Saturday, 22 December 2012

X-Factor USA - Britney flips, LeAnn slips and Simon strips

This has not been a great year for Simon Cowell and the X-Factor. Low ratings, controversial acts and a general sense of public ennui has turned this once unassailable ratings juggernaut into something of a white elephant. In its sophomore year, the US version of the show has fared little better, suffering from hyperbole overkill and general talent-show fatigue. Since its first season was less than stellar, Simon axed all the onscreen talent with the exception of fellow judge/mentor LA Reid, and announced an exciting new line-up. The big shock was that Simon deemed Britney Spears capable of cogent thought and worthy of a $15 million salary. Her appointment to the judges’ table was the greatest piece of stunt casting since someone said “Now, I like the look of this Lee Majors guy.” With the spare change left in his pocket, Simon also hand-picked Demi Lovato, a twenty year-old former Disney brat who’s only known outside of the US for being a temporary beard for one of the Jonas Brothers. Demi has also spent time in rehab for various issues, making this the first season of the X-Factor where viewers were more concerned over the wellbeing of the mentors than any of the contestants. To her credit, Demi has proved to be a reasonably entertaining foil for Simon, who clearly enjoys having someone to pick on. Britney on the other hand, has displayed all the self-awareness and insight of a guppy with mild concussion.

However, not everything to do with the show has been a complete disaster. The on-stage talent (excluding the hosts) has been predictably exceptional, particularly in Britney’s teenage category. And if you wondered why Brian Friedman’s distinctive brand of choreographed insanity was missing from the latter stages of the UK competition, it’s because he was drafted in to support the US version, where he proceeded to fling his glitter-drenched faeces at anything that wasn’t nailed down. Another improvement to the format came in the speed at which contestants were eliminated, beginning with a top sixteen but axing two acts per week. As well as raising the stakes each week, it also prevented the show from wearing out its welcome. Finally, and perhaps most controversially, every results show ended with a reveal of the voting statistics for that week. This may have killed some of the suspense, since the top two acts remained constant throughout the season and eventually fought it out for the crown in the final, but it meant that we didn’t have to endure endless accusations of ‘fix’ every time someone got saved.

So after eight weeks of manufactured drama and enough tears to cause a nationwide dehydration epidemic, here we are at the grand finale – another four hour epic of over-familiar songs, insincere links and thanks to God. The first show opens with a sober introduction from Simon Cowell, who says “Our hearts go out to the families of Sandy Hook.” It must be true, since his has already popped a couple of shirt buttons. This leads into a maudlin rendition of You Are Not Alone by the newly reunited finalists. The stylists have been going mental this season, so half the female singers look like avant-garde Christmas cakes, rather than potential chart toppers. And although the performance is a little turgid, it’s still a powerful reminder of how exceptional the line-up of talent was, especially when compared with the woeful selection that took to the stage in Manchester a couple of weeks ago.

As voice-over guy summarises the story-so-far in his distinctive movie trailer rumble, we’re reintroduced to our three finalists. They’re all talking about winning the competition, which is the biggest difference between the US and the UK, since we find champion talk to be almost distasteful, even in a competition scenario. Demi Lovato is the first judge on stage, since she has no acts left. Britney is out next, with Carly Rose Sonenclar, the 13 year-old powerhouse. LA Reid has his chunky country singer Tate Stevens, and Simon is swamped by his cut-n-shut girl band Fifth Harmony. Finally out comes Mario Lopez and Khloe Kardashian Odom. She’s gone for a rubber school girl outfit, and he’s still reading the autocue like he’s waiting for Babelfish to translate it into English. Khloe describes an “epic struggle between a schoolgirl, a family man and five girls who never gave up,” which must have Peter Jackson making plans for his next trilogy, then we revisit each of the acts’ hometowns. This gives Khloe and Mario plenty of chances to say ‘Wow’ with all the enthusiasm that I muster when I unwrap a pack of socks on Christmas morning.

Britney introduces her act, Carly Rose, in her now customary monosyllabic style. Carly’s family knew she was going to be a star from a very early age, which probably means about six months ago. Carly has an incredible voice and stage presence far beyond her years, without ever seeming obnoxiously precocious. Britney says she sees a lot of herself in Carly, which should set off warning sirens in her parents’ ears. Tonight she’s revisiting her original audition song ‘Feeling Good’. If this feels familiar, it should, since Simon only has about 25 songs on his iPod, and both the UK and US production crews know it off by heart. Even so, she’s doing an excellent job, although her lower register tends to get a little lost in the mix. More worrying is the ugly outfit they’ve dressed her in – thigh high boots, a lacy sun-hat and an unflattering pair of rubber trousers that crease right across the crotch. After the judges offer their non-commital platitudes, we’re off to Westchester, NY, where the mayor of the town launches into rather lengthy tribute to the pubescent belter, but the bored producers cut him off part-way through his speech.

