I hated James Arthur. His audition set him up as exactly the kind of angsty, copycat twat-with-guitar that makes my blood boil. “He’s going to fucking win it now,” I commented at the time, “he’s going to win it. I can tell because I fucking hate him.”
The signs were certainly there. James received the audition pimp slot and rounded off an episode that was particularly emphatic on the theme of original artistry. He told us that he came from a broken home, had been a constant disappointment to his estranged parents and just wanted to strum his way to some kind of self-esteem. My mouth filled with acid bile.
James then rugby tackled Tulisa’s dickhead-excusing ‘Young’, through a series of nasal trills and retching wails. He shoehorned in a weak, original rap with the soul-baringly sensitive lyric, “I’ll live fast, die a legend.” He wore a denim jacket and filthy trainers. I was convinced that the X Factor had finally lost the pop plot.
“If anyone dares touch what you do,” threatened Gary Barlow, Britain’s (arguably second) most smug and patronising champion of ‘real’ music.
“I came on this show because I’m looking for an artist to inspire me,” gushed Sherzinger, “and that’s exactly what you did today.” Louis contributed that James’ life would change forever.
Despite some hilarious rumours in the press that stroppy James’ version of “sleeping rough” was in fact a night on a friend’s sofa, his coverage continued to be favourable. Bootcamp part one saw him praised by judges and introduced us to that thankfully short-lived tic – the angsty boob-grab.
Bootcamp part two offered the first clues that James’ musicianship might extend beyond the realm of screaming the same frenzied note whilst apparently trying to dismantle his guitar and rip out his own chest hair. The hobo look had been smartened up with a nice blazer and some hipster glasses. A Million Love Songs was a simple twist on a pop classic to counteract the sledgehammer irony and angst of ‘Young.’
I assumed this tolerable turn was nothing more than a blip. James’ entire segment ran for about 40 seconds in an episode that was all about redeeming Jahmene and Lucy as well as the ongoing revelation of Ella’s ability to sing slowly.
James appeared to induce spontaneous defecation in Nicole at Judges’ Houses and it became clear that we were officially looking at an Alpha boy. At this stage, Rylan looked unlikely to connect with viewers and Jahmene appeared awkward and unmarketable – many were still calling him creepy. We couldn’t possibly have guessed that Nicole would take all three to the quarter-final.
It’s worth re-watching James’ segment from Live Show 1 because it’s expertly produced as a piece of spin. In retrospect, it was probably the moment I allowed myself to let go of the hate.
The opening VT shows James and Rylan exploring their new home, laughing incredulously at the decadence of a telephone installed in the toilet. It’s an ingenious odd-couple pairing that suggests James might be capable of fun and that Rylan might be more than just a vapid peacock.
Next up in the PR megamix was the insecurity bomb, as guinea-pigged by Little Mix’s Jesy last year. In this case, the ugly duckling mentality was balanced with the inclusion of Nicole teasing James over a newspaper story that saw him copping off with a bit of Take Me Out ‘totty.’
“I barely recognised you,” said Nicole to the new James. His final words in the VT were gold: “It may not look like it because I can’t really smile a lot, I’m pretty bad at smiling in general but I can feel myself getting happier by the day.”
Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Stronger’ was an excellent song choice that allowed James to showcase the duality of his brooding balladeer / rap-star shtick. I had to admit defeat and accept that, in lieu of a fierce female superstar, James would be my Misha B for 2012. That was the night James and I sealed the deal.
“You are a performer, you are a recording artist,” said Tulisa, helping to shift the focus away from the original ‘troubled soul’ emphasis and onto James’ skill as a popstar. On this subject, deluded messiah Gary Barlow had to weigh in and criticise James for his slick production and clean vocals, nostalgic for the entitled surliness and tuneless caterwauling of James’ audition.
Week 3 showed a lighter side to James’ musicianship, erasing fears that he might have been lacking in both versatility and sex appeal. Sexy And I Know It was, as Gary quite rightly put it, “the performance of the entire series” thus far. I have to praise whoever is behind the arrangement of this year’s tracks because music production has been a highlight in an otherwise unsteady year.
