Has any TV show fallen as far or landed as hard as X Factor NZ did over the last seven days? We watched one of the 20 or so most controversial moments in our televisual history last week; this Sunday we sat and watched a bunch of mostly mediocre singers singing mostly mediocre songs, while a clutch of meek judges told them how outrageously talented they were.
It was very boring television, particularly so because the memory of those violent, electrifying scenes was so present throughout. The same seats, the same stage, yet something vital was missing.
Willy and Natalia were such extraordinary television talent – vain, self-absorbed and predatory. They treated New Zealand and the X Factor like a gas station on a long drive from somewhere good to somewhere better. It was a necessary evil, a place they needed to stop to cash up before chasing fame in a bigger and more glamourous burg. They would grudgingly tolerate their months here, but never stoop to masking their contempt for those who made these lonely islands their home.
So – unpleasant people, terrible dinner guests. But magic TV. A rumour I’ve heard suggests that Kills had auditioned for the Kelly Osbourne seat on E!’s Fashion Police, and had been offered the job, conditional on her being able to escape from X Factor. And that last Sunday’s explosion was her and Willy voiding the contract. It would explain a lot, and matches the news coming out of E!, which suggested that Fashion Police was close to a return, before mysteriously going on hiatus.
Whatever it was that compelled the pair to set fire to their careers, the end result was Shelton Woolright and Natalie Bassingthwaighte. And they might be many things to many people, but they’re no Willy and Natalia. Shelton was mainly notable for dressing like support crew rather than a fancy judge, while Natalie’s best line (“They started clapping right away – that’s the sign of a true artist”) was good because it was brilliantly dumb, not because it was actually good.
At this point they look like Mel-lite and Stan-lite, duplicating existing judging characteristics without adding a single thing. It was so tedious even the show’s hardcore fans found themselves driven to uncharacteristic distraction.
Such a damn shame. The episode started well, using grainy 3 News footage as a disaster movie-style scene-setter, before Dom introduced our judges as “four of the most versatile performers on the planet”, an enjoyably ridiculous statement. But, from that moment on, the show started a descent from which it never recovered – a wheezing, limping dog of an episode. After the week they’ve had, just getting it to air was some kind of Herculean effort, and earns them a bare pass. But everyone I’ve spoken with since the episode aired is fearful that this was not a blip, but instead the new, brutal normal.
1. (LW: 1) Stevie Tonks
Tonks retains his top spot, if not by the skin of his teeth, then by the length of his beard. He sang Sam Smith’s ‘Like I Can’, and it was a total re-run of last week. Tightly grasping the mic, veins popping out of his forehead, eyes clenched. It seems churlish to complain about what was an otherwise excellent performance – especially on a night when so many contestants stank out the stage – but the show’s format demands variety and so far Stevie’s just hit the one note. On the plus side he ripped a passable freestyle on the Xtra Factor (a much, much better show than its parent at this point) and Joseph Moore’s ‘Hatbeard’ re-christening of Tonks has become official, the hashtag up on screen and everyone from Mel to Dom preferring it to his old name. I’m still undecided about whether it should be his actual artist name or the title of his debut single or album. Probably all three.
2. (LW: 5) Finlay Robertson
Never underestimate the power of a good storyline. The nodules, which are going to be referred to approx 8000 times the rest of the season, will end up being as good for Finlay as the bullying was for Joe Irvine. They add to her pre-existing struggle narrative, give her a condition to overcome, and make her every performance that much more heroic. That last night’s rendition of ‘FourFiveSeconds’ was probably the night’s best also helps. Last week I prematurely opined that she was part of a third tier with no hope of winning, but I was wrong. Between the nodules and production big guns – they piled on a choir and let her open the show – she could absolutely win this thing.
