Time for another midweek pivot off your comments, and we start with X Factor’s very own White Van Man.
1. What’s going on with Ben, then?
AlisonR: “It was a poor performance and the judges were rightly critical. But I don’t see his VT as positive either. He has 2 mates, in his van/in an otherwise empty cafe(?). Your ordinary bloke? Yes. Megastar? No.” EM: “Lets chuck a theory out there. They’re trying to replace Andrea in people’s affections with Ben.” Sagand: “I thought the performance was fine, but the comments were undeniably negative. I think it’s worth noting all the criticism was for the song not Ben, leaving plenty of room for ‘That’s what we’ve been waiting for’ moment if they decide to change ships back.”
For the second week running, Ben was criticised by the female judges for taking on songs away from the rock canon where they think he belongs. Was his overall treatment positive, negative or neutral? Our commenters cover all areas of the spectrum.
We’ll start with song choice, because that’s been the main controversy among the judges for ‘I Will Always Love You’ and ‘Cry Me A River’. Let’s remind ourselves that these are iconic, demo-delighting songs in the first place. It’s their suitability for Ben’s voice that’s under question. How well you think he coped with such challenges is a more subjective judgement. Our view was that he did so pretty well.
As mentioned previously, we think it would be more worrying for Ben if he’d been kept in his box with a series of rock songs. Arguably his worst moment came after his week 3 pimp slot when Simon criticised his own charge as “soundalike” for the Aerosmith rock number. Indeed, if we had a worry, it’s that by criticising his choice of non-rock songs to sing, Cheryl and Mel are backhandedly pigeonholing him as a rock performer.
Still, as Sagand notes, criticising song choice and not the performer is a useful way of not damaging Ben’s overall reputation. “Taking a crazy risk at this stage of the competition” is hardly the most damaging thing you could say – and it’s worth noting that Dermot gave Ben a chance to rebut Cheryl’s criticism, before helpfully informing us that Ben had made a “convincing case”. Going further, a sharp divergence of views on the panel about a decent performance arguably helps to motivate an act’s fanbase in general. Much worse to receive general agreement and platitudes for a middling performance, as Only The Young and Andrea proved again this weekend (see below).
It’s worth putting song choice and judges comments in the context of his overall treatment, and once again we see far more positives than negatives. Ben’s lighting and staging in weeks 6-7? Beautiful. Especially so for ‘Cry Me A River’ to the extent that I expected a four-judge standing ovation for the lovely long shot at the climax of the song. That time, it was just the audience and Simon.
Camerawork was great for him once again this week. Watch his performance back-to-back with Andrea and note how many more close-ups he gets. Halfway through he gets a gorgeous camera sweep around him – something which happened a minute in for ‘Cry Me A River’ too. On both occasions, Ben has been framed and lit like a popstar.
There is some debate about his VT this week. Both AlisonR and Jessica were unimpressed with the Full English, greasy spoon moment with workmates. Again, we take a glass-more-than-half-full view that it continued on a theme of likeable everyman, something Louis was at pains to point out in his “nice guy” character-witness comments. His week 6 VT, taking his mother to a red carpet premiere, was completely demo-delighting.
In short, we can’t help but take a rosy view overall of Ben’s treatment over the last couple of weeks – positives aplenty, negatives not damaging. But if we’re right, is it because producers have been confident Fleur can beat Ben, so they don’t need to damage him; or because they’ve been doubtful Fleur can beat Ben, so they don’t want to damage him? If the latter, did Fleur’s family-and-friends-filled stage for ‘I’m Every Woman’ – which seemed like an all-out assault on Ben’s presumed demographic of post-teen women – change the game?
2. Tuning into Stereo Kicks
Curtis: “The producers are going to do everything for these guys, and you know what, I have to concede that it was all very well set up tonight.” James: “The names thing is wearing so thin now.”
It was Mel B who suggested in week 6 that she hadn’t got to know the individual members of Stereo Kicks, so it was entirely appropriate that when it came, Spice Girl-style nicknames were used too, directly appropriating Baby and Sporty. It was a masterful VT that’s worth looking at in a little more depth.
Louis starts by naming the eight boys in his introduction, before we’re reminded of Mel’s comment. Cue the boys on an ice-skating trip with names on their sweatshirts. A key reason the VT works is its playful manner throughout. The boys initially joke that not even Louis knows all their names, before their judge tells us he does but it’s the public who need to be reminded.
Unsurprisingly, we see footage of those members of the public who do guess their names correctly (you see – they are popular!), before the comic exception of Tom – good decision to have this amusing pay-off with one of the best-looking, most confident members of the band rather than one of the younger ones, which might have looked a little harsh.
