Midweek refleXions: End of the phoney war

Finally! After weeks of after-you-no-after-you pussyfooting around at the head of the outright winner betting market, one of the leading players conjured up a performance to take this series by the scruff of the neck and shake up the odds.

That someone was Matt, and the somewhat unlikely song with which he did it was ‘Nights in White Satin’. Matt’s odds on Betfair plummeted during that performance and he is now odds-on favourite across the board at a top price of 8/11. Suddenly, with two weeks to go, the whole tenor of the show has changed. Wagner and Katie are gone. The gloves are off. Game on.

Do I still think One Direction can beat Matt? Personally, I do (although I know I am more bullish on this question than my Sofabet colleague Daniel). Here’s why, and how, and what might go wrong.

Daniel and I have been saying since before the live shows that we think One Direction are the act the show most wants to win. They have been so expertly selected and styled that Justin Beiber’s appearance on Sunday’s results show felt slightly disconcerting, as if someone backstage had fed the five boys into a 3D version of the imaging software that morphs faces together.

If we’re right that the show want to get One Direction over the finishing line, then now is the time to come out all guns blazing. I’d be very surprised if they don’t sing 4th or 5th of the five acts this weekend, and then last of the acts in the final.

They didn’t do too much wrong on Saturday, and their slight drift in the odds – they are now 15/4 – was due more to Matt and his guitar. Their second song, ‘You Are So Beautiful’, was clearly meant to be their “they can sing” moment after weeks of heavy-handed backing tracks. Or, as Louis amusingly put it in his comments, “You’ve proved that everybody in this group can sing, which is incredible”.

What made that comment especially entertaining was that only Liam, Harry and Zayn had actually appeared to sing during that song. Watch it back: Niall and Louis are bookending the group on the wide-angle shots, but do not obviously emit any sounds into their microphones. Still, though, the same could be said about Justin Beiber on Sunday.

Fascinatingly, as soon as they finished, the five carefully arranged themselves for comments with Niall and Louis standing in advance of the other three. Together with the “everybody in this group can sing” comment, it cleverly created the impression that those two had been front-and-centre in the performance, too. Had they been watching last week’s Mad Men about the power of after-images to seem more real than reality?

To be fair, the time limit was too restrictive – as Simon observed to Cheryl about ‘Everybody Hurts’ – for five solos. And that performance was really about giving poor old Zayn his turn in the sun after he became the butt of (quite funny) jokes about being a human echo. He despatched his solo well enough, Simon reminded us how far he’s come since not wanting to dance at bootcamp, and then he got to tell Dermot how great it is to come out on stage every week with his “five best friends”.

We have speculated before that the key to doing well as a group on this show is appearing to be genuinely close off-camera (witness the success of sibling duos and the failure of previous manufactured groups), which I think is why Louis keeps telling us they’ve “gelled as friends” (this week saw his third use of that line). And despite Zayn’s counting issues – or was he including Simon? – I think they have now cleared this hurdle comfortably. Those claims of friendship come across as completely believable.

I think the show has also now succeeded in establishing in the public consciousness that the boys work hard – a theme which was hit once again in Simon’s comments, and is intended to create the impression that they have earned success. The praise for Harry for choosing the first song was no doubt intended to reinforce the sense that they are not just pretty faces, and built on comments from Simon in previous weeks about them being responsible for their own styling.

In short, the foundations are laid for two successive weeks of hyping in an attempt to build enough momentum to carry them past Matt. And if that’s the case, I see three big question marks over whether it can work.

The first is whether there was any truth in the Abigail88 claim that they were below Wagner in the bottom three as of Sunday morning. If so, it wouldn’t be encouraging. But nor would it necessarily be fatal, especially if the votes were close, as Dermot claimed in the results show. After all, in 2008 the eventual winner and second, Alexandra and JLS, were fourth and fifth of six in week 7. Things can change quickly even at this late stage.

On the plus side for them, if their fans believe they were not comfortably safe this week, that should motivate them to vote even more enthusiastically in the last two weeks. I have no doubt that putting the wind up their supporters was the reason why they were the last act called safe on Sunday.

The second question is whether an anti-Simon backlash might be their downfall, a scenario my Sofabet colleague Daniel has long since wondered about. I suspect Simon stupidly made this more likely with his graceless comments after Wagner’s departure. Would it have been hard to show some magnanimity?

The third question is whether they can keep in touching distance vocally of Matt in the last two weeks. Other things being equal the voting public does generally like the best singer to win, and if Matt hits it out of the park again, the difference in quality of their performances could be too great for any amount of hype to overcome.

Notice I asked whether Matt could be beaten by One Direction rather than by Rebecca, who is only just behind the boys in the betting at 9/2. With apologies to our commenter Mark, who has a monster bet riding on the Liverpudlian, I’m just not seeing it. Rebecca’s shyness was bigged up so much in the audition stages, the script clearly called for her self-confidence to blossom – but there are no discernible signs of this yet, and time is fast running out.

‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’ was her best performance since week 5, but her painful lack of movement on stage brings to mind Simon’s comparison of 2009’s Stacey Solomon to a “singing candle”. The compliment the judges constantly give her is “great recording voice”, and I wonder if this is code for “no stage presence”.

Rebecca is coming across as a less talented and even duller version of Leona, and while the Liverpool regional vote should not be underestimated, if she is to be our winner then she needs an all-judge standing ovation, “you’re really believing in yourself now”-type reaction pretty sharpish. I have my doubts.

It’s even harder to envisage Cher (now 18/1) being the name Dermot calls out at the end. We’ve said all along that we thought she’d struggle to pick up floating voters as the number of remaining acts dwindles, and she did herself no favours in that regard by coming over all Little Miss Attitude on Saturday night.

Finally, while it’s far from impossible that a sympathy bounce from the singoff could now carry 66/1 outsider Mary into the final three, it would be a major surprise if it took her any further. I very much doubt she has broadened her appeal significantly beyond the core demographics that have carried her this far.

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