We were uncertain how tonight’s show would pan out: the market’s initial reaction points towards a consensus that Saara is now the chosen one for the win (the odds imply about a 60% chance she wins), and that Emily is a goner (an 80% chance that she leaves tomorrow).
But we should also consider some other possibilities. For instance: 5AM were given every possible help tonight, which they will have needed to have any chance of getting into the top two of the phone vote. It still seems entirely possible they’ll fall short. If that happens, would producers still drag them to the final, or might they be tempted to cut them loose?
Conversely, suppose 5AM do clear the singoff, and Emily and Matt fight it out. Might producers then be tempted to try to push 5AM towards an unlikely victory? And would they be willing to lose Matt to help clear the demographic path? There are many permutations to consider.
The safest conclusion from tonight seems to be that Saara will be safe – and that’s a conclusion rooted in another snippet about the vote that Dermot revealed early in the show. He told us that every one of the four semi-finalists had topped a vote.
That ties into the “it’s an open race” theme producers have been keen to push for the last few weeks (and if it’s an Emily-Matt singoff, what could be more open than a year in which every finalist has survived a bottom two?). But it’s significant because, in week 7, Dermot had revealed that three acts had topped the vote. It seems pretty safe to assume that Matt and Emily were among the weeks 1-6 vote-toppers, so that implies one of Saara or 5AM topped their first vote in week 7 or week 8. And the only one of those possibilities that really makes sense is that Saara topped last week.
If that’s the case, she should be safely through tonight after a broadly positive evening. We doff our cap to producers for nailing a stake through the heart of the “embassy VT” theory, which has become a running joke in these parts since it coincided with Andrea Faustini and Fourth Impact landing in the singoff in the last two series. Saara’s embassy VT was utterly charming. Everyone spoke in perfect English (the theory behind the embassy VT is that it can emphasise an act’s otherness, which wasn’t the case here), and a visit from Santa saw Saara wishing to win the competition and them both telling each other “I believe in you”. It couldn’t have been better.
But the vocals weren’t entirely on point for ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’, and – despite an initial four-judge ovation – both Nicole and Simon added “corny” to the “cheesy” of last week.
Saara’s second song, a reprise of ‘Chandelier’ from her audition, was introduced by a VT reminding us of that audition and referencing her 15 years of trying to make it in the industry. But it didn’t feel like a “journey over” vibe, it felt more like “one last push to the final”. It also won a four-judge ovation, and had Simon praising her fighting qualities and Sharon for building her confidence (once she could remember her name and which part of “abroad” she comes from). Louis called her “world-class” twice.
But the pimping was turned up a notch higher for 5 After Midnight, who also got the most emotional VTs of the night, reminding us of their families and encouraging us to connect with them as individuals. The crowd reaction to ‘Stay Another Day’ was furiously whipped up, and we’ve never seen more gold in X Factor staging than they got for ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered’. Simon told them, after that pimp slot performance, that “something had changed” with them – and that was clearly the intended take-home message, that this is a reboot. The extent to which voters play ball remains to be seen.
Long-time hot favourite Matt Terry’s treatment tonight was surprisingly mixed. Only mentor Nicole stood to applaud either song, and the a capella Silent Night could have been praised a lot more than it was – Simon reaching for one of his occasional food metaphors by calling it “a sandwich without butter”. As Matt emotionally told Dermot how much it meant to him to get to the final, Dermot responded with a dismissive “you’re wearing a nice coat”.
We wondered at the time if the initial mutedness was a setup for a moment in the second performance, but it was quite the opposite. The staging started out looking dodgy – were those doors or tombstones? – and Matt looked pretty lonely on stage until a choir arrived and the lighting turned to gold. But Simon’s comments were brutal. As well as calling it “bland”, he said “something’s been lost along the way”, the kind of criticism that is especially devastating because it’s so nonspecific – it’s impossible for an act to respond to, and viewers can map onto it any of their own emotions. It was also a mirror image of what he’d later say to 5AM.
Could the mysterious story in this morning’s Star conceivably have had anything to do with Matt’s negative treatment? Or have producers seen from the app data that 5AM and Matt have some voters in common, and they were trying to get as many into 5AM’s camp this week as possible? Even if that’s the case, this was no way you’d expect the show to treat an act they’re anticipating having to embrace as their winner in a week’s time. But then, we’ve seen the treatment of acts turn on a dime more than once this series, and perhaps there’s still time for Matt to get back into producers’ good books.
Which brings us to hot favourite for elimination Emily, who at least was allowed the relative dignity of doing what she does every week and being mostly praised for it – that’s better than being told you’ve lost your way. She also had probably the evening’s second best VTs, after 5AM – her parents took her skating, and her mum cried as she talked about how she wanted to make them proud; then she chatted on Skype to her brother. It amused us that Emily’s Glaswegian brother occasioned more subtitling in her VT than Saara got at the Finnish embassy.
The choir of children was a nice touch for Emily’s first song, and we saw her thanking them at the end. But Louis’s “you do the same thing every week” was deeply unhelpful expectation-setting for the audience with another slow song yet to come, and the best Sharon could muster was “you’re still here”. ‘Mad World’ was fine, but it felt like another attempt to recapture the magic of ‘Creep’, with sadly diminishing returns. She was trapped in a prison of light as the song progressed, something we’ve long seen as a staging negative, and you could debate the subliminals of the multiple versions of her face appearing on the big screens behind her.
One fascinating feature of Emily’s evening was how much she nailed both post-performance interviews with Dermot, delivering heartfelt and articulate messages. We’ve often wondered why more acts don’t seem to prepare themselves for this moment, which is pretty much the only chance they get to say something unfiltered by producers – hats off to Emily for maximising her chance to say what she wanted to. We fear it won’t be enough to get her clear of the singoff.
How did you read the semi-final, and what are you expecting from the singoff? Do let us know below.