The X Factor (Series 10)

sambaileyxfactorThe tenth series of The X Factor recently finished, and it was one of its least watched ever.  I personally didn’t find it as frustrating to watch as some of its previous years have been, but it was bland and diluted, and show has always sold on OMG! moments, tabloid headlines, and hyperbole. I expect we’ll be seeing a lot more to that sort of thing in next year’s series.

The judging panel this year saw the return of one of the original judges, Sharon Osborne, who quit the show after series 4. I can remember lorryloads of utterly worthless pop culture stuff, but my memory of the early years of The X Factor is hazy. But what I do remember is mostly Sharon Osborne related. One thing was that she turned out to be right about what a pillock series one winner Steve Brookstein was, and another is all the jokes about her. One was that she was “the perineum of X Factor”, that is the bit between the arsehole (Simon Cowell) and the bollocks (Louis Walsh). Another was by TV critic Ian Hyland, something along the lines of  “They say you shouldn’t exploit doddering old women on reality TV, but I think Sharon Osborne is an important part of X Factor”. Her return turned out to be short-lived, as she announced she won’t be back next series. Perhaps there isn’t much point though, as with this series she managed to do something she was never able to in the four series she was on before, and win with her category.

This means Gary Barlow is one of only judges never to win. The other was Kelly Rowland, who quit after just one series. Gary Barlow’s finishing positions have also got worse year on year, his most successful act reached 2nd in series 8, 3rd in series 9 and 4th in series 10. With that in mind, it’s increasingly strange that there is this perception that he is the “head judge” and top of the pecking order. But then he only has that position as he’s essentially keeping Simon Cowell’s seat warm while he does the flagging American version of the show. He is filling in for Cowell’s role as the hard-to-impress big boss and the one bothered about the “integrity” of the competition. But it’s never really worked. For one thing, who still believes this show has integrity? For another, Simon Cowell has a personality. One that many people loathe, true, but he has one. It’s not for nothing Gary Barlow has been dubbed “Borelow” by some viewers. He’s so beige. It’s hard to know whether he’s trying or not. Gary Barlow enthusiastic and Gary Barlow indifferent seem more or less the same thing.

Nicole Scherzinger is a far, far more entertaining as an X Factor judge than she ever was a popstar. I’ve never seen her much less successful stint as a judge on the US version, so I don’t know what she was like there, but in the UK version her way of spewing random nonsensical gobbledegook livens things up.

Louis Walsh is usually the joke judge who gets the joke acts, and mainly sits there looking like a garden gnome that has been carved out of a mouldy turnip. He did that this series too, but got more of a starring role this time, although it was mainly just him being even more bitchy than usual. I think it was a combination of him having the Boys category, which traditionally do the best with the public vote, and the fact that he has been there throughout the ten series, and it’s suspected that he’s the one that tows the party line the most. The X Factor has been accused of being a bit Orwellian at times, with their re-writing of history, airbrushing certain past contestants out, even some winners, Simon Cowell as all-powerful authoritarian Big Brother figure, that time when it seemed the cover of every newspaper and magazine and every poster and billboard had Cheryl Cole grinning like a Stepford wife, and, despite the claim that their environment produces the best, brightest and strongest, the one who’s survived in it the longest is a toadying, insincere beetle-man.

As usual after getting a final 12, the first 4 weeks of the live shows to get rid of the cannon fodder, contestants which they clearly never intended to do much with and were just there to make up numbers/to cushion acts they actually want to stay in, and those that the public clearly just can’t be arsed voting for.These unfortunate few wouldn’t be going on the X Factor Live tour.

The first 4 acts to go were two Over 25s followed by two groups. The Over 25s and the Groups are the two categories which rarely do well. With the groups, it’s harder for people to relate to a group as opposed to an individual, and for the Over 25s, as shallow as it is, I think there’s a feeling from people that they are indeed “over”, “past it” or “ready for the knacker’s yard”.  OK, the winner of this series was an Over-25, but it’s only the second time that has happened.

