The X Factor (Series 11)

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With the US version crashing and burning, and the UK version nosediving, Simon Cowell returned to the UK version for this series intending to turn its fortunes around. Cheryl Cole returned too, though she has got married again since she was last on so is now called Cheryl Fernandez-Versini. Of course, Louis Walsh never went away, him being the cockroach of The X Factor, not well thought of but survives apocalypse after apocalypse, clinging on while those higher up the food chain are wiped out. So with Simon Cowell, Louis Walsh and Cheryl Tweedy-Cole-Fernandez-Versini-Bouvier-Terwilliger-Hutz-McClure-Fosington-Gore-Lambert-Banana-Fanna-Bo-Besca The Third (yes, I know everyone else has done that joke already), the judges line-up was three quarters of the line-up from the shows 2008-2010 heyday. The only missing judge was Danni Minogue, who is currently a judge on the Australian version of the show. Instead we had had Scary Spice Mel B who is… a former judge of the Australian version of the show.

I think it was a pretty good judges line-up, certainly an improvement on the last few years. As Simon Cowell’s company makes the show, you at least suspect his decisions actually make a difference, and that he has some authority in what’s going on. He’s also far better at playing the part of Simon Cowell than his understudy Gary Barlow was. Looking back at the very first series though, (which the winner of that series Steve Brookstein has recently released an interesting tell-all book about), it is kind of worrying how in the first series Simon Cowell was a panto villain for the audience to boo, and as each series has gone on his role in the show has grown to some kind of all-powerful dictator who the audience is supposed to think he knows what’s best for them.

Mel B had a similar role to Simon Cowell’s original one by being the “harsh”, “critical” judge, and she did it pretty well. She made good points most of the time, and was lively without coming across as a total loose canon like Sharon Osbourne and Nicole Scherzinger did. Cheryl’s years away from The X Factor have also done her good, in her final series on the show, series 7, her long conversion into becoming a fembot was almost complete, but now she seems a bit more human.

Speaking of series 7, this series seemed to be following the formula of it, what with series 7 having the highest viewing figures the show has ever had. They had 16 acts in the live shows rather than just 12. Did it work the same? Not really. Unlike series 7, which felt very ‘big’, overbearingly so in fact, this series was a bit of a snoozefest. I fell asleep a few times while watching. By the time it got to the final week there was a bit of an “Is it over already?” feeling from people, and not in a good way.

One problem was the casting. It’s all very well having more acts in the live shows, but in series 7 there was a lot more variety and individuality with the acts. In this series so many of the acts were bland and samey, so more acts just amounted to extra padding. Like last time, the 4 extra acts were by each category having a “Wild Card”, but if an act has been chosen to be a wild card, that kind of implies the producers didn’t want them enough to put them in the final 12, which hardly bodes well.

The first couple of weeks saw double eliminations to cull the acts which weren’t getting many votes. To start with, two groups went. Blonde Electra, a duo compromising of two bleached blonde sisters Ruby and Jazzy King. To be honest, I quite liked them and their staging in their only live show performance ; a neon circus with light-up unicorns, pink and blue elephants, a roaring green lion and loads of hula hoops. But it was no surprise that most of the viewers didn’t care for it. The other act who went was the Wild Card group, a boyband called Overload Generation. They were told they hadn’t made it to the live shows, then bought back just to be thrown under the bus and compared negatively to the other shite boyband Stereo Kicks. It’s difficult to think of a more thankless role than that.

That said, the act who beat Overload Generation in the bottom 2 sing-off didn’t get a much better part. Stephanie Nala had previously been in a band who entered Britain’s Got Talent, and her role in The X Factor was to be filler material, as they never showed much interest in her. She was voted out in week two. I liked that she sang Brandy’s ‘Have You Ever?’ in her sing-off though, as I like that song a lot but hadn’t heard it for a while.

Chloe Jasmine was supposed to be this year’s version of Katie Waissell, but Chloe only inspired indifference from the public rather than being the tabloid headline grabbing hate figure La Waissell was. Plus, say what you like about her, but Katie Waissell did something different with her performances every week. Chloe Jasmine mainly stuck to jazz-lite while dressed like that very brief time in Madonna’s career when she kept playing 1920s gangsters molls in a futile attempt to become a movie star.

