X Factor has dominated Maltese conversations and rumour mills for the last three months now, and with the Live shows finally landing yesterday, it's all set to go into overdrive in the coming weeks. Because I'm equally a hater and a horrible sufferer of FOMO, I headed to Ta' Qali last night to experience the show in its full glory... and it turned out to be the most Maltese thing ever.
As people congregated in droves to the massive tent-arena, there was a strong sense that something bigger than usual was about to kick off. The stage looked stunning, the crowd control was top notch, and the atmosphere was buzzing. Even seeing that huge X logo sprawled all around the arena (and trust me, it was sprawled everywhere, with people taking the same photo, hands crossed and all) was enough to get even the most cynical of attendees (read: yours truly) in the mood for an entertaining night.
So as people all around the island sat down on their sofas and tuned in to TVM (or swore at the Live Stream inevitably crashing down), I bought a couple of beers from the bar, chose a place in the strategically voyeuristic final row, and braced myself for two of the most entertaining hours I've experienced in my life.
1. Even at a talent show, politics just had to make a cheeky appearance
As people started filing in to the arena, literally the very first thing we were told was that the show would soon be making a brief link with TVM News. "So I want to hear you make some noise, and if you have any political opinions, keep them to yourselves for now," host Ben Camille feebly told the audience.
Sure; instructions like these are standard procedure in any international show, but I'm willing to bet Malta is the only country where that just had to be the first request of the night. And rightly so; soon enough, scattered calls from both political factions soon erupted from around the arena... mass meeting air horns included, of course.
2. Seriously though, it was great to see Ben Camille utter more than a couple of sentences in a show
... but not so great to have everyone see what he was going to say before he even said it
I was honestly so happy to see our X Factor host finally being given the opportunity to actually host, and having his black-polo-neck-clad silhouette hover around the stage added to that certain feeling that this really was "the real deal".
And again; a teleprompter is standard procedure at such big dos like an X Factor Live Final, so I can't really complain for ending up reading off of it along with Ben. You know what isn't standard procedure though? Having the teleprompter appear on camera and broadcasting it on live television. And you know what's even worse? Not needing to read about it on your WhatsApp group convos and spotting the mistake a million miles away from the very last row.
3. At the end of the day, every local celebrity is always just a couple of families - and rows - away from everyone else
In a surreal twist of fate, my unassuming seat at the very back of the arena ended up being an arm's length away from some very familiar faces from previous stages of X Factor Malta. Suddenly, there was literally no difference between random members of the audience and contestants we had all seen, loved and even backed until a couple of weeks ago.
Our island really has a beautiful way of equalising everything and everyone.
4. Want technical difficulties? We got you fam
You can easily argue that Malta has never seen the level of production that was involved in bringing down such a huge franchise like X Factor down to our tiny island, and you'd probably be right. The show was epic, it was live, and producers and attendees alike survived the night with an impressive tale to tell.
But in between the hype-man's microphone not being turned on in time a couple of times, people in the audience barely hearing the judges' comments, the huge backdrop screen cropping out the first couple of letters of every contestant's name and floodlights blinding us every single time a singer hits a high note, I couldn't help but be frequently reminded that this was, after all, X Factor Malta I was witnessing.
The group I was with (serial cynics the whole lot) jokingly placed bets on the number of technical difficulties there would be throughout the night, and guess what? We all undershot it.
5. Haters gonna hate
You know what I could hear even more clearly than the judges' comments? People's comments on what they were wearing, how they were walking, talking and smiling.
Throughout the night, in between the "Dik x'inhi liebsa aa?!", "Ara Alla, neħħieħ in-nuċċali fl-aħħar!" and the "Ara vera ma tifhimx biex qalet hekk ta'!", I found myself wondering whether we were there to judge the singers or the judges themselves.
6. But one particular heckle rang even clearer than it did on live TV... and it was hilarious AF
While she usually finds it very easy to get the crowd on her side, Ira ended up getting her own share of criticism from one member of the audience.
As she offered soon-to-be-eliminated sister-duo Kayati some constructive criticism, one very Maltese man's shout broke the relatively unengaged audience's silence with an "U aqtagħha naqa!"
