Double elimination. Two words, either heavenly or horrific. They sounded so sweet to us at home, carrying with them the promise of a shorter show, relieved of two more can’t-winners from this cursed season. To the performers they were a chill wind blowing through their mansion, a reminder that their dreamy existence – fame, coaching, studio time, mentoring – is fleeting and illusory, the whim of producers and fans, neither of whom really care for their careers or feelings.
Double elimination. So overdue. Last night provided the strongest evidence yet that this year’s X Factor NZ has already revealed its mysteries. We know the small selection who have it in them to win it. Nyssa, Finlay, Stevie Tonks. It’ll be a really legit finale, better than last season’s, in all probability. But we also know the contestants that the competition has broken, who are beyond mentoring, whose every appearance on stage feels like a window into some private hell.
Without the happy bombshell at its close we’d have been looking back at this episode as another to be endured. Better than the two which preceded it – the theme ensured that – but still devoid of the magnetism of those early weeks. No moment summed that up better than Shelton’s comments to Stevie Tonks. “I’m disgusted,” he began, alluding to Natalia’s immortal explosion “– disgusted at how good you are!” It was the cruellest callback I’ve ever seen.
Had Willy and Natalia never made the insane decision to jet into this show and our lives then maybe we’d be happy with episodes like this. There was a bit of stagey conflict between the judges, and a handful of strong performances. The bad ones were legitimately disastrous too, which is always exciting. But the posh, petulant KillsMoons did fly in, and still haunt the set like vengeful spirits, hissing at every blandly supportive comment, always there reminding us of what was once and never will be again.
Another thing: The Xtra Factor is the best thing about this show at the moment. All the pomposity and manufactured tension of the live show is relieved in an instant, like an over-inflated balloon released to fart its way round in circles, when we switch to the glorious low def and basement production values of its kid brother. Last night we saw Beau punching Guy in the balls, an interview with Mel’s daughter and future star Lili Blatt, and Joe Irvine sang at 109 decibels and made my ears hurt through the TV. “I feel like we get more and more like What Now? every week,” said Guy, as a horse puppet joined them on the couch. He was right, and it is exactly why the show is working.
A final note: was there a massive production screw up yesterday? They recorded a charity single on Friday for Ronald McDonald House. It’s all over MediaWorks’ radio stations. But it didn’t get mentioned even once on the live show. Which seems a curious decision if you want it to, y’know, sell some copies and coin it for charity. And the show finished at 8.56pm – with just enough time to do a nice little piece on a charity single. Hmm.
FYI: I watched the episode with my five-year-old daughter Robyn, whose comments on certain artists are included at the conclusion of their summaries.
1. (LW: 1) Finlay Robertson (Taylor Swift – ‘Shake it Off’)
As a physical performance, Finlay’s ‘Shake it Off’ was deeply weird and imperfect. If you have a singer whose one flaw is that they don’t move so good, having other people do the moving doesn’t exactly distract you from that. A friend suggested that they got too invested in the concept – having her first pushed around on a moveable platform, then carried off underneath a wee mosh pit – to back away once it became clear it wouldn’t work. That said, the failure of the visuals was matched only by the triumph of the vocal and arrangement. Those glittering synths and a slow build beat refreshed a great song which is at the apex of tired ubiquity right now. Finlay delivered yet another casually brilliant vocal, more playful than any prior, which keeps her at #1 by virtue of those below failing to quite capitalise on her small mis-step.
2. (LW: 2) Stevie Tonks (Ed Sheeran – ‘Give Me Love’)
Next to The Vibes, no X Factor NZ act is more divisive. To his fans, Stevie is the uncrowned king of the show, a perfect 10 singer, dancer and performer and charismatic and easy-going goodguy. To everyone else he’s a cartoon parody of a white soul screecher. Bleating on about “feel”, and how he wants to “bring that back to the heart of music again” in a way that makes me certain he’d have the most boring record collection (or iTunes library or whatever – don’t get hung up on details) you’ve ever seen. Want proof? He named Chris Cornell his favourite artist on Xtra Factor. SERIOUSLY. But he delivered another excellent and masturbatory performance…
…and he still has a command of the stage and physical engagement that no one else can muster, and should probably win. Robyn: [watching the hands] “Perhaps he’s trying to wave goodbye?”
3. (LW: 5) Nyssa Collins (Taylor Swift – ‘Safe and Sound’)
A revelatory week for Nyssa. First we find out that she has 73,000 Facebook fans – unless someone’s bulk purchased 50,000 of those, they essentially guarantee her a finals spot. Next we find out she’s actually better at singing ‘Safe and Sound’ than Taylor Swift. She took the wispy, faux-profound folk diversion and turned it into a restrained soul rock song which wasn’t a million miles away from late-period Gossip, particularly its grunty closeout. A final involving this top three would be impossible to predict and potentially worth the awfully high price of admission that episodes like this embody. Robyn: [after NatBass’ comment] “Why has she got goosebumps? Is she cold?”
