During its premiere week, "The X Factor" failed to find many stunning singers truly worthy of a $5 million recording contract. But this week things were looking up, when the Chicago and Seattle auditions yielded such promising contestants as hunky burrito-slinger Josh Krajcik, soulful teen wonder Drew Ryniewicz, and fiery-lipped firebrand Tiah Tolliver. But still, time was running out for Simon Cowell and his crew of not-always-so-merry music-makers this Thursday...as it was the final audition episode before the bootcamp rounds. (Really? So soon? Okay, then.) But the judges were in New York, and hey, if they could make it there, they could make it anywhere, right?
Right indeed. Thursday's East Coast episode was filled with promising auditioners, and this filled me with new hope that the show might actually spawn a superstar or two after all. From a teen rapper to a pushing-60 bluesman, from a female auto mechanic to a male model, "The X Factor" offered a little somethin' somethin' for everyone. Here are the standout auditioners who made it through Thursday night...
Brian Bradley - This 14-year-old budding Brooklyn hip-hop sensation had swagger for days, plus (not-all-that-far-fetched) dreams of outselling Kanye West and Jay-Z in five years' time. (Simon did recently say "self-belief" was important, right?) "I'm not scared of Simon," Brian declared backstage. I loved this crazy kid already, and made a mental note to file adoption papers first thing in the morning. Then when Brian practically challenged Simon to a street fight before tearing into his instantly viral original rap song, "Stop Looking At My Mom," I was sold. As were the judges. Not even this rap brat's bad, bad attitude could turn Simon off. "You are arrogant, obnoxious, argumentative...but you are one of the most talented young people I've heard in a long, long time," Simon said. (Hey, being arrogant never hurt Simon's career, you know.) Said judge L.A. Reid, "I used to run this label called Def Jam, and all those years I was there, I was looking for YOU. And you never walked in. So I'm the luckiest guy in the world that you walked in today." Regardless of whether Brian wins this show, I think he's got a career ahead of him. Maybe Jay-Z and Kanye should watch their throne a little more closely.
Kelly Warner - This all-American girl has a day job cutting hair in a nursing home. How could you not root for someone with a wholesome backstory like that? Luckily, she could sing well too, even if she sang the most oversung song in reality TV history, Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." (Pavement's "Cut Your Hair" would have been cooler.) Kelly didn't get much screen time Thursday, but I think this scissor-sister may be a dark horse.
Aaron Surgeon - This guy came across as sort of the Lenny Kravitz of the show, a long-haired hippie type with aspirations of recording R&B with a rock edge. His cover of another totally overdone tune in the reality songbook, Aerosmith's "I Don't Want To Miss a Thing," was hardly amazing--Simon, the one judge who rejected Aaron, called it "average"--but maybe this dude will surprise me in bootcamp. He certainly looked like a rock star. And if he dares to do a rocker version of Weird Al Yankovic's "Like A Surgeon," I'll be sold.
Liliana Rose Andreano - This unassuming office worker didn't look like a rock star (she had more of an Angela-from-"The Office" vibe, and seemed like she'd be more at home on "The Sing-Off"), but as Simon put it, "You don't look like a pop star until you start singing." Her sweetly warbled rendition of "You Are My Sunshine" was just lovely (judge Paula Abdul called it "magical"), and it made her one of Simon's early favorites. "An easy, easy yes," he said. I am intrigued by this woman; give her a Florence Welch or Corinne Bailey Rae or Feist song, and I think the result could be beautiful.
Cari Fletcher - "You have a star's name, you have a star's face, and you have a star's voice," L.A. told this Barbie-blonde 17-year-old. I agreed with his first two assessments, but I wasn't so sure about the "voice" part. She took on a HUGE song, Heart's power ballad "Alone," and she didn't quite sing it as well as another Car(r)i(e) Simon once discovered, Carrie Underwood on "American Idol" Season 4. The song started in way too low a register, so Cari sounded shaky at first, although things improved when she finally reached the chorus and demonstrated that she had the lung power to kinda/sorta pull it off. "There's nothing distinctive about it for me. I wouldn't remember your voice. You were boring," Simon told her. I agreed with Simon. However, the other three judges saw enough potential in Cari to put her through. I just hope Cari listened to Paula's advice: "You will get eaten alive if you don't come back with all the belief that we have in you." Well, the belief that three judges have in her, that is. Cari's going to have to step it way, waaaaay up in bootcamp to get non-believer Simon on her side.
Aus-Em - This 15-year-old boy/girl duo dueted on Christina Perri's "Jar Of Hearts," but this jar was only half-full. That is, Austin, the guy who put the "Aus" in the band's name, was much more awesome than his partner, "Em," aka Emily. "Austin, I think you're a star," L.A. said. "No disrespect, but I'm not convinced of the duo." Judge Nicole Scherzinger also hemmed and hawed for what felt like 27 time-killing, filler-filled minutes, because if she'd had her way she would have split up Aus-Em and only put Austin through. Meanwhile, Emily's dad fumed in the stage wings, looking like he wanted to punch a wall. Or maybe punch L.A. Reid. Eventually the judges said yes to both kids, but I hope Emily doesn't drag poor Austin down and get them both booted out of Boot Camp.
