Oof. It’s a steep learning curve to get up to speed when you’ve been out of the competitive-singing TV game for a while. Since falling off American Idol a few years ago—back when Kris Allen and Adam Lambert were vying for the prize—a whole bevy of alternatives have cropped up in the behemoth’s place with all kinds of format tweaks. There’s NBC’s beloved newcomer The Voice, ABC’s Duets and Fox’s alternate to American Idol, The X Factor. All of them bring a glittering display of music-industry star power to the judges table (see: Jennifer Lopez, Steven Tyler, Kelly Clarkson, Christina Aguilera, CeeLo Green, etc.) and guest-performer list, aware there has to be more on the screen than bumpkins belting out tunes to justify four-plus hours of prime-time watching per week.
As fans of the amazing Emily Yoshida know from her brain-meltingly great recaps last season, The X Factor has its weaknesses. Chief among them is the fact it so vividly mimics creator and star Simon Cowell’s other hit competitive-singing show, American Idol. The challenge from week to week involves trying to differentiate the series from its Cowell-branded brethren while not straying too far from the tried and true formula that makes these shows so entertaining to the masses. There must be the familiar arc of an unlikely, small-town human finding earth-shattering success on stage as well as superstars popping in to perform their biggest hits (and, oftentimes, enjoying a bump in sales immediately afterward).
While the debut season of The X Factor did well enough, it has yet to reach the zeitgeist-level buzz that either American Idol or the U.K. version of X Factor have enjoyed. That’s on top of the fact that season-one winner Melanie Amaro has almost disappeared from the pop-culture radar since nabbing the winning slot back in December 2011. But Cowell and his crew are no dummies when it comes to luring eyeballs to his program. For season two, the ante was upped significantly and Cowell went for major-wattage star power at the judges by nabbing an absolute must-see: Britney Spears.
Say what you will about Britney and her polarizing presence in pop culture. Any opinion one might have about her music becomes immediately dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of her fame. Whether or not she’s an artist or ever was one is the smallest piece of the pie when it comes to discussing the pop star. Between her chart-toppers and public meltdowns, she’s seeped so deeply into pop culture that she simply exists in the way only a handful of stars can. And she’s managed to hang on in ways that pretty much no one understands. Basically any opinion of her is useless because, well, she’s Britney.
The X Factor’s debut episode with Brit almost makes no mention of the fact that another, “formerly troubled” pop star has made her way to the judges’ table alongside Cowell and producer/mogul L.A. Reid. Demi Lovato has only recently scored big on the mainstream charts but has been tearing up Radio Disney for years. And at only 20 years old, she’s already racked up a stint in rehab and rebranded herself as a pillar for teens grappling with eating disorders, self-harm, and substance abuse. It doesn’t hurt that she popped out the other side of her drama with a hit album and song, “Give Your Heart A Break.” Basically, to most of America, this is a power table of judges—whether you care or not!
Things kick off right away with gratuitous Pepsi shots and the gang arriving in Austin, Texas for auditions. Their arrival looks like the Oscars, with more fanfare than any humans could imagine: Red carpets, flashing cameras, fans screaming and crane shots zipping left and right from the Escalades the judges are exiting from.
The first and most important observation: What the hell happened to Simon Cowell’s face?!?Is this recent footage? Look, I’m a person who lives in Los Angeles and regularly watches every Real Housewives series and I’m telling you that the man has gone absolutely filler crazy. We don’t need to dwell on it but that new mug and his transition to a more loose-fitting, white t-shirt (replacing the standby black tee) really sent my head spinning right out the gate.
Everything builds to Brit’s big entrance, and it’s a goddamned zoo. Even Simon and Demi seem a bit star struck when talking to her, even though her banter is as boring and empty as you’d assume it might be. There are a few shots of backstage chatting but hardly enough to give the sense of chemistry between the four judges. It doesn’t matter because it’s time to get into auditions and get this train out of the station.
Appealing first to their big starry catch, Britney gets a young mother lobbed her way straight out of the gate. Pretty, 21-year-old Paige is a Rihanna doppelgänger and parades her 3-year-old for the camera during the requisite backstory portion of her pre-audition. On stage, she has the look of a pop star but her pipes are completely tinny and riddled with nerves. Her trills all but submerge the notes so that her performance is a melisma-fest with little to actually absorb. Yet, Britney is melted by the young mom and delivers her very first critique with giddy delight. “You are so bright and beautiful on stage… You’re flawless.” She’s wrong. But it doesn’t really matter because BRIT JUST TALKED. And that’s all that’s really happening in this moment, right? While her tabloid saga has been splattered all over the globe, Brit herself is rarely ever addressing anyone or anything. Sure, she’s way off the mark with the first judgment but it’s really something just to see her making this whole talky thing happen by simply focusing her mostly dead eyes on something while moving her lips and making words.
Ooooh, but did you think Britney was going to be a softhearted, Southern sweetie? Next up we see Britney pull a 180 and shred a cartoonishly bad auditioner, 50-year-old Shawn Armenta. We hear over and over again that he’s prepared for this audition for one year and six months (wouldn’t it be easier to just say “a year and a half” or is that splitting hairs?), seven days a week. Sure enough, his original song “Candy Girl” is a screechy nightmare and the judges and the crowd are horrified. But it’s Brit who has the guts to plainly say to him, “I thought it was just kind of bad.” The sting! From there, we jump to an entire montage of the pop queen delivering a string of biting criticisms to different wide-eyed auditioners. In a moment of editing triumph, the montage ends with the line to end all lines playing over her last jab: “It’s Britney, bitch.”
