Hello and welcome to yet another singing competition show on TV. This one is seemingly distinguished by several things not the least of which is an obscene five million dollar prize for the winner, the much talked about Paula-Simon reunion and a live arena audience for certain, carefully producer picked, contestants. Do not let all the window dressing fool you. While on the surface it seems X-Factor has everything going for it, the devil is in the details.
So far, after two nights of auditions filled with the usual Idol-esque loser parade, a slew of mediocre filler types and the occasional Idol-Hollywood-round-reject types touted as standouts, the show's equation is basically America's Got Talent divided by The Voice minus American Idol: The Country Edition. The decided lack of country “talent” and the even more glaring lack of plaid clad, Jesus lovin' coffee-house-karaoke type contestants has the potential to attract a different and probably less fanatical kind of demographic. And, as Martha would say, that, kids, is a very good thing indeed.
I'm not going to delve deep into the guts of these audition rounds mainly because the tedium of recounting four entire hours of formulaic pap is not worth either my time writing about it or yours reading about it but I'll touch on the highs and lows so you will miss nothing except the fat.
We've all heard how The X Factor is supposedly nothing like Idol, however, that won't stop anybody from comparing the two and, indeed, I am not above some crude sizing-up when the invitation to do so is blatantly obvious. Here's the breakdown:
- Aerial shots of massive crowds composed of eager but largely delusional people all hoping for a chance to become the next big thing? Check. The size of the LA crowd alone – 20,000 no less – is already touted by the unnamed, faceless, UK-accented host as the biggest ever in LA's history of auditions. Score one for the X.
- The X Factor is a show that can fit into three eighteen wheelers and we see these beasts traversing the country from city to city in each audition episode.
- Aside from Paula and Simon, the judges are Cheryl Cole, who will be fired by the second audition episode to be replaced by ex-Pussycat Doll Nicole Schertzinger, and famed record executive Antonio “LA” Reid who is a smarter, sharper, more elegant and more “power” Randy Jackson in the best way possible.
Done in by too much hair or too little personality.
- Did I mention that $5 million dollar Sony recording contract the winner will get? Yeah. There's also the little detail of the winner being featured in a Superbowl Coca Cola commercial. Can you imagine one of the last four mealymouthed white-guy-with-guitar Idol winners in one of those? Hee.
- One biggie is the lack of a top or bottom age limit and groups are welcome as well. Not that anyone but a young pop leaning girl or guy is going to win this one but the seemingly egalitarian premise is a nice departure from the tired old formula.
- Oops, looks the host does have a name and it's Steve Jones but he seems more like furniture and deliberately non Seacrest-like. Not going to bother with him much.
- After the auditions, each judge will take on a group of contestants to mentor through the live shows kind of like on the The Voice.
- Last, but not least, The X Factor is proud to distinguish itself by holding live arena auditions in front of thousands of people: Humiliation or triumph on a grand scale.
The gang's all new. Ish.
La-La Land highs and lows
It's one thing to try to set yourself apart from the competition with silly window dressing and lofty promises of riches, quite another to actually do something revolutionary. I did have a glimmer of hope that The X Factor would dare to go in a different direction than the tried and true people with sob stories route but only for a minute. Then I remembered that I'm not watching, say, HBO. This is standard singing show fare, people, and when it comes to that, I think we've already seen it all before.
So, in the name of the same old, same old, the first entrant in the game is Rachel Crow, all of 13, precocious in that thoroughly annoying way that makes me want to fast forward already and possessor of a sob story. Of course. Even before getting on stage, she already speaks in that embarrassing me-me-me generation hyperbole: “This audition is the most important thing I've ever done in my life”, she says. Not only do I have zero sympathy, empathy and even like for this kid at this point, I can clearly see X Factor's pandering being no less unctuous and off-putting than Idol's and I can definitely see myself losing interest in this circus even before the opening salvo.