LA Reid introduces Tate Stevens, saying “The first time we saw him we loved him, and we love him now,” suggesting that he missed the briefing about bigging up the contestants’ journey. Tate’s family keep talking about this being his last chance, because he’s 37. Thanks a fucking bunch guys. Tate is a solid country singer, but he looks like Peter Kay in a ten-gallon hat, and there are singers like him in every honky tonk across America. I know Simon has learned to tolerate country music in the last decade of doing these shows, but this must be pushing him to the limit of what he’s willing to tolerate in the name of making money. Britney gives her customary single-sentence feedback and Demi complements him on a stadium performance. Meanwhile, Khloe and Mario are trying to stir up some energy, but they’ve got all the stage presence of a pair of Belarusians hosting their first Eurovison heat. Khloe attempts to gee up Tate, saying “Your name is on a water-tower!” but she might as well have said “Your face is on a milk-carton.”

Simon Cowell’s one remaining act is Fifth Harmony, an irritating group created from a bunch of girls who weren’t compelling enough to make it as solo singers. They’re incredibly bratty and insincere, and they just don’t match. Simon sits and listens to them blub on his couch, and I swear his hand is in his pocket as he slowly scrapes a blade across his thigh. They’re singing Anything Can Happen, which was their best performance from the season, despite its annoying Mad Hatter’s Tea Party staging. It’s sickly enough to send even a Glee fan into a diabetic coma. Their voices generally don’t mesh particulary well, but at least the song plays to their negligible strengths. Ultimately, there’s far too much posing, hair-touching and coy winking at the camera – so the whole thing plays more like an ad for ITV2’s Christmas line-up than a musical performance. LA Reid has stardust in his eyes, and Britney liked it so much she actually breaks her one sentence rule.

Round two, and Britney manages to pass the gum to the side of her mouth long enough to re-introduce Carly. The young singer misses her cue and flubs the first line of How Do I Live, but manages to get things back on track in time to introduce her special guest, LeAnn Rimes. She’s here to show that it’s possible to start out as a 13 year-old phenom and successfully transition into a home-wrecking anorexic. LeAnn hasn’t had a hit in about a decade, so she’s milking every melisma for all it’s worth. This isn’t really a duet, it sounds more like a competitive eating contest to see who can swallow a live cat whole. For the first time in the season, Carly lets the façade slip for just a second, long enough to show that she’s disappointed with her celebrity pairing. Tate sings a song about ‘motor-boating’ which feels distinctly unsuitable for a family show. Halfway through he’s joined onstage by Little Big Town. For the uninitiated, they’re a popular country band – picture a redneck ABBA, with a blonde and brunette who look like they could be hateful Fox News pundits if they weren’t trying to sing in a pair of gold sequinned flares. Another button has popped on Simon’s shirt as he welcomes Fifth Harmony back on-stage. They’re singing Demi Lovato’s Give Your Heart A Break, so no prizes for guessing who’s duetting with them. Maybe this is just an economy drive, and they’re all expected to take on extra duties – Britney Spears is looking after the valet parking and LA Reid has whipped up some quiche for the after-party. Mario makes a lame ‘Sixth Harmony’ gag about three minutes after the hashtag appeared on our screen.

By the time we get to the third performances, the energy is decidedly lacking in the studio. Carly gives an impressive rendition of Hallelujah, which has Britney Spears telling old fuzzy tits to open his cheque-book, and then it’s time to check in with her friends back home. A boy grabs the mic and tells Carly she’s a great friend, to which she responds by looking confused and saying she doesn’t know him. Burn.

Tate picks a bland mid-tempo country ballad that features the lyric “Tonight I’m gonna love you like there’s no tomorrow,” which probably meant a lot more two nights ago, when we were still on the cusp of a Mayan apocalypse. Now, it just sounds stupid. Simon keeps saying ‘genuinely’ as if he has any clue what the word means. Tate’s friends all scream their support in unison, but it’s hard to tell what any of them are saying. For all I know, they could be yelling cooking tips for roadkill.

For their final song, Fifth Harmony are doing Jahmene’s arrangement of Let It Be. Once again, they fail to connect as a group, instead simply taking it in turns to sing. As LA Reid erroneously suggests that they did it better than the Beatles, the girls totter on their heels, bumping into each other like skittles with an inner-ear problem.

Results show

Oh dear. They’re trying to create a sense of red carpet Oscar buzz, but it all feels a little cheap. Aside from the judges arriving in blacked out SUVs, the only special guests are Pitbull and One Direction, who seem to be contractually obliged to appear on every edition of this show. It’s all rather chaotic, as crew in lanyards wander in and out of shot, whilst Khloe and Mario attempt to convey a sense of star-spangled glamour. There’s a quick recap of the series so far – people punching walls, collapsing and throwing bottles of water at the camera – then our finalists arrive and have to start singing as soon as the car doors open. Are we really in that much of a rush? Fifth Harmony take forever to make it into the studio, because of all the vamping and pointing they do, and the tall one seems distracted by the uncomfortable shortness of her skirt. She keeps tugging at the hem so we won’t get an accidental glimpse of her red carpet.

Throughout the show, we get a series of ‘hilarious’ compilations of the judges’ bad habits. LA Reid does a conductor thing with his hands, Simon concocts bad similes, and Britney Spears seems to be reliving the painful memories of electroshock therapy.

It’s Christmas week, so the contestants are each going to sing a holiday classic. Tate does a good job with Please Come Home For Christmas, and does his best to ignore the four dancers draped in big pink bows and waving their muffs around. Simon introduces his act, saying “I’m delighted to welcome back my favourite little group, at the moment, Fifth Harmony.” That’s got to sting. They sing the best Christmas song ever, Baby Please Come Home, with about 10% of Darlene Love’s passion. Instead, their energy goes into their ridiculous posing, like five teenagers piled into a photo booth. Finally, Carly does All I Want For Christmas Is You, accompanied by a bunch of creepy toy solider dancers. She does a good job with the vocal, but the arrangement is all over the place and the sound mix doesn’t help matters at all.