Tora Woloshin - It was beginning to look like Brian Bradley would be the only really electric audition of the evening...but then this dynamite lady, this "little firecracker" as Paula put it, showed up. "There's something about you, the minute you walk in the room," Simon told her. "That's why this show is called 'The X Factor.' It's more than just a voice, it's something else. You're special. I've got a good feeling about you." So what made 21-year-old Tora so special? Well, first of all, she was just badass, with her tattoos and dreams of someday opening a racing-car auto-shop. (Host Steve Jones called her "the hottest mechanic in the world," and Simon told her, "You're the most perfect girl in the world!") And Tora's vivacious, totally soulful performance of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" was a thrill to watch. "You're just different. There's something cool and funky about you," said Nicole. L.A. declared, "We are all so lucky to have you in the room today." I think Tora is the kind of contestant that girls will like, boys will like, and both kids and adults will fall for. I predict a fast lane to the winners' circle for this racing-car girl.
Stereo Hogzz - One of the members of this R&B boy band became a father the SAME DAY that this audition took place. What, is he Michael Lynche's brother or cousin or something? Anyway, this group had swag, and they had style, but I didn't think their voices were that impressive. "It's got this air of being over-rehearsed," Simon grumbled. (I actually thought the opposite--they seemed raw and amateurish to me.) But Nicole loved their energy, as did the other two judges, so the Hogzz got through and will get to hog some screen time next week. I can't imagine they'll get very far, but I guess I can't begrudge a new dad for wanting to win $5 million to support his baby daughter.
Brennin Hunt - This Brennin dude may give this year's other cougar-friendly resident hunk, the similarly named Brendan O'Hara from last week, serious competition. The 26-year-old model and struggling Nashville musician definitely had the X factor oozing out of his invisible, perfect pores. At first he came across as arrogant, as he claimed he was the "total package" (ahem), but then when he belted out his original, self-penned ballad, "How We Make It," he proved that he had the goods to back up such a claim. "You've got a brilliant voice and a great charisma about you," Simon said. "I could make you into a great artist." My guess is Simon is hoping to mentor this guy, but I bet he'll have to fight swoony-eyed admirers Paula and Nicole for dibs on Brennin.
Paige Elizabeth - This 18-year-old's cover of Lady Gaga's "You And I" was really impressive and elicited the "easiest yes so far" from Simon. Her screen time was all too brief, but I'd bet my Yahoo! paycheck that we'll be seeing a lot more from her soon.
Leroy Bell - When this handsome man said he was 59 years old, I practically spit my coffee all over my TV screen in shock. Whaaaa? What's his secret? The blood of virgins? An oxygen slumber chamber? Whatever it is, sign me up. "Who says, at 59 years old, a dream is not gonna come true?" Paula said. Indeed, indeed. This guy had the goods--his "Lean On Me" performance was solid--and he was as cool as any singer half his age. Guys like Leroy are the reason why maybe it's a good thing that this show has no upper age limit.
The Brewer Boys - On the other end of the age spectrum came this emo-haired tween boy duo. I didn't think their voices were the best, but the little-girl voters will undoubtedly adore 'em. And maybe the Brewers can learn a thing or two from Leroy Bell.
Nick Dean - Another Bieberish tween cutie, 16-year-old Nick sang his "first single," an unknown song called "Walk Away," and it actually sounded pretty good. (Or "absolutely fantastic," according to Simon.) I'm not sure just yet if Nick is mere eye candy or if he's ear candy as well...but judging from the way the female audience members shrieked for him, that may not even matter.
Jazzlyn Little - In one of the finest fakeouts in recent reality memory, this 16-year-old started off her segment practically in mid-breakdown, shaking and quaking backstage, her throat closing up from nerves....and things only got worse once she hit the stage and saw thousands of audience eyes fixed on her. She looked like she was on the brink of a panic attack, and I feared she wouldn't even be able to make it through her audition. But either this was a calculated ploy to create a sympathy story for herself, or--much more likely--Jazzlyn is just one of those Jekyll/Hyde performers who simply turns into an entirely different person once she puts a microphone to her mouth. Shockingly, Jazzlyn belted out Mary J. Blige's "I'm Going Down" with the superhuman confidence of a diva who'd been headlining arenas for years, and the judges were stunned by her 180. "Wow, what happened?" exclaimed L.A. "You came out with this shy thing, but you're the real deal!" And Simon said, "I'd love to see what you're like when you've got confidence! I get the feeling you love music, are taking this seriously, and are someone who wants to get better. You, I believe, could be a world star. You're the one to watch, young lady." I agree. With just teensy bit of that self-belief Simon's always talking about, Jazzlyn Little could be very, very big.
So there you have it. Many of these contestants, combined with the best from last week that were featured in Thursday's end-of-show highlight reel (Chris Rene, Marcus Canty, Melanie Amaro, Stacy Francis, Dexter Haygood, Nick Voss), just may save "The X Factor" from its prematurely predicted demise. When all these sundry singers get thrown into Boot Camp next week, I have a strong feeling that chaos--but more importantly, awesomeness--will ensue. See you then.