The X Factor final arrives on the back of a topsy-turvy few weeks. Unlike last year’s highly predictable final, it’s possible to make a case for any permutation this weekend. As always, watching the show will be vital in assessing producers’ hopes and the reality of the phone vote. Whilst judges comments tend to avoid any negativity, there have been some clear staging clues over the years, from the mess of Nick McDonald’s ‘Candy’ to Marcus Collins’ lonely ‘Last Christmas’.
We don’t rule anything out this weekend, but there will be many more voters and votes cast this weekend, and the British sense of fair play tends to swing behind the most “deserving” winner. In terms of vocal and performing ability among the final three, that is Saara Aalto. Admittedly, Five After Midnight have the advantage of most producer favour based on semi-final evidence, and Matt Terry can claim to be the most Middle-England friendly finalist. But the Finn is the most likely to have won the quarter-final and semi-final phone vote, and producers may feel that her underdog “journey” – bouncing back from early singoff appearances to win over an initially sceptical British public – is a feelgood narrative they can reconcile themselves to.
As remarkable as Saara’s rise to favouritism has been Matt Terry’s apparent fall from grace. We are left predicting that he leaves the competition tonight in third place. Why? Let’s start with a stat he has to overcome: since results started being published in 2008, every lowest-polling semi-final act remaining in the competition has departed first in the final. Although this is the first time the 3rd place finisher is going into the final after hitting the singoff for the first time.
It’s one of those years that’s going to defy some of the statistics, so why not Matt defying this one? Producer favour might make a difference, given his poor treatment in that semi-final, in contrast to the massive pimping for Five After Midnight. But Matt has looked desperately short of producer favour in recent weeks. From week 5 onwards, he’s only been allowed one “moment” – week 7’s ‘The Writing’s On The Wall’. Otherwise he’s been handicapped by poor slots in the running order, and increasingly harsh criticism from head judge Simon Cowell.
That criticism seemed to go much further than necessary last week when Simon called his performances “bland” and “like a sandwich without butter.” Cowell may have felt being that harsh was necessary to get Five After Midnight above him, and through to the final without another singoff. But the choice of Matt as the act brought down rather than Saara suggests a few things: that Saara had won the week 8 vote, leaving Matt closer to the danger zone in week 8; and that they were comfortable with causing some collateral damage to his reputation. This is an act who hasn’t had a pimp slot all series.
Matt was, at least, spared the indignity of the criticism being repeated in the Sunday reprise. That’s one reason I was inclined to think, earlier in the week, that he might still get to the final Sunday. But I’m not particularly encouraged with his first song choice tonight, ‘Take Me Home’, last performed when producers were hoping to get Lauren Murray eliminated from last year’s semi-final. The lyrics offer an unfortunate subliminal, and the song arguably lacks a moment, though we can imagine it suiting Matt’s voice. He gets to partner mentor Nicole Scherzinger in his duet. Whilst it’s a shame that Sam Smith isn’t present, we don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to emphasise the bond that Matt and his mentor have built up – Nicole’s presence means there will be chemistry on stage. But Matt’s supporters need to hope that his first song keeps him in the hunt.
Having got Five After Midnight above Matt last week, it’s not clear why producers would want to reverse that position, given how much more positive they were about the boyband last week. One potentially limiting issue in how far they can push Five After Midnight is the smoke-and-mirrors required to raise the level of their vocals. The strong use of backing track throughout both semi-final songs was incredibly beneficial to the trio. Still, such assistance will come into its own even more in Wembley Arena rather than Fountain Studios. Their first song choice ‘Crazy In Love’ promises another massive production. We still haven’t had their duet partners confirmed, though latest rumours suggest Clean Bandit featuring Louisa Johnson.
It feels significant that we’ve been encouraged to emotionally connect with Five After Midnight more than the other finalists over the last month. VTs have filled in the backstory of each, with more family involvement than Matt and Saara put together. There was a real sense of pushing the “this will transform our lives” button last week. That’s undoubtedly helped an urban act who might otherwise be deemed less Middle England friendly. The final necessarily levels the playing field a little in this respect, as each of the remaining acts visits home, and emphasises the importance of winning.
The next question in our scenario is: can producers get Five After Midnight above Saara? Oh to know how close they came to the Finn in last week’s phone vote! Saara’s treatment over the last few weeks has suggested producers recognising that her talents have catapulted the Finn into many hearts, but attempting not to let her run away with the vote. Hence the use of “corny” and “cheesy” for her more over-the-top performances.
But the judges can’t deny her performing prowess, and have waxed lyrical about her vocals. It’ll be fascinating to see how much the show appears willing to accept her as the feelgood underdog winner. Earlier on in the series, the show used her foreign origin against her, with mentor Sharon Osborne apparently uninterested in getting her name or home nation right. But as last week’s embassy VT has shown, these apparent negatives can be turned into a positive given the desire to do so. You can argue that having a foreign-born winner helps encourage broadening the competition’s talent pool for future years. The treatment of her triumphant concert in Helsinki last Monday will tell us plenty.
Saara is arguably less marketable than Five After Midnight, which is another reason why producers might do their best to get the trio above her. It may not be easy, though. It seems likely that Saara won the week 8 vote when Five After Midnight were in the bottom two, according to Dermot’s running teases about the state of the overall phone vote. Then there was a sense that Five After Midnight needed every help possible last week to help them avoid the bottom two. Our guess is that Saara won the phone vote once again, maybe comfortably.
If that’s the case, then producers may look at the bright side of having the less marketable act win the competition – someone whose talents merit the title. It would help prove that anything can happen in the live shows if she can recover from spending the first two weeks in the singoff. Saara’s first song choice ‘Everybody Wants To Rule the World’ is lyrically promising, and her reported duet of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ with Adam Lambert has the potential to be a show-stopper. We’ll know soon after the show starts if producers have the knives out for her.
It’s worth repeating that with more than usual uncertainty surrounding producers’ intentions tonight and tomorrow, a watching brief is advised. Amidst the speculation, and given the song choices, we feel safest going with the order that the three acts most likely finished in the semi-final, giving us a prediction of:
1. Saara Aalto
2. Five After Midnight
3. Matt Terry
Do give us your predictions and further thoughts below. But most of all, good luck and enjoy.
Photos via @ThePixelFactor