Greetings, X-Factoids! You can relax now, and blow out your Simon Cowell vigil candles, for your favorite $5 million talent show/freak-fest hath returned. I will be your X-Factotum again on this second season, which has already distinguished itself in the premiere, having jettisoned both previous female judges (Paula who? Nicole huh?) in favor of the potentially stark raving awesome duo of Britney Spears and Demi Lovato. Oh, and the immaculately groomed head of LA Reid is back as well, still making the crossed arm X-gesture, which nobody has yet informed him belongs to Wonder Woman.
So far, the dynamic between the new intake and the other judges is harmonious. Perhaps a little too much so: they all agree on just about everything. Demi and Britney seem on their way to intergenerational bestie-hood, and there's nary a hint of the Simon vs. LA smackdowns of yore. Simon has even oddly taken on the role of Demi's romantic consigliore, chiding her to stay away from one of the members of One Direction (the cute one, I think his name is Up.) Surely, we will eventually look back on this period as "the calm before all of those hurricanes."
A singing reality competition show is only as good as its singing reality competitors, though, so let's see what the cities of Austin, San Francisco and Providence have coughed up so far.
The Real Deal
Rihanna look-alike Paige Thomas has an adorable daughter and a hot pink shirt with epaulettes, so we like her already. "I'm Goin' Down" sounded pretty natural pouring out of her, although sometimes it's hard to distinguish oneself with a song like that on a show like this. All the judges adored her to begin with, but then her daughter made a carefully coordinated run to the stage with a little bow in her hair, and you could clearly see a quartet of melted judge-hearts.
Reed Deming has the manufactured affect and face-swept hair of a cog in the pop star machine, which means he'll do fine on this show. The 13-year-old chipmunk was a little too nervous at the start of his Bruno Mars song, "It Will Rain," and Simon stopped him less than a minute in, asking him to switch to another song – a spare, piano-driven version of "Grenade," on which he acquit himself admirably. The Bieber comparisons were non-stop, and he deflected them thus: "I don't want to fall into that Bieber stereotype. I gotta be me." OK, kid: tell that to every single thing about you.
A pleasant late-episode surprise was Jennel Garcia, a teenager who cites Pat Benatar as an influence. (God bless her.) Jennel sang Grace Potter and the Nocturnals' "Paris (Ooh La La)" like she meant business. The camera kept cutting over to her mom as Garcia was singing about being down on the floor, which was uncomfortable, but the girl just radiates confidence and swiveled hips. The judges loved her and so do you.
Demi found a kindred spirit in Jillian Jensen, a 19-year-old with a microphone tattooed on her shoulder blade, who reveals that she was bullied growing up and has a lot of feelings about it. (There's a backstory here, and we're assumed to know it, but for those who don't: Demi was bullied for being fat at age eight and had a decade-long eating disorder because of it.) Jillian has a deep, husky voice beyond her years, almost hoarse, and she breaks down in tears by the end of "Who You Are." Of course, Demi went on stage and hugged her, and of course, I felt like doing same.
With his hot pink lipstick, wedding train and booty shorts, could cake decorator Quatrele Da'an Smith have sung anything other than "Born This Way?" He didn't sound terrible, but I couldn't help feel the judges gave him a pass because they liked the fact that he exists, rather than his singing. (LA was the only one to give the sensible "no.")
Vincent Thomas didn't seem even mildly embarrassed to have been in a boy band in Europe at one point, and he kept saying the words 'boy band' over and over. He committed the cardinal sin of dispensing supposed wisdom to the guys sitting next to him before stepping onstage, so we know that he's not going to make it. His voice should have yellow lines around it, because it's the middle of the road. (Oh, snap?)
The guys Vincent was giving his ill-considered advice to were Emblem3, a trio of sun-baked high school California bros who sang a half-rapped original ode to their home state. The crowd went bonkers, and the judges seemed impressed, which seems insane to me. If you could imagine a much less dangerous Gym Class Heroes, it would be these dudes – and that's saying something.
The saddest moment of the night belonged to future stalker Don Philip, the utterly unhinged, tear-streaked Gob Bluth clone who apparently sang a duet with Spears once and never got over it. Here he sang "Halo" and it's clear that his voice is kind of shot. Britney had to be the one to discourage his dream, and it was like watching Timmy put down Lassie.
Kaci Newton was immediately set up as an over-the-top villainess. We hear the blonde Texan talking trash about Paige, but oddly not in an interview. We're meant to have overheard this. She has a Southern Mean Girls thing going on, with over the top boasting about wanting to be as big as Michael Jackson. On stage, though, she sounded like a Kristen Wiig character singing Katy Perry at the discount opera house or something. The judges unceremoniously ripped her a new one.
On his way to the stage, 50-year-old Shawn Armenta looked like he's checking for tails, which he should be, because his original song is pervy enough to sound 1,000 Amber alerts. It's called "Candy Girl," and it's about "the sweet girls you meet at a local bar." He also danced like he was guiding in a plane. Britney finally asked who let him on stage, which was a very good question, except that if there weren't a couple cartoonishly awful auditions like Shawn each year, someone would totally get fired.
We didn't hear Saane Dakunivosa sing one note before we know she's a total joke. We just intuit it from the half a bouquet of flowers on her shoulder, her very long shout out to the Bay Area and the fact that she's listed as "unemployed," rather than a student. When someone is introduced as unemployed on shows like these, unless it's part of a heartbreaking story, it's a sure sign of a fruitcake.
Finally, the vaguely Ron Jeremy-esque Charles Spangler (also unemployed) gave his age as "57 and 7" and looks every ounce of it. His face is as red as the devil's backside. When he's not barking like a dog on Soft Cell's "Tainted Love," in between "got to" and "run away," he sounds like Tom Waits' cousin who doesn't quite smoke as many cigarettes but is still a bridge troll.