So week 1 marked James as friendly and hardworking, week 2 (No More Drama) showed he could emote with flair and week 3 revealed his capability to tackle sexy, balls-out pop. All this without a mardy reference to sleeping rough and only the minimum of chest-tugging. The only logical place left to go was the pimp slot.
Halloween is always my favourite week. It brought us Cher Lloyd’s Stay and Little Mix’s ET. It’s a great theme because basically everyone dresses in apocalyptic drag and gets red-and-blacked. You get a true sense of who can and can’t handle their shit. If you don’t own it on Halloween then you don’t deserve it for the rest of the year. Jade and Kye looked particularly weak at Halloween. James knocked it out of the park.
By this point, every music artist being invited onto the show seemed to be lending their support. In week 5 it was No Doubt. But it may have heralded a slight slump – Don’t Speak felt very much like a recycled version of week 1’s Stronger but was praised nonetheless. The main fear is that James just looked too confident and polished by this point. It didn’t hurt Matt Cardle in 2010 but he was a less divisive character who could presumably rely on a few more mature votes.
Acts like Jahmene and Chris are well advised to perform the same drivel week after week because their followers are more interested in the personal journey than the musical. The nans know what they like when they hear it and aren’t going to be impressed by Jahmene putting an original spin on, say, Snoop Dog.
We can playfully assume that James’ core voters are less homogenised or archetypal than the groups voting for his competition, hence the need to ‘change it up’ each week to keep people voting. I can picture the crisis meeting:
“Shit!” I imagine producers exclaiming, “James only just cleared the vote. The oldies hate him and the twenty-somethings don’t vote at all. We need to lure the teen girl vote away from our terrible boybands. I’m thinking an Adele song – everyone identifies with Adele – but with a reductive ‘dubstep’ breakdown. Young people love dubstep. Who’s on board?”
James’ second pimp slot of the series, Hometown Glory, saw him safe once again. It was only after week 7’s spuriously sentimental slop bucket of Can’t Take My Eyes Off You that James went fishing in the bottom two with series favourite Ella Henderson. Gary’s adhesion to his previous support saw James remain in the competition, cemented as producer favourite but tainted by the singoff.
Week 8’s suited and booted performance of Let’s Get It On was a further attempt to ramp up his sex factor and mainstream appeal. It was a pivotal moment in moulding James towards the final. Tulisa’s comment, “it was sexy, it was cheeky and I’m sure the ladies loved it,” was surely a direct appeal for the loin vote.
Week 9’s semi-final saw programme makers attempt to whip out the big guns in a VT that focused on James’ burning desire to make his younger sister’s proud of their reprobate, fuck-up of a brother. It was never going to contend with whatever new crisis Jahmene had to share in that week but it spared James the comedown from his sympathy bounce.
James’ second performance in the semi-final, ‘Shamelessly Manipulative John Lewis Advert’ received a standing ovation from judges and “if there’s any justice…” spiel from Louis. Tulisa went on a typically Tulisa rant about being proud to share the studio with James before hand-slamming voters to pick up the phone. Gary gave James his second “performance of the series” declaration.
James’ pimping and Nicole’s blatant begging for people to pick up the phone can be read in one of two ways, as we have discussed here before. Perhaps, on the comedown from a sympathy bounce James was in real danger and he needed the push. On the other hand, maybe producers still had a vague hope that he could be the Anti-Chris and wanted to test just how well he could poll with a vigorous pimping.
The gap between public commentary and voting results looks wider than ever this year. When compared to the painful resilience of Shaky Maloney and the entirely coherent Jahmourney, James’ path is a little murky. After the rather ham-fisted coverage of James’ angst in the audition stages, it was a good call to lay off the trauma in early weeks.
The fear is that in so cleverly rebranding James in week 1, producers set themselves up with a very short journey to self-confidence and that journey ended too early. He may be the only act left for whom programme makers see any real future.
To this particular Sofabet writer, however, in the name of protecting the X Factor from total ruin and slaying Shaky Maloney, it is Jahmene who feels very much like the chosen Anti-Chris.
How has your approach to James evolved over the series? As ever, do let us know below.