Rachel hits the stage, 13-going-on-36, with a flower in her hair and a too-old-for-her blazer, and the judges melt over her giggle and disturbingly rehearsed sob-story-cum-comedy routine about the horrible woes of her sub-par first world living conditions that do not allow for Rachel to have her own bathroom. Hope this show doesn't run in India later on... To say I'm embarrassed to be watching this is an understatement but an entire un-self-aware audience howls with laughter. Can she sing? It's almost beside the point as she probably could have hummed the Sesame Street theme song off-key and they would have put her through regardless. As it is, she does a decent cover of Duffy's oft-abused song, “Mercy”, but it feels put-on, like a bad kiddie pageant act. She gets four yeses and lots of over-the-top praise from all the judges. Simon even tells her she'll probably get her own bathroom now. Welcome to X Factor, folks!
And so it goes forward. As Day 1 auditions in LA continue, other people moving on get less of a pimping and are more interesting as well. Among them cutie Terrel Carter, 36, who sings an R&B cover and is deemed by Cheryl as having the “whole package”; Ellona, 14, who waltzes by with a rendition of “Beautiful” delivered in a big and shouty way that is often mistaken for good vocals and blond and wholesome tween girl magnet of the Bieber persuasion, John Lindahl, 14, singing “Forget You”. He even comes with his own groupies backstage complete with banners and loud shrieks. Ready for television, that he is.
Siameze, 30, is well-muscled and showing it by doing splits and stripping while covering Prince in a very bad way. He also wants to be a megastar with his own drink called Si-Men-Nergy. Simon seems horrified and LA looks like he's regretting leaving his high paying executive job for this crap. Unbelievably he gets a pass even though LA turns him down and Simon says he's delusional. I guess they need their filler like every other show.
A slew of losers follow in quick succession among them an adorable older couple from Vegas, Dan and Venita, whose dreams of making it big on the senior home show circuit may never reach fruition; a psychotic duo of goth girls who seem baffled that their yin-yang act is passed over; an old lady singing “I Touch Myself” in a non-ironic, somewhat obscene way and a Katy Perry wannabe covering “Firework” with a very bad voice and an even worse attitude.
Simone Battle, 21, an overconfident Beyonce wannabe, delivers a tepid Pussycat Dolls song with enough attitude to woo the judges. All except LA, that is, whose objections are the cue for X Factor to highlight the new “rivalry” between Simon and LA which has apparently supplanted the ye olde Simon-Paula shtick. Times, they're a' changing.
The LA auditions conclude with Stacy Francis, 42, mother of two whose tale of woe consists of a lack of confidence and some overcritical people in her life who managed to keep her from reaching for her dreams. Until now, that is. Her shouty, churchy, Hollywood-round-reject performance of “Natural Woman” is only remarkable because she is 42 and X Factor could use a modified version of SuBo. Simon showers her with praise and declares her audition the best he's ever heard. I have to wonder what's in that Coke cup he's sipping from. Or maybe he's got visions of SuBo's sales from those embarrassing cover songs dancing in front of his eyes.
It's an even flow in Seattle
Can X Factor pop out a pop star in the city where Pearl Jam reigns supreme? Not sure but there are hopefuls here as far as the eye can see. The most notable bit is that we're an hour in and Cheryl Cole and her big Texas pageant hair have been dispatched already and replaced with Nicole Scherzinger of Pussycat Doll fame.
The freak show starts early with Geo Godley, who immediately drops his pants and is allowed to sing an entire song with his man bits hanging out for all to see despite making Paula run to the bathroom to throw up. Will it get worse? I'm barely hanging on, folks.
Can Nicole take on JLo? She tries hard, making Seattle sing Happy Birthday to her and the show tries even harder by making Simon deliver to her a cake (with his own face on it, natch) and a song backstage but does anybody actually care? I predict Nicole will pimp a single and a new video sometime during the course of this show. You heard it here first. Back to the action which I'm going to lovingly deliver all bullet-pointed for your reading pleasure and because I value my sanity.