To find out who’s finished in third place, Khloe has changed into a black pleather catsuit, that’s about as forgiving as Charles Bronson with a hangover. Fifth Harmony are out and are all still crushingly insincere as they declare their love for one another. Khloe’s backstage with the remaining finalists and their families. She tells them: “I’m not even you guys and I’m nervous.” I guess she’s waiting on a contract for season three. We now get another recap of the series, the highlights of which include a pastor who was too fat to stand, an annoying brat who collapsed from dehydration and Britney’s hilarious attempt at singing an acapella Happy Birthday to LA Reid.

The guest slots pass by in a flurry of lazy choreography and flat vocals. Pitbull presents his latest Vengaboys tribute and thrusts around the stage in an ugly velvet jacket, like Austin Powers on chemo. Then it’s One Direction’s turn to reprise the performance they gave on the UK show a couple of weeks ago. This time their mics don’t seem to be working, and the performance is no poorer for it.

There’s just time for one last song, and it’s yet another classic from the X-Factor winners’ bran-tub. The Climb was written for a teenage girl, so it’s no surprise that Carly runs rings around Tate on the performance. We’re nearing the big moment now, and Simon has lost yet another button. One more and we’ll be able to see his frenulum. This is it – time to announce the winner. Khloe’s changed into yet another outfit, but at this stage it’s like pouring sick from one carrier bag into another. The acts are nervous, but Britney looks even more petrified, like she just realised that she locked her Lhasa Apso in the tumble dryer. Tate Stevens is the winner, and Carly handles her response with incredible maturity. Neither disappointing or particularly surprising, much like the show itself.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Heroes and Villains

Apparently, there were audible cheers in certain newsrooms, when it was announced that a blastocyst had successfully attached itself to the spongy lining of Kate Middleton’s uterus. But somewhere in amongst the chinking of hastily filled Champagne flutes, the jubilant news team must have paused to wonder how they might spin seven months of relentless coverage out of one woman carrying a baby to term.

It’s fair to say that the press got off to a great start, with page after mind-numbing page devoted to the ins and outs of the Duchess of Cambridge’s cervix. In the absence of any actual facts, they turned to speculation and hearsay to fill their pages. Articles debated where the miraculous zygote might have been conceived. Journalists recounted their own near-death experiences with morning sickness. In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the Express had run a special offer involving the exchange of daily tokens for a fold-out poster of the Royal unmentionables.

After a banner year for Pro-British ephemera, news about the state of Kate’s womb couldn’t have come at a better time. The rest of the world was similarly entranced, as photo-journalists from London to Leningrad checked Amazon to see if there was such as thing as an endoscopic zoom lens. And two Australian DJ’s thought they’d try and get the inside scoop by calling Kate’s hospital direct. Apparently, they never expected to get through, presuming that someone would angrily hang-up on them. Instead, they were patched through to Kate’s nurse by an unsuspecting colleague who clearly had a tin ear for unconvincing accents.

Smelling a royal scandal, the papers leapt on this non-event of a story, making it seem as though the Windsor’s inner sanctum had been violently penetrated. The outcry was quite ridiculous, as the papers screamed that hospital security was a shambles, no nurse was to be trusted, and all Australians should be thrown back in shackles for their own good.

And then something terrible happened. Suicide helplines advise against going in to detail when someone takes their own life, since it can often lead to copycat incidents, so I’m not going to dwell on the specifics. Besides which, it wouldn’t do anyone any good to indulge in further speculation, given that no-one really knows what took place on Friday morning.

By Friday lunchtime, it was the lead story on every news site, and splashed all over my Twitter and Facebook timelines. Without knowing what exactly had transpired, we all agreed that this was a very bad thing. Depressingly, it didn’t take the press long to fall back into its unpleasant old bad habits. All the usual suspects covered their front pages with variations on ‘Kate’s Agony Over Tragic Nurse’ – perplexingly recasting the Duchess as the real victim in all this. Back in the mid-eighties my uncle was doing freshwater studies in the grounds of Balmoral, and stumbled across an unexploded World War II bomb. The press soon got wind of his discovery and the following day, the tabloids had spun the story into a headline that yelled ‘Di in distress.’ It didn’t matter to them that the Princess of Wales wasn’t even in residence at the time, or that the explosive had already been safely removed.

While the papers scrabbled around to find more details about Jacintha Saldanha, the two Australian DJs behind the original hoax call deleted their Twitter accounts and effectively went into hiding. Every good story needs heroes and villains, and here the press had both. Message-boards went wild, as ill-informed commenters made ridiculous claims that Mel Greig and Michael Christian should be ‘extradited to the UK and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.’ But, for what, exactly? Doing a shit impersonation of the Queen? Christ, Jeanette Charles would have been shipped off to Gitmo years ago if that was a crime.

I don’t think there’s a person in the world who hasn’t, at some time in their life, been on the receiving end of a prank. Jeremy Beadle spent the best part of a decade giggling while he emptied a cement mixer through the sunroof of some poor stooge’s TR7. But no-one ever died because of it.

