“When you try your best/ But you don’t succeed,” sang Stevie Tonks last night, in a song dedicated to his mother, which seemed pretty dark. But all I could think of was how well the song’s sentiment and gloomy tone matched this episode, and the series as a whole. Everyone involved has tried so damn hard. The staging, the arrangements, the host, the judges, the crowd. It’s so slickly run that a fire could break out at TV3 – as it did last night – and consummate pro Dom Bowden just winged it through the space where an ad break should have been, with us plebs at home were none the wiser. The only thing missing was some x factor, in any contestant.
Something about this being a two-song-a-piece semi-final meant there was even lower stakes than usual. Screwed up? Never mind – you’ve got another. Next week is legit – win or go home. This week was over 100 minutes long (though scheduled for 90) and featured the most consistently boring performances of the series to date.
Not the worst by any means – everyone remembered the words, everyone sang in tune. But there was nothing electrifying about the show. The performers who regularly shocked with quality – Finlay and Mae Valley – are gone. Those with the ability to collapse entirely – Steve Broad, Joe Irvine, Lili Bayliss – are out too. Now that Beau’s no longer dressing as a bumblebee and doing mouth trumpet, they’re all dependably reliable, or reliably dependable. Whichever you prefer. They just walk on, sing competently, meekly absorb the feedback, gurn a bit for the text screen, then leave.
The theme didn’t help – number ones and ‘a song for mum’, which is utterly meaningless and prompted a sprawl of entirely unrelated songs. At least the judges got a little mouthy, with Nat and Shelton having something resembling a fight, though without any genuine rancour, and Mel finally calling out most of the contestants on their lazy coasting. What else happened? Dom accosted Nyssa with a very phallic pool noodle. He is a national treasure.
1. (LW: 1) Nyssa Collins
Norwegian duo Nico & Vinz’s ‘Am I Wrong’ qualifies as the edgiest song choice for Nyssa all year – a stripped, downtempo R&B song which she probably gussied up with soulful affectations a little much for my liking. Next she did some fearsomely bland Patsy Cline song which was the aural equivalent of a medium-sized box of Roses. A gesture, neither grand nor insulting, the very definition of adequate. Nyssa’s partisans in the crowd and on the panel cooed contentedly, so it was left to Mel to describe what had actually happened: “I thought it was super cheesy. I didn’t like it.” It’s hardly “we have a doppelganger in our midst”, but at least Mel is willing to describe these very ordinary contestants in terms remotely connected to their performances, which are bad, rather than their personalities, which seem very lovely. What else did she do? Boxed with Stan, which was unconvincing, and played the bachelorette to the Vibes’ mums which was utterly mystifying. Her presence at the home visit dinner was never explained – an enjoyably strange note in an otherwise soporific episode. Anyway – Nyssa does the business, every week, and knows what she is. I hope she can beat all these well-meaning but ultimately deeply flawed boys.
2. (LW: 4) Beau Monga
Beau spent the first half of this competition being systematically dismantled. Each week he looked more and more harried and lost, jamming all his skills into one two minute routine. Now he’s finally realised that just because you can breakdance, rap and beatbox it doesn’t mean you always should. His current performances are less manic and less interesting but much more in tune with what this competition and its fans are seeking. And even though he is demonstrably worse at everything he does than the guy who entered the competition, the illusion of improvement (from ‘Freestyler’ onwards) gives him a conventional X Factor narrative – the sense of his blossoming under the hot lights.
He did well to choose ‘My Love’, from that Timbaland era where his every production contained beatboxed elements, thus letting Beau do his stuff without it feeling forced in against the song’s will. The vocal was a little ropey, but that was probably inevitable, and obscured by more great Beau dancing. He returned with Ardijah’s cover of Paul McCartney’s ‘Silly Love Songs’, though he and the judges continually just referred to it as an Ardijah song. Maybe they didn’t know any better, maybe they didn’t care. Now, Ardijah were an incredible band in the late ‘80s. Go watch their clips. Just killer raw robofunk. By 1999 they were washed up, and covered what I consider, push comes to shove, the second worst song of them all. Trailing only ‘American Pie’. Ultimately what he played was less significant than his playing guitar prettily, alongside his brothers. It was the kind of scenario New Zealand has history with from Split Enz to Kora, and a lingering affection for. So Beau, beatboxing breakdancing bumblebee Beau, is now the only remaining contestant who’s never been in the bottom two. That probably means something.
3. (LW: 2) Brendon Thomas and the Vibes
Less than a minute after coming off stage, the Vibes had their faving fingers out and were noting negative tweets about their performance, including my own. Fair enough. I’m a 35-year-old man and should be doing something, anything else with my time. But for a bunch of chilled out stoners, they sure are sensitive. They absolutely should not be, though. They’ve managed to walk this amazing tightrope, constantly signalling they have no respect for the X Factor franchise, or pop music, while participating fully in the X Factor pop music factory. The best part is that the judges – three quarters of whom have only pop music experience – are all falling over themselves in their eagerness to praise their musicianship and originality and in so doing validate their own taste and corresponding credibility as musicians. It’s such an amazing trick – negging the hell out of the show and the judges and the public, and watching the votes pile up. So power to you Vibes – you did a turgid cover of ‘Another Brick in the Wall’, and then covered John Lennon and The Rolling Stones. Floyd, the Beatles and the Stones in one show is some kind of evil genius – it’ll get the boomers voting for the last couple of weeks at least.
I will say this about the Vibes – Kylie has done an outstanding job on their outfits. They look better and better every week. Also: cool to see their mums, who looked exactly like their sons. I hope they too have a band.
4. (LW: 3) Stevie Tonks
Hatbeard is unshakeable. Lately he’s been correctly accused of doing musical theatre every week, but every week he doubles down and gets even more theatrical. This week it was crowdsurfing in some of Daniel Bedingfield’s leftover trousers, while singing fun.’s excellent ‘Some Nights’. Good choice for him, but as usual he starts hooning all over the set. It’s just weird, and only ever happens at Taylor Swift/One Direction-style event concerts. He has neither the potential nor the ambition to reach that scale or style. He was less animated for his second song, a passable trawl through Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’, blended with some other diabolical song. It was dedicated to his mum, and contained the lyrics “the tears stream down your face” repeated endlessly. Way to bum out mum, Hatbeard! “A lovely choice of song, especially for your mum,” said some half-mad judge, before Nat went into a rant that was the precise inverse of Natalia Kills Joe Irvine takedown. “If you want heart, if you want soul, if you want to feel something…” on and on she went with this wide-eyed and indefensible hyperbole. By the end it felt like she views Stevie Tonks as the only man standing between us and a chart filled with Vengaboys and Cheeky Girls. I’d take that every time, incidentally. But Stevie, despite being author of two of the five most memorable performances of the the series, has just fallen into a rut from which he is determined to never emerge, and is my pick to finally depart this evening.
Then it’s finally the finale. Thank Christ.