Last week I was in Ohakune for the X Factor NZ live show, hungover from a 40th the night before, and therefore in the perfect intellectual state to consume 1.5 hours of TV singing show. Around 5pm I turned on the rental bach’s hitherto unused television – an LG old enough that it was two feet deep – only to discover the freeview box was stuck on FOUR, courtesy of a remote as dead as these contestant’s post-show careers.
I really tried to watch the show. Over the next couple of hours I googled how to turn your phone into a channel changer (impossible without a ‘dongle’), located and inserted some batteries in a foreign house and entirely dismantled and reassembled the remote (futile), before giving up settling in to watch Troy, a braindead show about a Craig David-looking London magician, which was both horrible and more fun than X Factor had been lately.
I arrived home the following day, exhausted from the travel and the three kids and listening to Peppa Pig for many, many hours. But I gamely watched the previous night’s X Factor, on 3Now. The sound was about a second out of sync with the visual, but I struggled through it, and segued straight into the elimination show, before my will eventually caved in entirely, and I handed over to our staff writer, Alex Casey, who delivered an excellent and appropriately arbitrary set of rankings, divined using her ancient tribal fortune teller – ye olde Spice Girls tin.
It was a sweet release, but I’m back on the grind now. In fact, last night I drove dutifully out to Favona Road in Mangere to witness this live show in the flesh, to see if there was anything I’d been oblivious to by my only consuming the show via my television. Maybe that mean old rectangle was obscuring the scorching soul of Steve Broad. Perhaps it was censoring vicious takedowns by the judges. Maybe it was digitally distorting Beau’s talent, implying a descent into madness and incoherence which just was not happening.
In truth, there were some things I’d forgotten, or at least taken for granted. The production itself is some kind of miracle. The stage still a spaceship, each set a minor masterpiece, every arrangement brilliantly executed. Truly, they took a bunch of New Zealand songs which have become the worst kind of hold music, deployed to imply that a callously indifferent utility company’s automated phone answerer would actually be a great guy with which to share a few ice cold Tuis. But the music producers found life in these limping old dogs, rearranging them until they sounded entirely fresh.
Seeing Dom work his magic off-camera as well as on- was a treat. His control over the audience, and sense of calm in the midst of chaos is still a thing to marvel at – something we as a country have no right to and should be more grateful for. Just imagine the show without him, with whoever our second-best host is in charge. Mike Puru? Simon Barnett? Sharyn Casey? I don’t know – it’d be a disreputable shambles, anyway.
Otherwise it was mainly notable that every contestant was basically fine. No one forgot the words or looked with raw terror at the unblinking robot eye of the camera. It’s getting competent, but not remotely exciting. A friend texted afterwards “I think this will be the first X Factor with no winner… No one has the X Factor!” With those baleful words, let’s go to the rankings.
1. (LW: 4) Nyssa Collins
A fact: Nyssa is the only singer left who has any right to win this thing. Her voice is huge, but equalled by her control. She’s confident, and has delivered consistent quality since mid-March at least. She sang Aaradhna’s “Islander anthem” ‘Wake Up’, and did as Stan said by energising a song she could’ve just covered faithfully and crushed. That song’s self-exhortation to stop being such a layabout and do something with your goddamn life is a perfect X Factor sentiment. Nyssa’s success is her heeding it; the show’s continuing blandness is the exec producers ignoring it. The lack of electricity is 100% on them. It’s exemplified by Shelton’s comment: “The only problem I have – is not having you!” He’s used that same lame bait-and-switch at least twice before – aside from pretend A&Ring it’s his only move – and whether it’s terrible writing or instincts or coaching, someone needs to fix him. Actually scratch that – he did one thing different this week. He thanked NZ On Air for funding Blindspott and I Am Giant into careers, live on an NZ On Air-funded show, in a round celebrating NZ On Air. That was gross, but probably got him another 10 years of terrible hard bro metal funded. So definitely worth it, right? Anyway – Nyssa was great, she’s always great. Well done Nyssa.
2. (LW: 1) Brendon Thomas and the Vibes
I don’t need to labour the reasons I don’t like the Vibes anymore, right? They play way too hard, regardless of whether the song demands it. Brendon puts some tragic solo in every song, Tim bangs away like you get points for effort and not subtlety. Tragically, on this weird show, where the judges are transfixed by musicianship in any form, you do. They played ‘Bathe in the River’ inna Joe Cocker-style, and it was a mess with glimpses of grace. When they let the song breathe it was fine. The choir looked and sounded haunting, and Mikey’s Jethro Tull intro was cute. But otherwise it was more bad Rockquest zzzzs.
3. (LW: 2) Stevie Tonks
Stevie’s coming off his first time in the bottom two, having been rightly criticised for his theatricality last week. So this week he gets an even bigger stage, and pulls out even bigger histrionics. It was a beautiful setup, but I feel like all these magic production flourishes and awestruck judge comments are feeding a rampant ego in a way which is actively unhelpful for the guy. That’s the unintended consequence of relentless positivity from the judges – creating a bunch of smug, uncritical contestants who are now so convinced of their own genius that they point-blank refuse to learn or change. In fact, their worst instincts are being encouraged: fed, watered and suffused with the oxygen of hyperbolic praise. So Stevie, who began the season as a nuggetty white soul singer, is now a cabaret act. One so self-obsessed that he turned to intently watch his just-completed performance on the big screen, oblivious to the remaining crowd. There’s some kind of metaphor in there, I just can’t be bothered finding it.
4. (LW: 5) Beau Monga
“I’m the last girl here,” said Nyssa during her intro. And she is! The only girl, amongst six cute boys. It’s pretty obvious, then, what drives voting on this show. Two rows back from me sat Finlay and Lili, one of whom should have won the whole bloody tournament, the other of whom was always, always better better than Beau ‘the human muddle’ Monga. I don’t know how to feel about his persistence. On the one hand it’s been beyond painful to watch a guy so talented get so infinitely perverted from his natural evolution as an artist – to the point where you wonder if he’ll ever be able to get back what he had just a few months back. On the other, he really did a beautiful job on ‘Fade Away’. He kept its subtle, stripped charms intact, sang beautifully and, horrible beatbox solo aside, restrained himself from his tendency to show everything he can do on one performance. It should be completely beyond the realms of possibility that Mr Freestyler could win anything, anywhere. But somehow it’s not.
5. (LW: 3) Steve Broad
Last week was nowhere near the disaster it became in retrospect. As the veteran of numerous failed attempts to conquer Mt ‘Burn’ at karaoke, I know full well that Usher is probably the most difficult current pop singer to cover. A couple of bung notes aside, Broad-o did fine. The problem is his slump-shouldered ‘Old Gil’ persona means that every criticism is amplified by his uncritical acceptance of it. This week JJ, Mike and Dom could literally come into his house and hassle him to his face, which should result in some kind of radio host massacre. But he just limply wears it. X Factor NZ is a sentence to be endured for him, yet his housewife appeal means he’ll be there until the end. Remember that, unbelievable as it sounds, he and Beau are the only acts who have never been in the bottom two. Theoretically that should make them favourites. Or at least confident. But Broad is a broken blonde, trudging his way to oblivion.
Dom: “Do you think you could win this thing?”
Steve: “I’m chipping away.”
Chipping away at what? Your self-esteem? Your desire to ever perform again? Your will to live? He sang Tiki Taane’s ‘Always on My Mind’ – though Tiki Taane, who would never debase himself for commercial reasons, was not happy about it – and it was OK-ish. Steve ‘OK-ish’ Broad. Probably your next X Factor winner.