Often, in previous years, we’ve got the impression that it’s around about this stage of the series that producers are starting to assess the fate of the trial balloons they’ve floated in the first couple of weeks and decide who they’re going to throw their weight behind. In 2011, for example, the Janet Devlin takedown started in week 3, and the Little Mix boosterism in week 4. Last year there seemed to be a flirting with a Sam Bailey deramp in weeks 2-3, before seeming to accept her as unstoppable in week 4.
So we can presumably start to expect more clarity in the next week or two about who is alpha girl, which still seems an open question: this week they turned Lauren into an angel, with white dress and halo lighting, but they also continued to set up Lola for a potential journey with Simon’s “80%” comment. We should also start to get some more definitive clues re alpha male over: Ben has been treated positively both weeks, but Jay got a chance to show how well he could poll from the pimp slot.
However, you would think that the agenda will be topped by whether and how they can salvage Stereo Kicks, which has also been dominating the conversation below the line. That’s where we start this week’s midweek pivot off what you’ve been saying in the comments.
1. Why did Cheryl kick the Stereos?
EM: “Are we 100% sure that Stereo Kicks weren’t taken down this weekend? Are we using confirmation bias to support most people’s theory (myself included) that the show wants the band to go far?” David Cook: “One possible explanation for Cheryl’s comments may be that they were actually designed to get them bottom three giving them an opportunity to precipitate change in the group before it’s too late (if it’s not already).”
Producers at the X Factor are undoubtedly familiar with the principle of social proof – the idea that we subconsciously look to others for cues as to how we should be thinking – because they apply it all the time, notably in the use of reaction cutaway shots to judges or audience members. Social proof is why the infamous “Sophie Habibis in the empty pub” VT was so devastating – by cruelly implying that nobody in Sophie’s hometown was excited about her, it suggested that voters at home shouldn’t be, either.
In the past, notably with One Direction and Union J, the show has used the phenomenon of social proof to suggest to teenage girl viewers that they should be going wild, by showing us VTs featuring teenage girls going wild. Just about the most damaging thing you could do to a boyband is to suggest teenage girls aren’t interested in them. And this was exactly what Cheryl did on Saturday.
Regular readers will know that we have a working assumption that judges’ comments are scripted in advance, if not word for word then at least in broad brushstrokes. A great example from immediately before the Cheryl puzzle: Mel B reacts to Stereo Kicks by saying “I want to see you do a capella”; Dermot subsequently picks up on this by asking Chris “you’d love to do a capella, right?”; and Chris says yes, they would. This is the careful setting up of a narrative line. We assume producers don’t leave these things to chance.
Then what was Cheryl playing at? Rewatching it, here’s one very (very) speculative theory: did she have broad-brush guidance on what to say, but phrased it infelicitously? Here’s what she says: “It’s hard for me because, for me, when a boy group comes out, you normally feel hysteria in the room, and apart from the fact that you may have friends and family here, I don’t feel that…”. And at this point, some members of the audience start screaming hysterically. Which is, arguably, a bit odd: it sounded almost like they were enthusiastically cheering Cheryl’s point. Wouldn’t fans of the group be more likely to boo Cheryl than to cheer at this point?
The rest of the exchange offers hints that something has perhaps not quite gone to plan. Challenged by Louis, Cheryl has a second bite at the hysteria theme, this time mentioning One Direction. Dermot gives her another chance to clarify, and she looks flustered and complains “am I here to give my opinion or to be talked over?”, to which Dermot amusingly replies “both”. Then Dermot suggests that all this back-and-forth hadn’t been planned by irritably saying there isn’t much time left, before asking Chris about the a capella comment. Chris’s reply is interesting: he addresses Mel’s request and then pointedly says, “Cheryl, we’re not One Direction, we are Stereo Kicks”. He repeats the latter phrase for good measure.
Now, here are two questions for commenters about how cynical we are about this show. Do we believe that certain audience members might have been primed to cheer in response to Cheryl’s comment? And do we believe that Chris might have been told that “you’re doing the Dermot talk. You’re going to be asked if you want to do an a capella performance. Say yes. Also, Cheryl’s going to have said something about One Direction. We want you to say: ‘Cheryl, we’re not One Direction, we’re Stereo Kicks’. Okay?”?