The difference, of course, is that this instance became headline news for days in the very papers that then got to wring their hands in despair over an entirely avoidable tragedy. They invented a major scandal out of a non-event, just so they could keep the Duchess on the page where she’d sell the most papers. And it backfired in spectacular fashion. But rather than accept their own culpability in this tragic case, they’re content to sit back and condemn the Australians for ‘causing’ an innocent woman’s death. In light of the Leveson inquiry, it’d be nice to think that the press had learned a valuable lesson about practices and ethics. But maybe I’m just as naïve as the DJs who assumed their phone prank was a bit of a giggle.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

And the winner is...

I know that the X-Factor production team likes to make it sound like a battle-to-the-death, but for once, this isn’t hyperbole. This week, both Jahmene and James have been talking about having suicidal thoughts. And if Christopher wins, it’s likely that Simon will be chewing on a cyanide pill. There’s four hours to get through, which is longer than some animals take to gestate their young, so chances are, this will be a long write-up. Bear with me; we’ll get through it together.

By the time the X-Factor final rolls around, it’s customary for those involved to wax lyrical about their ‘journey’. The last three months have been a gruelling experience; there’s been laughter, tears and extensive alcohol abuse, and that’s just to get these reviews done on time. As for the contestants, they’ve all been on their own journey, which is probably why the show opens with an extended plug for Virgin Trains. They take their metaphors very seriously here.

Mr Voice-over tells us “They came in their thousands to win a life-changing recording contract.” Or, in Christopher’s case, a potentially show-ending one. The Manchester Arena is packed with 10,000 fans and the stage has been built on a huge X, which must have taken the design team all of five minutes to come up with. Out comes Dermot after a extended opening routine that takes him from the train station to the backstage dressing area, via the Rovers Return and Louis’ dressing room. My guess is that it was a lot more fun to film than it was to watch. Nicole is making a final bid to win this season’s fashion prize, and in her floor-length gown she looks a million dollars. In her pleather dress, Tulisa is more of a bum-bag full of travellers’ cheques.

It’s become something of a tradition to open the show by revisiting all the finalists from the live shows, which gets off to a grating start with Rylan’s reprise of Gangnam Style. Then out come the boy-bands and Kye, trundling down the aisle on motorised scooters. Kye looks like he came out in the wrong category, but given this show’s habit of chopping and changing the line-ups, maybe he’s hoping to be assimilated into one of the groups. Mark my words: they could be the next big Borg-band.

Nicole introduces Jahmene, saying “Kicking things off, the first of the two boys,” which makes it sound as though Christopher is of indeterminate gender. They’re off to Swindon in a helicopter, which Jahmene thinks is insane. The people of Wiltshire seem equally bemused, but I think that’s just because they’ve never seen one before. The first stop is ASDA, because Nicole needs to pick up some Scotch eggs. Jahmene also takes the opportunity to go back to church, and even ropes Nicole into dressing in purple robes and joining the choir. Although that could be at the Pastor’s insistence, since her sexy black get-up isn’t fit for a house of the Lord. Jahmene says the word ‘church’ far too many times, and Nicole implores the congregation: “Please continue to pray for him and, I hate to say it, vote for him.” Between you and me, I think the phone votes have a better chance of registering. The streets are packed with thousands of people - Swindon hasn’t seen this much excitement since the new Greggs opened. Back in Manchester, and Jahmene is performing Move On Up inside a Big Ben-shaped Wendy House. It’s a little squealy and he gets lost amongst all the choreography and pyrotechnics. Louis gets in his “You remind me of a little…” and tonight it’s Luther Vandross who wins the obligatory name check. Tulisa says she remembers his first audition – we all do love, they showed a clip of it ten minutes ago. Gary didn’t care for the song, but Nicole was all over that shit. Words no longer have any meaning for her, so now she’s just making up some ridiculous noises.

One improvement to the format is that they’ve done away with the live links to village halls in the contestants’ home towns. Instead, they’ve just released Caroline Flack into the audience to grill family and friends. One of Jahmene’s colleagues is in the crowd, and she must have come straight from work because she’s still wearing her bakers’ overalls. I’m not sure that’s hygienic, so I’ll be giving the crusty cobs a miss for the next couple of weeks.

Apparently, Christopher has ditched his first name and he’s now “The Maloney.” Standing on the front of the Mersey ferry, he yells “I’m on top of the world.” See, the useless fucker can’t even deliver a line of film dialogue without screwing it up. As he does his tour of Liverpool, all his mates eat cupcakes with his face on them. If the buttercream doesn’t turn their stomach, his gurning mug certainly will. Then it’s off to his Nan’s house, and the streets outside look like someone phoned in a bomb threat to the local retirement home. Nan’s put on a lovely spread for her visitors, and Gary starts dropping his consonants faster than he’ll be dropping his trembling protégé once this is all over. We also get an illuminating insight into the people who’ve been voting for Christopher - “We don’t all want to listen to this ‘ip-‘op stuff, bangin’ us ‘eads.” For his big song he’s doing (Flashdance) What A Feeling, which is even more ill-advised than anything else he’s done to date. He emerges from a giant boom box, as the camera hones in on a giant knob marked ‘tuner’. Which is ironic, since the next biggest knob on stage could really do with one. Louis says “You’ve changed your life and you’re not going back to Liverpool.” Someone had better tell his Nan, just in case she’s got another batch of sausage rolls in the Baby Belling. Dermot leads into the ad break saying “Two words: James Arthur. Three words: See you shortly.” Four words: This shit’s getting old.

