Sunday, 12 October 2014

Checking for signs of live - X-Factor

Turn down the volume, freebase a couple of Berocca, and make sure the fridge is well stocked – tonight sees the return of the live shows. Ordinarily, I’d be complaining about how long it took to get here. But, to be honest, the early phases of this year’s contest have felt decidedly rushed. Maybe it’s because there are no real stand-out vocalists. Or it could be that we’ve bypassed the parts of the contest where personalities tend to come to the fore; with the main part of bootcamp being discarded in under five minutes. Either way, if I’m going to complain about anything being a bit slow going, it’ll be tonight’s 150 minute marathon.

Since we saw them last, crying on a variety of sun-bleached patio furniture, all 103 contestants have been given their makeovers. Turning to ‘Blue Steel’ for the camera, they’re looking like a million dollars (Monopoly money); and ready to hit the red carpet. Of the TV Quick Awards.

“Get ready Britain, it’s about to get loud,” bellows voice-over man Peter Dickson at a volume that could drown out an eruption at Eyjafjallajökull. Leaving enough a pause between O and Leary for Dermot to curate another compilation of tedious bedsit rock, Dickson introduces our bored-looking host. After the obligatory spin, Dermot welcomes our four “fearsome music megalomaniacs.” Something must have gotten lost in translation though, since we’re stuck with Simon, Louis, Cheryl and Mel B. The outfits are all predictable choices, but Mel gets a special mention for looking like a bricklayer trying to sneak his way into the Wrens.

The first order of business is a quick reveal of the four Wildcard acts. This is where each judge gets to choose a previously dispatched performer to return to the show in another judge’s category. In a depressingly predictable segment, Louis chooses fishy Lola, and Cheryl picks creepy Stevi. The other two acts don’t even get a face to face invitation to come back to the X-Factor, as Mel and Simon make their decisions via Skype – making full use of this year’s product placement deal. Of course, for the lucky acts selected, boyband Overload (which is how we’ll be feeling by the end of tonight’s show) and Jack Walton, the pressure’s on to look surprised, even as a camera crew sits in their living room waiting for them to take a call from one of the judges.

With sixteen acts now assembled, there’s just one more bit of housekeeping to cover off. Dermot warns us with grave sincerity that tomorrow night we’ll experience a double elimination. I had that once after a dodgy kebab. Nasty business.

Anyway, let’s crack on shall we? Kicking off the first live show is Paul Akister, who’s worried about all the “massive personalities” in the house, and has taken to pretending he’s listening to his headphones to drown them out. The talk is still focusing on Paul’s previous appearance on X-Factor, when Louis decided against taking him to the live shows. Viewers of a nervous disposition should also be aware that another familiar face is returning to the show this season. That’s right – everyone’s favourite lunatic in a hooded onesie, Brian Friedman, is back with his own unique brand of choreographed misdirection. Despite Brian’s best efforts, Paul’s performance of Ella Henderson’s Ghost is lackluster at best. He’s ditched all the falsetto, so it sounds like Adam Levine with a head cold. It doesn’t help that he’s got all the stage presence of a coat rack, with a single cheap leather jacket left dangling from it. I think the audience likes him, but they also roared with approval for Mel B, so we can surmise that their judgment is impaired. Simon advises Paul to forget about the past, despite most of his feedback making explicit reference to it. And Louie gets booed, so he doesn’t even get a chance to tell us how old Paul is.

Lola Saunders was gutted to be sent home, so it’s likely that her relationship with her mentor is going to be a little frosty. There’s lots of talk about how she’s gone from 0-60, which should at least prepare her for the National Express when she gets booted out midway through the series. We’re only two songs in and already we’ve got Emeli Sandé to suffer through. Someone thought it’d be a good idea to dress Lola like one of the fighting gypsy girls in From Russia With Love, and although the vocal is solid, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m watching another long lost Slater sister. It’s also a shame the hairdresser was too busy with Blonde Electra to do anything for Lola. Louis starts running through his cliché wheel and comes up with ‘voice of an angel’ and ‘you deserve to be here,’ and Cheryl calls Simon ‘Captain Fashion,’ which makes his fuzzy tits ripple with ill-concealed pride.

