A confession: Sometimes when I sit staring uncomprehendingly at the blinking cursor, trying to figure out how something which once brought me so much joy came to be such a chore, I lean back and think of the winter of 2013. It was very cold, my wife very pregnant and our house a building site. But it didn’t matter, because X Factor NZ was on two glorious nights a glorious week. I went back and looked up the top seven, just to torture myself essentially.
Whenua Patuwai. Moorhouse. Jackie Thomas. Benny Tipene. Cassie Henderson. Tom Batchelor. Gap 5. Those names, mostly attached to careers which have faded to nothing, carry with them such a powerful longing by comparison. They had so many fascinating narratives buried within them. Tom and Benny’s burgeoning, boozy friendship. Tom and Jackie’s burgeoning, sexy relationship. Whenua’s battle to tame his great voice and greater surliness. Whether Gap 5 and Moorhouse were half as good as we were willing them to be.
Every Sunday we watched the opening credits, in awe and fear, to see whether our television’s pixels could handle Daniel Bedingfield’s trousers. After each song, the increasingly fraught relationship between he and Stan and Mel would play out again, with Ruby Frost a hopelessly outgunned peacemaker, trying in vain to stop her parents fighting. It was such good TV.
If we were drafting these two sets of performers, who would make the top seven from this year’s show? Mae Valley would probably edge out Cassie. But I’d struggle to replace anyone else. Even 2013 Stan and Mel would get seats over this year’s models – because they had convincing fights, and Stan didn’t do those weird accents in lieu of having anything critical to say.
But hey – at least this week was an hour shorter!
1. (LW: 2) Stevie Tonks (James Bay – ‘Hold Back the River’)
Full disclosure: last week’s #1 went home without even getting to sing, so I clearly know sweet F.A. about X Factor and/or music. We also lost Joe Irvine, undeniably the most quixotic singer on the show, with the widest gap between his floor and ceiling. I found him so compelling. Choosing Avicii when you’re singing for your TV life! AVICII! We’ll never see his like again. Hatbeard is the anti-Joe, the Toyota Corolla of the comp. Every week he does Hatbeard stuff, every week the judges love it, every week I wonder whether it’s a good or bad part of me that finds it boring and mannered. This week’s theme was ‘celebrities choose the songs’, which had the potential to be a lot funnier and more disastrous than it it ended up. JJ Feeney chose James Bay’s ‘Hold Back the River’. Shit’s a motherf***ing layup for Hatbeard. He tore it up, then gurned like he was three pills deep at the Gathering in 1998: Extra marks for wearing a skivvy, immediately lost for combining it with a small children’s toy bowler hat on the back of his head.
2. (LW: 4) Mae Valley (Dixie Chicks – ‘Landslide’)
“He’s a handsome bloke,” said Valley, of Izzy Dagg, who chose their song this week. Is it just me or was he the only full-blooded, can’t really-go-out-in-public celebrity we got to see? Kylie Bax? I literally haven’t heard her name since Brass magazine was a thing. Awen Guttenbeil? He wasn’t one of the 10 most famous Warriors when he was playing for the Warriors. The rest were fine, I guess, but starting with Izzy meant they all suffered a bit by comparison. Anyway – “bloke”. Of course Mae Valley are the last women under the age of 40 to refer to men as ‘blokes’. They are always perfect, but reached a new level this week courtesy of that excellent and well-executed concept of having them go for a walk before coming on stage. “It was like something you would see on a big music show,” said Stan, which was both correct and the harshest and most unintentionally poignant burn for poor old X Factor NZ. Seriously though, the staging and costumes are incredible week-to-week, and it’s just such a damn shame that they’re attached to this show. My favourite part wasn’t even staging or music, though – it’s these amazing Mae Valley gang signs!
Even creepy little Shelton in the corner’s impressed.
3. (LW: 3) Nyssa Collins (Stevie Wonder – ‘Superstition’)
They couldn’t get Monty Betham, so they got Awen Guttenbeil. And if he hadn’t been available, it would’ve been this guy (though the market’s so hot right now he might’ve been too busy). Nyssa appeared galvanised by her near-miss last week, clowning with Ed Sheeran – “I’m the first girl that put boobs on his back” probably isn’t true but was defo line-of-the-week, no question – and looking like an intergalactic ruler in her costume. I don’t know how ‘Superstition’ sounded when it came out in 1852 – probably pretty good – but today it’s just behind ‘Satisfaction’ on the ‘songs pummeled into meaninglessness’ chart. She did great, really, making it a smoky ballad, but the judges were right to point out that it was yet another week of her standing still and smashing it out. Shelton dropped one of his rare truth bombs and called her out for it, resulting in a hailstorm of positivity from the other judges. Toward the end he even said “I hope your performance isn’t as boring as that”, which got awfully close to being confrontational. But it was either ignored or not heard. Typical.