The next eliminated contestant, Jake Quickenden, was fairly pointless. He couldn’t sing and was only there because of his looks (though I never quite got his appeal, I thought he looked a bit rodent-like really). The most interesting thing about him was that he went in I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! and finished runner-up before this series of The X Factor had even finished! In fact, he’s the shortest ever time it’s taken for a former X Factor finalist to go on another reality TV show. I suppose you can’t blame him for entering, but you have wonder why he was asked to go on in the first place. Former X Factor contestants have been cast other reality TV shows were at least memorable in some way, as a joke act (Jedward/Rylan), a scandal (Frankie Cocozza), or because they were popular (Joe McElderry/Stacey Solomon). That we’ve got to the stage where these reality shows are even casting reality show also-rans says a lot about how much the barrel is being scraped.

The Boys and Girls Wild Cards both went in week four. The show tried to hype Jack Walton‘s unique selling point as his performances being slowed down acoustic guitar versions of popular songs, but that’s something that’s hardly in short supply. He was thrown under the bus, and seemed well aware of it, with a rubbish production which saw a vampire girl coming out and biting his neck. Lola Saunders‘ performance of Sam Smith’s ‘Stay With Me’ was my favourite in the first live show, but from then on she just faded into the background slowly but surely until she vanished altogether.

Paul Akister had a decent voice, but even though he was only in his 20s, his style of performing was very middle aged, middle of the road and very appealing to middle England. His treatment by the show was the most uncomfortable to watch, as it was yet another example of a contestant sacrificed on the altar of reality TV. He did very well in the vote for the first month, finishing in the top 5 each time, but in his final week he finished dead last, after being shoved on first, singing Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’, a song that was completely unsuitable for him, and there had been videos here and the week before showing him grumbling. He ended up in the bottom 2 and voted out, and seemed to know exactly what was going on. To an extent, I can’t really blame the producers for wanting rid of contestants which might be good singers and might get lots of votes from the viewers, but are dull and have pretty much zero chance of making it in the modern pop charts afterwards, and to be honest Paul was quickly forgotten after his exit. But then it is very cruel how this show tells people they have a shot at stardom only to chew them up and spit them out. This whole situation is probably best viewed as a cautionary tale, but sadly I don’t think Paul Akister is going to be the last.

Big Band Week was awful as usual, but I’ll say one thing in its favour, it got rid of Jay James. He never did all that well in the vote, and is one of the few contestants not to get a sympathy bounce after ending up in the bottom 2 the week before. His final week saw him doing a “New York medley”, though how they could call singing a couple of lines of Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ ‘Empire State Of Mind’ before going into a lounge lizard version of Frank Sinatra’s  ‘New York, New York’ a medley is beyond me. There was always something a bit smug about Jay James, but he wasn’t much less of a cheeseball than the joke act Stevi Richie was, and it was very satisfying to see him voted off in the bottom 2 against Stevi, especially as Stevi actually sang better than Jay in the sing-off.

Stevi Richie was the designated joke act, but he was never that funny. He wasn’t as larger-than-life as Jedward, Wagner or Rylan. He was just very amateurish, very low budget holiday camp compere, dad dancing at a wedding, bloke from accounts who’s had too much to drink at the office party. He sang cheesy tunes like ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ ‘Footloose’ and ‘Mambo No. 5’.  He left after he performed Elton John’s ‘I’m Still Standing’, the song being a fairly obvious attempt to put or at least reaffirm the idea in viewer’s heads that Stevi had been there too long. That performance saw him dressed as a pharaoh and covered with honey and feathers among staging which looked like a dodgy downmarket Ancient Egypt themed casino. One of the few things this series did have in common with series 7 was that the Wild Card who lasted the longest was the Overs joke act. When the voting figures were released, he did about as well as most joke acts do, i.e not very, apart from the week he sang ‘Music Of The Night’ dressed as the Phantom of the Opera, when he finished 3rd. It was a bit like in series 8 where Johnny Robinson finished 2nd, and quite close to 1st, in the vote after singing ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love’ by The Darkness. I didn’t personally reckon much to either performance, but it’s interesting to me that both were designated joke acts and ended up doing well in the vote when they were given a late slot in the running order and a song choice that took them at least semi-seriously. I think this shows that, despite what is often said, people aren’t really that motivated to vote for “guilty pleasures”, they’re more likely to vote for something they genuinely like.

