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RecapsMarch 16, 2015

X Factor NZ Power Rankings: Week One

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Duncan Greive breaks down the performances from last night’s X Factor NZ and power ranks the participants

Natalia Kills: “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m just going to state the obvious and say we’ve got a doppelganger in our midst. As an artist who respects creative integrity and intellectual property I am disgusted by how much you have copied my husband. From the hair to the suit – do you not have any value or respect for originality? You’re a laughing stock – it’s cheesy, it’s disgusting…”

Stan Walker: “But didn’t you copy your look from Cleopatra?”

Natalia Kills: [ignoring Stan’s peerless burn-for-the-ages] “It was absolutely artistically atrocious. I’m embarrassed to be sitting here in your presence having to even dignify you with an answer of my opinion.”

Joe Irvine: [The loveliest man in the world] “Thank you Natalia – you’re beautiful.”

Willy Moon: “Yeah to me it just feels a little bit cheap and absurd. It’s like Norman Bates dressing up in his mother’s clothing – just a little bit creepy. And I feel like you’re going to stitch someone’s skin to your face then kill everyone in the audience.”

And with that this X Factor caught fire, closing on a moment of bewildering fury and unscriptable chaos. Natalia Kills and Willy Moon walked into that Mangere warehouse as a pair of agreeably pompous jerks and left as national pariahs, capable of shocking cruelty and suffering from astounding delusions as to their own originality and influence. To say what they said to anyone, let alone our sweetheart Joe Irvine, was unconscionable and despicable.

That was the human element. But as television it was extraordinary, electrifying and so vast that it proved impossible to process. 12 hours later it feels like the whole country is convulsing. The endearingly shambolic debut episode of the Xtra Factor was conducted entirely in its shadow, its loose scripting and segmenting incapable of responding to something so monumental. It’s extremely unfortunate that it happened in the first week, because in future they’d have had the confidence to abandon all their plans just spend half an hour chewing on that moment.

It feels too heavy to be just a blip for the show. At this point I wouldn’t be surprised if Kills and Moon were on a plane to St Tropez by Friday. For all the brilliant publicity they’ve generated – the swearing, the bedsheets, the brilliant bakery incident – there’s something too unhinged about them in a live context that has to be scaring the producers. That was episode one, and Irvine took it so stoically. What happens if a contestant talks back? Or fights back?

It was so violent that it seems to overwhelm the performances, which is both inevitable and slightly unfair, because there were a clutch that were surprising and one which was truly outstanding. Overall this crop is entertainingly diverse, and despite the epic running time, some of these characters are  worth watching.

FYI – for more X Factor coverage, including Joseph Moore and Nic Sampson’s excellent podcast, head here.

1. (LW: 4) Stevie Tonks

Stevie Tonks is probably the biggest loser in the aftermath of the Kills-Moon tirade. He came out, alone in the spotlight, and sung his lungs out. He started out on this show just this side of a comedy contestant, there for his googly eyes and funny job, and is now an unbackable favourite to win the whole thing. He took that Lana Del Ray song and filled it with so much sadness and fear, and sang like it was the last time he’d ever be on that stage. That’s what everyone should be doing every night, taking big songs and trying to defeat them. They did not, and maybe cannot, and at this point the show looks like it might be one long coronation for the artist known as Hatbeard.

2. (LW: 1) Beau Monga

“Unfortunately I’ve got stink clothes,” said Beau during the intro, which revealed him as a bonafide humble dude and essentially unaware of his talent and what it means. Beau’s so great that he could do a dubbed to hell cover of a terrible Bob Marley song, with almost no actual singing, and still look like one of the strongest competitors out there. Because he’s got real musical instincts (even if they were largely misdirected – at least for the audience – last night), his own style and just casually revealed that he can breakdance like a damn champion. A little bit more mentoring from Natalia and this guy might actually have a long run and maybe even a proper career.