After helicoptering into Swindon, Nicole then gets to visit Middlesborough with James; this time she’s arriving pillion style. First up is a quick pint at the pub he used to play in, followed by a touching reunion with his Nan. Forget about the contestants - it’s like a battle of the supportive grannies on X-Factor tonight. I call it VietNan. James invites Nicole into his bedsit, and it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that she’s far and away the hottest girl he’s ever perched on that threadbare sofa-bed with. I’m sorry to say, his performance to the hometown crowd sounded awful, and that’s the worry here. He could pip Maloney to the title, and then swiftly disappear up his own Cardle. For his opening song tonight, we get a very weird tracking shot of him making his way to the stage that takes so long, I’m suprised he didn’t stop off for a piss en-route. The audience might love his earnest ranting but the song is frustratingly tuneless. The last few notes are pretty good but he’s missed the point of the song. It’s called ‘Feeling Good’, so why does it sound like something that might be shouted through a balaclava at a team of hostage negotiators? Tulisa does an embarrassing American accent, and then gets all excited about how raw and home-grown he is, as if she’s describing the crudités on the craft services table.

Just to remind us how unremarkable this year’s contestants have been, here’s the original American Idol. With five albums in ten years, Grammy awards up the wazoo, and a Greatest Hits compilation, Kelly Clarkson's classy performance is a breath of fresh air after the over-the-top productions in tonight’s first half. However, she loses a couple of points for wearing practically the same outfit as Tulisa, albeit the Evans version of it.

Jahmene says that the first thing he saw at his audition was Nicole’s (please say tits, please say tits) smile. He and Nicole have a nice little bonding session, that goes right back to when she coaxed him back on stage at boot-camp. Tonight, the two of them get to seal their union with a rendition of The Greatest Love Of All. Unfortunately, it all goes wrong when Nicole has a microphone malfunction and has to grab Jahmene’s. She handles it like a pro, and they manage to sound great whilst sharing the one mic, even though Nicole was clearly fuming for most of the performance.

Once again we’ve been spared the possibility of Louis singing with one of his acts, so it’s over to Gary who’ll be dueting on Rule The World. Christopher has a gift for his mentor – a picture frame with nothing in it. He explains that it’s for Gary’s OBE, but it could just as easily be an apt commentary on own Christopher’s X-Factor persona; cheap, fake and empty. Gary proves he knows his way around the piano keyboard, but has noticeably less control over his erratic eyebrows. Meanwhile, Christopher is really straining his voice, which has the unfortunate effect of turning his face purple and giving him tan alarming resemblance to a six-foot cock in a velvet suit. Which wouldn’t be far off.

Nicole tells James that when he’s onstage, he needs to pretend he’s back in the pub. Give it six months and he might not have to make believe. Apart from a slightly disingenuous moment where she declares (dry-eyed) “I’m gonna cry,” it’s safe to call Nicole the true winner of this series. She’s been funny, empathetic, and has apparently spent more than half an hour each week supporting her acts. She and James sing an impassioned rendition of To Make You Feel My Love, and aside from her slightly incongruous leather-fembot get-up, it’s another great effort. Dermot asks her how far her boy has come, and I guess even she’s bored of saying it now, so she simply refers Dermot to the VT they just ran a couple of minutes ago.

They need a bit of time to tally the phone votes, so it’s time to dredge up some guest slots. Rita Ora is standing on a burnt out car in the audience, but no-one around her seems to bat an eyelid. Maybe this is par for the course in Manchester. The first song is staggeringly dull, so she turns up the tempo for the second one. To say she’s the “breakthrough artist of 2012”, her voice really isn’t up to much. In fact, the only time she seems to make any effort is her repeated exhortations for Manchester to “make some noise.” As Rita slopes off the stage in her black and spangly clown’s jump-suit, Dermot notes that his backstage chats with the contestants are always stilted and awkward. In a way, I’m relieved that he’s noticed it, but I’m also secretly preparing for Judgement Day. If O’Leary can become self-aware, Skynet can’t be too far behind.

Adding a touch of class to proceedings is Kylie, who’s doing an orchestral arrangement of Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, dressed like a partially unwrapped Terry’s Chocolate Orange. Her dancers are wearing clever lighting rigs, that would be a lot more impressive if someone had bothered to charge the batteries before they came on stage. Manchester’s technical crew won’t be winning any BAFTAs for tonight’s debacle. Dermot attempts to chat with La Minogue about her Abbey Road Sessions album, while she vamps all over the dancers who don’t look too impressed about being used as human book-ends.

At last, it’s time to find out who’s made it to the proper final, since tonight’s two-hour slog was really just a warm-up. The first act through is (imagine a three-minute pause while you’re reading this) Jahmene, who drops to his knees like a penitent evangelist caught in a by-the-hour motel room. He’s joined on Sunday’s show by James, which means that Nicole has scored the show’s first ever double. Christopher does his best to look sanguine about the whole thing, but if the backstage diva stories have any truth in them, the production crew are in for a long night. Behind him, Jahmene is carrying James on his shoulders, and Nicole has stolen Dermot’s microphone. This is starting to become a habit.

