Fudd: “I still think there were enough signs during yesterday’s show to say that producers aren’t fully behind Saara.”
The previously discussed yo-yo treatment of Saara Aalto went into overdrive last Saturday. We learnt at the start of the show that she was drawn #2 in the running order, an unpromising slot from which 5 of the last 6 quarter-finalists have ended up in the singoff. But her VT did have one gent in the focus group say, “She’s my winner,” to which Saara gasped for joy and commented, “now I can dream about being in the final”, the first time such possibilities had been mentioned. Sharon would repeat the idea, “you belong in the final”, in the second VT.
To our eyes and ears, ‘The Winner Takes It All’ didn’t start promisingly. The arrangement was unusual, Saara’s hair was done up and contained a strange headpiece, the stage was dark, and we quickly got a cutaway of a bored-looking Sharon. And yet as the song went on, Saara seemed to rise above these issues, firstly with a strong first chorus. Despite plenty of red on stage, her massive second chorus saw a particularly effective sweeping long shot as the audience got to their feet, and Sharon did too. By the end, all the judges were standing, and ultimately effusive in their praise.
What was going on here? A possible insight comes from Brian Friedman’s column for the Gay Times this week. “The honest truth about that number is that it was potentially one of my least favourites to begin with.” Brian managed to bin the original idea of following the original version until going uptempo, into a heartfelt piano ballad throughout, his favourite performance of the week. Was this the input that enabled Saara to have a “moment” instead of being taken down?
Interestingly, Brian also defends Saara’s second performance from the judges’ critique. We felt like the Diamonds mash-up was a reverse play of what happened in first song, this time going from hero to zero in the space of seconds. Firstly, there was the realisation that she was getting the coveted pomp slot for it, a switch almost as big as Louisa Johnson’s #1 and #10 at the final-five stage last year.
We thought the ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ performance began promisingly. Sure, she started high up on a cloud, but the spotlight was on her, and she was being allowed to showcase her vocals with a straightforward arrangement. There was then the wow moment of her falling into the backing dancers’ arms, before a routine that looked like a suitable tribute to ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’, as iconic UK landmarks flashed up on the backdrop.
It was only when Saara moved to the chaise longue in front of the judging panel that it felt like her skills were overshadowed by unnecessary frivolity. This time Nicole and Simon remained seated at the end, and were determined to point out its faults. Nicole found a euphemism for “bat-shit crazy”, and called it a “cheese explosion”, which Simon was determined to reiterate with a loud “A little?!” Her figure-skater outfit was referenced by Nicole, which reminded us of the moment in her first VT when the focus group felt she was “cheapened” by “big costumes”.
Some of our commenters reckoned that the references to the better first song were a positive for Saara at this point. But that line wasn’t useful for 5 After Midnight, and we don’t think it was intended to be helpful to Saara either. If they’d wanted to pimp her further, Simon could have said “you showed us how well you can sing in your first song, and now you’ve shown us how well you can entertain”. Instead he was at pains to put down the staging which the VT had indicated was all Saara’s idea.
Ultimately, there were quite a few rotations of the Saara yo-yo last weekend. At times, her treatment suggested she had become the underdog, feelgood Chosen One, and at other times hinted she was still way too wacky for her own good.
Painting a Matt Finnish?
Tom Davies: “The fact Saara is now appearing with Matt in different appearances (the ‘Irish section for Louis Loves) suggests to me that TPTB think this should be the final Sunday.”
We also noticed Matt and Saara having some time together over the weekend, so went back over the shows to see if this felt like coincidence or something more. Saturday’s Xtra Factor was what really planted the seed. Nicole was questioned whether her comments that Saara “had just taken first place” meant she thought the Finn was better than her own charge. As the judge gave a diplomatic answer, there was a nice moment as Matt put his arm round Saara, who was standing next to him.
Just five minutes later, there was a lovely segment about Saara and Matt bonding in an Irish pub, as part of the Louis Loves theme. It again ended with Matt’s arm around Saara.
On the main shows, in Saara’s second VT, Matt was there explaining, “that medley is going to sound incredible”, as she played the piano. Funnily enough, virtually the same thing had happened the previous week during Saara’s VT. As she practised ‘My Heart Will Go On’ at the piano, Matt was there, commenting, “your voice is just huge… I’m worried.”
