We made it, guys! Y'know, no matter how much the death march of auditions/boot camp/judges' homes threatened to bore us into a 21st Century Twilight Zone, tonight's X Factor reminded me of why I signed up for this gig in the first place. And here is, where I suspect, I may start to part ways with y'all – I have a pretty deep appreciation of the live shows in this kind of competition. It's not that the live format leaves less room for bullshit – on the contrary, bullshit abounds, but it's a different, more exciting kind of bullshit. It's the same reason I've been a faithful, beginning-to-end viewer of the Academy Awards for as long as I can remember – watching this kind of bloated, meticulously choreographed telecast is sort of like watching a balloon at the Macy's Parade float, bob and occasionally careen into buildings. It's not pure schadenfreude, there's also some genuine warts-and-all appreciation of the American pursuit of the Spectacular.
That said, I'm sick tonight, and feeling more than a little loopy, and I was dreading tonight's two and a half hour episode with every fiber of my being. So despite, and perhaps because of that, I found The X Factor's live debut to be a pretty sound success. If this show has set out to be a more relevant, expensive American Idol, then it has done so. Tonight's show kept up a quick pace while still managing to come off as classy and respectful of its performers, it was nearly bereft of recapping and flashbacks, and the stage presentations were, dare I say it, kind of amazing (again, I am sick and possibly crazy.) Seriously though, surrounding a performer with the same level of light and magic that you would throw at a Katy Perry or a Lady Gaga is a great way to see if they are strong enough to hold their own against it, and I suspect it made a few of the judges' jobs easier than they otherwise would have been.
It also pains me to say this, but I am so relieved that Simon Cowell is back in this capacity on American television. Yes, sticking a pin in the dreams of so many fresh faced, delusional youths is a self-conscious schtick, but in today's culture of endless enabling and validation, where Anyone Can Be A Star, it almost feels like a breath of fresh air. And the nice thing about having him around is that it keeps the other judges' feet on the ground – You could kind of see the my-god-what-was-I-thinking look cross Schizoburger's face as Dexter Haygood took a chainsaw to an already pretty awful mashup of “I Kissed A Girl” and “Womanizer.” For those of us playing at home, it was just more of the same from poor, crazy Dexter, but for the first time it seemed like Nicole was able to take the pity goggles off and get the guy out of there.
So let's get to the performances. While I was very impressed by a few of the usual suspects, there were also enough surprises and big improvements to keep me interested in the progression of a lot of these acts. First off, I am pleased to say that I now “get” Stereo Hogzz. Their precise, exciting performance of “Try A Little Tenderness” was indeed like nothing that's on the charts right now, and was proof that a boyband-type ensemble act doesn't have to be something drenched in nostalgia and cheese. They kept the choreography minimal and cool, and the arrangement had just enough variation. Lakoda Rayne, bizarrely, also managed to win me over with bluegrassy rendition of “Come On Eileen” - it wasn't perfect, mind you, and I can't look at any one of those girls in the face without imagining tumbleweeds drifting through the void where my soul used to be, but it was a damn sight better than their embarrassing, uncoordinated “Born This Way” performance at Paula's “house.” Paula seemed as surprised as I was at how good they were, so maybe this was a fluke, but I hope not – if only because it's fun to have at least one act up there that I feel more than a little weird for liking.
InTENsity and The Brewer Boys, however, continued to churn out edgeless, amateurish fluff, and the Brewer Boys were predictably eliminated for it. I understand that the producers are attempting to cash in on the Glee thing with InTENsity's group vocals and propensity for medleys, but I don't think they realize what a fine line there is between Glee and KidsBop. It's hard to imagine anyone over the age of 12
buying downloading an InTENsity record track, and I think it's safe to expect them to be voted off within the first few weeks.
I was just going through the remaining twelve acts, convinced that there had to be someone I liked less than InTENsity, but honestly, the judges got it right tonight with all the eliminations. Philip Lomax's corn-syrup-drenched rendition of “I'm A Believer” earned him a predictable trip back to his two-bedroom apartment in Seattle (psst – get a better sob story;) the aforementioned mssrs. Haygood and Brewers were also no-brainers.
