Let’s get the American Idol comparisons out of the way up front. First of all, the age restriction for contestants is vastly expanded on X-Factor: everyone from low-end tweens and Rascal-scooting grandmoms is welcome here, as opposed to just 15-to-28 year olds. Also entirely possible: a Jabbawockeez incident. Well, not exactly – the Jabbawockeez are dancers, not singers – but they are a group, and The X-Factor allows groups to audition instead of just soloists. Finally, when these groups or solo artists do audition, they do it in front of thousands of live audience members instead of just the judges.
Over 20,000 people show up at the Los Angeles audition. Part of the reason for the wild turnout is that everyone’s competing for a record contract worth a guaranteed $5 million, the largest prize in TV history. “We’d take that $5 million and go base-jumping!” says a kid in fingerless gloves, prompting a record-screech sound effect. “Swag,” he clarifies a moment later.
When the judges are introduced, they all let viewers know what they walked away from to be on the show. Simon Cowell mentions Idol. L.A. Reid walked out of his cushy executive-level position at Island Def Jam. Paula Abdul probably didn’t walk away from too much, but she’s a never-dry well of unpredictability and psychosis, so we’re happy to have her. We also meet Cheryl Cole, a British singing sensation disappears midway through the episode and is replaced by sometime Pussycat Doll and full-time Kardashian lookalike Nicole Scherzinger without explanation. (Perhaps it was Cole comments like, “You had me before you even sang, and then you opened your mouth and sang” that got her booted off.)
The first audition is by the 13-year-old Rachel Crow, who scores a 10 out of 10 on adorability, sass and little hair-tendrils coiled so tightly you just want to pull on one a little to feel it spring back afterward. “This audition is the most important thing I’ve ever done,” she chirps. Then Rachel delivers a throaty cut of Duffy’s song “Mercy,” which elicits good vibes from the judges all around. The next couple of contestants breeze by pleasantly enough, leaving us to wonder – where are the crazy folks? Where are the chewings-out? I’m not telling tales out of school when I say that after 20 minutes of audition-time on American Idol, there’s bound to be a nutbar or two, as well as someone crying sadness-tears. When a 14-year-old boy’s largely uninspiring take on Cee-Lo’s “Forget You” fails to elicit any negative feedback, I couldn’t help but worry whether the show would end up being toothless.
Then comes Siameze Floyd, the first full-fledged caricature of the season, looking as though he stepped right out of Rent before walking onstage. Siameze’s pre-audition interview is loaded with sound bites about owning one’s own energy drink, and being a mega-star, rather than a mere superstar. We can’t have him start singing soon enough. When he does, though, it’s to a Prince number that he attacks with vampy vigor, doing splits onstage that look like he’s actively aiming to injure his groin beyond repair. “There’s something . . . fascinating about you,” Cowell says. We’ll definitely be seeing more of the agile Prince wannabe, hopefully once again in a turquoise mesh bodysuit straight from Dov Charney’s fantasies.
Soon after, a self-described “fierce” young lady named Simone Battle emerges in shiny red hot pants to belt out a Pussycat Dolls tune. Battle refers to her sound as a “threesome between a cheerleader, a hipster and a drag queen,” which, I mean, good luck finding a less flattering way to describe your sound. Ultimately, though, everyone is on board except Reid, who can’t be swayed, even after Battle is allowed to perform a second song. His obstinacy leads to an odd but entertaining faceoff with Simon, set to the strains of “Eye of the Tiger.” This bodes well for the promise of many Godzilla vs. Mothra-like showdowns to come.
“I think I have the X in the Factor, baby!” yells a gray-haired woman who probably doesn’t. This statement marks our transition into Seattle, where the talent search continues in the second half of the show. It’s strange that the crew had to go to Seattle to find the 43-year-old, tie-dye-wearing, very L.A. contestant Geo Godley, who may or may not be named after a Boards of Canada album. (His occupation is described as “internet blogger.”) After he launches into his original song “I’m a Stud, Not a Dud,” his chrome-colored velour pajama bottoms fall down, revealing what we are led to believe is his junk. (An X Factor logo is superimposed over where said junk would be.) Paula storms off to go be sick in the bathroom.
After a moment like this, we need a solid performance as a palate-cleanser, and that’s where Marcus Canty comes in. He’s got a story: he’s at the end of a two-year window his mom allowed him to get his music career in gear, before having to pack it in and get a degree. This is his last best hope . . . and he nails it. Cowell acknowledges how hard is to pull off Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish,” but by the end of the song, Canty’s strong voice and confident movement have also shaken Paula and Nicole loose from their seats to dance. “Back in the Eighties I signed a young man named Bobby Brown,” L.A. Reid adds. “I’ve been searching for him ever since.” Presumably Reid has already started pitching his next reality show, Searching for Bobby Brown.
Next, a trio of dudes from Utah – who look like they raided Justin Timberlake’s personal accessories closet – butcher the second Adele song of the night by interpolating “Rolling In The Deep” via a Britney Spears song. Somehow this group, called the Answer, still manages to get voted in. The next two performers are comically bad. The skeeviest man in the world sings “Like a Virgin” in between controlled bursts of grown-up Beavis-like laughter. (Hometown: Las Vegas.) Also, a woman of limited vocal range picks an ill-advised Mariah Carey song to cover (“Emotion”) considering her lack of octave-abilities. It does not go well for her or us.
The final contestant of the evening is Chris Rene. When we first see him, he looks like he’s maybe had a bad run of it lately, and it turns out he has. Chris has the kind of infectious positive attitude you want to get behind, though, and you just hope he can sing well. It turns out that he’s recently gotten out of rehab and he is now 70 days sober, with a small child in tow. Please God, be able to sing, and then: “I’m going to perform an original song,” he says. Nooooo! Chris sing/raps his way through the original song, “Young Homey,” in a style of hip-hop inflected R&B that is pretty popular right now. The lyrics can be a bit trite, and they’re definitely on-the-nose (there’s an explicit reference to being two months sober), but the song is not without some heft. (Several hours later, Chris Rene and “Young Homie” are both trending topics on Twitter.)
Everyone votes him on to the next level. L.A. Reid even goes so far as to invoke Jay-Z and Kanye West when lending his blessing. Is that perhaps giving the singer/rapper too much credit? And if so, does that mean that L.A. is not the stoneface bedrock of tough love he seemed earlier in the episode? Guess we’ll have to wait and see.