Having been brought back as a wildcard act, Overload have decided to rename themselves, using leftover suggestions submitted for the other boyband. They’ve come up with Overload Generation, which is as incomprehensible and pointless as their mentor. Tragically, they’ve chose Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl, but not changed any of the gender references. As a consequence, it’s five over-styled young guys, one in a skirt, singing about the curious novelty of opposite sex attraction – a bold choice on International Coming Out Day. In fact, it’s the gayest thing I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been in a shop that sold rubber fists. Weirdly, Cheryl says “It’s all a bit typical for me,” which has me wondering where she’s been spending her Saturdays. Simon calls the middle singer gormless, which will have to suffice as a name until they’re voted off in a couple of weeks.

According to Simon, Jay James has been one of his favourites since the start of the show. Technically, since before the start of the show – you know, when he was signed to a label and opening for Rebecca Ferguson. Simon’s not the only enthusiastic member of team JJ – Brian comments “Everything about this is working for me right now.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t include the lighting scheme, which makes Jay look translucent; except for the ridiculous veneers that he could have borrowed from Rylan for the evening. Here’s yet another tedious middle class white performer destined for one of those ‘authentic soul’ appraisals. At one point, he sings “I’ve been here too long,” pointing at the stage. You’re telling me. The feedback from Louis is predictably surreal: “You remind me of a young Kevin Costner,” as he imagines spying coyly on Jay while he showers in a waterfall. All the other judges seem fixated on what a huge risk Jay took, as if he’d just replaced a two minute mid-tempo song with a motorbike leap over ten double deckers.

Stephanie Nala reckons she’s struggled, since appearing on Britain’s Got Talent as part of The Luminites. Determined to make her mark, Stephanie has chosen ‘Everything I Own,’ which I can only assume was inspired by the wording on the Syco management contract. Her soft, high voice would be great for pop records, but as a live artist she’s got all the impact of an asthmatic chipmunk doing warm-ups on a treadmill. The arrangement is reggae ultra-lite, and would make Ace of Base sound like Eddy Grant. Simon tells her that there was something missing, but can’t quite bring himself to say it was the tune. As Louis argues that no-one’s heard of the song, Cheryl responds that it’s been heavily Shazamed all week; unwittingly underlining Louis’ point.

Jack Walton is the dull, skinny boy from Leeds who has trouble sounding remotely enthusiastic about anything. He’s trying to give himself a motivational speech: “I’ve got to prove to myself that I can do it,” but there’s eight million viewers who’d beg to differ. He’s singing an earnest balladeer version of Only Girl In The World, but at least he’s thought to change the gender references. He’s strumming away, but it’s the least convincing guitar work I’ve seen since Jason Donovan lamented the number of broken hearts in the world. Cheryl commends him, saying “I would never have thought to put that twist on the song.” Then again, she wouldn’t have thought of singing it live either. Simon reckons all the chicks are gonna love Jack, because Simon’s guide to passing as a heterosexual was published when there were still four BeeGees.

Chloe Jasmine has had a tough week, and sobs that she doesn’t understand why the press are picking on her. The fact that she’s pathologically incapable of mustering a genuine sentiment can’t possibly be the reason. Brian’s delighted that Chloe is doing a jazzy version of Britney’s Toxic, because “I wrote this video, I get to do it again to make it Chloe.” Oh Brian, never change. The performance is every bit as affected as you’d expect – like an annoying regional theatre version of The Rise of Little Voice. Tuneless, flat, and about as genuinely satisfying as a carob snack bar, poor Chloe is exuding all the warmth of a polar bear with chilblains. Cheryl steps up to bat for her artist, arguing “We should embrace people’s uniqueness,” because posh white girls are the true underclass.