The first act to go was 26-year old Lorna Simpson, who had barely any screentime before the live shows and was styled older than her age. Few things are as unappealing as a bitter reality TV contestant, but I have to say I rather liked Lorna frankly saying she felt she’d been set up for a fail. It was like, she’s out first, she’ll be forgotten and will get next to no benefit out of it, she might as well burn this bridge. Then went another Over-25, 35 year old Shelley Smith. I think the show hoped Shelley would be the comedy act, like Jedward (series 6) or Wagner (series 7), and if she resembled any reality TV contestant it was Geraldine McQueen from Peter Kay’s Britain’s Got The Pop Factor spoof. But Shelley never really took on with the public. The problem might have been that she was less court jester and more someone’s drunken auntie at a wedding. Joke acts never get that many votes, just enough to avoid the bottom 2 for a few weeks, so it’s easy to see why Shelley, who was not officially the joke act, but had that role by default, would get even fewer votes.

Then it was two groups in a row which left. One was Miss. Dynamix, who were one of those chop and change “Frankenbands” that you seem to get every series. One of the members, SeSe Foster, auditioned with two blokes as a group called Dynamix, and the show took what they liked from there (i.e, SeSe and the group name), and stuck her with two girls who’d auditioned as soloists. Then it turned out SeSe was pregnant, and due to give birth near the time the X Factor live tour would start. Let’s just say the show became less eager for the group to stick around long enough to make the tour.  Then there was Kingsland Road, who outstayed their welcome even if they only lasted four weeks. A boyband who did cheesy dance moves while overstyled in hipster clothes was never going to work.

After that, they began to see more important members of the cast fall into the bottom 2 and had to lose some. Abi Alton, who wore glasses and had flowers in her hair, was the designated “quirky girl”, like Diana Vickers (series 5) or Janet Devlin (series 8), the one in the Girls category who’s there to give some variety to the competition and last most of the series, but ultimately that type in X Factor is always the bridesmaid, never the bride. The bride is a belty diva type with long flowing hair and dressed in a ballgown like a Disney princess.

However, Abi was the last girl to fall in the bottom 2. She was doing better in the public vote than the girls they saw as more important, Hannah and Tamera, so the show seemed to be desperate to get rid of her . That said, she was never hugely popular. Abi’s pattern in the public vote was more like that of Sophie Habibis (series 8) than Diana Vickers or Janet Devlin. The latter two were both high in the vote most weeks, but Abi and Sophie both started out high in the first public vote, but then slowly fell down the vote week by week. Whether it’s was the restrictive nature of the show or a lack of versatility on their part, they were both unable to do more than one type of performance, which were slowed down piano ballad versions of pop songs you hear played on John Lewis adverts. Abi was best when she had a piano, and worst when they had her sing Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ surrounded by pink heart shaped umbrellas. A week after that mess the judges tried to get her out by criticising her harshly for a dull performance, which backfired as it made her cry. They got it right the second time they tried it. After giving her a breather one week, they used a few tried and tested tricks to get rid of a contestant. Abi was on first, she lost some of her ‘identity’ (no piano, and she wasn’t wearing glasses), and was singing Frank Sinatra’s ‘That’s Life’, which has seen everyone who’s sung it on X Factor (the others were Scott Bruton in series 5, and Miss Frank in series 6) end up at the bottom of the vote and eliminated that week. That’s the thing with a vote to save, if the powers that be want to get rid of a contestant in one week it’s better to make them forgettable than to go on a full on character assassination.