Some of the people walking away with yeses and good impressions are:
- Marcus Canty, 20, who drops "I wish" by Stevie Wonder and gets compared to Bobby Brown and Usher
- The Answer, a trio of Salt Lake City boy band wannabes who suck up to Nicole with a birthday song and rake up four yeses with a decently entertaining version of the overcooked “Rolling In The Deep”
- Chris Rene, 28, garbage man and former addict with a kid who wants to make it big with his original song called “Young Homie”. He is the only standout of the whole night for me and the judges seem awestruck by his raw talent and personality. Simon even calls him a star acknowledging that he needs the show as much as the show needs somebody like him with the caveat that he stays off drugs. Hmm, do I sense a foreshadowing of something to come here? Only time will tell.
Commercial break: Among the many Coke commercials pimping a future Coke commercial for the future winner of X Factor there is one for “Majors and Minors”, a new series seeking talent among kids on The Hub Network. It's notable because it's yet another talent seeking show that's packed with big names, among them Adam Lambert the shining diamond from Simon's old show. Surreal juxtaposition indeed.
Seattle has it's share of gag-auditions, deluded losers and just plain bad performers such as a chick who thinks she's as good as Mariah; a mother-daughter duo or horror and a musician dude from Vegas with a tone deaf wife who sank $100K into his “talents”. He sings “Like A Virgin” with conviction and follows it up with an evil laugh. A misguided girl group with too many members and too little talent and an Imogen Heap song I love – the song, not the group - gets no love from the judges.
Miami rhapsody in X
You know how on Idol the judges emerge onto the stage to bask in the glory and adulation of their live audience because, let's face it, they're what the show has become. On X Factor, the judges walk in from the back of the floor and high five the audience on their way to the judge's table. One more notch for X Factor.
Ashley Sansoni is delusional enough for two shows. She is also homeless, possibly insane and talentless. Needless to say her joke of an audition to “Piece Of My Heart” doesn't go over well. She is followed a few similarly crazy filler including a country group of cowboys that's summarily rejected, a sad duo screaming out “Barracuda” with a scary tone deaf family. Things are not going too well so a little help from local girl Gloria Estefan can only be a good thing. Right? As long as nobody has the brilliant idea to sing one of her songs, I'm good.
It's so easy to tell when somebody comes along with a full pimping package. Take for example 16 year old high school student Kaitlin Harris, all sunny in yellow with no less than two huge homemade posters and a bevy of supporters flanking her as she's seen entering the competition. Her “Firework” cover is not spectacular but there's some power in her voice and she's better than some of those 13 years olds they picked up in LA. She is rejected but gets a hug from Paul before crying her way off the stage.
Nick Voss, 21, looks like Vanilla Ice and has a standard issue sob story about quitting his job and his mom and whatnot. He starts bawling right away as he relates his, erm, troubles with regular employment right before launching into “Trouble” by Elvis Presley. He growls and hip-shakes his way through it to the delight of the audience. The judges put him through even though his voice is thin and his copycat ways. Predictably, he bawls in the post-audition confessional too.
The auditions are growing beyond tedious between the ghost-seeing 14 year old with false eyelashes and a thin voice and a virtual pageant of other pathetic losers. When an older woman in a rubber dress walks in and starts screaming out “Summertime” and gets four yeses for a terrible performance, I think it's clear that The X Factor has already jumped the shark. A girl group called “Too Square” makes it through singing a song with a message of empowerment. Empowerment is so early 2011. Talk about chasing the tail end of a trend. Teacher Kendra Williams is belts through a suspiciously country sounding bit while bearded cutie Brendan O'Hara wow the judges with his voice. We are shown brief glimpses of these people who as a matter of rule may become really important in later episodes or will be quickly sacrificed for the sake of the chosen ones.
Yes, I said chosen ones. Don't think there aren't any. My guess is a young-ish girl with a pop persona and a so-so voice. Boy, if they're generous... and not too smart. I will completely hate to be right.