The Actual Final

Sunday’s show opens with the finalists running through a whistle-stop medley of Christmas songs. Melanie manages to throw in one of her rib rattling notes, despite only getting half a line to herself. None of the songs get a chance to outstay their welcome, but this year of revelations about sexual predators has made me see some of their lyrics in a different light. When the gang starts singing “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake,” I wonder whether it’s Santa Claus or Julian Assange who’s coming to town. Interestingly, Lucy hasn’t come back for tonight’s show, but even more notable is the absence of Christopher, who seems determined to prove that those tabloid stories had it right all along. There’s a bit more more awkward backstage chatter with the two finalists, the highlight of which involves James saying “Life doesn’t get any better than this.” That’s hardly a surprise though, given that his previous highlight was probably thawing out a chicken thigh under the hot tap in his bedsit.

Tonight, Nicole’s boys will both be performing their favourite song from the series. Jahmene tells her he’s decided that Angels was his best performance, and manages to keep a straight face, despite the fact that she’s wearing her midweek cornrows again. That really does seem like a lot of effort for 48 hours, but this is a woman who relaxes in a leather bondage dress. Over the last ten weeks she must have killed off more cows than Ronald McDonald. Jahmene betters his previous performance of the song, and once again reduces Nicole to tears. Louis tells him that “every time you sing, you move me.” But so could a couple of Pickfords lads. Thanks to some careful dabbing, Nicole has managed to keep her tears going through all the other judges’ comments, and she talks about him like he’s the second coming.

James, on the other hand, is having another crack at Let’s get It On, which he brings to life by lightly molesting the judges in a saunter-by groping. Even Louis gets in on the action with a teasing hair-ruffle from the lumpy crooner. It must have worked, since he feels inspired enough to say something sincere and genuine for once, as he complements Nicole for being a great mentor. Gary says he’s ready to download James’ album, but we could just be talking about another Ed Sheeran situation. 
As Dermot checks in with the judges, we get to see Nicole buffing her golden breastplate with a tear-soaked tissue, before launching into a recap of the judges’ journey. It’s really just a chance to run through all the ridiculous words she’s invented over the last three months. She’s like Stanley Unwin, with better tits.

There’s even more filler, as we revisit previous X-Factor contestants, including Olly Murs, Alexandra Burke, JLS, Leona Lewis and Cher Lloyd. Maybe Leon Jackson was just too busy? Even Dermot admits that not all the winners have gone on to be global superstars. Something of an understatement, given that Matt Cardle would struggle to get a table in Nandos. One act that has been successful is One Direction, who are here to demonstrate the importance of post-production in creating a best-seller. The song is fun, but the vocals wouldn’t get them past a first audition. Dermot attempts to join them on their giant ramp, but keeps sliding out of shot, like my dog when he sits on a tiled floor.

You may not realise this, but a new enactment was added to the statute books this year, determining that no gathering of 5,000+ people was allowed to take place without a performance from Emeli Sande. She’s here to try and raise her profile one last time, before sacking it all in and retraining as a dental nurse. Of course, I’m being facetious. The intro announces her as The Voice of 2012, when ‘The ONLY voice of 2012’ would be just as truthful. Sniping aside, her song Clown may have an awkward chorus, but its beautiful verses sound like something that Randy Crawford wouldn’t be ashamed of. Even so, I don’t understand the lyric “I’ll be your clown, on your favourite channel.” Sky must really be running out of ideas.

Before we hear the ‘winners’ songs,’ Dermot checks in with the Man City and United players for yet another awkward chat; this time with Rio Ferdinand, who’s borrowed one of Louis’ black polo-necks and looks like a furious magician. Rather than waste a new composition on a charity single, the producers have been rummaging through the classics bin and given Jahmene Let It Be. He gives it his all, but it just too overproduced and gospelly to go anywhere. After the judges do their bit, we revisit Caroline who’s chatting with one of Jahmene’s friends. Here’s someone who will have to go back to ASDA on Monday morning. And although they’re still supporting their boy, I’m sure they’re getting sick of him describing their job as if they’re sweeping out the Stygian Stables.  

James has been given Impossible by Shontelle as his single, which feels like a bargain bin choice after something from the Lennon McCartney songbook. He’s doing a fine job with the vocals, but it’s a bit aimless, as he paces back and forth on what looks like an electrified fish-tank. Nicole gets a little carried away in her dancing, and comes perilously close to punching Gary in the head. But that’s been brewing all season. Poor Louis must have lost his notes, because he’s giving exactly the same feedback as he did last night. Tulisa tries to give James a cunningly encoded message, but no-one needs to break out the Enigma machine. Nicole does her well-established trick of incorporating the song’s lyrics into her feedback.

Time for one more guest slot, and it’s the irritatingly ubiquitous Rihanna. The woman is so omnipresent I half expect to wake up one morning and find her delivering my milk, just so she can yell S&M through my letterbox. She looks beautiful in a white bandage dress, but the tuneless ballad she’s singing is remarkably tedious. I can’t see this giving her that 7th UK number one. Just when it looks like she’s about to mope off stage, she goes into We Found Love. The screams of the audience suggests they were as bored with the first song as I was. When she catches up with Dermot, she starts answering questions before he’s even asked them. That’s how often she’s on this show.

