(Originally posted on my Tumblr)

Tiny background detail: as with last year I’ve studiously avoided previous episodes, press coverage, etc, so I’m coming to these acts (and three of these judges) fresh with no knowledge of who’s who in the narrative around the show. Not that they don’t make it obvious! Here goes –

Feeble theme this week: “US vs UK”, a body blow to the many X-Factor acts who sing Ghanaian or K-Pop tunes. “Sing whatever you like week” fits the ‘twist’, viz each judge will have to vote one of their own acts off. Presumably the judges have a fair idea what their decision will be in advance, so the tension would come with favoured acts fucking up. But do they?

AMELIA: Ropey start to the live shows – teenager doing “rocked up” version of Billie Jean. Not for the last time it’s the phrasing that does a performance in – as we’ll see, the ability to keep pace with any song that pokes its nose above ballad tempo is in short supply this year.

JOHNNY: First of the Wagner/Jedward contenders, crossing Kenneth Williams waspishness with Charles Hawtrey scrawn – in other words, we’re meant to find him camp but there’s something compellingly British about him, a strain of variety show Britishness long dormant. He chirps through Cher’s “Believe”, which is lazy typing – if he sticks around he needs a Morrissey track.

RHYTHMIX: Another phrasing disaster on “Super Bass”. The logic seems to be that because Nicki Minaj does lots of different voices, giving her part to four different girls can work – but not a one of them can rap. Dreadful syllabic pile-up ensues.

FRANKIE: Teenage scamp/stud given “The A Team” by panto rockist G.Barlow (more on this later) – I’ve never made it all the way through this song in original form so I don’t have much of a handle on whether it’s actually piss easy to sing or whether Frankie’s reading of it is just completely lazy, a string of barely connected phrases, all sung with equal breathlessness. Nothing convinces.

SOPHIE: Gimmicky slowed-down version of “Teenage Dream”, the novel arrangement making for a convincing statement of belief in Sophie, whose voice is solid enough to carry it. First performer who you imagine could do something good, though this wasn’t really it – once you’d got the point the song drifted in the way most “slow it down” attempts do.

JONJO: Soldier, did a Kinks song, given squaddie-in-a-stripclub stage dressing by Louis (I assume), though he publically disowned the song choice afterwards: not a good sign for Jonjo one suspects. He looked a bit frightened. “You Really Got Me” worked for One Direction because it papered over their individual deficiencies – this guy just doesn’t have the oomph for it.

2 SHOES: Post-TOWIE novelty duo given the full, garish Walsh-style treatment Jedward got in their day. Precisely as good as Diva Fever. The performance? Doesn’t matter really, but as with Rhythmix, a group given a song (“Something Kinda Oooh”) with WAY too much pace for their ability. Barlow missed the point but was wholly accurate in his slam of “Romford karaoke”, right down to the joyful relief when the girls hit the bit they actually know.

JAMES: Another slowed-down cover version, this time of “Ticket To Ride”, prompting (at last!) a backlash from the panel who have realised what a low and corny trick this is to pull. Well, all the panel except mentor Gary B who said “he’s the only contestant playing a proper instrument” in a huffy fashion. They had indeed miked James’ guitar up and yes, we heard the two tentative notes he played loud and clear, thanks Gary. In truth the performance wasn’t as shonky as the judges made out, but the whole approach is exhausted (he says more in hope than expectation).

MISHA: At last a genuine highlight – a savage snap at “Rolling In The Deep” by a woman wearing a newspaper ruff and wireframe crown. Misha didn’t quite have the lungs for Adele’s chorus but she tore strips off everything else and when she “did a Cher Lloyd” and dropped a rap in the song it really worked. Poor competition, but this was the best presence, set, costume and performance of the night.

NU VIBE: Delivered the wild flights of imagination their name promised. Rare moment of shrewdness from Gary B, pointing out that the song choice (“Beautiful People”) was well picked for making sure we couldn’t tell whether or not any of the boys could sing solo.

MARCUS: The judges fell on Marcus like a puppy on a bone but I was pretty underwhelmed – possibly it’s that “Moves Like Jagger” isn’t much of anything song-wise, maybe it was just fatigue setting in. In my inattentive state Marcus seems like mid-series cannon fodder, but he might go out earlier if Gary wants to save Hat Dude.

SAMI: Affable Welsh belt-em-out merchant, made up to look about 10 years older than she is for a hoof through “Free”. It sounded to me like she lost the vocal thread a few times, and the whole thing seemed a bit of a wreck – but what do I know, the judges approved. Gary started playing a bit of “mind games” at this point – a good time to point out that the whole banter between the judges isn’t working yet: barbs go unanswered, opportunities for mock outrage are lost, it still feels like a bunch of people playing some kind of insane X-Factor role-playing-game.

THE RISK: “This Risk REALLY PAID OFF” etc etc – in fairness technically the best of the groups by some way – they all had something different to do, nobody fucked it up. A very long way from exciting: Tulisa has been dealt a bum hand getting the groups first time out, she’s making the best of it, and The Risk seem best placed to stick around out of sympathy. Oh, they did Plan B’s “She Said”.

CRAIG: Plump Liverpudlian, presented in the pre-show line-up very much as a comedy option, I’d love to imagine that he decided “sod that” and played it straight against the wishes of weight traitor G Barlow. Tearfully intense, pretty competent version of “Jar Of Hearts” (a song I didn’t know I knew) – like several of the tracks I got the feeling it had been arranged in a hurry and wasn’t much more than a chorus loop. Hard to get rid of on this showing though.

KITTY: Whether Kitty is as “controversial” as the intro painted her, you have to think she’s made few friends in the make-up department. Her post-watershed look – devil eyes, streaming hair – distracted from a ropey take on “Who Wants To Live Forever” which seemed off-key to my (admittedly untrained) ear. Outside chance of her doing something interesting, but I said that about Katie last year.

JANET: “You’re a one-off” quoth the inept Barlow – not strictly true, of all the contestants Janet is the one who most blatantly echoes an earlier semi-success viz Diana Vickers. Much “voice of an angel” praise here – her shyness carefully played up beforehand – but it left me cold and jaded. Obviously doing Coldplay’s “Fix You” didn’t help.

So – what to make of it? Hard to spot an obvious winner: I’m glumly assuming my taste for Misha won’t be shared by the public. The judges aren’t settling, they’ve got a line-up far inferior to last year’s, but the wheels aren’t in any danger of coming off yet. Getting rid of four of this bunch right away is a sound move.

My guess is it’ll be Lily, James, Rhythmix and Jonjo, but the “overs” is the hardest to call: Sami and Kitty are far from safe. If Nu Vibe went and Rhythmix stayed nobody would care, either. I will now go and check the betting to see if I’m remotely realistic.