And just like that, everyone in the arena erupted in laughter. It even prompted one of the crew to rush to the man, who was sitting a couple of rows away from me to the left, warning him that this was a classic case of "Oħra u barra". I'm back in a secondary school assembly and that guy has just booked himself an after school, I found myself thinking.
As soon as I got home, I went on YouTube to find the moment again. Unfortunately, all the performances had been uploaded without the judges' comments. Fortunately, this is 2019 and there were already a couple of memes floating around.
7. Say what you want about Maltese crowds, but they sure know how to turn it up to 11
If you've ever been to a mass meeting before, you know exactly what I'm talking about. If you've never been to one in your life, you know where you need to be next Sunday.
And yes, there was a lot of encouragement coming our way every single time there was a two-and-a-half-minute ad break thanks to Rodney Gauci's constant, "Qumu minn hemm! Dawk is-siġġijiet mhux qegħdin hemm biex tpoġġu fuqhom!" but give Maltese people a classic 'We Will Rock You', and we will stomp and clap for three minutes straight... twice in a row.
And don't get me started on audience favourites like Michela Pace and Owen Leuellen, who got everyone screaming like a seven-year-old girl whenever an inch of them appeared on stage.
8. While everyone at home was being reminded about lotteries and home appliances, I watched the audience help a tiny girl win a smartphone... and then get triggered by the idea of young girls owning smartphones
Equal parts endearing and hilarious, one particularly long ad break saw Rodney come back up on stage to hype/rile the audience up, this time with an enticing bonus in tow; a free smartphone courtesy of sponsors Vodafone.
Choosing one particularly loud audience member from each of the three sides of the arena, Rodney invited two young men and one very young girl up on stage, telling them that whoever managed to get the audience to shout the loudest would be taking home a smartphone.
In typical (and beautiful) Maltese fashion, the whole audience got behind the cute little girl, roaring every single time she put her hands up, helping her trash the competition.
15 seconds later, as the girl was still happily rushing off to her family, all I could hear around me was people talking about how horrible it is that kids these days are being allowed to own smartphones at such a young age. Maaa x'għarukaża, then why did you just help her win?!
9. Give us instructions and we'll happily ignore you
The nature of a live TV show as big and important as an X Factor Final meant that things had to look as good as they sounded, and that meant making sure people wouldn't be accidentally filmed walking in and out of the arena after ad breaks. Which is why we were constantly told that, if we were to leave our seats throughout the show "biex tmorru ħarba toilet", we wouldn't be allowed back in. So of course, everyone ignored that.
Two and a half minutes is a stupidly short amount of time to exit an arena, fight off a whole crowd of people to the bathroom and make your way back to your seat, but that's exactly what hundreds of people did. Every single time. No matter how many producers and presenters and hype men nervously joked about them having to stay in their seats.
Think of all those ad breaks... and imagine having to hear this every single time.
10. Malta will always be the country of repeating lame jokes
From quips on how "that girl from Crosscraft" who appeared during an ad break was actually the best performer, to reading out the giant screen's cropped words ("Did you prefer 'Udges Houses' or 'Irst Auditions'? hehe"), I heard the same couple of lame jokes at least 15 times in two hours.
Stay original, Malta.
11. "Ejja ħa mmorru għax għada xogħol hi!"
Flawless crowd and traffic control aside, every single person in the thousands-strong arena had the exact same thought in the final minutes of the show; let's beat everyone to the car and avoid the inevitable traffic jam.
And even while Franklin and Xtreme were battling off a dramatic elimination, some people were already putting their jackets on and trying to scope open gaps in crowd control to be the first out of the arena.
It's not like the last two hours had been leading up this specific moment anyway, right?
But would I do it all again? Definitely.
Even for someone who's not that much into mainstream entertainment (or the inevitable Eurovision Song Contest the winner will be a part of), I honestly really enjoyed last night's show.
There's a certain satisfaction in seeing everything work... without it working perfectly. A raw, exciting and at times hilarious night that was equal parts everything you've seen before on British TV, and a beautiful Maltese mess you've attended time and time again.
And whether or not your favourite singer made it this far into the stage, you should definitely consider heading to Ta' Qali next Sunday.