To celebrate my birthday today (46! wtf?), I relive the last time there was anything decent on TV – the day democracy peaked.
We hear a lot these days about supposed cultural resets – events of the past reappraised by hindsight’s gimlet stare, and importance belatedly attached to something that may, at the time, have seemed insignificant. The word ‘iconic’ is, much to the chagrin of Susie Dent from Countdown’s Dictionary Corner and countless children who spent hours glued to a thesaurus instead of making friends, now liberally used to mean anything from a new flavour of Monster Munch launching to a reality show star throwing wine over someone in a charmless LA brasserie. But no matter, language evolves, tastes change, and appreciation swells and wanes. One thing we can all agree on, however – and please delete me from your lives if you don’t – is that Saturday 13 December 2008 was a moment for the ages.
13 December 2008. Taylor Swift’s 19th birthday, yes, but something much more seismic was happening. It was the grand final of the live shows of the fifth series of reality talent show juggernaut The X Factor. The best series. The gold standard. The Big Brother 5 of its day. It was, largely, a wholesome feelgood series, although it had been rocked by an early ‘scandal’, a hatchet job on one of the show’s most promising and talented contestants, Rachel Hylton, whose unfortunate past had been raked up by tabloids tasting blood. Series five was packed with eliminated contestants who could, quite easily, have won other years, the women especially strong – Rachel, Laura White, Diana Vickers, Ruth Lorenzo – and the final felt groundbreaking. Once former favourite Irish boy Eoghan Quigg was dispatched into third place after singing three of his four songs, the remaining finalists were young Black Londoners: four-piece boyband JLS and another 19-year-old, Miss Alexandra Burke.
Throughout, the contest seemed so wide open in a way it hadn’t before – and indeed never was again. The uncertainty was thrilling, a result of an overload of talent rather than previous series where either one frontrunner had bided their time until everyone else bowed to the inevitable or, on the other two occasions, a lack of captivating contestants had produced an underwhelming victory. In this final, it could genuinely have gone either way. While JLS had narrowly performed better with the voting public in live heats week-on-week, both they and Alexandra had finished in first place only once – JLS in the semifinal, and Alexandra a week earlier. Before then, Eoghan Quigg had dominated, ceding only one week to Diana Vickers, who’d missed the previous heat due to illness and saw her plucky return rewarded – back in the day when it was cool to sing Coldplay in a talent show. To find JLS and Alexandra in the final not only bucked convention, it felt charged with hope – the underdogs were primed for victory. Reality TV contestants were always saying ‘It means everything’, but this time, it felt real. This just wasn’t how Saturday night TV looked, even as recently as the 00s.
Alexandra especially felt like she was on the back-foot – rejected at judges’ houses three years earlier by the mistuned radio in human form that is Louis Walsh, and the daughter of Melissa Bell, who sang with Soul II Soul, Alexandra had a lot to prove. That she was far and away the strongest performer didn’t matter a jot in the reality TV world, and it wasn’t enough to secure a victory. Despite repeated reminders from slightly humourless judge Dannii Minogue that it was a ‘singing competition’, it was much more than that – The X Factor, like most programmes of its ilk, was a popularity contest and in a world where Black women were (and still are) constantly scrutinised and criticised for showing even a flicker of personality, that Alexandra had made the final at all was a miracle. But she did. Let’s go right back to the start of that final and take it step by step. We’ll even switch into present tense to build a sense of anticipation, shall we?
After whipping the audience into a frenzy with VTs and satellite linkups to the finalists’ hometowns – just down the road for JLS and Alex – the opening round gets underway, the theme being Christmas songs which, arguably, JLS nailed. Their actually very cute and accomplished version of Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’ has become the stuff of legend, with JB transforming George Michael’s sultry, whispered, ‘Merry Christmas’ into something a Dickensian urchin might chirrup just before he tries to sell you a bunch of half-dead posies. Eoghan bravely battles through Wizzard’s ‘I Wish it Could be Christmas Everyday’, while Alexandra closes things out with a beautiful and sincere rendition of what is, sadly, the Christmas carol most likely to be played over a montage of people being murdered on EastEnders on Christmas Day: the haunting dirge ‘Silent Night’.
