In 2002, Fox loosed American Idol upon our wounded country, an America wondering whether it would ever love again. And did we ever! Kelly Clarkson’s triumph brought our country together, Paula Abdul’s pill addiction reminded us what laughter felt like, and Brian Dunkleman was there. Since then, it’s been the show to beat in the ratings, and the names of the singers it’s discovered are etched in our collective memory: Carrie Underwood. Clay Aiken. Fantasia Something. Harmonica Joe. The Guy With the Teeth. Li’l Susie Buckets.
But now it’s 2011. America is riven asunder by new Netflix pricing structures and evolving Facebook notification layouts. Will CGI lightning strike twice? Can The X Factor heal us? And what is The X Factor exactly? Tonight, we have two hours to discover the answer together.
Oh. It’s American Idol.
There are differences, of course: There is no age limit. The hopefuls will audition in front of a crowd. The judges will drink Pepsi and the finalists will ho themselves out for Chevrolet. Otherwise, it’s Idol. I’m okay with that.
But we will need to solve for X. What exactly are we looking for here? The U.K. version of The X Factor is most famous for producing Leona Lewis. You know how sometimes you say, “Hey, someone should turn on the stereo,” and then someone points out that there is music playing, and you’ve been singing along with it? About 80 percent of the time when that happens, what’s playing is “Bleeding Love” by Leona Lewis. (The other 20 percent is anything by OneRepublic.) I’m sure she’s very pretty, but I have no idea what she looks like, and I’m sure I’ve seen her picture a thousand times. We are apparently looking for that factor.
The prize is a “recording contract that guarantees the winner $5 million” (a phrase Fox’s legal department has clearly fretted over for months). Just so we all understand what’s at stake, the producers treat us to a montage of hopefuls explaining that money can be exchanged for goods and services.
The winner will also be the star of a commercial on next year’s Super Bowl! So: These people will be competing on television, three hours a week for fifteen weeks, to be featured on television for 30 seconds. Cool! Paula lays it out: “To have a commercial is above and beyond any wild dream an artist could have.” Simon lists the other music superstars who have filmed Pepsi commercials: Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, and Britney Spears. I’ve kind of lost touch with those three. Their stories turn out well, right?
Before we can crown a winner, we have to audition thousands of hopefuls. We’re treated to a list of audition cities, which results in my favorite moment of the night. On the first episode of the biggest show of the fall season, a show that has been publicized consistently for more than a year, the very first word we see onscreen is NEWARK.
Let’s meet our FOUR JUDGES: Simon Cowell, Nicole Scherzinger, L.A. Reid, Paula Abdul, and Cheryl Cole. By my math, that’s five judges; the Internet tells me Cheryl only made it through the first audition city before getting sacked for her thick Newcastle accent. But she seems perfectly nice and I’m not sick of her yet; couldn’t they just subtitle her parts, like they do with black people on Bravo reality shows? Boo. L.A. Reid looks like Geoffrey Holder from those old 7-Up commercials mixed with the stuffy accountant guy from Silver Spoons. You know, the kind of person who makes you think: I should have fresher references for who this person looks like. Paula Abdul has not aged, because her body is very busy keeping her upright. Simon seems to have gone to the plastic surgeon and asked for a nice, subtle Musbergering.
In the role of Ryan Seacrest, we have Steve Jones. Steve Jones looks like the answer to the question: “What if Jesse Bradford straightened his crooked smile and was secretly furious at you?”
It’s eight minutes of whooshing and flying Xs before we meet our first singer, who is a child. Thirteen-year-old Rachel Crow is sort of a Punky Brewster type, if George had been eleven drunk gay men at a piano bar. Jesus God, I have got to watch some current television shows and movies. She’s very sunny and composed, in the manner of showbiz-y children. She sings Duffy’s “Mercy,” and while I’d rather she tried her luck at Camp Ovation or something, she makes it through and I’m happy for her. Have they followed through on that Willow Smith Annie yet? Because Rachel’s got Pepper sewn up.
