It’s here – and so is he! “The X Factor” arrived Tuesday night on FOX, ushering Simon Cowell back onto prime time.
What’s the like? It’s pumped up, in-your-face “American Idol” – juiced for maximum effect.
And then there’s Cowell, who’s even bigger than the format. He’s a star, and as executive producer and judge, he’s at the center of everything even when he’s not on camera, providing just the right amount of snarky gravitas to ensure “The X-Factor” can more than match its stateside predecessor in heart-tugging soap opera story lines, undiscovered talent, and entertaining TV moments.
On “American Idol,” it’s all about getting that recognition, the opportunity to record for a label and a shot at stardom. “X Factor” makes the prize itself worthy of pursuit, adding some real tension to the rags-to-riches scenarios, and prompting the judges’ continued query, “What would you do with the money?”
And speaking of money, at stake is a $5 million recording deal with Sony, certainly unheard of in today’s strapped music biz. Also, in a telling sign of the times—the winner gets to star in a much-hyped Super Bowl Pepsi commercial, so that he or she can follow in the footsteps of Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Mariah Carey and Britney Spears. Get it? This is big. No, it’s BIG.
“The X Factor” has four judges, as opposed to AI’s three, and holds its initial auditions in arenas “packed with thousands” instead of just a panel alone in a room. The age limits is reduced to 12—this year, AI’s was 15—with categories including boys, girls, groups and over-30s, which encourages The Voice-style contestants who have been around the proverbial block. Each of the four judges assumes responsibility for one of the categories, working as mentors to those who pass the audition, which requires a minimum of three yeses from the four judges.
The first show visited auditions in L.A. and Seattle, with the initial panel including Cowell, his “Idol” sparring partner Paula Abdul, veteran label exec L.A. Reid and “X Factor” U.K. judge pop starlet Cheryl Cole, soon to be replaced when they move on with Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger. While most people looked forward to the traditional Cowell-Abdul zingers, a feisty L.A. Reid is forming what announcer Steve Jones—both taller and more British than counterpart Ryan Seacrest, and even more cheerful if possible—touted as “a new rivalry.” Indeed, the sparks between Cowell and Reid are just what this past season’s “Idol” lacked.
“He’s not the greatest record man,” says Reid about Cowell at one point. “But he is the greatest talent magnet.” Reid’s credentials are dutifully trotted out—“he helped develop the career of Mariah Carey, Pink, Rihanna, Usher and Justin Bieber,” while L.A. himself never fails to remind us he works with “hip-hop guys from Jay-Z to Kanye West.” Look for this to be an ongoing plot line as the season proceeds, with the two disagreeing on several of the acts.
So, the dynamic between Cowell and Reid is a high point, while Abdul provides the ditzy perspective. Which brings us to Scherzinger, who replaced the dimply Cole when apparently her Liverpudlian Scouse accent didn’t go over with viewers. She’s definitely easy on the eyes in a J. Lo-sorta way, but she tends towards the most banal clichés in a way that not even her dazzling looks can save her. Jones wasn’t given very much to do on the first show, either, mostly hanging out with the contestants’ families. He seems genial enough, but what Seacrest does, smoothly moving the show along almost invisibly, though very present, is no small task.
The first episode had its predictable share of compelling tales and deluded losers, seemingly in equal measure. Among those obviously headed for bigger things:
*Adorable Rachel Crow, a preternaturally mature, corkscrew-haired 13-year-old from a multi-racial family who belted out a jaw-dropping cover of Duffy’s “Mercy,” after telling the panel, “My family has, like no money,” and cutely complaining about having to share the bathroom in her two-bedroom home with five other family members. L.A. Reid, whose reaction shots find him alternately nodding his head, conducting an invisible orchestra or swaying side-to-side tells her: “You have something every artist I’ve ever signed had. You’re funky, fly, sassy, soulful.”
*Stacy Francis, a 42-year-old single mom with two kids from Brooklyn moved to L.A., talks of an abusive relationship and people telling her she’s too old before opening up her mouth and belting out an Aretha-styled “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” that was the show’s first Susan Boyle moment. Cowell called it “One of the best auditions I’ve heard in my life. You did more than sing it, you believed in it.”
*Marcus Canty, a 20-year-old All-American kid who mows lawns, plays basketball and watches the kids at church, had been given two years by his mom to make it as a singer. He leans into Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish,” with a dazzling dance routine that has Reid comparing him to Bobby Brown (“I worked with Bobby Brown and I’ve been looking for another Bobby Brown ever since”). He reminds Cowell of Usher, and has both Abdul and Scherzinger up and boogying with one another.
*Chris Rene, a 28-year-old single father just out of rehab, closes the first episode with a sweet blue-eyed hip-hop self-penned song, “Young Homie” that brings down the house. L.A. Reid evokes, yup, Jay-Z and Kanye, saying they would be proud for him to tell Rene “You are the truth,” with a heart pump to boot. Simon concludes “The best part of this job is when I sit in this chair and meet a star for the first time. Maybe you need the show, maybe we need you.” After getting the dude to promise to stay clean, Cowell gives him his thumbs-up. Rene is “The X Factor”’s answer to “Idol”’s James Durbin.
Of course, “The X Factor” has its own share of buffoons—who seem more and more very scripted–from the retired Pahrump, NV, duo of 70-year-old Dan and his 83-year-old wife Venita, who literally rolled up in their motor home to mangle “Unchained Melody”; the Prince-like Siameze Floyd, who stripped down to a see-through fishnet shirt for some James Brown-styled leg splits that had the judges wincing, but moving him on; and 43-year-old Internet blogger Geo Godley, who sang his self-penned “I’m a Stud,” then dropped the pants of his silver lame leisure suit to prove it by exposing himself, as Paula Abdul ran off to puke in the ladies room. There was, of course, the several who thought they were great singers, but couldn’t hold a note if their lives depended on it.
1. SIMON COWELL: He’s the man, and he knows it. The only singing competition judge who really matters proves why he’s worth the fuss, playing the Simon Cowell character to the hilt.
2. ANTIONIO “L.A.” REID: Look for the stern judge to give Simon his money’s worth, pitting the two music business honchos at one another. It’s like a WWE wrestling
3. PAULA ABDUL: She seems a little more together than usual, and her wacky rapport with Simon remains, but she may get hit in the exchange of fire between the big boys.
4. NICOLE SCHERZINGER: So far, she’s filling the J. Lo slot with aplomb, but in this line-up, she’s going to have to prove her worth.
5. STEVE JONES: Affable enough, and that impeccable English accent will take him a long way, but he has even less to do on this show than Ryan Seacrest does on “Idol” and that’s saying something.