4. (LW: 5) Brendon Thomas and the Vibes (Royal Blood – ‘Little Monster’)
MediaWorks supplied MediaWorks celebrities Jono and Ben to choose a song for the Vibes. Unfortunately they resisted the temptation to do some goon comedy and make them sing ‘F*** that Dad’ or something, Missed cross promotion opportunity, guys! The Vibes started out vibing behind a sheet, then the sheet fell down to reveal… Brendon Thomas and the Vibes! Every week they do the same damn thing, but unlike Nyssa, who gets criticised for it, or Lili, who gets criticised for it, the judges queue up to congratulate them on their re-inventing/re-viving/re-birthing rock music. There are so many ridiculous elements to such a statement, but the one which irks me the most is that they have exactly the same problem as Beau. Namely that whatever the strength of their performances – which are uniformly excellent – on radio and Spotify that’s as irrelevant as Beau’s loop pedal mastery. This selective application of A&R-centric criticism shouldn’t bother me, but does. Mainly because these guys remain so openly contemptuous of pop music: “It’s nice to see an artist we actually respect in the charts,” said Brendon of Ed Sheeran. And that right there is why you shouldn’t be here, bros.
5. (LW: 7) Lili Bayliss (The Ting Tings – ‘That’s Not My Name’)
This was a really slyly impressive week for Lili. She couldn’t hide her disappointment when Dom Harvey chose the bloody Ting Tings for her, but sucked it up and turned out one of her best performances yet. It’s not a cool song, and hasn’t aged well, but she embraced its tacky, shouty aesthetic and presented a stylistic avenue we hadn’t seen from her. It’s all the more impressive because Lili gives the strong impression that she has excellent personal taste. After having Sheeran and the Ting Tings forced on her in consecutive weeks it’d be easy to have just given up. She didn’t, and in a competition where the best singers mostly get eliminated while the pretty ones stay, by being pretty and middle-of-the-pack she could stay for ages.
6. (LW: 9) Beau Monga (Kanye West – ‘Gold Digger’)
This is where me and the judges diverge pretty wildly. They saw Beau back in his zone: singing, rapping, dancing and looping his way to a gold medal. I saw a dude screw up his lines and do a funny little trumpet solo with his mouth. It seemed shambolic, but they loved it. DJ Sir-vere made it four MediaWorks radio personalities out of seven – go celebrities! – and picked a song with ‘n****’ in its chorus, which seemed a little harsh, forcing Beau to do the way inferior clean version. Only, mad old Beau didn’t get the memo, and dropped two ‘n****’s on TV before 8.30pm:
Seemed pretty hardout at the time. The set and staging was pretty great, I guess, and Beau himself seemed energised by the degree of difficulty, and by doing a song he might perhaps have liked if he hadn’t been 11 when it came out. Ultimately it was a lot better than ‘Freestyler’, but that’s like saying the Crimean War was way better than World War One. Still – he has something resembling confidence back, and that might help him out at some stage. 7. (LW: 8) Steve Broad (Ella Henderson – ‘Ghost’) Kylie Bax chose this one, maybe because its title elegantly describes her current look. I remember her as being a swimsuit-y, lad’s mag-y “model” in the sub-sub-sub Rachel Hunter mode, but apparently she’s been on the cover of 20 different international Vogues? “She’s a bit of a babe,” said a faint-praising Steve Broad. “Watch out Mel.” Between Dom and Guy and Steve, Mel is being extremely aggressively courted from all sides on X Factor at the moment. Maybe some day this whole show will be submitted as evidence in a sexual harassment suit. Pity the jury if so. The sexualisation of Steve Broad continued apace this week, not helped by Mel’s handjob of an intro: “I’m trying not to smile, but we’ve got some one-on-one time now,” she said, perhaps at knifepoint. The Bachelor-isms didn’t stop there – Steve was off fishing on a familiar-looking launch with some ‘mates’ (aka MediaWorks “celebs”) like Joe Cotton. It was all a good time until we cut back to the studio and there he was, looking much older than his years, dressed in triple denim and singing another maudlin ballad. It started limp, flaccid – not the engorged Broad his intro had promised. But very slowly it rose, until by the end his performance stood proud and erect. He even got out of his stool and did famous new dance ‘the loo’ for a bit:
But by then, it was loo little, loo late.
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