Nah sorry but remember how good The X Factor used to be? How you’d sit there, in the warm comfort of your nan’s living room, bourbon biscuits stacked on the sofa arm, heating turned up to full. How you’d watch someone walk onto the stage – some regional manager from Bolton in pedal pushers who screams “Proud Mary” and everyone cries because her cousin has cancer, or some guy from your primary school who has an acoustic guitar and walnut whip hair now – and you’d think you were watching them fulfil their dreams. How every year you'd forget that in a few months' time they’d be dropped by SYCO, develop a brief coke problem then go on This Morning about it, before performing in seaside panto or touring Butlins (unless they were One Direction or Little Mix, in which case $$$).
Then there were the live shows, which were always themed and would usually involve a “twist” on the classics. How they’d force a recent divorcée called Karen to do a candlelit version of “Like a Prayer” while wearing a dress with a leg slit, or how they’d make the “rock chick” of the season come out from behind their guitar and stomp down the stage in backcombed hair and ripped jeans from River Island. How Cheryl would squeeze a single tear from her sparkly eyes and Simon would go “THIS is why I do the show” and you’d get pulled into it, you’d get pulled into the drama.
Needless to say, these performances were also really crap. That gothy Halloween cover which you thought was “powerful” was actually just someone whispering “Fix You” by Coldplay while moving their hands around next to a wind machine. But as ever – in the grand tradition of crap British telly – because it was crap, it was also very, very good.
With that in mind – and with X Factor’s 15th series (?!) coming to a close – we decided to revisit some of the more iconic moments from the show’s “Golden Era” (which is somewhere between Leona Lewis and when Gary Barlow called Tulisa “Fag Ash Breath” but also not really because there is one from 2015 in here and it’s so fucking funny.)
WHEN CHER LLOYD SANG NEXT TO A WIZENED OLD TREE AND EVERYONE CRIED (2010)
No X Factor retrospective is complete without Cher Lloyd, the bequiffed mini Cheryl Cole who took the nation by storm simply by doing “Turn My Swag On” in a military jacket in her first audition (Simon’s glazed-over look in this footage is specially reserved when people turn into walking wads of £50s before his eyes). She then rapped to Coldplay (previously thought impossible, but Cher dared go where nobody else hath ventured) at Bootcamp. Her performance of “Stay” by Shakespeare's Sister for Halloween week – next to a curséd, curséd fake tree, hunched over in the gnarled gait of a suspicious old woman in a fairytale who says “dearie” a lot – is her most memorable, and is also a masterclass in how you too can create a very gothic atmosphere with just wind, smoke machines, and purple hair extensions!
WHEN MATT CARDLE DID A DUET WITH RIHANNA AND SHE ACTUALLY PERMITTED HIM TO TOUCH HER WAIST (2010)
How Matt Cardle – a man with a face like a ready salted crisp and a voice like a reed – ever got to share a stage with actual Rihanna is beyond me, and yet here they are, slowly circling each other while singing her 2006 hit “Unfaithful.” I don’t know what bit is worst: the bit where she walks out and he looks at her like Mark from the office looks at the interns after precisely three beers, or the bit at the end, when he places a single limp hand on her waist like someone lowering a ham joint onto the kitchen counter.
WHEN ALEXANDRA BURKE GOT SNOT ALL OVER BEYONCE (2008)
Whatever Beyoncé does, however many accolades she racks up, however many millions she stores away in her multiple bank accounts, there will always be that one time she was covered in the mucus of a woman from Islington. All that aside though, this is actually sick. Alexandra Burke can sing. I wish her all the best for her starring role in the theatre production of The Bodyguard.
WHEN DIANA VICKERS DID A WHOLE BLONDIE SONG WHILE SAT DOWN IN ROLLER SKATES (2008)
As a kid watching The X Factor, I was absolutely obsessed with Diana Vickers. I purported to dislike her, but it was more complicated than that: I was desperately jealous of her. I'd long harboured ambitions to perform on that X Factor stage, had honed my forlorn performance of Damien Rice’s “Cannonball” (yeah dunno) in front of the mirror enough times to have it committed to memory, and then Vickers came along to do my planned shtick better than I could ever have dreamed. I loved her and loathed her – her fashionably bleach-damaged hair, which she frequently scrunched with her hand in a manner I can really only describe as “MySpace”; her “bit mad, me!” habit of never wearing shoes onstage; her on-trend foundation lips. “Call Me” was her upbeat moment, except she just sits there singing like she’s got lockjaw when a load of people roller skate around her for no discernible reason whatsoever. Still iconic.