One of the acts I most rooted for was Only The Young, Mikey, Parisa, Betsey-Blue and Charlie. They looked similar to bubblegum pop groups like S Club 7 or Steps, and while there have been a lot of boybands and girl groups in the charts we haven’t seen that sort of boy/girl pop group in a long time. Only The Young also had an indie or at least “alternative” pop band vibe to them, in a “we play instruments and we’re serious proper musos” way. I think I liked their uniqueness. There was also a sense that they really believed in what they were doing, which is something you so rarely get from X Factor groups. Their performances were a bit messy, but that was part of their charm. The three performances I liked the most from them were ‘Come On Eileen’ by Dexys Midnight Runners, a song which they weren’t even keen on, but their performance of it was oddly soaring and inspiring, and I enjoyed them doing ‘Boom Clap’ by Charli XCX. By far their best though was ‘Monster Mash’, which they had released a video of before for the Teenage Cancer Trust charity. Their X Factor performance of it had them sat at a banquet table with skeletons, jack o lanterns, a bubbling cauldron and a spooky house, and they were so enthusiastic performing it. Their highest position in the vote was when they got to 6th place performing ‘I Wanna Be Like You (The Monkey Song)’ from the soundtrack of Disney’s The Jungle Book.

Only The Young really brightened up the series. I didn’t like everything they did. Their sing-off when they sang ‘The Winner Takes It All’ was terrible, but in fairness nobody except ABBA themselves have done that song well. I also didn’t like the performance which saw them finish bottom of the vote, a speeded up version of Elton John’s ‘Something About The Way You Look Tonight’ with bumper cars and party streamers, which was far too cheesy and far too try-hard in a “YAY! WE’RE FUUUUUUUNNNN!” way. The voting figures revealed they were never massively popular in the vote, which is a shame, but I guess they always were underdogs. In any case, I really hope they do well for themselves from being on this show.

The group the show seemed most eager to make “happen” were Stereo Kicks, and they were the group which lasted the longest, but they ended up in the bottom 3 as early as the second week. The show was determined to drag them along like a heavy bag of rotting rubbish towards the bin at the end of a very long garden path. Stereo Kicks were yet another one of the Frankenband groups made up of rejected soloists. Their main gimmick was that they were an eight piece boyband. That seemed to be the total thought that was put into the act. Where to begin with the problems? It was ridiculous that they had a 14 year old and a 21 year old in the same band. They sounded tuneless. Only two of them, at most, could sing. They had no identity whatsoever, the show was still trying to make Spice Girl style nicknames for them stick in the week they left the competition, bear in mind this was week 8! They came across as shallow and obnoxious. Their performances were forgettable borefests. There was a (possibly planned by the show) stunt where comedian Simon Brodkin invaded the stage similar to when Calvin Harris invaded a Jedward performance in series 7 wearing a pineapple on his head. But this time it wasn’t as funny because there were so many of Stereo Kicks nobody noticed an extra person on stage with them until it was pointed out afterwards. In short, Stereo Kicks were crap.

With Lauren Platt, I initially filed her with other bland, insipid, drippy Girls category acts like Lucie Jones (series 6) or  Sophie Habibis (series 8) who only last a month or so. I was wrong. She was much more popular than either of those were, and more than a lot of the finalists this year, she finished in the top 4 of the vote every single week. I still found her a bit overrated though. She began the live shows with a cover of Foxes’ Radio One Live Lounge mash-up cover of ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams and ‘Teardrop’ by Massive Attack.  Then a couple of weeks later Lauren did ‘Let It Go’ from the soundtrack to Disney’s Frozen, and the week after that she did ‘Dark Horse’ by Katy Perry. I think Lauren was one of those acts where the show never seems quite sure which direction to take them. Indie-pop songstress? Disney Club member? Colourful mainstream pop star? It’s not as if she was versatile, her versions all sounded like John Lewis adverts. I thought her version of ‘Don’t You Worry Child’ was quite sweet, but I never got all the fuss with Lauren really.