In the girls' corner, Simone Battle and Tiah Tolliver – two acts I had been on the fence about before tonight – were both blessed/cursed with eye-popping stage wizardry. In Simone's case, she just didn't bring vocals that were as strong as the imagery that surrounded her – a kind of neon gold, TRON-esque pulsating light show. It looked pretty awesome, and homegirl certainly knows how to strike a pose, but that was about it – Simone has proven herself time and time again to be better at acting like a pop star than being one. In Tiah's case, the ridiculous Burton-aping staging she was given was enough to bring down her merely decent attempt to redeem an already weird arrangement of “Sweet Dreams.” If the judges really do have a hand in their mentees' performances each week, and if Simon really lurves Tiah as much as he's said, why on earth would he give her a song that relies on such a steady, static melody and surround her with such a strong “look” so early on, when we barely have an idea of her image as a potential pop star? In any case, she probably wasn't destined for the win anyway, so better to get her elimination out of the way.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about Simone and Tiah's performances was L.A. Reid's critiques of them. He very well may have out-Simoned Simon tonight, and because we're more used to hearing Cowell toss out the insults, and Reid doesn't have an accent, it came across as way harsher. Just point-blank asking Simon why he put Simone through, and deadpanning “I guess you're one of his [Simon's] favorites. Congratulations.” to Tiah? Yikes. I'm not saying I hate SassyReid, just... yikes. I think Simone actually thought he was joking when he first started laying into her, since Paula and some of the other judges had sarcastically started criticizing a few contestants earlier in the show.
Prior to that, Josh Krajcik slayed a super-pared-down version of “Forever Young” after what seemed like some contention between him and Nicole. Or maybe I just like to imagine there was contention – I've made no secret of the fact that Josh is my favorite contender so far and that Nicole Scherzinger fills me with a bottomless despair whenever she opens her mouth and words come out. I just like to imagine that Krajcik is a reasonable, down-to-earth dude, and that he naturally would clash with the most horrible person on earth, but the only concrete information I am basing this on is a snippet during his intro montage where he tells her he's getting “fed up” during their choreography. Anyway, he did well despite her, and now I'd really like to see him do something fun, and to shake off all this “we are over thirty and on the brink of death” gravitas that the show has for some reason decided to weave into all her mentees' backstories.
I'd also like to see Drew Ryniewicz put on some shoes and get like, a band, or some lights or something. She clearly has a phenomenally rich voice, and after several a capella or near-a capella performances, we no longer need to have this pounded in our heads. She's fourteen! Let her do something just slightly – slightly more poppy, instead of all these sparse, despairing arrangements of songs that sound like something you'd put on before getting in the shower, sitting down on the cold tiles and having a good cry. Her performance of “What A Feeling” was one of my favorites tonight, but it was again, just so damn sad. Drew is undeniably talented, but she still feels a bit two dimensional, personality-wise – so far she's just the curiously somber Bieber freak. Time for her to show some range.
Marcus Canty rounded out my favorites with his synth-pop makeover of “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me.” As someone who will probably never pay for any of these peoples' records or anything that sounds like them, the most successful performances are those which get me to share in how much fun the performer is having with the song. Marcus does this every time he gets on stage, and I can't imagine he won't make it into the Top 6.
The rest of the acts remained firmly in the just aight category for me; some have actively annoyed their way there (Crow, Francis,) others I await a real breakthrough moment from (Bell, Rene.) Tonight was the last of the big eliminations, from now on, each week the contestants will be picked off one or two at a time. I just hope it continues to go uphill from here on out – this kind of show relies on a big groundswell in viewer enthusiasm at about this point in order to gauge how successful it actually is at becoming the national obsession it wants to be. And, y'know, it's more fun to watch a big dumb show when everyone else is, too.
- I've been trying to piece together all these hints and snippets we've gotten about who, exactly, Simone Battle really is, and it all came together in her last moment there, when she breathlessly plugged her “new music video” as Steve Jones all but shoved her off stage. Go on, check it out. It's called “He Likes Boys.” I think I finally get this girl now, and I'm not sad she's gone.
- Speaking of Mr. Jones and me, he's so far proven to be a pretty unremarkable host, but maybe that's because he really needed to move the show along more than anything else tonight. Hopefully he starts teasing Simon about his closeted homosexuality or something, y'know, just to clear the air. Hey, I know the perfect song for that!
- Another nice touch of tonight's episode were the lovely black and white photos of the newly madeover contestants that were shown before each performance, some of which you can see here. It's amazing how much good wardrobe and a classy photo can make me wish some of these people were actually talented!
- There was a prolonged, extremely awkward beat when L.A. said that the only thing missing from Tiah's performance was "the kitchen sink," only to be met with silent befuddlement from the audience and Nicole Scherzinger. Now you know, LA: Your audience is not familiar with that idiom.
- Apparently, we will be able to vote for these people via Twitter starting next week. Hopefully that just entails tweeting the contestant's name in all caps and hashtagging it #XFactor, because I pretty much tweet like that already when I watch this show.