It’s then we go beyond their names and get their nicknames, a perfect shorthand for giving each boy a sense of character – it gives the band name a greater purpose too. Added to the two mentioned above, we get Flirty Kick, Diva Kick, Naughty Kick, Smiley Kick, Charming Kick and finally, Northern Kick (how convenient now that all the other northerners are out of the competition).
Again, this segment is managed deftly with clips of the boys playfully mocking each other in explaining the terms. Before we know it, they’re working hard on this week’s big song choice. “There might be eight of us, but we all want exactly the same thing,” Jake explains articulately. Truly, this is a group working in harmony with each other!
Like any good business presentation, afterwards it’s good to be reminded of what we’re supposed to have learnt. So once their performance had finished, Mel stated: “We’ve gotten to know you as a group … Now I see you as a proper group.” Simon repeated: “You look like a proper group … You’re supporting each other.” Cheryl used the word “gel” which Dermot reiterated as he said: “Do you feel now it’s time to gel, it’s coming together?”
All in all, a textbook treatment for pimping a group. Our only criticism is that it could have done with coming earlier in the competition. Still, better late than never.
3. The Donut Deramp, continued
Caro: “I have been intrigued by their treatment of Andrea, and the various facets of his being Italian. I agree that it is more complex than xenophobia: he is being presented as an example of ‘the other’, something different, a bit exotic, a bit strange and a bit comical. His campness is being played up – I am sure a lot of the audience understand the connotations of him consistently being called a ‘bear’….”
What are your all-time most memorable X Factor moments? Ask regular viewers and you’d probably get answers like Alexandra Burke’s duet with Beyonce or Matt Cardle’s ‘First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’. We’d give you a very different list – Sophie Habibis in the pub, Chris Maloney’s laser eyes… On Saturday we got a new one to add to the canon – Andrea eating cake at the Italian embassy. (Background, if you’re new to the donut deramp, here, here and point 5 here).
Poor old Mel has had a rum time in her first year, hasn’t she? Three of her boys clinically assassinated in successive weeks, and now the pack of dogs have Andrea pinned to the ground. It’s always dangerous to speculate about what judges are really thinking, because one of the articles of faith on this site is that the judges are paid good money not to really think. Still, we rather enjoy looking out for Mel’s now-I-need-a-shower expression after she’s heaped praise on Fleur or Stereo Kicks. And we were amused a couple of weeks ago by Cheryl’s throwaway comment about how Mel really cares about her acts, which carried the unspoken subtext of “obviously, none of the rest of us give a shit about ours”.
4. On reverse psychology
Much as we like to amuse ourselves with postulating insanely left-field theories like producers trying to associate Andrea with the idea of sickly excess, it’s useful now and then to remind ourselves of the basics. One of the basics is reverse psychology, and this week saw not one but two examples of its power.
First and most obviously, Simon to Andrea: “There’s no way you’re leaving this week after that performance.” Andrea is safe! No need to vote for Andrea! Don’t vote for Andrea!
But also, Simon to Only The Young. Now, true, this was sandwiched between him saying they’d come alive and expressing a hope that people would vote for them, so you can debate whether it was deliberate (our working assumption is that Simon rarely errs). But it’s worth rewatching, because you can actually see the psychological effect on display in Only The Young’s faces.
Simon interrupts his praise by saying: “But here’s the problem – it’s a double elimination”. He pauses while the implication sinks in, the implication being: you might have scraped through if it were a single elimination, but we all know you’re not very popular. As he goes on to explain that they were among the favourites for elimination, Only The Young look tense and nervous. Then he says “But not after that”, and their faces explode with relief. Phew! We’re safe! Simon has decreed it so! How many viewers experienced a similar release of tension, and didn’t pick up their phone as a result?
5. A note of thanks to Sofabet commenters
Stoney: “I might even get a mention in a write up if she [Fleur] wins”.
The Sofabet comments have been busier than ever this year, and as always there have been some great shouts. Notably, anyone who reads below the line can’t possibly fail to have noticed that commenter Stoney has been banging the drum for Fleur since the first week of the live shows at vastly longer odds than she is now – at a point when we didn’t see it coming at all. Well done to him for the call of the series.
While we’re on the subject of the Sofabet comments section, we’ve noticed in previous years that as the series reaches the business end, the vibe in the comments can tend to become less collegiate and more tribal, as people get emotionally as well as financially invested in their take on what’s happening.
We want to stress what we think the Sofabet comments is all about. As far as we’re concerned, everyone who reads the comments has the same ultimate interest: in figuring out what’s happening, and in getting useful raw material to think things through for themselves and reach their own conclusions.
For us the comments section is at its best when everyone feels able to share theories in the confidence that disagreement will be respectful and victors will be magnanimous. It never fails to amaze us that this corner of the internet largely lives up to those standards, and thanks to all our commenters for making it so.