3. (LW: 6) Sarah Spicer
The same cannot be said for Sarah Spicer. But I love that she’s throwing herself into it with such complete abandon. Ellie Goulding’s a wispy singer, reliant on production and breathy phrasing to make her hits. Sarah Spicer, on the other hand, has never met a brick wall she didn’t feel like she could sing her way through, Hasselhoff-style. This should have made for a disaster, but Mel has got her restraining her shrillness, and for a second straight week Spicer nailed a tough assignment. Don’t mistake her high placement for ‘potential winner’. She’s more like a pacesetter in a middle distance race, there to show the actual contenders what a good performance looks like. Spicer’s main problem is that she’s haunted by the ghost of her own potential, the knowledge that a 23-year-old Spicer in 1995 – the era of Alanis, remember – could have taken this comp and beaten it to death in a back alley. Still, she’s giving it her all and that’s not true of many people in this distinctly ordinary field.
4. (LW: 9) Joe Irvine
Another over! What the hell is going on with the world when two contestants whose ages combine for Super Gold card status can be three and four in New Zealand’s X Factor?! I am as disgusted with the youth of this country as a Boomer columnist writing about the housing market. Joe was faced with a pivotal moment this week. Dangerously engorged with national sympathy following ‘the incident’, he could easily have gotten distracted and given us another off-brand pastiche like last week. Instead he went to his ‘big song’ box and turned in another certified Joe Irvine monster. The song’s called ‘Take Me to Church’, and I’m going to embarrass myself by trying to get Joe nicknamed ‘The Preacher’ because the dude has evangelical levels of intensity. That closeout, dropping to his knees then rising, his face soaked and quivering, was the highlight of the episode.
5. (LW: 3) Mae Valley
The second-highest charting X Factor NZ single from last week was Mae Valley’s ‘If I Die Young’. Granted, this was on the NZ singles chart, which currently has NINE fucking Six60 sings in its top 20. But still – Mae Valley have already proven their sound is fresh and distinctive enough to get actual people to pay actual money for their music. This week’s single is unlikely to do the same – it was a more tentative performance, and they had zero staging to help lift it. But while Mel was right to suggest they bring back the acoustic guitars (not a phrase I ever imagined writing) next week, the willingness to try and escape their homely and well-appointed pigeon hole is to be admired. Plus they absolutely killed on Xtra Factor, yelling ‘vote’ about 100 times and going burn for burn with Guy Williams. “Your look says ‘we’re going to town in Tauranga’,” he said, accurately. “You look like a butler from England who had his house burn down and lost his cat,” they popped back, also accurately. It was magic.
6. (LW: 2) Beau Monga
The most problematic performer on the show continues to drift further away from the impact and quality of his early performances. He took Pharrell’s abysmal kid’s anthem ‘Happy’ and made it moody and amelodic, and once again emphasised his ability to construct a beat with his mouth over singing. The show is not called beatboX Factor Beau! Natalie needs to convince him to back out of this cul-de-sac, sing a song we all know in a style we all recognise and care a lot less about what New Zealand’s loop pedal community think of his work. Because despite him having all the tools – babe looks, great attitude, incredible dancer and singer – right now he’s using them to assemble a goddamn bucket fountain.
7. (LW: 4) Lili Bayliss
Something odd’s happening with Lili. Last week any dispassionate observer would’ve put her in the top half of performers, and she was one of three artists whose single charted, both of which should indicate she’s comfortable for a good while. Yet there she was, in the bottom two alongside Stuss. STUSS! This week she wore an entire jewelry box around her slender neck, and covered the Weeknd, an artist who started out brilliant and got very boring very quickly (ominous sign), but once again was better than the average, albeit in a godawful week. My fear is that her appeal is limited to the kind of nerdy X Factor viewer who reads power rankings and considers a contestants marketability in the music industry, but that she doesn’t resonate at all with middle New Zealand’s Joe Voter. She got to close out last night, and a second week of fancy staging, so she should be safe. But that ‘who’s your voting audience?’ question will continue to hang around.