And finally, we discover who’s the winner of the X-Factor, 2012 – James. Jahmene tells him “You’re an amazing talent, use this platform, use it wisely.” But Dermot moves the microphone away before we get to hear him warn “If you strike me down I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Making a Rod for their own back

Last week, Nicole had a mouth full of butter, Louis settled his sexual harassment suit, and Rylan finally hopped on the night-bus back to Essex. Which can only mean one thing - we’re now at the semi-final stage. But there’s an odd mood in the air; at this point, we should all be speculating about who’s going to win, but instead we’re more interested in whether or not the producers can finally get shot of Christopher Maloney. He’s the quivering albatross around this show’s neck, topping the votes every week despite having a giant wormhole where his star-power ought to be.

As the judges come out to nod and wink at the baying crowd, it’s nice to see that Tulisa’s made an effort with a pretty LBD. Nicole, on the other hand, has knocked up an outfit using some festive napkins. Dermot promises us an epic fourway, so maybe Union J have taken their bedroom brainstorms to the next level.

Gary’s up first tonight, introducing his act by saying: “Those two words that send shockwaves of fear around the world – Christopher Maloney.” He’s got a point; they’re shitting themselves in the Syco offices. The big orange muppet has picked You Raise Me Up, and he’s dedicating it to his Nan who’s had more screen-time on this show than many of the contestants. Gary warns that, if Louis gives him negative feedback, they’re going to lock Nan in his dressing room for ten minutes to “do her business.” That might work on Wayne Rooney, but I imagine Louis would remain defiantly unmoved. The song’s a good choice for Maloney’s voice, and, for once, he remains in key. It might lack the rafter-shaking power of Josh Groban’s baritone, but it’s a perfectly passable rendition. Extra points for including the lyric “I am strong when I am on your shoulders,” which has me picturing a frail septuagenarian struggling up the hill to Aldi, lugging a sizeable 34 year-old in a fireman’s lift. On the whole, the judges are all complimentary about him, which makes me think they’re going for the reverse psychology approach – perhaps if they get on board with him, the audience will lose interest?

Jahmene is taking a big risk by singing a song that he once tried to perform at his brother’s funeral. Unfortunately, there’s a big difference between connecting with the emotion in a song, and having a nervous breakdown on the key change. It all starts to get a bit depressing, so thank goodness Nicole’s here with her hair in cornrows, like she just got off a flight from Tenerife. Jahmene’s song is I Look To You which, despite coming from Whitney Houston’s car crash of a final album, seems to have been posthumously assigned modern classic status. He’s a bit pitchy on the first chorus, but as the song gets louder, he finds his place and it’s a great performance, even if Nicole cries through the whole thing. The judges are all very moved, but Jahmene keeps his emotions in check by chewing the inside of his face. Tulisa says “I know your brother’s watching over you and he’s very proud of you,” which suggests that, if this solo career doesn’t take off, she could always join Dionne Warwick’s psychic hotline. Nicole invokes the name of Baby Jesus and everyone gets a little uncomfortable – that shit might fly in the US, but here we like our talent shows to remain resolutely secular.

The Union J boys are disheartened about the fact that the audience don’t seem to be voting, so there’s lots of footage of them moping about backstage. This week, they’re going to be dedicating their song to all their fans, to say thank you for all that they’ve done. Like not picking up the fucking phone every week. Their song choice is Beneath Your Beautiful, which is just crying out for some corrective punctuation. The problem is, Labrynth and Emile Sande have turned beautiful into a noun, when beauty would have sufficed. As a result, the line “let me see beneath your beautiful” just sounds like a euphemistic way of saying “can I look up your skirt.” Especially when followed up with “Take it off now girl, I want to see inside.” It might leave me cold, but I bet it gives obstetricians the horn. Tulisa likes the fact that she can see them growing before her eyes, and Nicole commends Josh for coming out swinging. All this thinly veiled penis chat is probably a good idea, since Union J still look as if they belong on Men Who Look Like Old Lesbians.

James is talking about his tough upbringing again, and so he wants to dedicate U2’s One to his brother and sisters. He gets in touch with them thanks to his Samsung tablet, even though he seems to think that Skype is operated by licking the touch-screen. The song suits his vocal style, but visually he’s still a big mess – pleading for a place in the final by dressing like a middle-aged darts pro. His voice sounds pretty great on the performance, but there’s a real danger that, if he wins, he could go down the tedious authenticity route that stopped Matt Cardle’s career in its tracks. Gary says he loves watching James knock down the opponents every week. And yet Christopher gets all that stick just for complaining about the wetness of his latte.

Nicole decides to motivate Jahmene by showing him her original audition for Popstars US, when she was 22. Which was either 12 or 15 years ago, depending on which biography you choose to believe. Jahmene has decided to go back to the beginning and do what he did at the start of his journey. At first, I think this means he’s going to throw on a green tabard and unpack a pallet of Fruit Corners. Instead, he’s decided to reprise his performance of At Last, complete with a few extra vocal runs. He gets three ‘Jahmazings’ for his efforts, and Nicole is so overwhelmed that she’s forgotten how to speak, opting instead to punctuate her own declarations, dot, dot, dot.

