The first act sets the tone right away: a tone of failure. Ashley is a free spirit with otherworldly confidence – a character Maggie Gyllenhaal might’ve considered playing in the mid-2000s. She twice calls herself a “starving artist,” and it’s actually one of her less quirky declarations. While she’s describing her diaphragm as an on-button, pre-audition, her boyfriend’s face can only be described as “long-suffering.” (He’s a character Joan Allen might’ve considered playing in the mid-1990s.) Things only get worse on stage when she claims the person she’s most inspired by is . . . herself. “I could be somebody’s inspiration,” she adds (R.I.P. Michael Scott). Of course, this hubris is wildly unmerited and Ashley crashes and burns with an indecipherable cover of Janis Joplin’s “A Piece of My Heart.” Bienvenidos a Miami!
The next wave of rejects goes by in a flurry. These include a trio of Latino cowboys and an obese, goth-y mother/daughter duo called Dreamgirlz. The stage seems set for the night’s first winning act when the radiant 16-year old Caitlynne Curtis appears, decked out in more yellow than all of Munchkinland. You can hear my generation pouring out a 40 on the curb for our collective lost youth when Caitlyn announces she’d “grown up watching Simon Cowell.” She does a spot-on, if somewhat shaky vocal impersonation of Katy Perry on “Firework,” and the audience seems to be with her. Not so fast, though, Caitlyn! When Nicole Scherzinger announces the singer has “room to grow,” poor Caitlyn doesn’t recognize it as performance review-speak for “you’re doing it wrong,” and her face lights up like an arcade game. By the time she understands what’s happening, she’s in tears and Paula comes up to comfort her.
After a lot of bemoaning about the lack of talent in Miami, the next hopeful is Nick Voss. He’s a tall drink of water with Vanilla Ice’s exact haircut and an unfortunate way of describing his motivation. “I live for this,” he says, which is fine, but then he follows it up with “I can’t do anything right,” and proceeds to tell stories about being dangerously incompetent at his day job. Although his voice is less than remarkable, Nick has undeniable charisma, and credibly pulls off Elvis’ “Trouble” in the night’s first crowd-pleaser. Scherzinger compares his movement to that of Jim Carrey, Jerry Lewis and Elvis Presley, before paradoxically describing him as “unique,” and L.A. Reid offers the sensible critique that, while clearly a natural entertainer, Nick’s voice needs work.
Things get dreary again soon after Nick’s victory. A (second) young girl named Ashley earns her fruit-basket bona fides after bonding with Paula over the ability to see “ghosts and other paranormal things.” This revelation sets Ashley Two up to give Simon meaningful eye contact on her way offstage that has “hex” written all over it. Sure enough, the judges seem cursed on the talent front thereafter. The haunted vibe ends, however, with Marivana Viscuso, who looks like Barbara Streisand multiplied to the power of Jocelyn Wildenstein, but with a monster voice to boot.
A few others manage to squeak by too, but the biggest knockout of the series so far comes from Melanie Amaro. This young lady decked out in gold sequins is a star in the making, and she brings everyone in the entire arena to their feet with her cover of Beyoncé’s “Listen.” Afterward, the judges fall all over themselves commending her performance, although Nicole’s choice of praise seems like something a visiting dignitary might say to a malnourished peasant (“People like you inspire me”).
After fleeing to Dallas, the judges seem bummed to discover a talent deficit rivaling that of Miami’s. Among the initial rejects are Johnny Rogers, a scarily animated twink with gravity-defiant Bieber hair that looks like a giant bell made of straw, and 18-year old Dylan, whose crooked baseball cap rests just above an exposed Eddie Munster widow’s peak. Dylan goes down in flames performing a Slayer-inspired turn of a Lil Wayne verse. Also notable is Curtis “Phoenix” Lawson, whose look I call Shop Class Jesus. Rather than sing, Phoenix mixes Rahzel-style sound effects with speaking in tongues, and the result sounds like a nightmare that chainsaws had.
The final success story of the night is 49-year-old Dexter Haygood. He’s first introduced rehearsing James Brown grunts backstage. In his patent leather platform boots, washed out denim jacket, mini-dreads, and Zorro mustache, his every utterance contains an exclamation point. (Is he married? “No! No! Never made it to the aisle!”) After the enthusiastic but ultimately rote version of “Sex Machine” we all knew was coming, Simon does the unexpected: He tells Dexter to cut the act and deliver the goods. When Dexter complies, laying into a minute’s worth of “This Is a Man’s World” a capella and completely demolishing it, Simon’s talent-radar is vindicated.
Where the first episode of the premiere ended on an uplifting note, the follow-up could only go the other way, since the stench of defeat permeated most of its performances. The final contestant, Xander Alexander, looks like Pharrell crossed with Tyler the Creator and Miss Jay from ANTM – with an outsize ego that encompasses all three. “My influences are Whitney before she lost it and Mariah Carey before she lost it,” he says, somehow without covering his face. “My stage presence is kind of like Britney meets Lady Gaga, but on crack!” Okay!
All this is said before he even makes it onstage, though. By the time he gets there, dressed like a space age newsie covered in some Silly String-like adornment of his own design, the diva behavior gets even worse. Before he has a chance to sing, he turns the whole audience off and gets on Simon’s nerves. After all that bluster, his actual vocal turn is a non-starter. “You’re my hero,” Paula bafflingly tells him multiple times before she and everyone else votes him offstage. “You blew it,” Simon says unceremoniously to Xander’s many protests. Fittingly enough for a night fraught with failure, the episode ends with the contestant alone and in tears.
Previously: Tweens, Hard Luck Stories and a Freak or Two