Suggested Audio Jukebox:
 Sia “Breathe Me”
 Sia “Alive”
 Sia “Chandelier”
I always did like rooting for the underdog. Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve been fascinated by long shots, those barely given a snowball’s chance in hell and with the odds stacked well and truly against them. Traditionally this doesn’t fare particularly well and rarely do others seem to share in my enthusiasm. That’s fine with me as, had everybody else endorsed my view, well they wouldn’t be underdogs now would they? However, every once in a blue moon, my dedication to these seemingly lost causes pays off in spectacular style and is precisely what makes it such a moreish endeavor. Enter X Factor UK 2016 which, against all odds ironically, has reinstated my faith in the great British public.
Given that I’m primarily a horror writer, it must seem ludicrous to some that I invest my free time into a show that is largely regarded as poppycock. Constantly berated for being something of a circus, it’s hard to argue against that view, as it certainly doesn’t make things easy on itself. Every year, accusations fly about the whole thing being rigged, every year it becomes more predictable than the last, and every year I find myself rolling my eyes as the format grows all the more stale. That said, every year without fail, I tune in and the reason for this is simple. You see, X Factor loves tossing a couple of underdogs into the mix just to keep the dish spicy and it validates my very reason for sticking with it through thick and thin.
While some are groomed for worldwide success from the very start, others are given absolutely no chance and they tend to be the quirkier characters in the line-up. In recent years alone, I have rooted for Katie Waissel, Kitty Brucknell, and Mason Noise and all three had a fight on their hands from the very moment the live shows began. To be fair, none of them made it particularly easy on themselves by effortlessly managing to rub the public up the wrong way or being so utterly bonkers that most viewers dismissed them out of hand. However, they were nothing if not unique and I never quite understood what made that such a distinct negative.
This year one act in particular won me over from her very first audition and I even went as far as writing a tribute piece, much like the one you’re reading now, to celebrate her wonderful kookiness. Regrettably, the glorious Sada Vidoo never quite made it to judge’s houses and this saddened me greatly as her voice was a thing of great beauty and designed to fill stadiums. When she fell by the wayside, I was totally gutted, but not altogether surprised as her living doll image was inevitably going to be deemed too “out there” for many tastes. That said, there was one other tryout that caught my attention and, with well over five million YouTube views to date and still rising, it appears as though I wasn’t alone.
29-year-old Finnish snow fairy Saara Aalto stepped up to the star and delivered a pitch-perfect rendition of Sia’s majestic masterpiece Chandelier, doing so with such absolute ease that you wouldn’t think it was one of the most difficult songs in the entire world of music to pull off with anything resembling conviction. She hit every last high note with almost embarrassing ease but what made this performance so memorable was that it was so beautifully refined when it needed to be. Evidently she had one helluva set of lungs on her, but it was her control that made Saara stand out from the crowd and judge Nicole Scherzinger’s ass agreed as it gave her its own standing ovation.
Somehow, after a turbulent journey and against all conceivable odds, Saara was provided a wild card on the strength of this virtuoso performance and picked for the live shows with the brilliantly batty Sharon Osbourne her mentor. I already had a sneaking suspicion that she would find herself in the bottom two the very first week and, lo-and-behold, despite belting out Demi Lovato’s Let It Go (a song I must admit to having heard quite enough of for two lifetimes) with no end of belief, that’s precisely where she wound up. Mercifully she found herself up against the most ridiculous novelty act ever forced on the long-suffering public and her save me song, another Sia classic Alive, was delivered with such utter dominance that the result was as foregone a conclusion as they come.
So Saara lived to fight another week, although the signs were far from promising at this point. You see, when the nation fails to connect from the offset, it’s unlikely that history won’t repeat itself soon after and so it proved as she found herself at the foot of the pile again on week two and fighting for her right to remain in the competition a second time. I couldn’t fathom why people weren’t getting behind her. Were they watching a different show entirely? Had the great British public taken complete leave of their senses? It wouldn’t be the first time. Indeed, my sole consolation was that it gave us the opportunity to hear that angelic voice again and she narrowly made it through this acid test, much to my delight.
