about three minutes after the hashtag appeared on our screen.
By the time we get to the third performances, the energy is decidedly lacking in the studio. Carly gives an impressive rendition of Hallelujah, which has Britney Spears telling old fuzzy tits to open his cheque-book, and then it’s time to check in with her friends back home. A boy grabs the mic and tells Carly she’s a great friend, to which she responds by looking confused and saying she doesn’t know him. Burn.
Tate picks a bland mid-tempo country ballad that features the lyric “Tonight I’m gonna love you like there’s no tomorrow,” which probably meant a lot more two nights ago, when we were still on the cusp of a Mayan apocalypse. Now, it just sounds stupid. Simon keeps saying ‘genuinely’ as if he has any clue what the word means. Tate’s friends all scream their support in unison, but it’s hard to tell what any of them are saying. For all I know, they could be yelling cooking tips for roadkill.
For their final song, Fifth Harmony are doing Jahmene’s arrangement of Let It Be. Once again, they fail to connect as a group, instead simply taking it in turns to sing. As LA Reid erroneously suggests that they did it better than the Beatles, the girls totter on their heels, bumping into each other like skittles with an inner-ear problem.
Oh dear. They’re trying to create a sense of red carpet Oscar buzz, but it all feels a little cheap. Aside from the judges arriving in blacked out SUVs, the only special guests are Pitbull and One Direction, who seem to be contractually obliged to appear on every edition of this show. It’s all rather chaotic, as crew in lanyards wander in and out of shot, whilst Khloe and Mario attempt to convey a sense of star-spangled glamour. There’s a quick recap of the series so far – people punching walls, collapsing and throwing bottles of water at the camera – then our finalists arrive and have to start singing as soon as the car doors open. Are we really in that much of a rush? Fifth Harmony take forever to make it into the studio, because of all the vamping and pointing they do, and the tall one seems distracted by the uncomfortable shortness of her skirt. She keeps tugging at the hem so we won’t get an accidental glimpse of her red carpet.
Throughout the show, we get a series of ‘hilarious’ compilations of the judges’ bad habits. LA Reid does a conductor thing with his hands, Simon concocts bad similes, and Britney Spears seems to be reliving the painful memories of electroshock therapy.
It’s Christmas week, so the contestants are each going to sing a holiday classic. Tate does a good job with Please Come Home For Christmas, and does his best to ignore the four dancers draped in big pink bows and waving their muffs around. Simon introduces his act, saying “I’m delighted to welcome back my favourite little group, at the moment, Fifth Harmony.” That’s got to sting. They sing the best Christmas song ever, Baby Please Come Home, with about 10% of Darlene Love’s passion. Instead, their energy goes into their ridiculous posing, like five teenagers piled into a photo booth. Finally, Carly does All I Want For Christmas Is You, accompanied by a bunch of creepy toy solider dancers. She does a good job with the vocal, but the arrangement is all over the place and the sound mix doesn’t help matters at all.
To find out who’s finished in third place, Khloe has changed into a black pleather catsuit, that’s about as forgiving as Charles Bronson with a hangover. Fifth Harmony are out and are all still crushingly insincere as they declare their love for one another. Khloe’s backstage with the remaining finalists and their families. She tells them: “I’m not even you guys and I’m nervous.” I guess she’s waiting on a contract for season three. We now get another recap of the series, the highlights of which include a pastor who was too fat to stand, an annoying brat who collapsed from dehydration and Britney’s hilarious attempt at singing an acapella Happy Birthday to LA Reid.
The guest slots pass by in a flurry of lazy choreography and flat vocals. Pitbull presents his latest Vengaboys tribute and thrusts around the stage in an ugly velvet jacket, like Austin Powers on chemo. Then it’s One Direction’s turn to reprise the performance they gave on the UK show a couple of weeks ago. This time their mics don’t seem to be working, and the performance is no poorer for it.
There’s just time for one last song, and it’s yet another classic from the X-Factor winners’ bran-tub. The Climb was written for a teenage girl, so it’s no surprise that Carly runs rings around Tate on the performance. We’re nearing the big moment now, and Simon has lost yet another button. One more and we’ll be able to see his frenulum. This is it – time to announce the winner. Khloe’s changed into yet another outfit, but at this stage it’s like pouring sick from one carrier bag into another. The acts are nervous, but Britney looks even more petrified, like she just realised that she locked her Lhasa Apso in the tumble dryer. Tate Stevens is the winner, and Carly handles her response with incredible maturity. Neither disappointing or particularly surprising, much like the show itself.