3. (LW: NR) Mae Valley

Wildcard entries Mae Valley brought us the second strongest performance of the night with a cover of ‘If I Die Young’ by The Band Perry, and it was pretty much irresistible. They were astounding, given they’ve been together all of a couple of weeks, and had to go from 0-100 real quick. New Zealand has a large but essentially ignored country music community, and I get the feeling they’ll mobilise behind these sweet, charming young women. Assuming that happens they’ll get to go real deep, and we should get a clutch of pretty, simple songs sung just right.

4. (LW: 5) Lili Bayliss

Nobody seemed to rate Lili heading into this week. She was so meek, so unprepossessing. That’s not how pop singers come on, right? But she does have that big odd voice, and last night shows that she has actual artistic instincts which maybe four or five others possess. She took ‘Rude’, a diabolical single which squatted on our radio lawn for most of last year, and made it spare and haunting. Yes, she basically did a kinda high school talent quest version of Lorde visually and vocally, but the arrangement was legitimately smart and that’s the kind of element most of her competition don’t have a hope of matching. A real contender.

5. (LW: 8) Finlay Robertson

This is the start of the third tier. Stevie is alone out front, with Lili, Beau and Mae Valley chasing a while back. I think the winner is in that bunch. Finlay starts the talented-but-fundamentally-flawed section. Her pre-show reveal of nodules was framed by Stan as “like a broken bone or torn ligament for an athlete”, which seems both ridiculous and somehow plausible – athletes do occasionally play through those conditions, but are invariably limited as a result. Finlay maybe developed them by singing with wince-inducing intensity all the damn time, particularly on her bootcamp version of ‘Creep’. She took ‘Chandelier’ – my favourite single of 2014 – and removed all the elevation and end-of-the-world pathos from it. Yet somehow it built and built until by the end, once she’d got up off of the piano and started wandering around, the song was floating.

6. (LW: 10) Sarah Spicer

Spicer’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ seemed divisive on twitter – a few people loved it, many more loathed it. I get the feeling that’s more a reaction to Miley, who elicits more horrible opinions than almost any other celebrity. But let’s be clear: ‘Wrecking Ball’ was a 12/10 song choice by Mel, the worn out-but-raging neo-Bonnie Tyler power ballad suited Spicer’s ‘one last shot’ narrative and rasping voice immaculately. The performance was patchy – she has this tendency to push too hard and start howling at times, and the way she moved on stage was too creaky and didn’t fit. But that stuff’ll come – I think Mel has figured out how to make her work on that stage, which is great news for #rockmom (c. @matthewhlumber)

7. (LW: 3) Nyssa Collins

Nyssa got rave reviews from the judges, but I was severely disappointed by her performance. ‘Uptown Funk’ is a shit song to begin with, a ‘70s homage that brings nothing new to the party and plays to Mars’ blandest instincts as a writer. And Kills was right – disco requires a sexuality and abandon which isn’t in Nyssa right now. Give her Whitney, or Mariah or any other huge sexless torch song. Not this. On the bright side she looked incredible – like a Polynesian Betty Davis – the strongest and most coherent visual presentation of the night.

8. (LW: 2) Steve Broad

Broad soiled himself, taking on “Everest”, as Stan correctly noted, and turning for home long before base camp, shivering in some Kathmandu cargoes and an Icebreaker knit. Let’s be clear: ‘Drunk in Love’ was and will always be so far beyond his range. The worst part was how oblivious he was to his overreach – the way he crooned as if only Mel was watching, and turned in the kind of hosed karaoke performance that’d have you in cringe spasms through your hangover all the following day. His response to the well-targeted criticism – “that’s the hurdle that makes the dream more awesome” – was also bizarre and worrying. Like he believes he’s destined to win this thing because God said so or something. At least we got Idol acknowledged this time – that footage was heavenly, I’m hoping there’s more every week.