WHEN KATIE WAISSEL SANG ROCK \m/ SONGS (2010)
Every year The X Factor has at least one “quirky” girl (see Diana Vickers above), meaning that they wear a bandana or some layered beads and the judges keep saying they’re “edgy” and make them sing rock songs "to really show their personality”. In 2010 that girl was Katie Waissel and she was basically like the Lena Dunham of the series because she was intensely dislikable but she also never seemed to leave. This here is classic Katie Waissel, performing some Radio 1-friendly rock while jumping about in a layered skirt, like someone repeatedly screaming “like me” into the mic.
WHEN ONE DIRECTION WERE ACTUALLY LIKE THIS (2010)
It is completely astonishing to me, watching this performance, that One Direction were ever successful. This has “Year 10’s Got Talent” all over it, from the song choice – this was the peak era of Lads Wearing the Artwork from Rihanna’s Loud on a White T-Shirt (indeed, the performance feels like a sentient version of such a garment) – to the apparent grey “theme,” which feels distinctly like someone texted the groupchat ten minutes before the performance to suggest “matching tops” to look “professional.” The vocals are average (though shout out Zayn as always), the hair an abomination (for shame, Liam Payne’s Fringe), the dancers’ outfits a veritable war crime. Behold: the biggest pop group of the millennium, standing in a line, not even singing in harmony, as though they’re doing Westlife covers at a community centre and getting picked up by someone’s mum after.
EOGHAN QUIGG (2008)
I don’t know if you remember Eoghan Quigg (or Egg Nogg, as he was widely known at the time), but his is a classic X Factor story. After coming third place in 2008, he was signed to SYCO but then Simon Cowell pulled out last minute, presumably because he realised there were limited places in the market for choir boys with sad eyes and stiff Digimon hair. Eoghan then released exactly one studio album, to what Wikipedia describes as “strongly negative reviews” before competing to represent Ireland at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2014, and losing.
Knowing all of the above, then, and thinking about what was to come, try and watch his performance of “Ben”. Look at his face. Look at his buttoned up school shirt and ironed bootcut jeans. At how he looks into the camera. You can't, can you?
SPECIAL SECTION ON THE POPULAR SONG “AND I AM TELLING YOU (I’M NOT GOING)” FROM THE MUSICAL AND MOTION PICTURE DREAMGIRLS AND SPECIFICALLY ABOUT HOW IT HAS BEEN ABSOLUTELY MURDERED BY THE X FACTOR (2013 AND 2015 RESPECTIVELY)
Even if you have not seen the musical Dreamgirls or the high-profile movie version of it starring Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson (that is: two of the greatest vocalists currently alive), you will know its money number, “And I Am Telling You (I’m Not Going).” This is almost entirely down to The X Factor.
In the film, Jennifer Hudson – as the pregnant Effie White, left alone by her family and boyfriend, who have turned their backs on her and her diva-ish ways – sings the song desperately, almost boundlessly, giving a performance that basically won her an Oscar. By contrast, on X Factor, Sam Bailey and Nicole Scherzinger competitively screamed it at one another at the 2013 live final, to the extent where it would not have been a surprise if paramedics had been called.
The song has become an X Factor shorthand for people who believe themselves to be serious singers, and because the point of X Factor is to be a good singer, someone tries to do it – it is famously A Hard Song To Sing and if you do it reasonably well Simon will say you have had a Real Moment, despite the fact that three months down the line you will be back working in recruitment. When Sam’s turn came, instead of the show hiring someone proper for her to sing her final duet with (the budget appears to have gone down in recent years; where once we had Rihanna, last year we had Paloma Faith), Nicole, a judge that year, took up the mantle. Keen to show that she was more than the sum of her yoghurt endorsement deals, she essentially battled Bailey, holding onto her notes just slightly too long, singing slightly too loud, which gets a bit sad in a “your mum’s mate Sharon out at karaoke telling everyone she could have been a singer” sort of way.
Despite this terrible murder, however, X Factor cannot stay away from the song. Most notably it was sung as a duet again in 2015 by Louisa Johnson and Rita Ora. The video’s up there; you do begin to wonder whether Rita is in physical pain. I’m starting a change.org petition for the government to ban this song for everyone’s sake.
A previous version of this article stated that Cher Lloyd performed "Stay" by Lisa Loeb. She actually performed "Stay" by Shakespeare's Sister. We regret the error.