X-Factor Series 9: Live Shows Week 1
Last year I managed only two weeks of this before the faffery and tedium of the AGE OF BARLOW drove me away. So let’s see what happens this time. As usual I haven’t watched a second of the auditions, judges’ houses, etc - this is my first encounter with all the contestants.
The narrative around the X-Factor this year is one of decline - the show’s losing viewers, the format (apparently) feels tired. Also, while it’s the biggest entertainment TV draw in the UK just about, like Premiership football it took a bit of a moral hiding this year from sanctimonious Olympics-inspired columnists, keen to elevate people who run and jump over people who sing and dance. (Big secret: you can like both). Against the Real Role Models Of Sport the show ranges its usual parade of worthies and wasters - fewer of the latter this time, though. It also converts “Heroes Week” into “Heroes Week (Inspired By The Olympics)” though nobody does “Bonkers” so it’s no Olympics *I* remember.
So what happened?
District 3: Close-harmonising boy band dropped into the series-opening doomsday slot. Technically proficient (I guess), devoid of much personality, they weren’t bad but their cannon-fodder status became more obvious as the show proceeded. If someone had to do “The Best” - and almost certainly someone did - probably better it not be a belter. “Take the positives”, as the sports folk say.
James Arthur: As we’ll see there’s something of a back-to-basics vibe to parts of this line-up and this guy would have fitted safely into that - until a sudden switch into rap midway through “Stronger” (the Kelly C one). Not necessarily a well-advised switch, mind you. A stolid performer without much of an angle that I could see, but he’ll tick along for a few weeks.
Melanie Masson: By some distance the most convincing rock performer the X-Factor has ever had - the faintest of praise, this, considering the competition - but I liked her lung-shredding tilt at “With A Little Help From My Friends”, a slick, theatrical take on the Joe Cocker version. I don’t know whether there’s much room for improvement or variety, though.
Lucy Spraggan: The first live finalist ever to play their own song, which takes a bit of gumption, and this was far less terrible than it might have been (imagine a Matt Cardle type being given that chance, and shudder) - Spraggan is down the raconteur end of singer-songwriting and the song’s main weakness was the need to bolt on a soaraway chorus. I never want to hear it again but I didn’t feel that while it was actually playing, which counts as some sort of win. Tulisa’s got the likely winner (see below) so good for her trying things out with her other picks.
MK1: So kitchen-sink was Louis Walsh’s approach, and so energetically confused were the performers, that I completely missed the Hot Chocolate bits in this. Unless Wikipedia is just lying. Excitable duo who look good but have too little chemistry or control at the moment to pull off the potential odd-couple act.
Christopher Maloney: Saved from a previous axe by a Wildcard vote, apparently. He can sing, he’s playing the nice guy card, he’ll be around a while, there is absolutely nothing remarkable about him. One of the contestants who feels like a bit of a throwback to series past, happy to be there and sincerely roll out the big tunes until his number is finally called.
Union J: Were a three-piece until the inevitable Harry Styles lookalike was parachuted in. Unfortunately, what he adds in tousle-haired teen appeal he subtracts vocally: he’s bloody awful. So are at least two of his bandmates, making an attack on a Freddie Mercury song horribly wrong-headed. The judges blamed it on the staging, quite wrongly - a misconceived act from Louis Walsh, lazy on several levels.
Jade Ellis: Commanding, slightly torchy go at Enrique’s “Hero”, a song I despair of ever liking but this was at least close. Never quite inched across the line between “decent” and “attention-grabbing”. Excellent hair, I thought.
Rylan Clark: Follows in the unlamented footsteps of Diva Fever, except the song choice (and arrangement) were even more Almighty Records style hi-NRG, a poppers-o-clock version of “Gold” complete with much Egyptological mumming. Amidst ample glitz, fierceness by the yard, only BARLOW is willing to point out the dreadful truth, that Rylan can’t sing for toffee. Affably rotten, but take him out of the picture and the show starts losing its excuses for spectacle.
Kye Sones: The line-up this year is short on heels - there’s nobody I love to hate, nobody I even just hate. This fellow comes close but only because I could not work out his game - where was the angle? Then I realised of course there is no angle - he’s a pub singer at heart, tweaking and adjusting his approach to fit the audience. At one point he did what looked like a duck walk - hurrah - but there’s something a little creepy about him, too eager to please.
Ella Henderson: Imperiously fine and controlled version of “Rule The World” from 16-year old prodigy. Good, though not as spine-tingling as the judges claimed, but obviously miles ahead in technique and probably commitment. The show might become a coronation quicker than it hopes, so I woudn’t be surprised if shenanigans change her ‘narrative’ midway to add tension.
Carolynne Poole: Transformed “Starships” into a pop-country song, which made perfect sense once the judges had explained what it was meant to be. Nothing to say about its performer. “We’ve never had a UK country singer on the X-Factor” said Louis. And we’ve also never had a UK polka specialist. A footnote in waiting.
Jahmene Douglas: A likeable lad with - like Ella - tons of control and class. Reality pop shows are - in the minds of those not watching - orgies of Mariah-style exploded melismatic runs, but they’re actually very rare. Jahmene is the first time in years I’ve seen it done and he did it very entertainingly, losing his shit and jumping 3 octaves up. Again, it’s back to basics - and anyhow crowd-pleasing gymnastics on “Imagine” are a lot better than a reverent shot at it.
So, that was that. I don’t think this line-up is what the show needs to win back fans. On first showing only Jahmene or more likely Ella can win it. Both are good, Ella is terrifically impressive when you factor her age in, but neither is thrilling (yet). Several contestants haven’t really come into focus, and there’s nobody I could call a favourite or really detest. I dozed off writing about it. A quietly competent year might suit Gary’s managerial side - he came down hard on Rylan, the one stab at outright showmanship - but Cowell HQ is likely to be nervous. Expect gimmickry.