After an ‘ask the fans’ contest, Louis’ overpopulated boyband has selected Stereo Kicks as their new name. I’m not sure what inspired it, other than the likely reaction most people will have when they eventually hear them on the radio. Just like Louis’ other boyband, they’re doing a Katy Perry song, but even with eight members, there’s not enough oomph to raise a Roar. Instead, it’s more of a strained mewl, and by the time the light show, drums and pyrotechnics kick in, we’ve forgotten they’re even singing at all. As they stand there, looking like a bunch of animated pencil toppers in plaid, Cheryl disses Louis’ lack of imagination. "You could have did something different," she argues, as my living room explodes in a chorus of “Oh no she better don't.” Louis  reckons "We've got the next big boyband here." But only in terms of headcount. Cheryl declares herself a little overwhelmed by eight boys – she really ought to try a night out in Vauxhall.

Brace yourself folks. Time for the bastard child of Chico and Wagner, as Stevi takes to the stage. A life-sized plush of Droopy the dog, Stevi smiles and jokes throughout his rehearsal, despite being an aching vacuum of nagging despair. I just can’t take him seriously, with those eyes that look like a pair of underdone eggs sliding off a breakfast bar. Maybe I’m being unnecessarily mean – after all, he’s made a bold creative decision by rearranging the entirety of Livin’ La Vida Loca for a single note. If the performance wasn't enough to make you question your sanity, the sight of the backing dancer ripping open Stevi's shirt to reveal his newly manscaped chest will do it. As for me, I've just experienced another spontaneous double elimination. In the interests of fairness, Louis charitably observes “You’re not the best singer in the competition.” Christ, he’s not even the best singer in his own suit.

Lauren Platt can’t believe that, just a couple of months ago, she was collecting her GCSE results, and now she’s here.  As her mentor, Cheryl chooses to play the empathy card: “I know how it feels to be you…” Wait a minute, Cheryl has GCSEs? Finally, someone has figured out how to slow down a song and bring out its strengths – Lauren’s performance turns the overplayed Happy from a mobile network jingle into a nuanced and enjoyable performance. As far as the styling and staging goes, they’ve over-egged her youthfulness a little bit. Standing mid-stage, surrounded by balloons, she’s looks like a nervous eight year old, terrified that a clown is going to appear and wish her a happy birthday.

“We’re crazy,” squeal the newly shortened Blonde Electra, as Brian concocts an elaborate performance involving “unicorns vomiting glitter.” Or whatever else passes for a Tuesday in his house. Unfortunately, I’ve already used up my best joke on Blonde Electra. As has Louis, by putting them through to the live shows. They look like a nightmare, and I’m convinced they’re miming for at least some of this, since neither of them has shown the slightest aptitude for singing at any point throughout the competition. As they repeatedly sing “We’re the Kids In America,” I can’t help but wish they still were. The feedback amounts to little more than an overuse of the words “wacky” and “bonkers.”

Ben Haenow (Haenow) talks about the contestants’ house as being a combination of prison and Glee, which makes me think he should be writing these recaps. He’s overwhelmed by the size of the “gaff” – a clever choice of words designed to remind us of his earthy man-of-the-people persona. “There’s a few rooms I haven’t been in,” he confesses, leaving me to wonder whether the bathroom is one of them. His performance is painful to hear, as he strains on every note. All that gravel and vibrato, it’s like listening to someone laying a driveway. Mel says she’d have taken him in a different direction (away from the studio), and Simon says he’d actually prayed to find someone like Ben. So there we go – God may have his fingers in his ears, but Beelzebub’s more than willing to grant a few wishes.

As the show continues down its oddly heterocentric course, Mel introduces Jake Quickenden as “one for the ladies,” despite the fact that the most publicity he’s had in the last two years came from a naked spread in Gay Times. Jake’s spending a lot of time working out with his shirt off, which is probably wise, since his performance of She’s The One won’t be key to his popularity. Cheryl comments that she’d like Jake to focus more on being a great singer, rather than being better looking – a classic case of pot calling the kettle “well fit.” Sensing Jake’s disappointment, Dermot weighs in, adding "It's a hard song to sing..." Yes, if you're not very good at singing.

Fleur East’s story is about how she left it to the last minute before having her big moment. The judges keep commenting on how she came from nowhere, but given that she made it to the live finals ten years ago, I suspect that either they’re not paying attention, or they’re just hoping that we’re not. Fleur seems lovely, and is smart enough to pick Meghan Trainor’s current number one for her performance. Still, it’s more than a little ironic to hear a song about plus-size body confidence being sung by a sentient six-pack.