If we can credit those two things, then just possibly Cheryl might have been meant to say something like: “Guys, if you were One Direction, there’d be hysteria in the room, but I don’t know, I’m not convinced yet… are people as excited about you?” Basically the same point, but then the screams would have felt appropriate and affirmative, and Chris’s comment would have played perfectly. Could it be that the original intention was to suggest to teenage girls that they weren’t betraying One Direction by also liking Stereo Kicks, but Kermit was a muppet and instead managed to suggest to teenage girls that they shouldn’t be interested in Stereo Kicks?
It’s a (very) tenuous theory, we know, but it’s the best we can come up with if we assume that (a) producers were trying to help Stereo Kicks and (b) Cheryl didn’t just take it upon herself to veer entirely off piste. So let’s challenge those assumptions. The second seems unlikely, as Cheryl generally comes across to us as on message. What about the first? Could producers actually have been trying to land Stereo Kicks in trouble?
One piece of evidence for this: another riff from the judges about Stereo Kicks which is unlikely to have been accidental, because it has featured both weeks, is about whether eight is too many. Some astute Sofabet commenters have read this as laying the groundwork for an intended cull. But that’s not necessarily true. It might simply have been intended to set up a gradual winning over of the judges on this score, as suggested by Simon’s “I’m beginning to believe” comment on Saturday.
There may well be a contingency plan for a cull, but we’re struggling to believe that producers wanted to have to bring this into play as early as week 2, or indeed at all. Because every possible way they might do a cull seems so fraught with difficulty:
- Louis could simply dump some of the band members. But that would seem harsh.
- The band themselves could vote to eject some of their number. But that would risk looking like Lord of the Flies.
- One or more of them could tearfully say “I’m leaving for the good of the group”. But would it be believable?
- After the crowdsourcing of the name, this could be another opportunity for fan involvement: “We’ve decided we need to come down to five members. But which five? You decide! Download the app…”. But this would risk alienating fans who voted for those who didn’t make the cut, and undermine the sense of togetherness which has traditionally been seen as necessary for a group to succeed.
- The group could be split into two foursomes, each of them taking part in the competition. It would certainly generate some headlines, but would split an evidently already-small vote between them.
Some commenters have wondered if we’ve all been misreading the signs all along, and producers were never actually that invested in Stereo Kicks. But if that’s the case, why did they choose to save them? We can safely assume it was a wrench for the show to part with Chloe-Jasmine. Their willingness to sacrifice her surely implies that they see Stereo Kicks as somehow salvageable.
One thing we know about TPTB is that they like a challenge, and this is certainly a big one. Can they get Stereo Kicks to the business end of the competition? We’re sceptical, but intrigued.
2. Will the Faustini takedown continue?
Donald: “Andrea’s deramp was in full flow”. Jess: “Last week I thought he could become unassailable. This week I think a few weeks more of this and people may get a bit bored of the lack of variety.” Joe: “He’s a long way from winning.”
Here’s the look on Andrea’s face as Simon slides the knife in with his comments about weird facial expressions and the vocal not being as good as last week. We like to imagine that behind the charming pug-lover facade is a budding capo di tutti capi and that Andrea is pondering what breed of horse’s head would look good on Simon’s pillow.
There can be little doubt about it, the task of dragging down the early frontrunner has begun. The question is, will this attack be sustained – a la Janet Devlin (2011) and Christopher Maloney (2012) – or will producers, having dipped a toe in the water, conclude he can’t be caught and grudgingly accept him as a winner, as we suspect happened with Matt Cardle (2010) and Sam Bailey (2013)?
Our instinct is that Andrea really should be gettable. There’s so much they can aim at, and his VT contained a couple of hints. There was the use of ‘That’s Amore’ in the backdrop, the comedy Italian tune which had also been used before his room audition: there’s a fine line between loveable eccentric, which was the flavour of his treatment from the arenas onwards, and Mr Bean. And the implication that the Brits don’t know how to cook pasta was fleeting, but could damagingly be scaled up: coffee, pizza, ice-cream…
There are also aspects of the Italian stereotype they can play up to, should they wish to, notably the “combustible mama’s boy” trope. Last Friday the tabloids informed us that Andrea was sobbing inconsolably backstage after the results show because his parents had flown home; his VT this week portrayed him contentedly chatting to his mum about hairspray.
But producers will have to tread very, very carefully, because Andrea is so loveable. Just a hint too much meanness, and there is the risk of a backlash. You could see how acutely aware Simon was of that, as he interspersed criticism with “people love you, I’m just trying to give you some constructive advice”, and “I’m only saying that because I’m a huge fan of yours”. Of course you are, Simon, of course.