One welcome difference is that The X Factor is a tiny bit less sadistic. Instead of the Annual Idol Parade of Lost Souls, we get a nice montage of talented singers: handsome Terrell, brassy Ellona, and apple-cheeked John, who shows you what it would look like if Archie sang “Forget You.” John seems to have brought 75 sign-bearing young women with him. There are just so many people everywhere. It’s very noisy, this show.
And then there’s a man named Siameze, who looks startlingly like Deborah Cox. He sings an original song that I have titled “Several Minutes of Yelling,” he dances like a very new drag queen doing Tina Turner, and he dresses like he’s manning a booth at the Erotic Expo. During his performance, he does a series of violent splits, just to let you know he means business. It’s like his performance coach told him: “This is 2011, Siameze. How can we take you seriously unless you slam your perineum against the floor a million times?” He makes it through. The X Factor may be too nice.
That’s why it’s heartbreaking when the first people to genuinely make asses of themselves are elderly Nevadans Dan and Venita, whom you can actually see succumb to dementia right in the middle of “Unchained Melody.” After their (still pretty gentle, comparatively speaking) rejection, they walk into a giant X Factor box backstage for their exit interview, during which they are bathed in a blinding white light. No matter who goes in there and talks to the camera, it looks like they are ascending to heaven, so it is maybe not the best idea to have the very old people do this first.
On the loser tip, “I Touch Myself” is ruined forever by Linda Ostrofsky, whom you have absolutely met if you’ve taken an introductory improv class. Somewhere in this world right this second, there is a Linda Ostrofsky playing Zip Zap Zop.
And then this happens: Forty-three-year-old “Internet blogger” Geo Godley sings his original composition “I’m a Stud” and removes his pants. The giant X the producers place over his genital region makes it look like he is nude from the waist down, but a quick crowd shot shows that if this is true, he is showing his penis to a roomful of children. So I’m thinking g-string. Sheathed or un-, the sight of his flopping dong sends Paula out of the theater, heaving. She is hustled into the men’s room, where in my fantasy version of events, she vomits, looks up, sees another penis, vomits again, and over and over. An endless, glittering, X-rated Moebius barf. Geo doesn’t make it through.
Back to the good ones. Forty-two-year-old Stacy Francis says, with a pathos that makes me miss All My Children already: “I don’t want to die with this music inside of me, Simon!” You know how old-timey wrestlers used to keep fake-blood capsules under their tongues and then bite down on them when the matches got hard-core, so it looked like they were bleeding out of their mouths? I think Stacy Francis is carrying fake-mascara capsules in her eyelids. She sings the shit out of “Natural Woman,” though, and moves on. On her way out, she gets a standing ovation and actually starts pushing mascara out from within her soul.
The good ones keep coming and keep making less of an impact. Marcus Canty is a charismatic young soul singer who doesn’t make me hate Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish.” The Anser is a gayish trio who do a not-bad version of “Rolling in the Deep.” Simone Battle bravely reveals that she is fierce. Two hours is too much. I would like to hear less music. Does this show have a health segment?
Right on time, our obvious plant shows up. Remember when Chris Wylde auditioned for American Idol under an assumed name a few seasons ago, and they just played it off like he hadn’t been in a bunch of movies and had his own talk show on Comedy Central? Wasn’t that weird? Niki Collins is one of those types. We are on to you, Niki Collins. Still, some awful singing is kind of refreshing.
Our night ends with Chris Rene, who has been in recovery from meth for 70 days. Oh dear God. He sings an original song about being in recovery for 70 days. It is nice. He gets through, but L.A. and Simon make him promise to stay clean. He leaves with his brother, and on the way out excitedly asks him, “Did you feel that feeling, bro? That feeling of almost passing out?” I do not want to dwell on this, but I have a bad, bad feeling about Chris Rene.
And that’s it! There will be two hours more of this tomorrow night somehow!