After lackluster ratings on its all-important first night out, "The X Factor" returned Thursday for another go, with Simon Cowell undoubtedly eager to prove that his big career gamble will pay off, that this show will become big enough to match his outsized ego, and that he will indeed find a singing act worthy of the show's unprecedented and much-ballyhooed $5 million contract. (Seriously, if I had a dollar for every time host Steve Jones mentioned that prize, I'd probably have $5 million by now.) But when the show reached its next audition tour stop, Miami, it started to seem like Simon had made a very, very big mistake leaving "Idol." Not even a pep talk from random surprise guest Gloria Estefan could raise Simon and his cronies' spirits. I guess everything about "The X Factor" is on a massive scale, and that includes the trainwrecks.
"This is THE worst session, honest to God," Simon seethed through his veneers after watching an endless parade of Florida freaks. Backstage, an uncharacteristically pensive Paula Abdul mused to L.A. Reid (who left his job at Island Def Jam Records and was probably also having serious career-choice regrets right about now), "A lot's riding on Simon. And if the talent's not coming in, I am concerned."
But of course--spoiler alert!--this was all for drama's sake, a clever little fakeout before the show started supposedly trotting out the actual talent in Miami, and later in Dallas. Or...maybe not. Sure, rising from the ashes of all the trainwrecks were a few promising contenders, but honestly, many of the judges' picks for the Boot Camp round were truly puzzling to me. These are the singers competing for $5 MILLION? Really??
So, is there a method to Simon's madness? Or is he just plain mad? And will he really be mad when Thursday's ratings come in? I suppose we'll have to keep tuning in to find out.
OFF TO BOOT CAMP:
Nick Voss - With his vaguely Vanilla Icy hair-stripes and matching shaved half-eyebrow, this guy certainly looked the part of a pop star, albeit one from 1989. All that was missing from his image was a pair of Hammerpants or a giant Flavor Flav clock. But then, oddly, he chose to sing a '50s song, Elvis Presley's "Trouble." At first his performance came across like a Vegas-y Elvis impersonation, yet I simply could not peel my eyes off this oddball boy. Nicole Scherzinger intriguingly described him as "Jim Carrey meets Jerry Lewis with a little sprinkle of Elvis." Paula wasn't thrilled with Nick's wannabe-Michael Jackson choreography, but still dug him. L.A. astutely said, "If this were purely the singing business, I would probably not have great things to say, but because this is the ENTERTAINMENT business, you impressed me." And Simon, shockingly, was the nicest judge of all, raving, "I absolutely love you." You know, I love Nick too. I can't quite figure out why, but there's just something very interesting, almost Morrissey-esque, about his persona. Gee, you think maybe it's the X factor?
Marivana Viscuso - The decision to put Nick through might have been polarizing, and confusing to some, but I understood that guy's appeal. But I could not, for the life of me, figure out why the judges gave this crazy dame the green light. To me she sounded like she was giving birth, WITHOUT an epidural, and even Simon told her, "When I hear you, I think of wolves mating in the forest." Mariana took this as the ultimate compliment and cheered, noting that there was indeed a full moon out that evening. Maybe that full moon was the reason for the judges' bizarre decision to put this horrific howler through.
2Squar'd - "I really love the message that beauty is within," Nicole--a gorgeous woman who clearly spends at least $5 million keeping up her looks--ironically told his crew of booty-shorted everywomen of varying shapes and sizes. I didn't think these ladies' voices were so beautiful, actually. I was genuinely surprised the judges gave them a chance. Damn that full moon!
Kendra Williams - Okay, this lady was a real classic diva, in an old-school LaToya London/Melinda Doolittle mold, and her shaven-headed image was as striking as her voice. "You have a gift that is not to be wasted," declared Nicole. Finally, some genuine talent showed up.
Brendan O'Hara - It didn't hurt that Brendan was model-handsome, albeit in a beardy-mountain-man, creepily Ted Bundy-ish sort of way. He certainly found a fan in Nicole, who was overtly ogling him in a manner that made Kara DioGuardi's eye-undressing behavior with "Idol's" Casey James look like nothin'. But, the dude could sing. "You have a fantastic voice," Simon said. "I could see you selling a ton of records." And I could see a ton of female viewers, the same ones who voted for rugged David Cook and Casey James on "Idol," voting for Brendan, too.
Jeremiah Pagan - Despite his misleadingly heavy-metalish-sounding name, this wimpy male soprano was way too Broadway for my tastes, and I certainly didn't agree with L.A. Reid's hyperbolic statement that "voices like yours are the reason great songs were written." No, they're the reason adult-contemporary schlock is written! But technically, Jeremiah was vocally on point. Maybe he just needs a good mentor to give him a cool makeover and youthify him a bit.
Melanie Amaro - This 18-year-old girl-next-door didn't quite look like a pop star, but when she opened her mouth, out boomed a big, belty, Beyonce-esque voice that left the audience and judges stunned. "You have the gift. Everything I walked away from for 'The X Factor,' you made it worth it," an undoubtedly relieved L.A. said after he listened to Melanie sing "Listen." Simon declared contestants like Melanie are the very reason he started this show in the first place. And perhaps the best compliment came from Melanie's adoring little sister, who cried out excitedly through tears, "You are my role model! You are my role model!" Aw. Many viewers watching Melanie at home may soon think the same thing.