Sam Callahan was a nice, pretty boy who was the heartthrob type, who teenage girls can fantasise about him being their dream boyfriend. The problem with him was he couldn’t sing that well. His voice was passable-to-average for pop-rock that’s a favourite to be played on the radio, like when he did ‘Summer of ’69’ by Bryan Adams, or ‘Iris’ by the Goo Goo Dolls which he sang in his sing-off performance, but try to get him to sing something else, like ‘Relight My Fire’ in Disco Week, and it doesn’t work at all. It was at this point, week 4, that they tried to make him into the “joke act”, but that wasn’t a role he was credible in. He was more of a Lloyd Daniels (series 6) than a Jedward. Gary Barlow also wasn’t willing to play along with his role as the outraged judge. So Sam Callahan went in week 6. Like Abi, it was thought that he was too popular and had to be stopped, but when the voting figures were released, it turned out he never got that many votes. If anything, he was very close to being in the bottom 2 in week 3, and in week 5 even though he got “the pimp slot” (performing last just before the phone vote lines open).

It looks like Abi and Sam C were always heading for a middle position, and neither were versatile, but they were both very likeable. Abi comes across a sweet girl, Sam seems to be a nice guy, and I think the series lost something when they had both gone. But you can see why they were jettisoned for contestants that had more potential in the pop charts, though they all finished between 6th and 3rd place.

Hannah Barrett was seen as one of the front runners at first. But she found herself in the bottom 2 in week 3. It’s all about momentum, and ending up in the bottom 2 that early killed a lot of it for Hannah, from then on it was seen as only a matter of time before she went. But in a strange way, I think ending up in the bottom 2 so early prompted Hannah to try even harder and she improved over the next few weeks. For me, off all the contestants she’s the one I grew to like more as the competition went on. I found her blandly competent at first, good but not that memorable. But she seemed to fight for it more after being in the bottom 2. She came back stronger in week 4 singing Jocelyn Brown’s ‘Somebody Else’s Guy’. In her bottom 2 appearance the following week she sang ‘Wrecking Ball’  Miley Cyrus a hell of a lot better than Miley Cyrus herself did when she sang it as the guest performer the week after. Hannah then gave a performance which looked like she was enjoying herself more than any other week when she sang ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ by The Rolling Stones. The following week she gave a good performance of Alexandra Burke’s version of ‘Hallelujah’, but ended up in the bottom 2 again against Rough Copy who were there for the first time. The general consensus was that she sang much better than them in the sing-off, but went because she’d been in the bottom 2 more often. I was pleasantly surprised when the voting figures were released as, after a lot of people piled in to make snidey, bitchy comments about how unpopular Hannah was, it turned out she was doing better in the public vote than expected, she was 3rd place three out of the seven weeks she was there, and had it gone to deadlock she would have survived the week she went. It’s weird how similar her voting pattern was to another teenage soul diva contestant, Misha B from series 8 though. Both were 5th place in the first public vote, the week after 3rd place after a pimp slot, next week bottom 2, next week top 3, next week bottom 2, next week top 3, then bottom 2 the week after.

Tamera Foster. They really messed up here, didn’t they? She looked like a ready-made pop star, she had a good voice, and at first it seemed everyone was saying she was going to win easily. Then she ended up in the bottom 2 in week 4. When the voting figures were released, it turned out she was never all that popular in the public vote, the highest she got was 4th place. Where did it all go wrong? One thing was the revelations that Tamera had committed petty crimes in the past, which she said she regretted and had changed since, but something like that is bound to put people off voting for a contestant. It’s possible all the hype about her being a global superstar in waiting and being the star of the final already might have put viewers off her, but I think the bigger issue with the hype was that, coupled with all the bad press she was getting, it was a lot of pressure on Tamera, who was actually one of the youngest contestants this series, aged 16. It certainly seemed to be getting to her, as in weeks 6 and 7 she had problems with the songs, forgetting lyrics and coming in too early and having to try and cover it up.  Now this may well have helped her avoid the bottom 2 for a couple more weeks; the voting figures revealed that like most contestants who fall in the bottom 2, she had a rebound vote the following week, and it fell down the week after, which usually puts the contestant in the bottom 2 again. In Tamera’s case, she scraped through by the skin of her teeth in weeks 6 and 7, finding herself at the bottom of the vote and eliminated after two fairly competent performances in week 8. It’s likely her problems with the songs might have helped her avoid the bottom 2 for those weeks, fans seem to vote more for their favourite if they seem to be in trouble.

