Matt’s journey feels like a mirror image of Saara’s in that he started out with nothing but praise and producer favour, yet approaches the final having endured some rough recent criticism, and a singoff save. It’s been a series of two halves for the Bromley lad. Picking himself up from a failed relationship, the first half saw him portrayed as a newly-available heart-throb with a glittering future.
But he goes into the final weekend wounded by Simon’s description of him as “bland” and “like a sandwich without butter”, that helped him drop into the bottom two for the first time last Sunday. Was this merely intended to make the final look as open as possible before returning the presumptive crown to his head, or a sign that he’s not so attractive to producers’ eyes any more? For the first time since the live shows began, the betting market dumped him as their favourite, replacing him with Saara.
His audition backstory was one of lost love: “I’ve come out of a relationship with my girlfriend,” he explained. This “heartbreak”, and confirmation that he was the one dumped, marked him out as single and sympathetic. Despite this, Matt displayed a chipper attitude that left the judges with a “positive”, “happy” and “feelgood” impression. Nicole was playful with him, and Cowell made a direct comparison with Syco’s girl-magnet Olly Murs, describing Matt as “fun, approachable, you’ve got that same personality”.
Producers had also wheeled out that classic X Factor supporting act, the Loyal Nan. Matt’s grandma described herself as Simon Cowell’s biggest fan, adding colour to the audition. She would be featured in the audience at the six-chair challenge, at judges’ houses and in his week 2 VT. It’ll be interesting to see how much of a returning part she gets during the final weekend.
Matt’s performance of ‘Stand By Me’ in that first audition was solid and had the payoff of a fine falsetto. He used that higher register to good effect at bootcamp also, where Sharon said “he’s got everything”, Nicole responded “he’s so cool”, and Simon rounded things off by claiming he was “one of the best boys we’ve had in a long time”. At this point he and eventual judges’ houses reject Caitlyn Vanbeck were vying for early favouritism.
There was some drama over his seat at the six-chair challenge, but that seemed highly contrived to us and, what’s more, it felt like Matt was in on it. Beforehand, we got some social confirmation that Matt was attractive to women: as Nicole introduced him, we were shown a few cutaway shots of excited females chanting for him to get a seat. “Wow, really? The girls are very excited about you already,” Nicole reiterated.
The first suspected contrivance came with Matt’s initial attempt at Bruno Mars’ ‘When I Was Your Man’, which was in the wrong key for him. Nicole quickly stopped him and said he was “a half-step too high”. Without blinking, Matt offered to start again “a half-step lower”, a change which immediately appeared to give Nicole all the feels. The second suspected contrivance was Nicole’s dilemma about whose seat to give last-to-perform Christian Burrows. Nicole chose Matt to sing again, suggesting only one of the pair – portrayed as good pals during the episode – was going to be selected. Once more, Matt didn’t bat an eyelid before launching into a second song, and after much heartfelt hugging on stage, Nicole was persuaded that both boys deserved to go through.
Matt’s judges’ houses edit left little doubt that he was not only alpha in his category, but deserving favourite for the contest. We returned to the backstory of his failed relationship, which he explicitly linked to ‘She’s Out of My Life’. Having offered us that emotional connection, his strong performance as the sun set in the south of France left him, mentor Nicole and guest Calvin Harris emotional.
Months will have passed between the filming of Matt’s room audition and judges’ houses, at both of which he told his failed romance story. But a week before the latter was aired, The Sun reported that Matt and supposed ex, Jasmine Avis, had split only “very briefly”, and that they were still sharing a flat. This was especially inconvenient given that, in his first audition, Matt had said he had to leave his job so he could move away from the area to get over the heartbreak.
Matt’s week 1 VT attempted to clear up the confusion. There they had Freddy Parker, with whom Matt had struck up a strong friendship according to their social media accounts, joshingly ask him if he was lying about being single. Matt replied “no” with a frown. We then cut to Freddy’s reaction, which we said at the time looked like nervously conspiratorial laughter.
The week 1 song choice of ‘You Don’t Own Me’ continued the jilted theme, and required the clunky lyric change to “Don’t say I can’t go out with the boys.” Simon didn’t sound too certain about the truth, saying “even if you’re dumped, don’t worry about that, because this song is going to get you lots of chicks”.
One of the “chicks” who play-acted being turned on was mentor Nicole, flaring her nostrils suggestively after his performance. This became a running theme for the first half of the live shows. In week 2, Nicole, doing her best cougar impression, decided to show him both leg and thigh after his performance.
In the week 3 VT, Matt’s friends turned up at the studios to witness her flirting with their pal. Matt as heart-throb was also the subject of the week 4 and 5 VTs, showing him dealing in embarrassed fashion with female attention in a nightclub, and fending off questions from a female journalist about female attention. The week 5 results show saw Nicole straddle him in eye-opening manner when he was announced safe, earning a disapproving look from Simon Cowell.
We’ve long said that a close bond between mentor and contestant is a positive sign. If the bond appears to deepen, it suggests “this contestant is one of us, a star who hangs out with other celebrities”. The example that comes to mind is Sharon Osborne inviting Sam Bailey to hang out at her home for a semi-final VT. Having a mentor flirt suggestively with an act takes it one step further: “This contestant is one of us, a star who might get it on with other celebrities.” A recent example we can think of is Fleur East’s week 3 VT, where Simon was shown flirting with her in the corridor, before the mother of his child pulled him back. At the time we thought this might be a red flag for Fleur, but it was better read as signifying her star power.
