Perhaps the most surprising aspect of week 2’s Saturday’s live show was the dumping on Frankie Cocozza. Up till now, the editing Frankie had received suggested that the show’s producers thought the sun shone out of his tattooed arse, which made it quite a shock that his Saturday VT showed him struggling in rehearals. His rendition of Coldplay’s The Scientist was, of course, dire – but it wasn’t a great deal worse than other songs he has previously panted his way through to great praise from the judges. So what’s going on?
One possibility is that producers want to take Frankie down a peg or two. Perhaps he has been starting to believe his own publicity behind the scenes? Another is that it was becoming increasingly hard to gloss over his weak vocals. But the fact that Marcus Collins’s performance led to the other judges having a second pop at Gary Barlow over his song choices, and that Craig Colton was also shown struggling in his VT and given a poor running order slot, also make us wonder if this was some kind of “dump on the boys category in general” week. If so, why?
We may need to look no further than the simplest explanation – the oft-raised theory that producers are desperate to avoid another solo male winner, especially with Matt Cardle’s recording career off to such an inauspicious start this week. When the star of the first week’s show, Craig Colton, appeared while Strictly was still on the other side, it seemed clear that producers were keen to dampen his momentum from ‘Jar of Hearts’.
Also notable was that Craig’s VT made no spoken reference to his weight loss regime (though it was mentioned by Dermot after the performance), a topic which should be a considerable positive for him. Instead it showed him complaining about the song being too fast – playing on the suspicion that he is a one-trick pony who can’t cope with upbeat numbers. Having last week raised five doubts about Craig’s longevity in the contest, we don’t feel compelled to change our minds after his take on Beyonce’s ‘Best Thing I Never Had’.
Indeed, after Saturday we can add another two doubts. Craig’s gurning looks set to become seriously annoying, and his lack of movement around the stage might quickly become reminiscent of fellow static Liverpudlian Rebecca Ferguson.
We were deeply disappointed in Marcus, our pre-lives selection to win the show. He got off lightly when the judges’ comments focused on Gary Barlow’s choice of song rather than his struggles to keep in tune in his lower register. And the fact that Louis and Tulisa both focused on Gary’s song choice for both Marcus and Frankie, while being careful to praise them as individuals, suggests there may be an alternative (or, indeed, additional) explanation for “dump on the boys” week.
With three new judges, there was always going to be a need to try to recreate the rivalries that defined the previous lineup. As the alpha male on the panel, Simon was at the centre of those rivalries, which were with the beta male (Louis) and the alpha female (Cheryl). Producers have now tried several times to manufacture some Louis-Gary tension, without a great deal of success, and clearly also see some mileage in creating a Gary-Tulisa axis of rivalry.
(Kelly has largely stepped into Dannii’s role as the relentlessly positive judge who is thereby largely exempt from these rivalries, but she has also shown more bite than Dannii ever did; while she defended Gary on his song choices for Frankie and Marcus, she had a pop at him for the same reason regarding Craig).
Could it be that part of the thinking for engineering a bad week for the boys in the week of the first public vote was to try to create a sense of alpha-male embattlement around Gary, similar to the one which always surrounded Simon? If so, it didn’t really work – Gary came off as delusional rather than loyal in his monotone defence of Frankie and Marcus, failing to whip the crowd into the kind of supportive reaction Simon would have managed with ease.
Another possible explanation for the negative treatment for the boys is that producers were intending to test the strength of their core fanbases, to know how much pimping they can be safely given in future shows without creating enough momentum to challenge for the win. For surely only devoted fans of Frankie, Marcus and to a slightly lesser extent Craig would have voted for them – no neutrals would have been swayed by their performances. If this was the case, it backfired on them badly when Frankie sunk into the bottom two.
The final, and most encouraging, possible explanation is the one suggested by fellow Marcus-backer Bob in the comments – “My only hope is that producers want to avoid predictability of last year, where, i think, matt was fav more or less all the way through. Otherwise it’s difficult to see someone from outside the current top three in the betting winning.”
Those top three are, of course, Janet Devlin, The Risk and Misha B. Saturday’s show did nothing to derail the strong presumption that Janet is this year’s Plan A, and the other two of these acts also received strongly favourable treatment, suggesting producers will do all they can to push them towards the final.
The Risk became new favourites for the win after another bromancing VT and their take on Bruno Mars’s ‘Just The Way You Are’. We stand by our piece last week, in which we explain why we can see them in the last two or three but doubt they can make the final push where JLS and One Direction both failed. It seems clear that producers will do all they can to ensure that Tulisa has a horse in the final weekend.
Misha B’s VT was especially interesting. We have often said that we fear she will be held back in the voting public’s affections by appearing rather harsh. With one tabloid story last week claiming she was rude to workers on the show, this message was refuted by interviews with its stylists about how much they enjoy dressing her. This served two purposes: the audience saw neutrals testifying about how enjoyable Misha is to work with, and she was established as something of an emerging style icon. Tulisa’s comments reinforced this impression, with praise for Kelly about turning Misha B into a “brand”.
It seems very clear now that programme makers are eyeing up a post-show career for Misha B, about whom we said in our piece last week that we think there is a place in the charts for her. But as with Cher last year, there is no need for Misha B to win the competition for this to happen – she needs only to get to the final four or so and establish her fanbase. We expect producers to give her maximum help to get there, without expecting her to quite get over the final hurdle.
Sophie Habibis remains the only other conceivable winner, and also remains this show’s riddle wrapped in an enigma shrouded in mystery. What are producers intending for her? On the face of it, the penultimate slot in the running order was helpful, but there were deeply mixed signals from the VT and judges’ comments.
On the one hand, as Annie noted in the comments, Gary’s criticism that she lacked “spark” is just about the worst thing that could be said about an X Factor contestant. In that context, the universal acclaim for her vocal abilities felt like damning with faint praise.
On the other hand, Tulisa’s “you’re a normal person” and Louis’s “you need to start believing in yourself” reeked of the journey to self-confidence which has carried all of the girl finalists (Rebecca, Stacey, Alexandra, Leona) on their way.
Sophie’s VT could be read either way. It emphasised her normality and relative lack of profile by showing her mashing potatoes and talking about how she hears fans chanting Misha’s and Janet’s name but not hers (this is, of course, the result of the lack of screentime that programme makers have quite deliberately chosen to give her). Is this setting her up for a journey from obscurity to stardom, or is it also emphasising her lack of that extra something that she needs to set her apart – the “spark”, the X Factor?
It’s hard to tell, and it may well be that the show is consciously hedging its bets with Sophie until they get the first week’s voting results in and can see how strong Janet and Misha look. They may quite consciously be keeping Sophie in a Schrodiger’s Cat-like state of quantum uncertainty while they decide if she can be quietly disposed of in the next few weeks with some poor running order slots and lukewarm comments, or if they need to press her into service as a backup acceptable winner should Janet seem like she’s going to fail to fly with the voting public.
How did you read the clues of the VTs and comments in this first week of the public vote? Do let us know below.