Next up is a teensy little Justin Bieber clone named Reed who triumphs after a nervy start by singing Bruno Mars’ hit “Grenade.” The 13-year-old looks utterly void of any traces of puberty, reminding viewers of how totally creepy it was when we all accepted Bieber as a sex symbol just a few years ago. Little Reed doesn’t have a voice that would stack up against serious competition but his of-the-moment look and bright smile certainly charm the audience enough to get him scampering along, which I’m okay with.
All along, we’ve been cutting back to an auditioner named Kaci whose blonde, Texan curls and big eyes seem very pop star-esque. Via mysteriously recorded segments backstage, Kaci and her big sister make themselves out to clearly be the villains of the episode as they mock their fellow auditioners relentlessly. While it could be a gift that she and her thin, blonde sister turned out to be giant assholes while wearing mics for the day, the whole bit feels overly produced—especially when Kaci finally takes the stage and stinks up the joint. To see our very first X Factor villain fail so tremendously is a reminder of how these shows feed off very specific types: heroes, villains, underdogs, sad sacks, and so on. Unfortunately for Kaci, she only continues to flounder on stage after the judges reject her, attempting to sputter out a shrill version of Duffy’s “Mercy” while the room turns on her. It’s ugly stuff.
In the next stop, San Francisco, the judges arrive again in a caravan of Escalades but cut out the gratuitous red carpet entrances. Instead, there’s a completely silly vignette of some anonymous drag queens shopping for audition outfits to wear on their “date with Simon,” which plays about as hilariously as it sounds. The drag queen theme rears its head in the next audition where young Quantrelle—dressed in hot pants and a flowing, white veil — magically wows the judges with his rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” Though he’s hardly a complete stinker, his singing is unimpressive. Not to mention the fact that his voice is drowned out by the background music. We have to expect that plenty of these folks (if not all of them) make their way through based on spectacle alone.
Next up: The boy band that’s not a boy band (as they’d like you to know). Emblem3 is a trio of young skater dudes from Huntington Beach that perform an impression of Sublime but via an original song about California being, like, way sunny and stuff. Their tank tops and obnoxious faces made it almost impossible to listen to what’s coming out of their mouths, but the judges and crowd pretty much try to have sex with them via their screams and agape mouths. Drew, Wes, and Keaton, you guys got Britney to call you “very funky,” so I’m holding off complete disdain from you for now.
One of the absolute weirdest moments of the night comes when a strange fellow named Don Philip makes his way on stage. Currently working as a vocal coach, Philip recorded the duet “I Will Still Love You” with Britney on her breakout album …Baby One More Time. Listening to the duet and then hearing Philip now, it’s clear his voice hasn’t fared well in decade-plus since singing together. The drama is heightened to epic proportions when Philip appears onstage and Britney actually recognizes him… only to become upset when she has to vote “no” on his haggard singing voice. The whole thing is overwhelmingly sad to watch, especially because it seems pretty clear Philip is either on drugs, crazy, or just so overcome with nerves that he completely cracks. After being turned down by the judges, he’s shown crying hysterically in the backstage area, rambling on about how “I saw her face and feel like I hurt her.” Dark. Sad. Ugh.
But, hey! Things wouldn’t end on that note, would they? 18-year-old Jennel Garcia turns things around with a fantastic rendition of “Paris (Ooh La La)” by Grace Potter. Her bubbly, teenaged energy immediately transforms as soon as she begins singing, so that she’s slithering around the stage, tossing her hair and channeling an inner rock goddess that appears nothing like the young woman who walked out moments before. Her voice also could qualify as the best of the night as it effortlessly hits notes and goes guttural without straining.
Young Jillian Jensen takes the cake as far as drama is concerned. In order to give Demi her own story arc (remember Britney was showcased as sympathetic to a young mother and tough as a judge, even to her old recording partner) the lanky, once-bullied teen takes the stage and breaks down when talking to Lovato. She also mentions she has the same tattoo as Lovato (“Stay Strong”) and knows her birthday, which adds a layer of creepiness to the proceedings. Still, Jillian ends up bringing everyone in the damn room to tears through a gravelly and nervy rendition of Jessie J’s “Who You Are.” Lovato all but collapses afterward, as her eyes pour out tears and the music swells. She even hurries from behind the judges’ table to hug Jillian to tell her “When you sang, you broke my heart.” It’s certainly emotional but also covering a great deal for the fact that Jensen’s voice is unique but not epic.
It didn’t seem to matter to Reid, Lovato, or Britney as they eagerly cheer her and breathlessly compliment her soulfulness. But the strangest moment of all is how much it seems to shake the stoic and oftentimes spot-on Cowell. Of course, he knows that even a cold-hearted reality villain has to crack from time to time in order to keep viewers coming back for more. Maybe it’s the addition of a pop-culture curiosity to the mix but, somehow, it remains a formula that eerily holds your attention more than you expect. Because even when you’re cringing at The X Factor, you’re not totally looking away.
- It definitely seems like the focus here is less on laughing at terrible auditioners than American Idol’s first weeks of auditions, but maybe that’s just tonight.
- All the talk of Demi’s dating life and this strange fatherly thing Cowell is doing is totally creepy, right?
- Poor, boring Vincent.
- Hidden star of the night? Jillian’s grandma—with huge BluBlockers on—storming the stage with her family post-audition.
- How many times do you think Brit will mention throughout the season that she’s been doing this since she was 8?
- Who spotted Brit’s handlers? Two points for longtime manager Larry Rudolph and her fiancée Jason. Now just to see if Papa Spears pops up.
- Britney’s eyes. Just, whoa. At this point, they need their own Behind The Music.