9. (LW: 8) Joe Irvine

Joe came out looking a million bucks and turned in a $10 performance. All the good Mel did to Spicer she undid with Broady and Joe, with Joe’s song selection more mystifying than Broad’s. This kid thrives when he knows a song inside and out, when he’s sung it a thousand times and it moves him to vast gestures and many tears. This was a feeble, frigid performance that is best forgotten. But the thing is, it doesn’t matter anymore. Natalia’s tirade (and Willy’s – what he said was inarguably worse, but has been lost in the rush) has cemented Joe as the embodiment of our national psyche. He’s like the Stephen Fleming-era Black Caps, a side full of mediocre talents which had no business being in games, but scrapped and clawed until they won. Irvine was not given much, but there’s huge value in both the force of his convictions and our national sense of a gross injustice and antipathy toward these bullying, posh-voiced elitists. This will see his every performance cheered with the same unquenchable glee that greets rugby or cricket victories over the snobby, faded aristocrats of England. Just watch.

10. (LW: 6) Fare Thee Well

Fare Thee Well are the anti-Joe Irvine. They’ve been given pretty faces, fine voices and the right musical moment – Guy Williams is right to be hassling them about Haim every chance he gets. They’ve got a set of judges too, who inexplicably, think pop music is full of people who play their own instruments. But where Joe makes the very best of his bad situation, Fare Thee Well are taking all those advantages and sleepwalking to a mid-table finish. They made ‘Sounds of Silence’ a dirge, removing all the dread from its harmonies and replacing it with competence. The fact Natalia praised them to the heavens might end up being disastrous for them in the same way that her fury at Joe will be the making of him. Because they walked away from a turgid performance thinking it was great, and will likely give us more of the same next week.

11. (LW: 7) Nofo Lameko

It brings me no pleasure to say this, but I think Nofo might be going home tonight. Which would suck for many reasons, not the least of which is the genuine pleasure he took in going from “homeless to a nice house with a pool”. He sang Timberlake’s smouldering ‘Cry Me a River’ as a Bublé-style lounger, and looked both devastatingly handsome and like he thought the whole thing was some big joke. He even did comedy-deep voiced singing in little sections, and made funny faces during his guitar solo. Prior to now I always felt like criticism of Nofo for his attitude was an over-egged bit of production narrative framing (and maybe even a little racist), because we had to be told about it so often without any video to back it up. Tonight he was plainly not giving a shit. Which is a shame because the dude has extraordinary talent. He just doesn’t seem to know how to use it.

12. (LW: 12) Brendan Thomas and the Vibes

If you have a reputation as ‘60s-obsessed rocker types then picking the most slavishly ‘60s contemporary hit single is probably not the best way to crawl out of that cave. Their version was pretty messy too, with this weird jazzy break that broke whatever momentum they’d managed to cobble together. “I love that you play your own instruments”, said some idiot judge, as if that matters, before Natalia rightly burned them to the ground. Unfortunately Stan then leavened that by saying “Straight up – that was awesome” when it absolutely wasn’t. The problem with the Vibes, and the bands in general, is that both the judges and the live audience hugely over-value the fact they’re playing the music in front of them. Because they’re unfamiliar with bands – don’t see them live, don’t really know what a good one sounds like – then the very act of live musical creation is being treated as some kind of miracle, when in fact it’s just the bare minimum to make it in the door.

13: (LW: 11) Stuss

Stuss wouldn’t make it past the quarter-finals of the Rockquest regionals based on the evidence we’ve seen to date. They took the 1975’s ‘Girls’, which is a goddamned masterpiece of liquid guitar pop, and rendered it as grey, funkless goop. Stuss need to be locked in a garage for c. two years to learn how to write and play. Then maybe they might be able to sniff around supporting, say, Kingston. But they have no business growing up on TV, and if they weren’t composed mostly of teen babes then I’d be 100% certain their name would be called for the last time tonight.

For more X Factor coverage, including Joseph Moore and Nic Sampson’s excellent podcast, head here.

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