Round 2 is the famous duets round, an opportunity for contestants to both show they can hold their own alongside a seasoned pro and, as a bonus, hope a little star quality can rub off on them and persuade the more famous act’s fans to pick up the phone and vote. And, yes, you have to pick up an actual phone to do it. By now, the formula is already looking slightly tired – the contestant begins singing one of the star act’s signature tunes, then pauses halfway to reveal – WOW – that the act is right there in the studio, about to come out on stage and (usually) sing them right off it. Eoghan, coming into the final as housewives’ favourite but, if we’re honest, the person the production team and everyone at the record company would rather didn’t win, is paired up with Irish boyband legends Boyzone, on the comeback trail with a new tour and album after a six-year hiatus. The chosen song is ‘Picture of You’ which Eoghan may have heard in passing when it was released a whole ten years earlier, when he was about six years old. He makes it through with dignity intact, blending in seamlessly with his quintet of Irish uncles. Louis Walsh’s rolodex is availed of a second time for JLS’s duet spot, when Ireland’s slightly more current famous sons Westlife are wheeled out on casters for a rousing rendition of ‘Flying Without Wings’, one of the group’s biggest hits. Does Aston out-sing Shane and Mark of Westlife? Maybe. The Irish foursome are a force to be reckoned with in 2008, with a record breaking run of Number 1s behind them and a devoted fanbase ready to mobilise and crown the winner. If you pause the final right there, the winner seems obvious.
It’s clear Alexandra has to bring out the big guns – what she actually does is arm herself with a bazooka and obliterate the competition. And that bazooka is a 27-year-old megastar called Beyoncé Knowles. As Alexandra tells it years later, it’s all very last minute. Beyoncé was set to appear as that week’s musical guest, plugging her third album I Am… Sasha Fierce. Supremo Simon Cowell, sensing something in the air and no doubt relishing the idea of an upset after an underwhelming final in 2007, chances his arm and asks Beyoncé’s people if the star would duet with Alexandra, with Burke finding out only the night before. Still reeling, Alexandra has just an hour with her idol to choose a song, and rehearse it. Beyoncé, in full promotional mode, suggests the pair team up on ‘If I Were A Boy’, a recent Number 1, but there’s one problem: fully immersed in the very serious business of being an X Factor contestant in the year 2008 (when it actually means something), Alexandra barely knows this new tune and, she fears, won’t be able to give the performance of a lifetime after just an hour’s rehearsal. And she needs that showstopper – men usually do much better in these competitions. But she does have another idea. Two weeks earlier, Burke claimed her only first place in the voting after singing covers of Britney’s ‘Toxic’, and ‘Listen’, performed by Beyoncé in the movie Dreamgirls. While this song is already old news to Beyoncé, it was a defining moment for Alexandra, and finally allowed her to show off her considerable talent on a song tailor-made for a superstar, with a storyline that seemed to mirror Alexandra’s own. To her credit, Beyoncé agrees to give a girl a chance, and the pair run through the song a couple of times. And then, it’s time to do it for real. Here it is:
The duet isn’t announced ahead of time, indeed none of them ever were, and it was inconceivable that a star of Beyoncé’s magnitude would share the floor with a reality show contestant, so even as Alexandra first begins to croon the opening lines of ‘Listen’, nobody is quite sure Beyoncé will actually come out. The camera occasionally cuts to the judges, who are frozen in awe – and £500 worth of Harley Street botox. To say the biggest moment of her TV journey so far has just begun, Alexandra seems confident and controlled as she sings, like the song was written for her. It’s only as the doors behind her open and a shadowy figure swathed in dry ice stands waiting for her cue that Alexandra’s nerves betray her, here voice cracking as she announces that, guys you’d better be getting out of your seats, because everything is about to change.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, I absolutely cannot believe I am about to introduce this woman to the stage. Please welcome… my hero… Beyoncé.’
Did you get a tingle? Same. I will never cry at a football match like a straight man would, but even now I well up watching this. Beyoncé steps onstage with the carefree demeanour of someone sauntering to the chiller cabinet in a Savacentre to grab a bottle of Sancerre, giving a classy look of modest gratitude to her fan for the ‘hero’ compliment. There is a reason Beyoncé is such a revered star and it’s down in part to this strange, exciting cocktail of regal poise, approachable humility, and her expert harnessing of star power that comes so naturally. And it’s all on show in the two minutes or so she’s on stage. She appears to be wearing a necklace made of fried eggs which will baffle future generations, but right here in 2008, none of us notice because she is about to start singing. This isn’t even in the first million rodeos for Beyoncé, but she graciously holds off on the belting at first, still bringing the house down with almost minimum effort to make sure Alexandra retains all her own thunder. Alexandra, by the way, is trying to keep a lid on a fangirling breakdown, exactly how we would all act if Beyoncé put her arm round us and started singing one of her hits like it was nothing, as if she was giving directions on how to work the intercom to a Deliveroo driver.
