Arthur: “I think Ben is just casually flying along under the radar – picking up votes left, right & centre. Very Cardle-esque”. Jif: “If Fleur wins it then its Little Mix again every single one of the sods nuked to high heaven”.
In the run-up to this year’s live shows, there was much discussion on Sofabet about the resemblance to 2010. There were wildcards and 16 acts. There was a Katie Waissel in Chloe Jasmine, and a Wagner in Stevi Ritchie. And there was a manufactured boyband producers seemed determined to foist on an unsuspecting world.
But there was a difference: in 2010, Matt Cardle had the mid-20s male niche to himself. This year they crowded that niche with Ben, Jay, Paul and Jake. The theory bandied about at the time about producers’ thinking was that none of them would be able to run away with the popular vote to the extent Cardle did in 2010, topping it every week from the second week onwards. That would allow time for the boyband to find their feet and establish some popularity.
Well, now we know how that worked out. But where does that leave the 2010 comparisons?
Of our four putative Cardles, Jake left in week 3, Paul in week 5 and Jay in week 6. In the Sofabet comments there has been much speculation that free app voting will be tempting more people to vote for their second preference where in previous years they might not have bothered, and that Ben might be hoovering up a lot of those votes.
It’s a plausible theory. As we said before the lives (in a speculative 1-16 prediction that otherwise makes for some painful reading), we thought Ben might go furthest of the four Cardles as he ticks a lot of X Factor boxes – he comes across as likeable and humble, he can sing, and he has looks that will appeal to a wide range of female demographics.
We mentioned last week that while there had been some negatives around him in weeks 6 and 7, they seemed calculated not to do him any real damage – all the criticism was around the song choice, rather than him personally. One possible reason for this is that Ben had started Cardling the public vote.
We reckon that kind of “you know I’m your biggest fan, but” treatment is how you would expect producers to treat an act who isn’t their Plan A to win it, but is popular enough that they aren’t confident they’ll be able to get their Plan A past him. Indeed, Matt Cardle himself got similar comments at times – after Bleeding Love, for example. Nothing negative has been said to Ben that can’t be swept aside with a “that’s more like it, now you’re singing the kind of songs you should be singing!”
Contrast, say, the “boring” tag applied to Lauren in week 6, or the fun-poking at Andrea’s face-pulling. These are more direct hits on the act themselves – it’s harder in the space of a few weeks to acquire an interesting personality or to stop gurning than it is to choose songs that are deemed more suitable for your voice. We’re not saying that means they can’t win – naturally, the judges will still ramp either of these acts if they happen to be leading the vote unassailably in the winner’s song round a week on Sunday. What we suspect is that producers try not to say too-damaging things about an act they suspect they might ultimately end up having to heave a sigh and back for the win.
Whatever producers were trying to achieve in weeks 6 and 7 with Ben, they must have been happy enough with its effects as much the same script continued in week 8. Mel again said Ben lacked “light and shade” in his performance of ‘Thinking Out Loud’ and should be singing rock songs, while Cheryl said it sounded different from how Ed Sheeran sang it. That’s hardly the most damning thing you could say. (There were also some staging negatives for Ben this week. We’ll address those in the regular midweek post, in a day or two).
Those whose books are green on Ben will have drawn comfort from the reaction this criticism provoked from the audience, Ben and Dermot sharing a smile as they struggled to speak above the noise of the audience booing Mel. “Sounds like 700 people agree with you,” Dermot told Ben, adding “partisan crowd in here tonight”.
On the other hand, here’s the concern for Ben backers. Producers’ treatment of him is – as we also noted last week – also entirely consistent with the idea that Fleur is performing strongly enough in the vote that they simply don’t feel the need to go after him with all guns blazing. So could we be in 2011 territory? That would make Fleur into Little Mix, and turn Ben into a Marcus Collins instead of a Matt Cardle.
Ben strikes us as a stronger all-round proposition than Reverend Sunshine, bless him and his inflatable pink church, but there are plenty of parallels in Fleur’s case. Like Fleur, in 2011 Little Mix went into the live shows as outsiders due to an unpromising lack of audition screentime and their status as the kind of act that hadn’t traditionally done too well – a girlband in Little Mix’s case, and an evidently sexually-confident woman in Fleur’s case (let’s recall she had been introduced to us at bootcamp, legs akimbo on a stool, as a “nightclub singer”).
Like Fleur’s this year, Little Mix’s odds shortened progressively until they became a short-priced favourite. Like Fleur this year, in mid-series producers seemed to decide to give Little Mix a push to see how realistic their prospects of winning might be: they sang second-from-last in week 4 ahead of a week 5 pimp slot, while Fleur followed the same running order trajectory a week later.
One possibly interesting difference is that producers mixed up the running order slots more with Little Mix than they have with Fleur. After their week 5 pimp slot, Little Mix were sent out third of seven acts in week 6; after they topped the vote for the first time from another late slot in week 7, producers sent them out first in week 8. In contrast, Fleur’s week 6 pimp slot has been followed by fifth of seven in week 7, and fourth of five this week. You could read that as indicating a lack of confidence.
Going into the final in 2011, only Little Mix and Marcus Collins hadn’t hit a singoff all series, something which seems likely to be the case with Ben and Fleur this time around. Marcus, like Ben, hadn’t really been full-on nuked up to that point, in a series notorious in these parts for its full-on nuking (“boring” Janet, “bully” Misha, “singing secretary” Sophie) – and in this case producers didn’t need to have nuked him, as he’d never topped a single vote. They’ll have been confident that saddling him with a couple of dodgy song choices in the final would be enough to stop him – as, indeed, proved to be the case.
So does this feel like 2010 to you, with Ben as Matt Cardle? Or does it feel like 2011, with Ben as Marcus Collins? Or would you like to go out on a limb and argue that it feels 2012-y, with either Lauren or Andrea as James Arthur, the only act to win so far after surviving a singoff? Do let us know which year you’re feeling reminded of below.