So it’s finally happened. After surviving years of rumours about her supposedly imminent departure and months of exhausting speculation about the line-up for this year, Dannii Minogue is officially off the X Factor. Did she jump or was she pushed? We don’t know yet, but one thing is certain – the show is going to be infinitely poorer without her. For me it’s probably the final nail. No Simon? – meh, he’s been a pale imitation of his former self for years now. No Cheryl? – no loss. But no Dannii? Unthinkable!
Being a Dannii defender isn’t always easy. Her credentials as a judge have always been the subject of some derision. This largely seems to be down to the fact that she’s scored a mere fourteen top twenty chart hits, compared to the forty-seven her sister has achieved. God, what a loser.
There’s also the allegation that she can’t sing, despite the fact that she cut her teeth on an Australian variety show, starred successfully in a production of Notre Dame De Paris on the West End, and could sing absolute rings around the tone-deaf Cheryl Cole, who somehow even manages to sound flat on record, never mind live.
Nepotism-fuelled pop singers of the kind poor Dannii is so often and unfairly associated with are ten a penny, from Julian Lennon to Willow Smith. The vast majority of them don’t last five minutes. It should seem obvious to anyone that a woman who has survived for over fifteen years in the harsh pop landscape is perfectly placed to mentor the hopefuls of the future.
In her time on the show, Dannii proved just that. Where the other judges relied on soundbites and meaningless platitudes, she was the only one who offered genuine constructive criticism. Last season her advice to One Direction that they needed to watch their harmonies was on-point and entirely fair. It was, of course, drowned out in a sea of boos, an indignity Dannii frequently suffered for committing the terrible crime of doing the job she was being paid to do.
Her relationships with her own charges was the most enjoyable part of the show for me. While other mentors transparently barely saw their own acts between shows (several weeks into the Finals last year, Simon Cowell could not – when pressed – name all five members of his aforementioned group One Direction) Dannii seemed to genuinely care about her acts, forming lasting bonds with many of them. To this day she regularly tweets motherly updates about the achievements of long forgotten contestants such as Lucie Jones and Daniel Evans, even if these achievements are largely limited to the world of regional theatre.
She was by far the most daring in her song choices too. For all his bluster about wanting to find a relevant, new pop act, Simon Cowell gives the impression that he doesn’t actually like any pop music released after 1988. While he was content to let his acts bellow out karaoke covers of pub rock standards like Unchained Melody and Crying, Dannii tested her acts with edgy recent hits by Robyn and David Guetta. These risks didn’t always pay off, but they always made for interesting performances.
Her greatest match was with the Spanish firebrand Ruth Lorenzo – in my opinion the most exciting and subsequently squandered talent the show has ever discovered. The developing friendship between the two was truly heart-warming, as was Ruth’s battle to remain in the show without the benefit of any of the regional or teenage support that her competitors enjoyed. It took Dannii a little while to figure out what to do with Ruth, but after the latter’s stunning rendition of Purple Rain in the sing-offs, everything fell into place. Her decision in Take That week to pair Ruth with their little-remembered hit Love Ain’t Here Anymore was a gamble that resulted in one of the greatest performances ever seen on the show. It’s that kind of genuine narrative between mentor and artist that makes Dannii so eminently watchable, and what makes the other judges so desperately boring by comparison. Cheryl Cole’s song choices are frequently so predictable and lacking in strategy that during artist theme weeks I often found myself wondering if she actually knew more than three songs by the likes of Elton John and The Beatles.
My one consolation is that Minogue ended her tenure on the show with a high. Her popularity soared in the final season and she came into her own as a beloved TV personality and fashion icon, with a best-selling autobiography and highly successful fashion line. She carried herself with grace and dignity, subverting the expectation that she would be as threatened by Cheryl Cole as the embittered Sharon Osbourne was by her. Under her guidance, and again with the help of some leftfield song choices, Matt Cardle sailed to victory against the might of Simon’s One Direction and Cheryl’s Cher Lloyd.
So what now? Personally I hope the rumoured return to music bears out. Her last full studio Neon Nights was for my money a more forward-thinking and cohesive long player than her sister has ever managed and, despite yielding four top ten hit singles, unfairly overlooked at the time. The 80s-influenced electro sound she was toying with way back in 2001 is now routinely heard in the upper echelons of the charts from the likes of Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Ke$ha. But then that’s Dannii all over, quietly defying expectations and generally being much better than most cynics think she has any right to be. I suspect the X Factor Producers have no idea what they’ve just lost…