For me personally I was mostly a bit “meh” about Tamera’s performances, they were mostly OK, but I only actively liked three of them. Her week one performance of Chaka Khan’s ‘Ain’t Nobody’ was fun, and she really gave it her all in her two sing-off performances, Whitney Houston’s ‘I Have Nothing’ and Christina Aguilera’s ‘The Voice Within’. I think it may have been better for Tamera to have not been put through this time and asked to come back in a couple of years where she may have been more mature and more able to handle things better, but eh, what’s done is done.

On The X Factor usually one of the groups isn’t a total disaster, and after the two thirds of the group category have gone, the remaining group gets at least to the semi-final. This year that group was Rough Copy. But while not a total disaster, they had problems. One was that they weren’t that great vocally, and couldn’t harmonise. In the ’90s some boybands were, rather pretentiously, called “vocal harmony groups” to try to make them sound more credible. They wouldn’t be able to try that with Rough Copy.  In fairness, Rough Copy made up for it by having a lot of energy, and I’d say the bigger issue for them was less how they performed and more the show not knowing what to do with them. Their styling was random, having stuff like backpacks and army camouflage gear. Then there was the attempt to create a brand by getting the crowd to chant their initials “R.C”, which just sounded like they were saying “Arsey”.

Some of their song choices were a bit strange for an urban-pop group too. OK, fine, I know Phil Collins in general, and ‘In The Air Tonight’ in particular, is popular with many American hip hop/R&B artists. And yes, Brandy covered ‘Everything I Do (I Do It For You)’ by Bryan Adams. But ‘Viva La Vida’ by Coldplay?! There’s trying to “make a song your own” and there’s trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. I think the crowning moment of the show not knowing what to do with them came on Best Of X Factor week, where the remaining contestants performed songs by previous X Factor contestants. Everyone else got a number one single by one of those acts. What did Rough Copy get? ‘Don’t Let Go (Love)’ by En Vogue, the reasoning being Little Mix performed it in week 8 of their series, it topped the vote and it set them off on their route to winning. Yeah, because they were a group and kind of R&B-ish and they won, it’ll totally work for Rough Copy too. Except it didn’t, it landed Rough Copy at the bottom of the vote, and set them off on a route to bottom of the vote in the semi-final. I’m not a fan of the theme weeks in The X Factor, especially when they are dated genres like Disco and Big Band, but I think they can be a gift for acts which the show has very little idea of what direction to take for them. The only two Rough Copy performances I enjoyed were ‘Superstition’ by Stevie Wonder (Disco Week) and ‘Hit The Road Jack’ by Ray Charles (Big Band Week).

Luke Friend, a 17-year-old busker, has been described as the underdog and the dark horse of the competition, but the animal he reminded me most of was a lion, with his straggly mane-like hairstyle and his growling vocals. Either that, or Hair Bear, from Hanna-Barbera’s Help!…It’s The Hair Bear Bunch. He started out as something of an also ran in the first couple of weeks, finishing low in the public vote despite late slots. However, doing a good performance of ‘Kiss From A Rose’ by Seal in Movie Week saw him reach third place in that week’s vote. His other performances included performing ‘Let Her Go’ by Passenger in a rowing boat on a sea of dry ice, and doing an acoustic guitar cover of ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ by One Direction. In contrast to Rough Copy, I think the theme weeks were bad for him, as they tend to be for contestants with a clear image and style already. They tried to make him fit Big Band Week, tying back his hair and putting him in a suit, but the purple suit they had him wear made him look a bit like The Joker from Batman. That said, in the quarter final he performed Mumford & Sons and Bon Iver, which should have been right in his comfort zone, but landed him in the bottom 2 for the first time. He was in the bottom 2 again in the semi-final, but he was he was way ahead of Rough Copy in that week’s public vote. In the final he finished 3rd, which was expected as he’d been in the bottom 2 twice, but it turned out the vote percentage between the final 3 was very close. It seems he managed to build up more of a fanbase as the series went on, so all in all, he did quite well. He’s been compared to previous winner James Arthur (series 9) and Frankie Cocozza (series 8), but he’s seems a much more pleasant person than Arthur, and a hell of a lot more talented than Cocozza, though, granted, it’s not hard to be more pleasant than James Arthur or more talented than Frankie Cocozza. I’d say Luke Friend is a good bet to be the one who turns out to be the traditional non-winning finalist who becomes the biggest star from that year. That seems to happen often, with One Direction (series 7) and Olly Murs (series 6) being two examples.

