It’s been incredibly obvious since the audition stages that Louisa Johnson is the act producers want to win this year – we ran through all the evidence why in a post before the six-chair challenge, as well as the reasons to think that Louisa might not be an easy sell to the voting public. We’ve felt after the first, second and third weeks of live shows that producers haven’t quite known how to sell her, but goodness did they throw the kitchen sink at her this week.
Louisa’s staging on Saturday is the most inspired we can remember on this show. It was so shameless you couldn’t help but admiringly chuckle – a moment right up there with Dermot banging the “Vote Fleur East” bus at the end of last year’s semi-final, or getting Labrinth to introduce Fleur in the final duet rather than the other way round. So let’s doff our caps to producers and admire a job well done this week.
We’ve felt there were previously a few mis-steps in Louisa’s VTs, but not on Saturday. After the usual anodyne backstage stuff, we saw Louisa visiting her brickie dad, Dave – starting to fill in a family backstory that has only so far featured a couple of glimpses of her mum. Don’t discount the importance of showing the family bond: last year viewers were repeatedly invited to invest emotionally in Ben Haenow’s relationship with his mum, brother Alex and Nonna Rita.
As well as showing us that Louisa loves her dad and her dad loves her, the building site portrayed her as being from humble, honest, working class stock – a much better look than last week, reminiscing with her mum about being at theatre school at the age of eight. We saw her being charmingly at ease with her dad’s mates, wearing her WHUFC hard hat as they sang ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’, and cheerfully having a go at a bit of pointing. It showed a lot more personality than we’ve seen so far.
The VT was edited to end with Louisa saying “I’m going to prove with this song why I can win this competition”. We’ve worried before about the wisdom of Cowell repeating that Louisa “wants” to win the competition, but this was much better judged – it portrays her as admirably determined, not offputtingly overcompetitive. And, as the closing words of VTs are often intended to do, it frames viewers’ expectations – we’re primed to be watching a performance deserving of winning the series.
“This girl’s going to literally take it to another level” is how Rita had introduced Louisa, pleasingly for those of us who still care about the word literally, and Louisa duly appeared on a platform high up at the back of the studio. Her white-clad choir stood in the aisles, descending away behind her.
Showing us that Louisa is literally above everyone else also suggests that she’s metaphorically above everyone else, and the backdrop – a distant cityscape, seen as from atop the highest skyscraper – cleverly accentuated that.
But more than that, the staging played heavily on the theme of Louisa as angelic. Regular readers will know that we feel red-and-black staging reminiscent of hell is one trick producers have used to get rid of unwanted acts, and this was the other extreme. Louisa herself was clad in white, as were her backing singers. Her feet were enveloped by rolling smoke, making it look like she was standing in a cloud. Starry lights twinkled as if in the firmament. She got halo-effect lighting.
After the performance, she got to walk jublilantly from her platform down the aisle as the crowd cheered, reminiscent of a cup-winning footballer having collected a medal, before enjoying a congratulatory hug with Rita.
Judges’ comments set out to address head-on a failing that we have consistently worried about – the fact that, as a 17 year old, Louisa lacks the life experience to make emotional lyrics believable. Cheryl informed us that “for a 17 year old that probably hasn’t really experienced heartbreak” it was “outstanding”. Nick ran with the theme: “I don’t think the impressive thing is your voice, being 17, obviously that’s incredible, but what’s impressive, being 17, is being able to tell a story and convey that emotion, that’s what really incredible, being 17”.
Simon sought to persuade us that we’d just seen a gamechanger: “You know what, Louisa, there is always, sometimes, a moment with singers in these competitions, Fleur with Uptown Funk, Leona with Summertime, I think you’ve just had that moment with this song, I really do.” Nick picked up that theme as well, calling it her “best moment to date”.
(What is it with the word “moment” this year? Nick used it four times in one sentence after Louisa’s week 1 performance, making us wonder if he was gently taking the piss out of the things he has to do for the show, as we also wondered with his repeated “17” references this week. Rita told Mason this week that “that moment wasn’t the moment I wanted, I didn’t find a specific moment”. Do they have some kind of private bet about who can use it the most?)
Cowell again seemed to reverse gear from the “you want to win” of earlier weeks, saying “you’re very sweet and humble, where you could be a monster” – and Louisa made sure to reinforce that impression, thanking everyone for voting and telling Olly she’s “grateful to be here”. Olly had started his post-performance question by telling her it was a “seriously stunning performance”, and making sure we’d noticed the standing ovation.
The markets reacted accordingly. After being rated as having a 45-to-50% chance of winning the show before last Saturday, Louisa’s odds contracted to suggest a 65-to-70% chance. But still, it wasn’t hard to find some scepticism in the Sofabet comments.
Rose was “utterly put off by the constant pimping”. For Plinkiplonk, “the pimping of St Louisa is reaching ridiculous proportions”. Martin added “it all seemed a bit desperate to me”. Donald said: “still not convinced on Louisa, no real goosebump moment yet, they have tried but still lacks the really nailed on performance.” To Jack, it “screamed ‘Ella Henderson'”.
Dave S said she “sings brilliantly but still seems really plastic”. Simon Kent observed that “whenever Louisa sings, magically the quality of sound improves including the reverb, better sound shaping, high quality backing vocals and instruments”. Edie M reckoned “they went a bit far last night. My mum rang me up after Louisa’s performance to say she thought it had been ‘ludicrous’.”
Lia related this conversation with her nine year old daughter, who is clearly Sofabet – The Next Generation:
– Mum, is XFactor a fix?
– What do you mean?
– Like, it’s not happening for real. It’s a play and we don’t have to vote because they have a story to follow and it won’t count.
– Well, they can’t do that because a lot of people pay to vote for who they like, so they would get into a lot of trouble if they did that.
*Gives me an unconvinced look* so I carry on:
– But they can manipulate…
– Well, they may not put a lot of effort into someone’s performance so you’re not impressed or choose a bad song for someone or, if it’s someone they really like, they can make a big show and give better sound so more people will vote for that contestant.
– Aaaaah! Just like they’re doing with Louisa?
The question is, how widely do these comments resonate with the voting public. We are, after all, still something of a niche audience. Dean provides a reality check by saying: “Many cynics on here don’t see it but it was definitely a sort of a moment.” And Cherry Analysts cuts to the quick with: “Simple question… if Louisa doesn’t win then who does and why?”
Indeed. Last year we had Ben Haenow as a default vote magnet that Fleur never managed to attract enough votes away from; there isn’t an equivalent this year. Neither the boys nor the overs contained the kind of Haenow, Cardle, McElderry catnip for female demographics that would win the show off a level playing field: the nearest possibilities, Simon Lynch and Ben Clark, were never entirely convincing and both jettisoned before a public vote. This will not, of course, have been a coincidence.
In a parallel universe, where each act received equally helpful treatment, who might be winning it this year from the acts who made the lives? Anton, perhaps, being something of a Chris Maloney, Sam Bailey figure; but after allegedly storming the week 1 vote, according to the Star’s leak, he has been cut down in a ruthless and brutally effective manner.
It will be fascinating to see how producers play Louisa from here. Rose raises a valid concern: “TPTB have pimped her into a corner this week IMO – where do they go from here?” But the year this one is increasingly resembling is 2011, when a victory was won not only by pimping Little Mix to high heaven but by making sure they put the dampeners on everybody else.
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