Regular readers of Sofabet will know we believed from the start that producers intended this to be the year a group finally won the show. We think One Direction were formed for this purpose, and that producers did all they could to give the boyband every chance of winning.
Part of our reasoning is that producers may have thought it was high time to establish the point of the groups category – especially with X Factor USA about to launch. A large part of what differentiates the X Factor format from the show it seeks to usurp, American Idol, is the inclusion of the groups and the overs categories – but as these have been the weakest categories, this starts to look like less of a compelling USP.
If this was indeed the plan, the plan failed – 2010 delivered us yet another final showdown between two youthful soloists. One Direction were consistent, finishing 3rd or 4th in the public vote in every single show, but they never came close to topping the vote. It’s now been seven series without a group winning. And that has to beg the question: can a group ever win this show?
Answering that question requires understanding what went wrong with One Direction. And here it’s instructive to make a comparison with the most successful group the show has yet produced, 2008’s JLS. Here’s how their votes compared, week by week (expressed as relative to the mean vote, given the differing number of acts in each show):
What’s immediately obvious is that One Direction’s one direction was a downward one. Apart from a couple of hardly-noticeable upticks, proportionally speaking they lost support week-on-week. This speaks to their inability to create a moment on stage – never once did they come up with a performance to capture the imagination.
Interestingly, both JLS and One Direction had two cracks at the pimp slot. JLS got it in week 4, and the spike in the vote shows they seized their opportunity. 1D got it in week 5 and actually polled less well than the previous week. Both had the pimp slot in week 9. JLS again spiked, whereas 1D barely improved on their week 8 showing.
The question now becomes: why were One Direction unable to create a moment? In a fascinating comment to an earlier post which is worth reading in full, Sofabet reader Euan McMorrow suggests:
The first group problem is that the studio is too noisy for groups to do proper harmonies. Some weeks JLS were very ropey on this count even though they are excellent vocalists. The 1D solution to this was to ramp up the pre-recorded backing vocals which makes them look at best untalented and at worst cheaters. The better solution would be professional in ear monitoring.
Apart from feeding a sense that they were getting unfair help, the backing track made it much harder for One Direction to create a game-changing moment – when all five of them are sticking to the same melodic line, or they’re singing sequential solos, you’re never going to get anything too impressive.
Comparing 1D’s two renditions of ‘Torn’, at judges’ houses and in the final, shows that they were actually much better with stripped-back arrangements relying on their own vocals than they were with the dubious assistance of the backing track. Arguably their best moment of the live shows was the harmonising in ‘Chasing Cars’, and more of the same at an earlier stage could have made a big difference.
This was not the only respect in which producers were, in retrospect, much too cautious. As Daniel pointed out in his pre-final post explaining why he now thought Matt Cardle would beat them:
Part of the problem is that there are five of them. We haven’t really had a chance to get to know them well enough in the short space of time since the live shows began. Carefully controlled in the X Factor house, we know about Harry being the cheeky one the girls like, but I reckon most viewers would be hard pressed to remember the names of all of them.
But did it have to be that way? Producers got One Direction off to a flying start by ensuring that we knew one member – Liam Payne – very well by the time the live shows started, after his appearance in judges’ houses in 2008 and his lengthy audition show segment. They introduced us reasonably early to two others, as well: Harry Styles, who got a fairly long audition segment; and Zayn Malik, who was given an unlikely pep-talk by Simon at bootcamp when he was too shy to dance.
Narratively, it would have made sense to introduce us gradually and in ultimately equal depth to the other two, Louis Tomlinson and Niall Horan. But producers never got around to it. No doubt they concluded it was safer to keep the focus on Liam and Harry, the two best singers, but it only solidified the impression of an irredeemably lopsided group.
Instead, producers tried to be too clever by half. In week 8, ‘You Are So Beautiful’ featured sequential solos by Liam, Harry and Zayn. The other two, Louis and Niall, did not appear to do anything at all – but when the group rearranged themselves for comments, they were positioned front and centre and Louis Walsh obligingly came out with the unintentionally amusing comment: “You’ve proved that everybody in this group can sing, which is incredible”.
It was a microcosm of the show’s optimistically image-over-substance approach to One Direction, which saw Louis Walsh repeat ad nauseam that they were “the next big boyband”. There’s nothing wrong with getting your hype in early if the substance eventually catches up, but it never did.
So there is a lingering question around group size. Is it, in principle, unrealistic for the show to hope to introduce us adequately to all five members of a group? They do have seven weeks of auditions and ten weeks of live shows to play with, but it’s certainly arguable – especially as there were only four in JLS and the most successful groups in 2009, 2007 and 2006 all had only two members (Jedward, Same Difference, The MacDonald Bros).
The success of these duos feeds another theory we have mentioned before on Sofabet – that groups who appear to be genuinely close off camera seem to appeal more to the voting public. You can’t get much closer than siblings, while JLS were pre-show friends. One solution could be for producers to play a longer game, and put a group together a year or two before intending to use them. But that could obviously go wrong, either through an impatient break-up or careless talk about the circumstances of the group’s formation.
Perhaps there is scope for a backstory of contestants turning up to auditions intending to be soloists, but getting on so well with each other while waiting in line that they decide instead to audition as a group? It would stretch credulity, but no more so than the idea that One Direction were put together after the five had been rejected as soloists (as opposed to the five being rejected as soloists precisely so that producers could put the group together).
It would also avoid tainting the group with the “rejected” tag from their very beginnings, which surely can’t have a positive subliminal effect on the voting public.
On the subject of establishing group members in the public consciousness, Euan McMorrow suggests learning from the colour-coding of JLS – “a little gimmick that helped individual members stand out”. Each of them wore a consistent colour from week to week – so that even if you couldn’t put a name to Yellow JLS, say, that descriptor would at least call him to mind.
The regional question is another interesting one. No doubt it was hoped that Niall would bring in some Irish votes, Liam some Brummie votes, and so on. But perhaps with hindsight the whole proved to be less than the sum of its parts – certainly it seemed random that One Direction’s hometown was designated as Doncaster for the final weekend video links. Euan suggests that a group all from one city might have been a better idea.
Euan’s final great point is about instruments. He points out that a couple of Matt Cardle’s best moments this series came when accompanied by a guitar, notably ‘Baby One More Time’ and ‘Nights In White Satin’. It lent him an air of credible musicianship.
What would have happened if, instead of standing around like spare parts during ‘You Are So Beautiful’, Niall had surprised us all by harmonising on the saxophone while Louis plucked expertly away at a bass guitar? I reckon their vote might well have gone through the roof.
So there is some hope for producers to take lessons from One Direction. But it’s easy to suspect that the groups category must be even more of a headache after 1D’s failure to make the grade, and it will be fascinating to see where producers take it from here.