Andrea Faustini was a camp, bearded Italian who loved pugs and, more importantly, was a good singer. He mainly sang Mariah, Whitney and Beyonce diva ballads. He was a favourite in the early stages of the show, and indeed he topped the public vote for the first three weeks. But as the series went on it increasingly looked like a) the show weren’t taking him all that seriously and b) they didn’t want the audience to either. The videos of him before each performance were filled with associations to food and eating, Simon Cowell infamously comparing Andrea to eating too many doughnuts, and even worse in the semi-final asking whether Andrea was going to eat his pet pug!  There were so many cartoonish national stereotypes in this introduction videos too, both Italian (pizza, pasta, spaghetti, saying “Mamma mia!”, ‘That’s Amore’ played in the background in many of them), and British ones with Andrea saying how much he loves it in the UK  (red London buses, drinking tea, eating fish and chips, wearing a Union Jack hat). Halloween Week saw him painted gold and dressed up as a devil. The show basically turned him into a novelty act, and it succeeded in denting his popularity to the extent that even though he reached the final he was pretty much out of the game by then. That said, while he might have been the best technical vocalist this series, even at his best it is a little difficult to imagine him existing in the music world outside of reality TV.

The winner and runner-up were also the only two acts who never ended up bottom of the vote or in the sing-off. I had picked them as two of my favourites fairly early on, so regardless of which won I was pleased to see them essentially being the prom king and queen of this series.

Fleur East had appeared on The X Factor live shows before, way back in series 2 as a member of girl group Addictiv Ladies. They were voted out first in a bottom 2 against the original X Factor joke act, Chico. In between her two X Factor appearances, Fleur had been a guest vocalist on a few drum and bass tracks. She became my favourite from week 2 onwards after a brilliant performance of Monie Love’s ‘It’s A Shame’ on a giant gold disc record player, singing and rapping, and as much as it’s one of this shows many cliches to say this, she looked like a popstar. (It is typical of The X Factor never sticking to their own theme weeks though. ‘It’s A Shame’ was in ’80s Week, and the song came out in 1990!) Despite not being a powerhouse vocalist, she performed ballads well too, doing a classy performance of Michael Jackson’s ‘Will You Be There’. Even though it almost landed her in the bottom 2, I have a soft spot for her version of ‘If I Ain’t Got You’ by Alicia Keys, in which Fleur wore a blue dress with peacock feathers in the background. Part of me would quite like to see her play Mrs. Peacock in a new version of Cluedo actually. In the first half of the show, Fleur had been around 5th/6th/7th place in the public vote, but after a brassy rearrangement of ‘Bang Bang’ she was 2nd in the vote and stayed there more or less for the rest of the series.

Her best moment though came in the semi-final when she performed a song that hadn’t yet been released in the UK, ‘Uptown Funk’ by Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars. She gave a fantastic, energetic dance-filled performance dressed in gold before going to sit on a throne. Her version of the song made it to number one in the UK iTunes chart that week. The release of the original version was due in January, but was bought forward after the success of Fleur’s version and made it to number one on the official chart. A memorable moment in any series for sure. It didn’t really increase her vote, but then at this stage I think it’s obvious that there isn’t that much crossover between people who buy music and people who vote on The X Factor. There was a lot of talk about blatant favouritism towards Fleur, and not without some justification. Most strikingly was the focus given to her campaign bus with VOTE FLEUR EAST written in big letters. All of the final three had campaign buses, but Fleur’s was certainly given the most screen time. Perhaps I’m just a biased fan and all that, but favourable treatment or not, I thought Fleur was great and the best shot of getting a popstar out of this series.

