The X Factor
The heir to American Idol arrives.
Fox has positioned The X Factor (continues tonight at 8 p.m. ET), its latest and loudest singing competition, as the heir to American Idol. The scheme is to render the series superlative in size, scope, and attitude. The winner of the $5 million up for grabs will be receiving "the biggest prize in the history of television." The announcer's tone implied that this was in fact the biggest prize in the history of money. The show supposedly elicited "the biggest turn-out for an audition in the history of Los Angeles."The X Factor held its open auditions in arena spaces, which added the excitement of a large audience and also opened the possibility that an unsuccessful auditioner might be thrown to the crowd and rended limb from limb after a displeasing rendition of "One."
The judges include scowling Simon Cowell, the tight-shirted talent scout; shrewd L.A. Reid, the Kingpin-domed record executive; and unpredictable Paula Abdul, forever your girl. They sometimes talk as if this is a Greek organization's bid session. "I can't be swayed," L.A. says, like a sophomore Tri Delt. The trio of hardened veterans is joined by Nicole Scherzinger, who has graduated from a singing squad of oily fembots called the Pussycat Dolls. Scherzinger replaces Cheryl Cole, who still appears in some early segments. Cole—a British pop star and a judge of the British edition of The X Factor—just wasn't right for this gig. But don't worry about her. Judging by Cole's accent, it's clear that she could easily find work as a street urchin selling flowers in a Dickens novel.
The leadoff auditioner was a cheerful tween named Rachel. She was a sweetheart at first glance and a nuisance at second. What would she do with $5 million? She'd buy her cramped family a new house. Aw, sweet. But she sounded as practiced as a sitcom starlet when she sassily added, "I'm a girl. I need my own bathroom." She redeemed herself by belting out some quality R&B and at third glance earned a pat on the head.
We went on to hear more rhythm and blues, The X Factor being more focused on soul than its competitors. Witness the single mother who said, "I don't wanna die with this music in me, Simon," and then poured herself into an Aretha Franklin number. Check out the Beyoncé bounce of one Simone Battle. Simon's expression communicated a stubborn refusal to be impressed by Simone's extraordinarily impressive hot pants. He glared with a skepticism about pretty girls in general. Simone had to rely on her talent to get to the next round.
Next, marvel at the young fellow calling himself Siameze. His acrobatic stage act drew on the gymnastics of James Brown in his prime, the lurid acrobatics of Prince circa "Erotic City," and the hair-whipping shimmy of Terence Trent D'Arby. "Girls are, like, way easy to get," said Siameze, whose plan for superstardom also involves launching an energy drink. Perhaps he will team up with Pepsi—product placements for which are amusingly ubiquitous here. We even see some people drinking it with their morning eggs. How ridiculous. Diet Coke is the breakfast cola of choice among everyone who's anyone. (But if you simply must drink Pepsi at an early hour, know that it pairs best, in my experience, with Boston cream pie.)
People like to talk about how reality TV attracts exhibitionists. This was literalized last night when a pervert at the Seattle audition dropped his pants, inspiring Paula Abdul to discreetly vomit. If we set him aside, the most memorable rejectees were the geriatric husband-and-wife team of Dan and Venita. They warbled off key through "Unchained Melody," wore clothes too transfixingly tacky to rate as vintage, and were mildly lobotomized in manner. If this were a tryout for a dinner-theater adaptation of a David Lynch film, they would have definitely gotten a callback.
At some point—when contemplating Siameze's neon mesh tank top, perhaps—Simon said, "You're very talented, but you're deluded." I'm baffled as to why the sentence required a but, as opposed to an and. I would advise any X Factor contestant—or any wannabe pop star in America, for that matter—to use your delusion.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Still from X Factor by Ray Mickshaw/Fox ©2011 Fox Broadcasting Co.