Christopher wants to prove the judges wrong, and demonstrate that he’s not outdated and old-fashioned. To show that he’s current and up-to-date, he’s picked a song by everyone’s favourite retro-throwback, Michael Buble. He struggles to locate the right key, like a drunk nightwatchman, and ends up talking his way through the song. It takes a special kind of artiste to drain a catchy song of all melody, but he manages it like a true professional. Gary defends his protégé, saying “The audience were clapping along.” But only because they were trying to drown out the noise that was falling out of his giant shouty face. Barlow explains that they picked the song to demonstrate how versatile Christopher is. Job done – we now know that he can go all the way from A to somewhere just adjacent to A.

Union J are doing a Westlife song, in order to represent how connected they are to Louis. Walsh gamely plays along by agreeing to dress in a bright green onesie. He’s trying to show that he’s down with the kids, but he just looks like Kermit’s stunt double. I’m Already There is actually a Lonestar song, that was covered by Westlife. Not that Louis understands this important distinction, since earlier on he was trying to convince us that You Raise Me Up was also a Westlife classic. The boys make the mistake of letting JJ open the song, and he takes the entire verse to figure out the melody. By the time the rest of them join in, things are back on track, although the judges carp that it was a little bit safe for a semi-final. Louis says “I’ll do whatever you want me to do if you put them in the final.” Somewhere on Twitter, people will be hashtagging #WhatWouldLouisDo. And I bet it’s fucking filthy.

James wants to be making triple platinum albums, which might be a smidge ambitious based on previous X-Factor alumni sales. He comes out onstage between what looks like two giant neon ears and sings The Power Of Love by Frankie Goes To Hollywood. It’s powerful stuff, if a little erratic towards the end. There’s also a massively overused echo effect on his voice, that makes it seem as if he’s miming, since he continues making sounds long after he’s stopped singing. Gary loves that James can make people emote, whilst they’re ironing or washing up. I guess they’ve given up pretending that the nation is glued to the screen on a Saturday night. Nicole rather disingenuously announces that James is why she came to the UK. So it has nothing to do with being closer to her fiancé’s tax shelter, or the fact that she was sacked from the US show.

The results show opens with the boys all stood in a circle in their best funeral suits, with Dermot the iced digestive in the middle of this rather formal twist on Soggy Biscuit. The booming voiceover tells us that tonight, the judges lose their power. But if they head to the North Pole they may be able to negotiate with Jor-El to have them reinstated. Dermot introduces the judges, saying “They’ve been stripped of all their powers, and tonight all they can do is shout and bang the desk with their clitorises.” Now, he may have actually said “clenched fists” – if so, he really needs to enunciate.

The finalists are singing Merry Christmas Baby, which clearly favours James and Jahmene, then Rod Stewart comes out to reveal the final stages of his gradual transformation into Barry Manilow. Rod’s spent the last decade churning out raspy cover versions from the ‘Great American Songbook’ so he’s definitely in his comfort zone here. Tulisa, on the other hand, is wearing a confused smile, probably because she just spent the last five minutes trying to Google Rod Stewart on her Android.

Time for a quick recap of all last night’s action, which seems to take longer than the actual show they’re summarising. The highlight of this is Nicole saying “He slayed it, he owned it, he James Arthured all over it.” Someone once James Arthured in my eye, and it stung like a bastard.

Dermot tries to chat with the contestants backstage, but apart from Christopher, they’re not really in a chatting mood. Jahmene is happy to sit there with his thumbs aloft, as if he’s co-hosting Pat Sharp’s Funhouse.

Tonight’s first special guest is “our very own” Tulisa, which means the statistics researcher has their work cut out, trying to present her as a global musical powerhouse. Five different hair-colours, one regrettable video and a couple of dubious exes is hardly in the same category as 100 million album sales. The song is awful, full of lazy lyrical couplets like “I used to love the sight of you, now I can’t stand the sight of you.” She sings it well enough, but she’s straining her voice so hard that her epiglottis must be red raw. P!nk also shows up to make her X-Factor debut. I like P!nk and her raw, anarchic energy, so it’s disappointing to see her in a black ball-gown, accompanied by a string orchestra.

The contestants take their turns with the random cliché generator (“I’m doing it for the public,” “I’ve come a long way…” and “Leaving tonight is not an option.”) and then it’s time to find out the results. Dermot boasts that they’ve had over a million votes, but Phil and Holly must get more than that with their daily phone-in competitions. James is first through, and stamps around the stage looking for someone to hit. Christopher is next, although his excited screams are drowned out by a cacophony of boos coming from the audience. At this point, it’s no surprise that Jahmene takes the third place, since he’s never been in the bottom two.

Union J are going home, and their greatest moments recap is an opportunity to revisit some of Nicole’s most ridiculous outfits. Then the boys get to sing one last time, and they’ve chosen Taylor Swift’s Love Story. Curiously, someone forgot to change the gender references, which makes for an unusual performance as four lads sing “You be the prince and I can be the princess.” If Nicole doesn’t have a tiara to lend them, I’m sure Louis has one knocking about.

The diva accusations, the negative feedback – none of it has put a dint in Christopher’s unassailable lead. But Cowell won’t take this lying down. Even as I write this, a Treadstone operative is setting himself up on the roof of the Manchester GMEX ahead of next Saturday’s final. It’s gonna be explosive.