As I wrote in a preview article before the 2010 series, judges’ comments are an important way in which the public vote can be influenced. We duly saw plenty of evidence in the 2010 series of how comments can depress the votes of acts that find themselves in the bottom two.
Briefly, they fell into four categories: diversionary tactics (ignoring the act and bickering about something else); reverse psychology (lulling the act’s fans into a false sense of security); faint praise (inspiring neither sympathy nor enthusiasm); and justifiable criticism (as opposed to over-the-top criticism, which tends to lead to sympathetic votes).
Let’s take each week’s judges comments in turn, concentrating especially on those eliminated.
Week 1 saw Nicolo finish last after some mixed reviews, in which Cheryl hit the nail on the head by saying he failed to make a connection with viewers because he wore sunglasses. For FYD, the judges bickered about the importance of dancing over singing. This was a hint of what would damn future acts – a controversy on a wider issue in which the judges ultimately seemed to ignore the performers in question.
Cheryl’s doubts also seemed to help dampen Storm’s vote in Week 2; and he was not helped by a diversionary set of jokes between Cheryl and Simon (“you look less orange this week”, “you too”) – an excellent method of taking attention away from the act. Storm was eliminated along with Diva Fever, who however had positive judges’ comments about being fun and likeable. It was probably the lack of actual singing or dancing that did more to push them down the leader board.
John Adeleye in Week 3 was a prime example of an argument among the judges about the staging (in this case a pair of contemporary dancers) taking interest away from the act in question. It was no surprise that he was voted out in a sing-off against Treyc, who received generally good praise for ‘Whole Lotta Love’ that week, although there seemed some doubts about her direction.
Week 4 saw a disastrous vocal performance from eliminees Belle Amie, which Dannii pointed out in her comments. However, Treyc’s vocals before her Week 5 elimination were described as ‘faultless’, and the greater problem remained what kind of song she should be singing – no longer an issue once she had lost the sing-off to Katie the following day.
Faint praise came Aiden’s way before his elimination in Week 6. Simon Cowell’s parting comment that “I think you’re going to be fine next week” was classic reverse psychology, suggesting to people that there was no need to vote for him. On the other hand, Paije – who had seemed in much more danger of the bottom two than Aiden – got an overly harsh comment from Simon: “I would put your chances of winning at zero.” That may have fired up his supporters and sealed Aiden’s fate.
The following week, Louis said of Paije in response to this, “you can win the competition” – and in true reverse psychology fashion, that proved much more the kiss of death. Cher’s drop into the bottom two that week came after another bout of diversionary judge bickering about staging: in this case, the stairs used in her rendition of ‘Imagine’ (which Dermot termed “laddergate”).
We have explained in our article on the assassination of Wagner’s chances, how the kind, uncontroversial words for the Brazilian in Week 8 were designed to dampen his support; just as the argument that Cheryl chose to pick with him in Week 7 was used to boost his vote that time.
Katie also faced diversionary comments in her elimination week, with Simon criticising the way ‘Everybody Hurts’ had been shortened (something that happens with just about every song performed on X Factor), and some hint at the inappropriate nature of ‘Sex on Fire’ given recent tabloid headlines. There was not the overblown praise she had received the previous week.
We explained how Mary was put to the wolves the following week. I will quote it at length because the judges used some of their most effective tactics to achieve this. We wrote the day after the main show that week:
And she needed the judges to drum up the Irish regional vote for her – but they didn’t mention Ireland at all, Louis instead appealing for votes from more generic groups: “women” and “people”.
The judges bickered about Louis’s first song choice, which is a diversionary tactic that takes attention away from the act itself. From after the second song, Simon’s comments are telling and worth quoting at length:
‘I think whatever happens, and I genuinely mean this, you’re going to sell records, you’re going to have concerts. Let me tell you, Mary, you are not going back to the Tesco checkout.’
In other words: Mary fans, you don’t really need to vote tonight. If she leaves, she’ll be just fine.
It has to be said that judges’ comments are not the be-all and end-all. The panel generally did their best for Katie Waissel for example, and the public refused to buy it. Their words about Matt varied greatly from week to week, but it did not stop him winning the public vote consistently.
Nonetheless, as an indicator of producers’ intentions, it remains a vital aspect of the show. A close reading of them is still a crucial weapon in a punter’s arsenal – right up to the final minutes of the final show, when the exaggerated praise for Matt’s winner’s song rendition convinced me that he was about to be unveiled as our winner.