4. (LW: 6) Mae Valley (Taylor Swift – ‘Sparks Fly’)
I could watch Mae Valley do the entire Swift back catalogue – at least up to Speak Now – and be entirely satisfied with my life choices. Was ‘Sparks Fly’ the best way to showcase their range? I’d have gone for the pop juggernaut (‘Love Story’) or purer pop-country (‘Mean’ or ‘Fifteen’) but it was fine, and gave them a cheap-but-effective staging hook. The intro video was fun too, staying on white bread brand with some amazing Q&A: “What hobbies do I have?” asked Mae. “Cleaning up,” replied Valley. Robyn’s comment: [shocked] “They’re singing the same song at the same time!”
5. (LW: 4) Brendon Thomas and the Vibes (Ed Sheeran – Make it Rain)
This was a bit of a hospital pass for the Vibes – Ed Sheeran’s too sappy for them, and Taylor Swift too poppy. They could’ve maybe gone to town on ‘Should’ve Said No’, but ‘Make it Rain’ was entirely acceptable and hey – at least they didn’t do a bluegrass cover of ‘Speaking Out Loud’. Per Tonks’ comment above, you either think these guys are the second coming of Zeppelin and a blast of authenticity in this plastic world, or that they’re a not particularly glorified Rockquest band trading off the judge’s ignorance to the existence of garage rock and psychedelia’s multiple scenes and revivals, even the lamest of which wouldn’t allow the Vibes in the door. There is no middle ground. In his preamble Tonks called Brendon Thomas ‘shredlord’, which is both a funny name and a big part of the problem: he insists on shredding every time they go out, rather than when the situation demands it. This week’s solo was probably the best to date, but they still seem ridiculously out of place here.
6. (LW: 7) Joe Irvine (Ed Sheeran – ‘Lego House’)
A huge recovery for gentle Joe Irvine. Last week’s disastrous dueting seems to have galvanised him into focus and practise, as evidenced by a shot him walking around with a book on his head.
He walked into a winter wonderland, a quaint London-at-Christmastime scene which suited both the song and his engulfing melancholia, and gets extra points for having come up with the snow motif on his ownsome. He also wore a suit, another clear nod to his bully-victim origin story, a nice little vote-getter in a week when votes are doubly important. He also endorsed Usher on twitter, which was an unexpected treat.
7. (LW: 8) Lili Bayliss (Ed Sheeran – ‘A Team’)
Lili’s the first of my bottom three, a group who’ve clearly established themselves as incapable of winning, or even turning in a performance matching those above. It’s unfortunate, because all have at various times looked talented and capable. But X Factor can make you or break you, and appears to have irrevocably broken this trio. Lili’s the most committed of them, and in some ways the most deserving of winning this competition. As Joseph Moore said on our podcast a couple of week’s back, she’s unlike any other contestant in terms of her understanding of and adherence to the accepted principles of post-1980 pop stardom. She has a defined look carried week-to-week, re-arranges songs in new and interesting ways, and a clear vision of what she is as an artist.
It’s the execution of the singing part which has let her down, and her fluffing the lyric this week felt like some kind of admission that it’s not gone according to plan, and won’t happen for her. Regardless, she’s gained at least one extreme fan in Paul Williams. And Robyn: “She’s truthful, she tried her best and she’s getting upwards. She deserves to be in the show.” Plus she became an angel from heaven while walking offstage, which was intense.
8. (LW: 9) Steve Broad (Taylor Swift – ‘Blank Space’)
“Blonde, beautiful, talented, sexy – not Taylor Swift, it’s Steve Broad!” Mel sounded so desperate with that intro – fighting to persuade us, herself and Broad himself that those words had weight. And they do. He’s still all those things. But he’s also a wreck, riddled with doubt and almost begging to be ejected. His video tour of the show behind-the-scenes was, as the sneaky-sharp NatBass pointed out, a naked grab for hosting work. He did it well, but the performance, during which he mangled or forgot huge tracts of the lyrics, was a disaster, on the level of Irvine’s from last week in its own way. He closed out strongly, but it felt like a valedictory, its strength only made possible thanks to his being unburdened by that point, having given up hope of progressing further. Even his chat on stage, and references to his awky dancing give away the true goal he’s been nursing these last few weeks: an appearance, now essentially guaranteed, on Dancing with the Stars. (Side note: he and Lili should have switched songs. Why on earth would you cast ‘Blank Space’ – one of the three best dance-pop singles of last year – as a ballad?!). Robyn still believes: “I didn’t notice that he forgot the words. And he couldn’t dance because he was on a chair.”
9. (LW: 10) Beau Monga (Taylor Swift – ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’)
I can’t stop replaying the image of Beau hitting that drum pad during the hook in my head. It seems such a perfectly sad metaphor for his descent into incoherence. There’s a look which comes across his face, captured below, which seems achingly sad – Beau realising just how low this ridiculous show has brought him:
He’s so far from the guy who stood in a small room and played his own ‘King and Queen’ for Natalia Kills and Benny Tipene. Low-slung, prowling R&B, effortless and natural – the “hip hop Beau” that Mel talks wistfully and slightly angrily about. It’s still the most impressively complete musical moment of this series so far. If he is sent home – I hope is, and part of him surely does to – that’s how I’ll remember him. The most important thing is that he goes back to that, and forgets this sorry run of increasingly manic performances ever happened.
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