From there, Saara began to grow in confidence as folk started to get behind her a little and she coasted through the next two weeks without a problem. During this time, one thing was consistent, and this was that she owned a set of tonsils unlike any other in the running. Moreover, the control she possessed was phenomenal, and not a single bum note vacated her mouth as she took to every challenge thrown at her like the consummate professional that she is. Instead of bitching and griping, she let her music do the talking on her behalf. However, when it was required for her to speak of her desire to remain in the process, there existed a sincerity way beyond the usual spoon-fed responses. You didn’t need a degree in neuroscience to fathom out that Saara Aalto really wanted this and she wasn’t looking to hoodwink anyone into voting for her either.
In week five she very nearly came unstuck, despite her off-the-wall recital of Girls Aloud anthem Sound of The Underground being brilliant as ever, and found herself languishing a third time only to escape the dreaded exit by the skin of her teeth. While not entirely sure what landed her in the bottom two on this occasion, I would imagine her performance was deemed a little too avant-garde for some tastes. Regardless, she lived to fight on and, with the theme for week six being disco, it appeared as though she was about to be placed firmly in her comfort zone. You see, one thing was abundantly clear, this girl was positively born to perform and could demand centre stage like precious few others could ever dream to.
And so it turned out as her version of Barbra Streisand & Donna Summer’s barnstorming anthem Enough Is Enough was so far ahead of the game it was scary. Prowling the platform with the purring prowess of a proud panther, Saara reminded us all that she had absolutely no intention of going anywhere but the grand final. In my opinion, this was the moment when the tides of change came rolling in, as she commanded our undivided attention with such fearsome brilliance that the other contestants must have been starting to look over their shoulders rather anxiously. With the bit now well and truly between her teeth and the public’s perception of our snow fairy starting to change, she could focus on what she was best at – knocking the ball so far out of the park that it likely wound up in Santa’s grotto.
Since then Saara has gone from strength to strength and her performances have spoken for themselves. Shrewd and always diverse choices have helped to keep her one step ahead of the game and, much to my humongous pleasure, she is now the bookmakers’ firm favorite to go on and win the whole show. Last night the theme was Christmas and, while the other three acts attempted to tug at our heart-strings with woe is me VT’s and low-key festive favorites, Saara tore up the carol books and started the party with a spring in her step and playful twinkle in both eyes. Then just as the bookies were starting to panic and drop her odds before another Leicester City free-for-all came about, she took to the stage with the song that started her journey in the first place.
If I harbored any doubts whatsoever that she could top her audition, then they were downright obliterated as she delivered, not only one of the year’s standout performances, but also one of the finest I’ve ever witnessed on any TV talent show period. If you watched closely, you could discern her hand shaking around the microphone throughout, but there was nothing whatsoever trembly about her vocal as she pretty much took the roof clean off its fixings with a stunning arrangement of Sia’s best known song. As the final note danced from her rosebud lips like an icy ballerina, I could only watch on in sheer awe. However, what made this feat so remarkable, was that her soul shone through every last word that she sung and this wasn’t simply a virtuoso performance, but something far more significant.
Here was a young woman who had battled adversity, unfavorable odds, and being regarded as little more than an also-ran to win over the hearts of an entire nation. Moreover, she did so by always remaining gracious and grateful for the opportunity presented her. She makes no secret of how much this means to her and, after fifteen years of getting so close only to have the door slammed in her face, is genuinely elated by every last show of support that comes her way. Then we have the talent which really is as natural as it comes and I’m convinced that the entire world will know Saara Aalto by this time next year as she possesses such a wealth of it that global glory is truly inevitable.
It has been a long journey but, unlike some, I knew from the very start that this girl was special. Will she go on to win X Factor 2016? I wouldn’t bet against it and, if this doesn’t happen, then I’m jumping on the first flight to Finland as there clearly is no hope for us brits. Whatever happens, Saara teaches us all something pretty monumental, that being to believe in your dreams and don’t give up, even when it appears your cause may well be lost. As a proud ambassador for the underdog, that fills me with immense hope and, regardless of whether or not this Christmas is a white one, at least I can say that I got to clap eyes on a bona fide snow fairy. And what a resplendent sight for sore eyes that has been. ❄