Better, if they can, to kill Andrea slowly with kindness: a series of diva performances that draw moderate praise but become samey; a bigging up of the acts most likely to take votes away from him, as we saw this week with Paul; a sense that his journey is towards being accepted by the British public, and that when that’s achieved he doesn’t need to win. If they play their cards right, you would think it should be enough.
If they want to minimise Andrea’s vote, they might also want to think about changing the order of acts on the app. We speculated last week that Andrea’s big green voting button appearing when you tap the “vote” tab might be helping him at the margins; this week, Andrea got one accidental vote from Sofabet due to a ‘fat finger’ error when trying to swipe.
One last thing, which is almost certainly coincidental but amused us nonetheless. Betsfactor fans! What colour are those pug cushions?
3. Differing points of the compass for Fleur East
Martin: “she was on stage dancing around a pole after being put to us initially as a “nightclub singer” (stripper?) and wearing what can only be described as underwear with a jacket on”. Gamblebot: “Forgive the language, but she looked like a slut.”
Another act whose treatment fascinated us was Fleur East. In our previous midweek article, we praised the ‘All About That Bass’ routine for being playfully sexy yet unthreatening. Importantly it wasn’t too slutty, because anything suggesting she might steal another girl’s boyfriend isn’t good for votes on this show – especially when you’re a confident, attractive black woman.
Imagine then, our open-mouthed reaction on realising that her week 2 VT opened showing a corridor flirtation with mentor Simon Cowell in front of his girlfriend.
It all happened so quickly that her segment demanded later re-watching. Picking everything apart, it’s possible to take two sharply contrasting views of what the show was setting out to achieve.
The cynic in us could find plenty of red flags. Once Simon’s girlfriend had wiped the lipstick off his face, Fleur complained of her days with gigs where “where no one knows who you are or cares who you are,” to a more stoical Paul. Then, as she self-absorbedly watched herself, she told us how competitive she is – “you just really have to fight for it” – going on to reference the Hunger Games as the camera cut to her rivals. Her VT ended showing her having a private laugh with Simon about how big-headed some of those people were.
Performing from the Miss Dynamix week 2 spot of #6, just after an ad break, song choice ‘It’s A Shame’ was rap-heavy and relatively unknown. Staging-wise, we started with Fleur lying on her back, wearing high-waisted hotpants and a leopard-print push-up bra. She used what looked like a stripper’s pole to get to her feet before being joined by dancers. Cutaways to Mel B and Simon indicated the judges were less interested than they had been in week 1.
Afterwards, Louis repeated what Simon had said in the VT about her “becoming a different person in the last few weeks”. Was this an implicit suggestion it had all gone to her head?
Of much more interest was Mel B pointing out the heavy use of backing vocals in the chorus, which ended with her saying: “I find that a little bit cheating.” Some felt the damaging use of the word “cheating”, which Mel had ungrammatically crowbarred in, was an indication that she had gone rogue. But if that’s the case, why did Simon repeat it five times to make sure it was hammered home? Not letting the point blow over, the ever-compliant Dermot asked Fleur for her opinion on the controversy.
All these things can be used to suggest there was a takedown of Fleur on Saturday. But why take down someone praised so highly the previous week? Perhaps we have disappeared down the rabbit hole and should focus on the positive aspects of her treatment at the weekend.
Simon introduced Fleur by saying: “Someone who I think is turning into a star in front of our eyes.” With the VT, the main concept may have been to show us how hard she was working and trying to improve. As for the staging, we got gold lighting, a gold record on stage and many more of them in the backdrop, all featuring her name in gold. The song choice wasn’t iconic, but it was suitable and had an earworm of a chorus.
Perhaps the “cheating” remark and the blow-up it caused was a way of helping us not forget Fleur, indeed to sympathise with her in the face of such an allegation. Simon finished by saying, “you’re turning into an artist, which is what this is all about”. “Artist” is one of Simon’s most positive buzzwords – he would use it later about Jay James. On Sunday, most of the judges namechecked Fleur as someone with potential for a recording career beyond the show.
Confused? We are. Some of our points may be making something out of nothing, but there were definite mixed messages. The overall impression was of a potential star and recording artist, but given a rap-heavy, slutty routine that involved “cheating”. The example of Misha B should have taught this show to be careful about what judges say to their black female contestants.
Let us know your thoughts on this, our other points, and anything else below.