The winner was Ben Haenow, his surname causing everybody, not least the show itself, to make reference jokes to ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ by Crowded House (“hey now, hey now, don’t dream it’s over”). He was very hot and handsome, certainly more so than most X Factor “hunks”. In contrast, his narrative on the show was a fairly standard one. An ordinary working class bloke who wants to use his talent to make a better life for his family. This being The X Factor they were never exactly subtle about it, going on in his introduction videos about how he was a VAN DRIVER! who eats SAUSAGE AND CHIPS IN A GREASY SPOON CAFF! Ben had  a raw, gravelly singing voice that was best suited to rock songs, such as ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’ by Aerosmith, and ‘Highway To Hell’ by AC/DC.  ‘Highway To Hell’ was by far my favourite performance of Ben’s, and it was the first of his to top the vote in week four. From then he topped every single vote all the way to the final. The previous act he is most similar to is Matt Cardle from series 7, so this series did succeed in emulating series 7 after all. Matt Cardle was also a good looking, rock-ish singer who was 1st in the vote most weeks, though his career didn’t really do well afterwards. In fact, while white male singers tend to do well in The X Factor  vote, most of them that have won didn’t have a long music career afterwards. Steve Brookstein, Leon Jackson, Joe McElderry, Matt Cardle and James Arthur are examples of this. There have been male contestants that did quite well, like Shayne Ward, JLS, Olly Murs and One Direction, but none except Shayne Ward were winners, they all finished 2nd or 3rd. Can Ben Haenow avoid the winners curse? I’m not sure, but I kind of hope so.

A change this time was free voting via an app where people could get five free votes. This resulted in more votes being cast, more than ever before in fact, but it didn’t appear to change things massively. They also opened the voting lines at the beginning of each show, the second time they’ve done so since series nine, and the same patterns still seem to apply. Early slots in the running order are still harmful, pimp slots are still beneficial. Bottom 2 sympathy bounces the following week still happen.

The ratings for this series were just as low as the previous few, but I think the show has had it’s day anyway. People are a bit tired of it these days, and even casual fans are noticing all the manipulation that goes on now. I wouldn’t say this series was bad, I found it watchable enough, and it think it was a reasonably good final 4 by X Factor standards, but it was a bit of a shrug of a series really. Rumored changes for next year include ditching deadlock (which should make it all the easier for the powers that be to get the outcome they want). There is some speculation that Tulisa will be back as a judge after filling in for Mel B when she was off sick in the first half of the final. Personally, I wouldn’t want to see Tulisa back, I’ve always found her a bit rancid.

I really don’t think there’s much they can do to reverse the ratings decline, at the end of the day the show has passed its peak. But let’s face it, chances are a lot of us will still watch it next year.

To finish off, a few random things from the series.

* Lizzy Pattinson, sister of actor Robert Pattinson, entered and made it to the Judge’s Houses stage. I was quite pleased to see her again, as before her brother was famous she sang on a couple of  tracks for other acts, including ‘Dreaming’ by Aurora, which is one of my favourite songs of the 2000s.

* Halloween Week was great this year, the best Halloween Week they’ve ever done. Some of my favourite performances of the series, including Ben’s ‘Highway To Hell’ and Only The Young’s ‘Monster Mash’. There was also Fleur doing a good job with Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ considering it is such an iconic dance routine, and Stevi as the Phantom of the Opera. Even it did start the deramping of him,  I quite enjoyed Andrea’s camptacular performance of ‘Relight My Fire’. They even did something similar to when The Simpsons has spooky names in the credits of their Halloween specials, by the show’s presenter Dermot O’Leary giving the judges nicknames. Lucifer Walsh, Hell B, Cheryl Fangnandez-Versini and Slimon Cowell.

They tried the same thing with the Christmas theme week. Dermot announced the judges as Good King Walshness, Jingle Mel, Cheryl Fernandez-Versleighny and Simon Christmas Carol. I don’t think that worked as well. But I’m one of those people who prefers Halloween to Christmas anyway. Another reason I wasn’t as keen on Christmas week is that, well The X Factor can get mawkishly sentimental at the best of times, add that to Christmas, well it is a bit much. One thing I did like was during Fleur’s performance of ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ part of it was for the dancers to give wrapped presents to the judges, which contained chocolates, and Cheryl joked that it was a bribe to the judges. I have to admit, I did find that very funny.

* This year the theme weeks often had naff titles which sounded like tacky cash-in compilation albums. “I Love The ’80s” for 80s Week, “Fright Night” for Halloween Week, “Countdown To Christmas” for Christmas Week, and “Disco Fever” for Disco Week… or it would have been, except that last theme week didn’t happen. Infamously it changed three times, from Boybands Vs Girlbands Week, to Disco Week to the one they eventually went with, Michael Jackson Vs Queen Week.

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