8. (LW: 12) Brendon Thomas and the Vibes
Late last Thursday I received three identical emails. “I simply cant understand what your problem is with my band,” they asked. “We play a 60s style which doesn’t fit in with the rest of the xFactor system but I dont see how you can constantly stick us at 12 in your power rankings… I mean seriously we chose lonely boy based on your rating the previous week… We did the complete opposite of your criticism and you threw us in the shit again.”
It wasn’t all that chilled out, but the Vibes’ email had a point. Namely that their not fitting the X Factor system doesn’t preclude them doing well on this show. I can and do think they sound pretty horrible most of the time, but the live audience – as good a proxy we’re going to get for the one at home – lose their minds over them every time. They play bad music with infectious energy, and are very funny and on-stoner brand in the post match interviews, helped by Dom’s perfect “buzzy” trolling. So I’m starting think that maybe the Vibes can go deep.
9. (LW: 8) Steve Broad
Another week, another brilliant song, another slightly embarrassing performance. ‘Jealous’ is a tough song on a number of levels. As #Hatbeard found out the hard way at Boot Camp, it requires an extraordinarily deft combination of sass and humour and sincerity and while you’re at it a killer falsetto. Nick Jonas needed his pipes, his backstory and probably his enormous nipples to make that song work. Steve Broad had only his piano and a dream. The sections at the piano were fine (though the juke joint steampunk staging was horrid); the sections were he walked around and tried to arouse the crowd were cringey as. Steve Broad needs to figure out who Steve Broad is, and get back to being Steve Broad, because the Steve Broad we’re seeing is not the Steve Broad we were sold. Sort it out Steve, because otherwise your X Factor career is going to embarrass you more than Idol, and there’ll be no more lessons from Sexy Teacher for you.
10. (LW: 7) Nyssa Collins
“NYSSA! NYSSA! NYSSA!,” went the chant. “I just love my family eh,” she said, awestruck, in response. Unfortunately only her family could unequivocally love Nyssa right now. For the second straight week she’s been all staging and outfit and no singing. Even on a show like this, the cynicism of having her sing not one but two despicable Megan Trainor songs felt a little much. And whether it was the songs or the moment which was impacting her, the performance was perhaps the night’s dullest. I feel like quite a few of the contestants are getting lost in the production – having to hit too many marks, make too many twirls and think about stuff which isn’t singing. Maybe in time they’ll learn to do both. But a number of them will be gone before they get the chance, and on current form Nyssa will be one of them.
11. (LW: 11) Nofo Lameko
“First you had Cyclone Pam. Then Cyclone Natalia. This week you got to worry about Cyclone Nofo,” said Nofo, his analogy draining all the poignancy from the tearjerker intro, where he talked about his fears last week for relatives in Tuvalu. Then he sung us a Six60 single which played to all the worst parts of his personality and style. It was competent karaoke, barroom crooning, made so much worse by the knowledge that this guy has the sexbeast in him. Remember that first note of ‘Let’s Get it On’? How vast and lusty it was? We need that Nofo back. This Nofo was bad enough to earn Shelton’s first stab at a negative comment – though he closed out with “I love you bro”, weakly – and it was as bland and tentative as Nofo’s performance. I think he goes tonight.
12. (LW: 10) Fare Thee Well
Taylor Swift’s ‘Style’ is an outstanding, 10/10 pop single. All pace and phrasing and longing and sinewy glide. Fare Thee Well’s ‘Style’ is rickety, sexless and smug. Every week they just get worse and worse and I just can’t figure it out – all those advantages and they’re doing nothing at all with them. The harmonies are cloying, the arrangements are obvious and performances so eager and perky you just feel sick at yourself for being 35 years old and devoting so much time to watching and analysing this show. Last time around – with mad Daniel Bedingfield and leering Tom Batchelor, and Whenua battling to tame his vast voice – it was so compelling. Last week, with the volatility of Natalia and Willy’s robotic anti-charisma, it was riveting. Now all the air’s out of the room, and when I close my eyes all I see is Fare Thee Well’s empty, frozen grins.
The X Factor NZ airs on TV3 7.00pm Sunday and 7.30pm Monday