At 01:36, we get an ‘Oh my God’. At 01:38, Alexandra touches her nose as if to stop her head falling off before exclaiming ‘Woo’, which you can actually hear over Bey’s mic. At 01:45, Alexandra watches rapt, drunk on… X Factor, I suppose, as Beyoncé does what I think are called some runs, before it’s time for her to come back in and sing along. At the time, watching it transfixed, the rough edges of the performance were barely noticeable – Beyoncé and Alexandra on a bad day are better than most on a good day – but watching now you see Beyoncé directing Alexandra when to sing. They’re holding hands, and Beyoncé levers her arm toward, and away from, Alex and squeezes her hand to give the younger singer her cue. Watching them wing it, and knowing Alexandra’s story that it really wasn’t planned and polished, somehow makes it all the more special. Watch Beyoncé, too, as Alexandra sings – her eyes don’t move from Alexandra’s face, she beams positive energy toward her. Only when she starts singing again does Beyoncé turn back to the audience, but when the shared line comes along – ‘I’m more than what – you made of me’, her eyes are back on Alex, willing her on. Another hand squeeze, and Alex cedes to Beyoncé for the build-up the big finish, nodding an emphatic ‘yes’ as Bey prepares to bring it home. And then at 02:21, we get the iconic moment:
‘Sing it, girl’
And… she does. Watching them spar with the ‘my own’ lyric never gets old, even after 13 years. It’s not just the act of seeing a megastar share a stage with an ingenue – it’s like a coronation, the old showbusiness cliché of walking on stage an understudy and leaving it a star. The pop world is littered with half-talents and chancers, but that Beyoncé was willing not only to share the stage, but graciously hand it over to Alexandra was an endorsement nobody could argue with. We were watching the birth of a star. Beyoncé may have been a few years off icon status, but nobody could ever dismiss her success as down to luck, or nepotism, or cynical in any way – even though Cowell himself had called her ‘overrated’ – her voice had put her there. Beyoncé had the credentials to be a kingmaker, and Alex certainly held her own alongside her.
If a movie was made about this evening, it would end there, on the final hug between Alexandra and Beyoncé, tears streaming down the young hopeful’s face. Unfortunately, in a production decision that now feels as incongruous as adding a graffitied cock and balls to the Mona Lisa, amiable if unsubtle presenter Dermot O’Leary is allowed to kill the moment stone dead by bounding out and asking Beyoncé a set of increasingly insipid questions – even referring to one of the biggest stars of pop music as ‘hun’, at one point, like they’re both killing an afternoon working the fitting room at the Covent Garden branch of Zara.
Incredibly, this show-stopping moment isn’t even the last song of the evening before the result – we must sit through an interminable round of covers. Eoghan sings first. He gives us a song from High School Musical in a last ditch attempt to stir the voting fingers of tweens and teens who are, in all likelihood being admitted to A&E after watching Beyoncé. JLS are handed the song equivalent of a Jiffy bag filled with luncheon meat in the form of Lonestar’s ‘I’m Already There’ – part of a depressing Noughties trend for trying to give new life to sizeable US radio hits by foisting them on UK acts in an effort to boost Cowell’s bank balance. Alexandra manages a sweet version of ‘You Are So Beautiful’, but as good as she is, we’re all still thinking about ‘Sing it girl’ – she could be standing there reading out the precise coordinates of the Ceres asteroid. She is no less mesmerising for it.
There’s a freeze in the phone vote here, with a third place rosette coming in the shape of a hammer to Eoghan Quigg’s porcelain heart. Now, it’s just JLS and Alexandra. History is already made – but who’s getting pride of place in the ledger? First, they need to sing for us the tune that will, if they win, take them to Number 1. The winner’s song in 2008 added an extra layer of controversy to a series that was certainly entertaining enough not to need it. The decision by Cowell and his minions to give the winning act a cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ – or at least some of it, the original version has more verses than Blackpool beach has grains of sand – caused controversy among musoes and men emitting extreme divorced energy, as if this new rendition would somehow make Cohen’s disappear. A year later, this mild frustration would boil over into enmity and inspire a successful Facebook campaign to deny winner Joe McElderry the top spot, but for now, the protest took the form of supporting another cover of ‘Hallelujah’, by Jeff Buckley, which Cohen himself had described as definitive. The optics are quite disturbing when viewed through a 2021 lens – a cover by a white American man being championed over a version that could legitimately change the lives of either a young Black woman or a group of four Black Londoners leaves a nasty taste. Quite what Jeff Buckley himself would’ve made of being used as a weapon in a rather milquetoast campaign against light entertainment is unknown – he’d died a year earlier. Regardless, each act comes forth and sings their version. JLS are up first and it’s a decent enough performance, albeit somewhat weedy and muted. Aston’s usually impressive pop voice seems lost in the mix, and the other boys’ backing vox add little. Marvin does, however, look the second most handsome he has ever looked (he will top this a year later performing with Alexandra, but perhaps we will discuss this another time). Yet, stranger things have happened and the Westlife-esque arrangement won’t have done them any harm
Now it’s Alexandra’s turn, and she’s not messing about – it’s a performance that takes ‘sing it, girl’ and runs with it. She performs it like it’s the last chance she knows it is. It’s polished to a degree but not slick; she pleads to the sky, punches the air, beckons to the audience and reels us all in. The song is acted with supreme confidence and it’s only when the song ends that the real Alexandra comes back into view – she looks like she’s shitting herself, frankly. It’s not life or death, but it’s definitely life or something else. At the obligatory judges’ comments after Alexandra finishes, Louis’s burblings are more or less inaudible, thankfully, and Dannii once again emphasises that Alex is the voice of the ‘2008 singing competition’. Cowell is dumbstruck and says, just as the crowd begins applauding because they think his critique is done, ‘You’ve gotta win’. Maybe the first time ever, he has a point.