Only The Young come across like one of those performance groups that tour American high schools, telling kids to tie their cocks in a knot until they’re married. Keen to do something different, they launch into a saccharine rendition of Jailhouse Rock, which offers about as much sizzling pelvic action as RoboCop. Apparently, they know exactly who they are, which at least means they’re not suffering from multiple personality disorder. Hardly surprising, given that there’s barely one between them. Cheryl applauds their ‘professional chemistry,’ as if she’s still in a L’Oreal ad, and reminds them that “You love stuff from the past.” In that sense, they got lucky with Louis as their mentor.

Finally, it’s time for Andrea Faustini, who still looks like he spends his weekdays making up the numbers on police line-ups. For some unfathomable reason, he’s selected Michael Jackson’s Earth Song, and manages to do a fantastic job, despite its inherent terribleness. It’s good enough that I can forgive having to sit through two and a half hours – kind of like watching all of Gone With The Wind just to get to the bit where the girl falls off the horse. By this point in proceedings, the stylists have clearly just given up, dressing him like a lazy vicar who’s just lost his jacket. Simon calls Andrea a ‘bear,’ and Louis reckons everywhere he goes, people are talking about him. He must be spending an awful lot of time at XXL.

If you’re still here, let’s take a quick peek at Sunday’s results show. As Cheryl’s words “What the bloody hell is this?” ring in our ears, we’re treated to countless interminable recaps and reminders of last night’s tedium. Simon jokes that Louis is going to be voted off, but we all know that even an anti-personnel device couldn’t shift the grinning pillock from his seat. Dermot gamely trots through the numbers for voting, but by the time he gets to Jake he looks like he needs a brown paper bag and some Lucozade.

Next up is the group song, and they’ve wisely selected Anything Can Happen. Partly because it describes their haphazard approach to the notes, and partly because they’d struggle to do it worse than Ellie Goulding herself. Chloe, in particular, seems to struggle with the harmony, but she doesn’t strike me as someone who blends well with others.

Tonight’s first guest is Pharrell, who according to Dermot is one of the biggest stars on this or any other planet. I bet even the Wookies on Kashyyyk are fucking sick of Happy. He may have the Midas touch, but it’s failing him on this performance of Gust Of Wind, which has merely turned to shit.

Taylor Swift makes a slightly better go of it, clapping and snapping her way through Shake It Off in a bejeweled two piece. Despite looking like Christine Baranski, and having the kind of cloyingly sweet personality that’s like chewing tinfoil, she’s hard to dislike. As the audience whoop their approval, and Dermot does that awkwardly ingratiating flirting that passes for onstage bantz, Simon’s smiling smugly, as if he had anything to do with Taylor’s career.

Two acts are going tonight, so it’s time to reveal who’s safe. Fleur, Ben, Lauren, Paul, Lola, Only The Young, Chloe, Jack, Jay, Stereo Kicks, Andrea and Stevi are all through to 80s week. Jake gets the last free pass, and Blonde Electra are given the boot with barely a pause for breath. They’re probably regretting eating those pencils before coming on stage.  

Now it’s just down to Overload Generation and Stephanie to sing for their lives. The boys are up first, and haven’t improved from last night. The one in pretend glasses keeps pointing at the others to tell them when to sing, and one of them keeps bleating like he’s got Shari Lewis’ hand up his guts. They’re all great at that classic boyband dance move – pretending they’re milking an invisible cow with one hand.

Stephanie doesn’t do much better, but can at least console herself with the fact that Brandy’s original of Have You Ever wasn’t much better. She completely gives up on the melody halfway through, and simply vibrates her way to the end of the song like a handful of loose change on top of a washing machine.

Simon and Cheryl chose to save Stephanie, whereas Mel and Louis go for the boys. Ain’t that the truth. So Louis takes it to Deadlock on the first show out of the gate. Not that it helps his act – Overload Generation scored the lowest votes and now they’re going home. Stephanie makes no attempt to look remotely sad for them, but even I feel bad about the clip of them confidently announcing “We’ve come to the X-Factor to win it.” The last word goes to the boys themselves, who thank the audience for all the support they never got.

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