That’s one of the big problems with The X Factor . Most of the viewers are mums and grans, so middle aged and older women, and generally they rarely buy music, they get it bought for them on Mother’s Day. They also tend to like bland and inoffensive ballads, and not really interested in what’s currently popular in the charts. So there is a ceiling to the support that acts on the show that have even short term appeal to the pop charts are going to get. As many predicted, the top two in the vote all the way through the competition were Nicholas McDonald, a one-boy Westlife, and Sam Bailey, a former cruise ship singer.

Nicholas McDonald always reminded me of an episode of Coronation Street where someone described Tyrone Dobbs as “like a middle-aged teenager”. That was the thing with Nicholas, he dressed like a kid playing an car salesman in a school play, and was doing middle-of-the-road ballads. This may have been The X Factor itself trying to show him as a “Baby Buble”, and to the demographic of the show that he was adorable, they might want to mother him, and he’s doing songs you like. He may well have had a lot of votes from his home country of Scotland too. Either way, he was always top 2 in the public vote, and got first place a couple of times, his best performance being week 6 when he performed Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ as the last act to perform on the show. That was the last time he was ever allowed to perform at the end or even in the late stages. From then on he was in the death slots of first or second to perform, which are proven to be a disadvantage, as lines open after all the acts have performed, and people tend to forget the ones who were on earlier in favour of the ones they have most recently seen.

It seems clear that the show wanted to deramp Nicholas, probably because the winners he most resembled were Leon Jackson (series 4) and Joe McElderry (series 8). The latter returned as a sort of mentor for Nicholas in The Best of X Factor week when Nicholas sang Joe’s version of ‘The Climb’. Neither Leon nor Joe had much commercial success after winning The X Factor. Leon, Joe and Nicholas all have good voices, they all seem like nice enough lads, and there was a feelgood story with them because they came from working class backgrounds, so a lot of people could identify with them and want to cheer them. It’s the reality TV type that was well parodied as R Wayne in Britain’s Got The Pop Factor. But while that’s popular with reality TV viewers, it doesn’t seem to be what people who buy music regularly want in a pop star. They tend to want more of an “edginess”, even if it is contrived. It’s easy to see why the show wanted to dampen his support rather than get a winner who is unlikely to last long. It did get uncomfortable to watch how Nicholas was being treated though, and the sad thing was he seemed well aware of it. Two moments that really stick out were him being given ‘Halo’ by Beyonce, a song completely unsuitable for him where he cried after it inevitably didn’t go well, and in the final where he was given ‘Candy’ by Robbie Williams, and the staging completely swallowed him up, with what Betsfactor would call “colour vomit”; gaudy, garish eyesore staging, with bubbles, ice creams, teddy bears and pink and yellow shell suits! It looked like something from a kids TV programme in the ’80s. Ah well, Nicholas, silver medal for you. Second place will probably be a better memory from being on The X Factor than that rubbishy birthday cake they got for him when he turned 17 while on the show.