Coincidence or not? It’s worth bearing in mind that there are very few people left in the competition, especially non-novelty soloists. Having Matt be the one to praise Saara’s vocals during her VT makes more sense than having any other act do it. Similarly, the thought of Emily or Honey G pulling pints with Matt or Saara at the Irish pub doesn’t feel so apt. And whilst it could have been any member of Five After Midnight, producers may have decided it was best to show Matt with female company for a cosy evening out.
For now, we think coinicidence is more likely. But could a Matt / Saara final two still be on the cards? Possibly.
Stuck In The Middlemas With You
Scott: “[Emily] only really has one lane, she’s not the versatile performer who normally goes on and wins shows like this”. Sindi: “Emily’s treatment last weekend wasn’t as helpful as she would have needed and I don’t think they care much”.
Regular readers will know that we usually assume any disagreements between the judges are just pantomime – scripted, for whatever purpose. But there are times when we wonder if, actually, genuine behind-the-scenes differences of opinion are seeping into public view. Emily’s treatment since the week 4 triumph of ‘Creep’ has been one such instance.
In week 6, following the dirge of ‘Wishing On A Star’, the other three judges seemed more than usually animated in calling for Simon to allow Emily an uptempo number. The next week saw Emily summoned to Simon’s office in Syco, where she received a headmasterly telling-off for agreeing with them and was sent out with another slow number, which the other three duly praised.
This week, there were more niggles on the panel. After ‘Toxic’, Louis said nice things then added “but I still want to see you dance”, to which Simon loudly interjected, in a strangulated tone, “she’s not a dancer”. Nicole claimed credit for having advised Simon to allow Emily an instrument, to which Simon responded “this is all down to you, is it? What an ego.”
Emily’s VT for ‘Human’ ended with Nicole saying: “I can definitely tell Simon didn’t pick it, so that’s already better”. Nicole ended her feedback by saying “I still feel like you’re playing it a little safe…”; Simon turned to her with palms up, saying “shh… shh… please… please… please”; as Nicole persevered, a wide-angle shot caught Sharon and Louis sharing a laugh.
If we interpret all this as the usual scripted banter, then you would have to say it’s calculated to harm Emily’s chances. In week 6, she’s asked to do uptempo; in week 7, she does another slow song. In her first week 8 performance, Louis asks her to dance; in her second performance, she doesn’t dance. They set up expectations, then don’t allow her to meet them. And still Nicole wants more.
But another interpretation also fits the observable facts: all the judges are trying to help Emily, but they disagree about what she needs. Under this interpretation, the other three judges’ week 6 pleas for an uptempo were a continuation of a behind-the-scenes discussion; the week 7 headmaster’s office and pimp slot was about Simon making the other judges kiss his ring; and this week’s “shh… please” represented genuine annoyance on his part, which Louis and Sharon enjoyed.
Brian Friedman’s columns for Gay Times lend credence to this interpretation. About that week 7 performance, Brian had revealed that Simon ditched the creative he’d prepared; in this week’s column he wrote that “against all odds” he’d been allowed to “finally put dancers out there and give her a production that has a little bit of life to it… I think we had a win in a creative respect”.
That word “win” suggests a behind-the-scenes battle. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to imagine Brian and the production staff growing frustrated with Simon’s insistence that he knows best for Emily, and that vibe seeping through to the other judges. But if Emily’s treatment reflects neither apathy nor harmful intent, but instead a clash of well-intentioned egos, what would it mean for her?
On the one hand, it’s encouraging. If Simon indeed sees Emily as his pet project, it suggests he has post-show plans for her – and if that’s the case, he would presumably prefer her to get into the final without a singoff, and ideally to the final Sunday. On the other hand, if Simon and producers can’t agree on a coherent vote-motivating plan for her this weekend, she could end up being dragged down in the crossfire.
HenryVIII: “Cowell said on Saturday’s Xtra that it wasn’t like most series where it was obvious who was going to win but that it keeps changing at the top.” Stoney: “There is every chance [Matt] has been hoovering up the floating voters… As Ben Haenow did”.