And now, the results. Thankfully someone has had the foresight to upload the last ten minutes of the final to YouTube, so you don’t have to take my word for it.
Alexandra’s reaction to winning is infamous. She falls to her knees, loses control, tears gush from her eyes, she (inaudibly) swears, she hyperventilates, she clutches onto mentor Cheryl Cole – who, with the utmost of respect, appears to have the emotional range of a discounted Thighmaster, but perhaps this is down to shock. This is all happening in the days before TV embraced the idea that viewers actually wanted to see beyond the magic, that the curtain must come down swiftly after the fairy-tale ending, so we’re running out of time on ITV1. This means Dermot must play damp tea-towel to this chip-pan fire, trying his best to rein everything in as the production team bark in his ears. He shows Burke a prototype of her first CD single, which is going to press as they speak; she snatches it out of his hand like it’s the last life jacket on the Titanic, gazing at it in wonder and disbelief. She can’t think straight as Dermot reels off his script – the song will be in shops later that week but (in a first for the show) available to download that night, and in the running for Christmas Number 1 (which it does easily, with huge first-week sales thanks, probably, to those new-fangled downloads, with Jeff Buckley settling for second place). Although Alexandra has since been accused of going over the top here, or being insincere in this life-changing moment, her reaction is understandable and utterly relatable – tonight she has sung with Beyoncé, won a contest as an underdog, held her first CD single in her hands, and is starting a new job as an actual popstar. Who wouldn’t be hysterical? And yet, time is of the essence so she must sing for us one more time, that – actually very sweet and uplifting – version of Hallelujah which may feel like a huge mistranslation of the song but has been bestowed with a whole new meaning tonight.
Tears streaking her face, evoking the ecstatic pageant winner immortalised on the cover of Hole’s Live Through This album, Alexandra shakily takes the mic and steps forward. Choked with emotion, she misses the first couple of lines, and her delivery is croaky and trembly. She barely makes it through the first chorus, but is buoyed when all her former contestants congregate behind her onstage, all clothed in angelic white, each reborn with their failure behind them (for now, at least). They are all visibly thrilled for Alexandra, some shedding tears of joy for her, and it seems to give Alexandra strength. By the key change, she’s on full power, locking eyes with her rivals as they huddle in. It’s only at the end, when the music begins to fade, that she’s vulnerable again, losing the last ‘hallelujah’ to tears and muffled sobs as she;’d folded into her group of peers.
Stan culture and its ultra-positive hyperbole was still then restricted to niche corners of the internet, and there was a sincerity and sense of belonging attached to the reaction to Alexandra’s win that cements it, for me, as the last truly great reality TV victory. (Little Mix would come along three years later and score a similarly impactful victory but by then the show had moved its final to Wembley and in the process lost some of its warmth, and the treatment of fellow contestant Misha B still left a nasty taste.) If there were haters – and many would arrive on their broomstick-keyboard hybrids in the ensuing years – the wider world didn’t see them at that moment, and it felt, just this once, that not only had the right person had won but like we’d all had our part to play. A vote we could believe in – would we ever see the like again?
Even Cowell’s final thought – that star-making moments like this were what the show was all about – seemed genuine, a watershed moment that had taken him by surprise. As Alexandra disappeared, swamped by her elated fellow contestants, the credits rolled and we were left alone in our living rooms, vaguely aware that something had shifted, a positive change. Drink? Drink. Glasses clinked up and down the country.
Best of all, out of respect, the entire television industry shut down in acknowledgment that no moment could ever top it, and no further TV shows were ever made.
(I interviewed Alexandra in 2018 and she was great – read it here.)
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