The winner was predictable, as many viewers, the press and it transpired all the four judges thought that she would win. It turned that she had topped the public vote 7 out of 10 weeks (plus one of the flash votes). It was fairly close between her and Nicholas most weeks, and in the final it was shockingly close between Sam, Nicholas and Luke, but by the time it came to the top two, she got more than half the votes. Sam Bailey was a prison officer who was married with two children. We got to see some of her home life with “Jam tart Wednesdays” where every Wednesday she makes jam tarts for her kids. This all meant she was a type of contestant that would get a lot of votes, as most of the demographic would be able to relate to her. She was dubbed “ScrewBo”, a pun on her job as a “screw” (i.e, a prison officer) and on Susan Boyle’s nickname SuBo. In a way, you can see an evolution of this ‘type’ of contestant.  The starting point is SuBo in Britain’s Got Talent, which led to “Tesco” Mary Byrne is series 7, then “Cruiseship” Sami Brookes in series 8 (poor Sami, she was the Archeopteryx of this evolutionary chain, the transitional species which dies out quickly) to eventually getting a contest winner with Sam Bailey.

Sam seems like a lovely woman, she’s very down to earth, which is why she was so well liked. But she was also the strongest singer of the finalists by a country mile. She carried some of the shows, sometimes being the only one to give a good performance. She also showed a bit more nuance and versatility than previous contestants of her type, Tesco Mary for example just BELLOWED everything.  Granted, this means “nuance and versatility” in the context of The X Factor. Sam’s style was mainly big pop ballads, like ‘The Power Of Love’ by Jennifer Rush, but if you like that sort of thing, which I do, then she did a great job with them. She gave a fantastic performance of the Titanic theme ‘My Heart Will Go On’ by Celine Dion. I even liked the purple dress and underwater kingdom background. I liked her performances of songs I normally can’t stand, like ‘If I Were A Boy’ by Beyonce, and with Sam’s version of ‘Skyscraper’ it’s the first time I can say I like The X Factor winners single cover better than the original, which was by Demi Lovato. I prefer Ruth Lorenzo’s performance of ‘No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)’ from series 5 to Sam’s version though.  Still, Sam Bailey is a well deserving winner, and it’s the first time my overall favourite X Factor finalist has actually won, but the second time this year my overall favourite reality TV contestant has won! The other was another Sam, Sam Evans in Big Brother 14.

To finish off, there were a few laughs with the strange production choices and mess-ups this series, including:

* The flash vote, where the vote was frozen ten minutes after all the acts had performed and whoever was at the bottom of that was automatically in the sing-off the next night. It meant there was less reason to watch the Sunday show, so the flash vote was unceremoniously ditched in week 4 never to be seen or even mentioned again. “There ain’t no monorail flash vote here and there never was!”

*The way they tried to pretend The X Factor’s tenth anniversary was this year  (as opposed to the tenth series) and tried to make week 7 a celebration for seemingly no other reason than Doctor Who‘s 50th Anniversary Special was on the BBC against them at the same night. It didn’t do much good, Doctor Who thrashed them in ratings.

* In the quarter-final, with a bit of a SHOCK!BOTTOM!2! of Tamera and Luke, ITV lost the transmission for half the country and had to give results via ITV Twitter “BlankScreenUpdate”. The loss of transmission lasted into another one of ITV’s big reality shows I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here.

*Leona Lewis’ performance of her Christmas single ‘One More Sleep’. The song’s alright, but what mad staging! Dressed like a panto fairy godmother with a video of a blizzard of snowflakes in the background, with people dressed up as Christmas trees, and presents addressed to the judges with people jumping out of them like strippers out of cakes. Still, I like this sort of Leona Lewis X Factor performance a hell of a lot more than her going through the motions singing a cover of Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’.

* The semi-final having the most random theme week ever: Elton John vs. Beyonce. It turned out this was probably due to Elton John performing in the final and the winner getting to support Beyonce on her UK tour, but it still seemed “pluck two pop star names out of a hat” at the time.

* Most years there isn’t a sing-off and judges vote when it gets to the quarter-final stage and it’s just left to the public vote. This year they shoehorned in sing-offs into the quarter-final and semi-final and both times the judges vote went to deadlock and the result was left back to the public vote anyway.

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