The train is chugging on, as boring and bloated as I expected it to be. Jeremiah Pagan is supposedly a male soprano, allegedly only one of 7 in the world, but he's got jagged transitions and sounds out of breath. Yup. I think desperation has set in in Miami.
[b]Melanie Amarro[b] is only 18 years old and she's wearing an awful outfit of leggins and sequins but she does really well with Beyonce's “Listen”. Too good, actually, because she sounds like a dead ringer for Beyonce. That can be worked on later unless she wants a career as a Bey impersonator.
The beaches are better in Miami but Dallas has been known to spawn some talent. It's the last leg of this week's interminable audition stops and I'm ready for the ordeal to be over. The three trucks roll into town greeted by a massive gathering of people as they set up shop in yet another arena. There is a high probability of country entrants from this episode which is scary but the host reassures that this is a search for an “international pop star”. Whew! That's a relief, I must say.
Johnny Rogers, 17, loves his abundant head of hair and he plans to dance during his audition to his own song. Simon says he looks like Ken but he really want to be Justin Bieber. I guess because of the hair... His original song and his spastic dancing are very mid 80s and the singing is just plain sad. Simon says he is like a Made in China Biebs doll gone horribly wrong. Johnny's hopes of megastardom are crushed but there are only 45 minutes of showtime left so what do I care?
We're overdue for a good two-hankie sob story so along comes Dylan Lawson, 18, from Kentucky who lives “out in the boondocks”. He sold his truck to be on the show and knows exactly what he wants to do. I can practically hear grannies at home crying softly and planning on voting their fingers off for him. Alas he is just a bad troll who screams and jumps around on the stage for a bit and makes me wish I was watching the Weather Channel instead.
Dallas is sure serving up the weird, the horrific, the talentless and even a dude who sounds like a didgeridoo. Don't ask. And then there's an ex-singer from an obscure band who used to open for Hall and Oates a few decades back. Dexter Haygood is 49 is here to rekindle his former glory and to this end he is singing “Sex Machine” by James Brown. Predictably, it's a caricature, your basic Vegas impersonation, not unlike so many of the other acts on this show so far. Everyone except maybe the dude with the original rap is like somebody else. When asked to do a brief a cappella, James Brown, erm, Dexter Haygood launches into “This Is A Man's World” full of loud scream and desperation. He is homeless and down to his last chance. He gets yeses from the audience, LA and Nicole and even Simon but it's Paula who sets the boundaries when she tells him to leave the James Brown tribute act behind and come back as himself. Whether he can do that, remains to be seen but we have the definitive tearjerker moment of the show. I'm not sure how genuine it is given that Dexter is on his cellphone saying “it happened” moments after making it off the stage.
A bunch of others make it through but we're given only small glimpses of them in shorts confessionals. None of them seem country-ish so that's good. Caitlin Koch is a rugby player and she's the first person to sing a different arrangement of a song, namely “Stop In The Name” slowed down. It's not spectacular but it makes her stand out and makes people take notice. The judges are blown away as much by her story, her tough Barbie looks as by her audition. Hey, Dallas finally delivers something!
Things are finally winding down in Dallas but not before one more precious specimen by the name of Xander Alexander who is very particular about his influences – Mariah, Whitney and Britney before they lost it – and most particular about his moniker. None of that Alexander or Xavier business for him, thankyouverymuch. The delusion of grandeur does not stop there but I won't bore you. Needless to say he implodes spectacularly when he decides to get insolent with Simon. He launches into an Edwin McCain chestnut followed by an impromptu bit that actually shows some talent. Simon even says that he might be good given the right production but it's false hope. LA and Paula turn him down giving Simon a chance to tell Alexander that he lost the audition when he lost the audience.
Next week we get two more audition episodes and, let me tell you, I'm not looking forward to them. I'm not sure they're worth writing about so I may just post pics of bunnies or something.