Matt’s star had been in the ascendant, receiving mainly high praise for his early performances. After his week 3 rendition of ‘I’ll Be There’, Simon said, “the winning post is in sight”. He was an odds-on favourite at this point, a place cemented by his strong week 4 performance of ‘Put A Spell On You’.
His week 5 cover of ‘I’m Your Man’, felt like a necessary application of the brakes to stop the show appearing too predictable. First in the running order with a red and black backdrop that looked subliminally like snake eyes, he wasn’t vocally at his best whilst moving around the stage. Louis called his performance “karaoke”, although Simon claimed to have “loved it”.
Week 6 witnessed another uninspired song choice with ‘Best of My Love’. This time, there was at least an exemplary VT about Matt doing it for his hard-working parents, that also saw him return to his humble waiting job. And the staging was golden, with a big production that involved Matt striding into the studio from the car park. This time it was Simon who poured cold water on the performance by saying, “the first half of the song didn’t work because it didn’t feel like you”.
It wasn’t the first time Simon had been equivocal in his comments about Matt, and it’s worth going through them. In week 1, he prefaced his praise by admitting “at first I liked you, then I didn’t.” That sense of swinging back and forth on Matt continued. After week 2’s ‘I Heard it Through The Grapevine’, Cowell had said he preferred Matt the previous week, but that you’ve got “the chance to turn into someone really good”. He repeated this in week 6, agreeing with Sharon that “there’s a lot more to come from you”.
Simon, like the other judges, was effusive in his praise for Matt’s week 7 performance of Sam Smith Bond theme ‘Writing’s On The Wall’, a high point for the 23-year-old during the latter part of the competition. More golden staging – and extensive use of his falsetto – combined for the first four-judge standing ovation of the night. This felt like a return to the first four weeks, when Matt’s treatment suggested he was the closest this series had got to being The Chosen One.
But just at the moment when you expected producers to embrace what they had built up, it felt like they started giving Matt the cold shoulder instead. Having moved to two songs per show for the quarter-final and semi-final, Matt received the earliest slot in the running order for three out of those four songs, and the second worst slot on the other occasion. This from someone who hasn’t received one pimp slot in the live shows (only one other act, Luke Friend, has reached the final without a pimp slot in 12 years of the show).
In week 8, he spent all of ‘Secret Love Song’ stuck on a high plinth, from where it’s easier to disconnect an act from the studio audience. Simon called the first half “a bit wet”. There was minimal production for Matt’s second song, Sia’s ‘Alive’. Simon was more enthusiastic this time, suggesting Matt was better without dancers and gimmicks around him, and that consequently he could imagine Matt giving just such a performance as the Sunday guest star the following year.
However, Cowell gave the boy both barrels in the semi-final last Saturday. Matt’s ‘Silent Night’ seemed vocally secure to us, with a decent acappella opening. Simon dampened the other judges’ enthusiasm by calling it “predictable” before describing it as “like a sandwich without butter”. It’s not the first time Simon has used strange food-based metaphors as critique. He damned Ryan Lawrie this way in week 3 (“if I imagine what a pancake would be like if it sang”), and more notoriously did the same to Andrea Faustini in 2014 (“listening to you makes me feel like I’ve eaten six donuts”).
Cowell called Matt’s second performance last Saturday “bland” and added, “something’s been lost along the way”. This all seemed unusually damaging about the last remaining male soloist and erstwhile favourite. Just what was going on here? Was the sole intention to get him below the other remaining male act, the more marketable Five After Midnight, about whom Simon made that opposite observation “something has changed [for the better]”? Or perhaps he’d been tossed under by the wave of public support for Saara, and producers had hoisted their sails to the Finnish boat instead? Giving him ‘Alive’ only highlighted her vocal superiority, Saara having nailed it in an earlier singoff.
There’s a possibility that producers decided at this point to take the “open race” message to the next level by having all the finalists drop into the bottom two. Clearly stung by the idea that Matt had it sewn up after three weeks, they’d started dropping hints from week 6 onwards about different acts topping the vote. And while last Saturday night may have been bad for Matt, at least the Sunday show failed to repeat the criticism of him, instead clearly having the knives out for Emily, as the singoff confirmed.
But if the intention was always to build Matt back up in the final, it’s hard not to think there’s some collateral damage done by using sentiments such as “wet”, “bland”, and comparing him to a butter-less sandwich. Like Gifty earlier in the series, the rapid switch in mood makes us wonder if he has somehow displeased producers behind the scenes. That seemed unlikely when Matt was happy to play ball earlier in the series.
On last Sunday’s Xtra Factor, Simon’s comment that we would see a return to “week 1” Matt in the final, seemed a ray of hope. Should he make it to this coming Sunday, the Ed Sheeran acoustic ballad penned as one potential winner’s single, could suit him well. He remains the most Middle-England friendly act remaining; the type who in normal years, would be hoovering up new and transferring voters at this stage.
But Matt seems to be having as much luck with potential duet partners as he’s had with girlfriends. Firstly, Sam Smith apparently snubbed performing with him, then James Arthur, reportedly lined up should Emily have got through, supposedly declined once Matt was the suggested partner instead (for a sense of how a ‘Say You Won’t Let Go’ duet with a male partner may or may not work, check out the version from the Australian X Factor final a few weeks ago. The act in question, Vlado Saric, had survived the semi-final singoff and went on to finish third in the four-act final).
If you believe these stories, the poor lad can’t stop being jilted. He’ll be awaiting his fate at the Wembley altar on Saturday, in what feels like the climactic episode of a soap opera. Will producers allow the ideal partner to show up and make his dreams come true? Let us know your thoughts below.
Photos via ©ITV / @ThePixelFactor