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The X Factor NZ: The soporific slump

Tuesday 24th March 2015

Whether it was a sophomore slump or a semi-permanent shift towards the soporific, this week was bad. 

X Factor contestant Lili Bayliss.

Photo: The X Factor NZ

After a week in which the X Factor New Zealand totally and exhaustingly dominated headlines both locally and internationally, it seemed a reasonable possibility that the hearts, minds and throats of those centrally involved with the show would be somewhat distracted when it came time to actually perform again. Unfortunately for everyone willing to endure three hours of the show over the past two nights, that seemed to be exactly the case.

The new judges provided little in the way of immediate relief; both Natalie Bassingthwaighte and I Am Blindspott currently lack a crucial level of engagement both with their charges and with the show itself, offering little more at Sunday’s show than dull platitudes and the kind of youth group talent show-level light critique that made both Mrs Kills-Moon’s premeditated and tangential post-performance remarks and her husband’s often horribly, hauntingly innuendo-filled efforts seem almost eloquent. But, like, only almost.

There might be hope, though. Based on his comments with regard to Nofo’s ability to deliver in-studio, it seems that Shelton is at the very least concerned with the post-season longevity of the show’s acts, and Natalie’s been doing this exact thing on the higher-budget, larger-market Australian version of this show for around five years. I mean sure, that show’s truly and inarguably reprehensible in all discernable ways, but experience counts for something, right? Let’s hope so.

The new X Factor judges: Natalie Bassingthwaighte and Shelton Woolwright.

Photo: The X Factor NZ

Part of the thrill of this season’s first live show was the absolute unexpectedness of it. A crop of contestants, who through weeks of hard-edited audition snippets and pieces-to-camera had previously presented as varying from reasonably uninteresting to deathly boring, were suddenly allowed to express themselves personally and in performance without the edge-dulling of the editor’s knife. In all honesty, I went into last week’s shows expecting very, very little of note, and was deeply surprised by what eventuated. Unfortunately, the optimism this fostered scarcely seems justified at this point.

This isn’t to say that everything was bad about this week’s performances – Finlay’s strong, weird, almost entirely vibrato-less rendition of ‘FourFiveSeconds’ (full disclosure: it’s easily my favourite song of 2015 so far) was a first-up highlight that wouldn’t be matched, Joe Irvine was an impassioned if amateurish puller of heartstrings on ‘Take Me to Church’ and Lili’s good version of the middling Weeknd song from the bad sex movie was easily her most engrossing performance to date – it’s just that it felt like an enormous step backwards; most everyone else was either barely as good as last week, or fell comfortably short.

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Anyway, because I found so little of Sunday’s show worth writing about or even worth remembering, I decided to try something different. Rather than try purely to assess each contestant’s chances of winning this thing, I decided to employ my graphic design skills (poor to non-existent) and my knowledge of how graphs work (NCEA level 2 maths was a long time ago) to plot the definitive visual aid for this second season of the X Factor. It’s a meaningless graph crafted from my deeply subjective opinions on each of our remaining 11 contestants’ performances to date (Y axis) and the level that I believe they’re capable of reaching, both within the contest and post-final (‘Potential’, plotted on the X axis). Presented below, I give you my meisterwerk: A Cool Graph.

Graph by Matthew McAuley

Now obviously, it’d be a reasonably large-scale copout to present a piece such as this without qualification and elaboration. So here’s that (please note, potential is weighted as more significant than past performance):

Finlay Robertson (90% potential, 80% performance)

For mine, Finlay is a strong and clear frontrunner. She’s super personable, a pretty natural performer and in possession of a deeply powerful instrument; already something like a more charismatic Ginny Blackmore, with a quality ceiling that looks a lot higher than what we’ve seen so far. At this stage, it genuinely looks like the only thing that could potentially keep her from a finals berth is the accursed and oft-mentioned nodules. She probably should have avoided getting nodules.

Stevie Tonks (75% potential, 70% performance)

The friendly furniture mover turned in a second-week performance that was essentially a diminishing returns version of his first live effort, but given the quality of the original, that wasn’t near as bad as it could’ve been. Moving forward, he’ll need to show significantly more than wide-brimmed hats, forehead veins and backlit crescendos if he’s to avoid straight gimmickry; given his general fearlessness and his obvious leap in aptitude from auditions to now, I’d give him more chance than most.