We always say that predicting X Factor is a two-part process: figuring out what producers want, and asking if the voting public will oblige. How close does the vote have to be at this stage for producers to be able to engineer the winner they want? It may be useful to remind ourselves where the vote was at the quarter-final stage in previous years, in relation to what producers seemed to want to achieve.
2015: Louisa Johnson finished only third in the quarter-final, beaten by a bouncing Che Chesterman and Reggie N Bollie, and was just 2.7% above the singoff. But margins were tight: just 1.1% separated the top three, so producers were comfortably able to get Louisa back on top in the semi-final and to a wide-margin win in the final.
2014: Fleur East never bested Ben Haenow in the vote, despite consistent ramping, and Ben increased his margin over her in the quarter-final, winning with 26.4% to Fleur’s 17.9%; Fleur was only 0.1% above the singoff. This was evidently when producers decided to embrace Ben as their inevitable winner, giving him a feelgood week 9 VT having Christmas dinner with family.
2013: the quarter-final margin was much tighter than the betting would have suggested at the time, with Sam Bailey beating Nick McDonald by only 2.3 percentage points – she went on to win the semi-final by only 1.4 points. At this point, producers could easily have pushed either of them over the line, and they preferred Sam.
2012: the quarter-final immediately followed the singoff in which producers had to choose between their two most commercial propositions, James Arthur and Ella Henderson. They chose James, and bounced him to a wide-margin win in the quarter-final, with almost double the votes of second-placed Christopher Maloney. From here it was an easy job to steer him home.
2011: Little Mix had hit the top for the first time in week 7. In the quarter-final they were beaten by 1.4 percentage points by a bouncing Amelia Lily, but margins were tight all round: Little Mix were also just 4.1% above the singoff. It was all close enough for producers to engineer the win they wanted.
2010: Matt Cardle had topped the vote every week since week 2, but had only just won week 7 – by 1.6%. He slipped the field again in the quarter-final, however, polling 32% – way ahead of Rebecca Ferguson (14%), Cher Lloyd (13.2%) and presumed ideal winner One Direction (11.9%, just 0.6% above the singoff). From here, Matt must have looked unstoppable to them.
2009: Joe McElderry didn’t top the vote till week 7 but in the quarter-final his 37.1% put him well clear of Stacey Solomon (20.1%) and Olly Murs, whose bounce after the previous week’s singoff took him only to 18.9%, along with the early favourite Danyl Johnon (12.5%). It would have been a Herculean task to stop Joe from here.
2008: at this point, producers could have had their pick of Alexandra Burke and JLS as winners – they practically tied the quarter-final vote, ahead of the unwanted long-time leader Eoghan Quigg. JLS then won the semi, and it’s widely assumed that the duets (Alexandra enjoyed a moment of TV gold with Beyonce, while JLS were lumbered with Westlife) made the difference in the final.
In summary, that’s four out of eight years where the quarter-final vote was close enough for producers to choose their winner; and four where a young, male soloist was way ahead. In one case (James Arthur), it was the winner they wanted; in the other three (Ben Haenow, Matt Cardle and Joe McElderry) it was more a case of them acquiescing in the win going to an inoffensive, middle-of-the-road act with appeal to the voting public but dubious commercial prospects.
Looking back at the voting statistics for these years also cautions against reading too much into what we’ve been told so far. In week 5, for example, Dermot said there was 1% between the top two; but Ben Haenow won week 5 by just 0.8%, and Matt Cardle won week 7 by just 1.6%. We’ve also learned that we’ve had three different vote-toppers; but the same was true in Joe McElderry’s year – Danyl, Stacey and Rachel Adedeji all topped the vote in weeks 1-6. It was only in either week 7 (Joe) or 8 (Matt Cardle, Ben) that the act in question started to look uncatchable.
There are obvious similarities between Matt Terry and Joe McElderry, Matt Cardle and Ben Haenow. But there’s also one big difference – none of them had looked like producers’ preferred winner during the audition stages. Matt did. But is he still? His treatment this week felt like a holding pattern, neither overly hyping nor damaging him. Was that to see how much they could hold back his vote, or was it merely an attempt to continue to give the public the impression that this race is more open than it really is? Do let us know your thoughts below.
Photos via ©ITV / @ThePixelFactor