On the third episode of The X Factor, it's the judges who are singing in four-part harmony. Simon and Co. tend to vote on hopefuls unanimously and in the affirmative — with one serious exception, which we'll get into later.
The first act, college-age country duo Brock and Makenna, look almost unreasonably wholesome, answering the judges' questions in stumbled unison like Garth & Kit on SNL. When Makenna is off camera for a moment before the audition, Brock blushingly admits he's in love with her. (Your secret is safe with us, Brock!) The duo's Zac Brown Band cover earns kudos all around, initiating the trend that lasts almost all night.
Keeping it country, Skyelor Anderson is a 16-year-old singer with a lot of heart. He cuts a fratty figure in his puka shell necklace and camo-mesh hat, but the most important thing about Skyelor's appearance is his skin color. Even in a post-Darius-Rucker-goes-country world, it's still rare to hear a black teenager use the phrase "Git 'r done," which we do here. Skyelor already seems to be winning, but after the music shorts out, he continues a cappella, earning a rare thumbs-up from Simon. The talented teen gets voted in and the judges compete over who can acknowledge Skyelor's race in the vaguest way. (Simon: "I love the fact that you're singing this kind of music." LA Reid: "I so love your uniqueness.")
If LA thinks a black cowboy is unique, wait 'til he gets a load of the next contestant: J. Mark Zuckerberg. Well, technically J. Mark's last name is 'Inman', but there's no way these dudes aren't related. J. Mark drips with the nerdiest possible hubris. What's his musical goal? "To destroy the Top 40." Where does he see himself in 10 years? "At the helm of a renaissance." While singing almost a slow-core version of Radiohead's "Creep," Mark does The Robot, and later, The Robot Who Does Air Guitar. Against all odds, the crowd rises to its collective feet and the judges give Skinny Chaz Bono a pass.
"You don't belong here," Paula says, riffing on the song's chorus. "You're from another planet. I think I've been there."
"You live there," Simon corrects.
Next up is the night's biggest surprise. "When I'm not working, I smell like burritos," says Josh Krajcik, a food service employee who definitely looks like he smells like burritos. The 30 year-old Ohioan has the same shoddy grooming and ultimate deep-V as that one Al-Quaeda member who looks like Ron Jeremy (a Google search of "Al Quaeda + Ron Jeremy" reveals this is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed). Seeing Josh's mother talk about her son with the eyes of a veteran meth tweaker, it feels like an episode of Toddlers & Tiaras: The Next Generation. But then Josh opens his mouth and, Good Lord, it sounds like an extra soulful Michael Bolton manhandling Etta James' "At Last." Raise your hand if you saw that coming.
Drew Ryniewicz looks like a teenage Natasha Lyonne, although since she is a teenager, she'd have no idea who that is. (Slums of Beverly Hills forever, y'all!). Drew is first glimpsed declaring her love for Justin Bieber. When she announces her intent to perform "Baby," both Simon and LA warn her of LA's close connection to the song (Reid signed Bieber to his label). She goes ahead anyway with a sweet down tempo version, and impresses everyone. The delighted teenager screams her way offstage, holding her dress, which is in imminent danger of falling down.
4Shore's color-coordination already recalls Boyz II Men, but then the crew covers "End of the Road" — the prom-time standard LA co-wrote. The guys are pleasant enough, and they have a cute gimmick of answering questions with their name (e.g. "Do you think you've got the X-Factor?" "4Shore!") The song is perfectly fine, too. It's very okay! There's just no way it deserved such a unanimous lovefest from the judges. LA: "Boyz II Men would be proud." Paula: "You're a blessing." Simon: "I've always wanted to find an artist who'd be successful all over the world." It's as if someone cast an agreement spell: Conflictus Eradicus.
Next is Phillip Lomax, whose name probably belongs to a villain in Tango & Cash. Lomax is the world's first self-described hipster, even though he dresses more like Bruno Mars (dig the brown derby.) Phillip's swaggering turn at Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon" binds the judges in approval once again, though. Is there nothing they can't agree on?
Adhering to classic story structure, eventually a woman comes between the judges. Before Tiah Tolliver gets to the stage, the scene is set by a parade of girls auditioning in standard-issue floozy-wear. Paula and Nicole are not thrilled – they appear to dismiss each one right away. This division creates some tension with Simon, who pronounces the contestants "dead on arrival," as far as Nicole and Paula are concerned. To one girl dressed in an unfortunate amount of red latex, Simon says, "You remind me of what Nicole would be like at 20, auditioning for this show." Nicole fires back that when she was 20, she did audition for a talent show and killed it. When she sings an adroit snippet of "I Will Always Love You," the girl onstage withers away.
Enter Tiah Tolliver, a 19-year-old Left Eye Lopez lookalike with bee-stung lips and a voice that surges like a swarm. After Tiah sings Shontelle's "Impossible" without a backing track, Simon is convinced and LA is amenable. Paula and Nicole both claim, however, that Tiah wanders off key. "She's got potential," Simon counters, "You've got to be deaf if you don't see that." Nicole and Paula remain unmoved. "This is insane," Simon says, before tossing a pen. In the end, this being Simon's show, Tiah gets another chance to perform, and this time she sufficiently convinces Nicole to change her vote.
By the time this showdown ended, it almost erased the memory of the harmonious agreement that preceded it for an entire episode. We'll find out tonight whether the harmony returns for the final auditions episode.
Previously: Tweens, Hard Luck Stories and a Freak or Two