Mae Valley (65% potential, 80% performance)

They’re not close to even considering making empty threats to reinvent any wheels, but they’re performing more than adequately in a genre with enormous and enduring popularity worldwide. If they can find a little more chemistry than they showed this week, they could be huge, and not just locally. Maybe.

Sarah Spicer (50% potential, 60% performance)

I’m in two minds about Sarah: while I think her two performances so far have been incredibly close to being somewhere between ‘very good’ and ‘great’, channeling Annie Lennox via the songs of Miley Cyrus and Ellie Goulding, I also feel like there’s a crucial comfort missing from what she does onstage - if she can overcome this, she could be looking at a pretty deep run. The problem with shows like the X Factor, though, is that she doesn’t have too much time to get through it.

Brendon Thomas and the Vibes (10% potential, 60% performance)

I say this with the sincerest and deepest of good intentions, and with zero desire to hurt any feelings: I absolutely do not think this band is right for the X Factor. They’ve showed a deep aptitude for applying their own sensibilities to existing songs, but where that can mean interesting style-meshing in the context of solo or group singers, for them it just means that everything sounds like a competent blues-rock band with a desperate need to discover real psych music. They may very well find major success in the future, but it won’t be playing George Ezra songs and it won’t be via the X Factor. Save your vote money for a PledgeMe to buy the boys the Can boxset instead.

Joe Irvine (70% potential, 40% performance)

There is still no slate even near as blank as Jirvine’s, even after a week in which even real, serious media undertook some of the most exhaustingly uninteresting handwringing in recent memory in his name. He’s still obviously enormously nervous as a performer, but his essential inexperience means that he’s probably the most malleable of the contestants - if he’s as willing to learn as he seems to be, and if he can shake just a touch of that deep onstage awkwardness, he’ll be around a while.

Lili Bayliss (60% potential, 50% performance)

After coming achingly close to a shock first-up departure from the competition, Lili bounced back powerfully this week, and will hopefully continue to do so. For the sake of her longevity, and also because I think it would be cool, I’m 100% keen to see her step away from the Lorde-lite atmospherics and into more of an icy Lykke Li torch songstress kind of mode - she’s a confident, assured performer with an endearingly weird presence, but it’s a presence that could hinder her going forward. Here’s hoping that it doesn’t.

Beau Monga (65% potential, 20% performance)

Please, please, please, someone throw the loop pedal in the X Factor contestant house pool. Beau (by the way, is it just ‘Beau’ now? Also, why?) is obviously enormously talented, but the looping is a distraction, and it’s getting worse. If it goes, he’ll be around for a very long while. If it doesn’t, he won’t.

Steve Broad (40% potential, 40% performance)

Steve Broad has so far been a human shrug. He’s obviously enormously talented, but that talent’s been essentially absent since Boot Camp – ‘Jealous’ was near-disastrous – and most distressingly, this isn’t new territory for him. If he can’t arrest this downward spiral, even his winning smile and easy rapport with Mel (yo seriously guys CHILL) won’t save him.

Nyssa Collins (50% potential, 10% performance)

I sincerely hope that Nyssa’s Facebook fanbase stay mobilizing at least long enough for the producers to figure out what on earth they’re doing with her, because right now she’s working very hard with very terrible material. She could be great, but she’s not close to it yet. I still believe.

Fare Thee Well (15% potential, 15% performance)

The fact that Fare Thee Well were bottom two was not a surprise. They seem endlessly nice, but there’s just so little musical substance; the only thing I can remember about their performance of Taylor Swift’s ‘Style’ was that it made me feel uncomfortable. That seems bad.

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Nofo Lameko was eliminated in last night's show.

Photo: The X Factor NZ

So that was week two. I’m sad to have seen Nofo’s departure so early, for despite his semi-formed nature as a performer, he was never less than charismatic on the stage and it would’ve been great to see what he could’ve done with a little more training and a lot more confidence. I’ve got high hopes that a full week spent absorbing the X Factor system will see our new judges completely up to speed by next Sunday, offering critiques that are honest and not tempered by a fear of public reprisal, but I’m definitely not holding my breath; I just hope against hope this doesn’t mean that I Am Giant are going to play on the show sometime. Please, just don’t give me that.



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Matthew McAuley is a lapsed musician from a family of lapsed Catholics, raised in a forest, educated in Dunedin and based in Auckland.
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