Dexter Haygood - This 49-year-old funky fellow wore stacked-heeled boots and a denim jacket with "Memphis" airbrushed across the back; cited James Brown, Mick Jagger, and Elvis as his chief influences; and bragged that he used to be in an awesomely named band called Xavion that once toured with Hall & Oates. So of course I loved him immediately. His unhinged performance of JB's "Sex Machine" was a sad and silly impression, what Simon called "a sort of tribute act"--but then Simon let him do a second song, a cappella. Granted, Dexter again sang a James Brown song, "It's A Man's World," but this time his fierce vocal powers came through; there was some raw rock 'n' roll talent here. "That is what you'd call 'taking your moment,'" Simon declared. "Good for you." Nicole called Dexter "one of the funkiest cats I've seen up here!" Said L.A., "You definitely turned the place out. I'm going out on a limb for you." Dexter, who is currently homeless and living out of his car, with only enough clothes to wear "for the stage," broke down in sobs upon hearing the news that his rock 'n' roll dreams might still be realized. And yet even while bawling, he still seemed pretty rock 'n' roll. I don't know why I like this guy. But just like with Nick Voss, I simply do.
Caitlyn Koch - This 21-year-old rugby coach seemed like one tough broad, but when she crooned a piano-ballad version of the Supremes' "Stop In The Name Of Love," she showcased an unexpected soft side. "That was really, really special. I really like you," L.A. smiled. "It would be an honor for me to work with you," said Nicole. "You have a great, individual, authentic voice," praised Paula. And Simon wrapped it up with: "You did something with the song I've never heard before, and that's what I like about you. No more rugby!" It's game on for Caitlyn now.
Ashley Sansone - This 27-year-old chatterbox claimed she was an "unemployed starving artist," but somehow she ponied up the cash to buy two of the overpriced $5 hot dogs that Wednesday night's elderly couple Dan and Venita so loudly complained about. And maybe it was all that processed protein in her system, but the woman was waaaayy too hyper. By the time she'd finished babbling her unsolicited life story (and something about gummy bears), she'd overstayed her welcome, before even singing a single note. She claimed to be an "unstoppable talent," but it turns out she was only half right. "You were getting on my nerves when you were talking, but when you started singing, I wanted to slit my wrists," L.A. groaned. Simon added, "I know that I'm English, but I couldn't understand a word you sang." (Hey, and you thought Cheryl Cole was unintelligible?) And so Ashley was sent away, and she gabbed disgruntledly all the way to the exit door.
Chanel Simone Dion - I never did figure out if this blondie's Dick-Van-Dyke-from-Mary Poppins British accent was real or not (she too was more difficult to understand than Cheryl Cole), and obviously her Smurfette wig was fake. But Chanel's SINGING voice was so bad, there was no way she could have been faking that. (And if she was, someone please give her an Emmy for Best Acting, stat.)
Dreamgirlz - After a truly fishy rendition of Heart's "Barracuda," this mother/daughter duo took their rejection in stride, but the 30 or so buttinsky relatives watching their audition from the stage wings weren't quite so courteous. One guy practically came to blows with Steve Jones (seemingly unaware that Steve is just a pretty face and does not have a say in this competition), swearing so much that a few censor-X's had to be strategically placed over his mouth. I can only imagine, with a shudder, how he would have reacted if HE'D been the one unsuccessfully auditioning.
Caitlynne Curtis - This fragile 16-year-old at first showed some promise, but her audition quickly unraveled, and when she epically failed to hit the big key change in Katy Perry's "Firework," there were no fireworks on that stage at all. Nicole overly nicely told her, "I think there's room to grow," but Simon was more forthcoming, saying, "I think you should form a group with three or four girls your age, where you don't have to rely on a fantastic vocal. Because I don't think your voice is good enough." At this point Caitlynne really showed her age--and made a strong case that TV talent competitions should only be open to contestants who are over 18--when she freaked out and started sobbing, over and over, "Please don't say no, please don't say no, please don't say no!" Paula tried to console Caitlynne, even getting up onstage to hug her, but nothing other than four yesses could placate the poor girl. She didn't get them. Sometimes wanting something really badly just isn't enough, and that's a hard lesson to learn at any age.
Ashley Deckard - This 16-year-old Hot Topic postergirl was the polar opposite of the same-aged Caitlynne, oozing bad-girl confidence and bragging about being a ghosthunter who can see spirits. I was hoping her voice would be as awesome as her personality (and I was also kind of hoping she'd sing "Ghostbusters" or the Psychedelic Furs' "The Ghost In You"), but instead her voice was just plain spooky. "I'm fascinated by you on many, many levels, but the singing was the least of them," L.A. sighed. Ashley then gave him the evil eye, as if she was about to use her black-magic powers to pour Carrie-style pig's blood all over the panel. And after that, the show tried to push a storyline about how Ashley had cast some sort of dark spell on the arena and jinxed the auditions. This was the lamest paranormal reality TV gimmick since Nigel Lythgoe claimed the "American Idol" mansion was haunted. Come on, Fox, don't blame all these terrible auditions on Ashley's "curse." Neither Ashley, nor that aforementioned full moon, were ultimately to blame here.
Jonny Rogers - This Bieber-banged boy-band wannabe--whom Simon likened to "Barbie's boyfriend," who claimed to be the originator of Justin Bieber's famous hairdo, and who admitted he was jealous of the Biebs--surprisingly performed an original song. And honestly, it wasn't bad; it had a pleasingly trashy electropop vibe to it. But the song should have been sung by someone else. Simon told Jonny, "Imagine I am in a factory in China and I've been given an order to manufacture 10,000 Justin Bieber dolls that sing and dance, but it kind of went wrong in production. That's you." This may have been one of Simon's best critiques EVER, but it probably wasn't what this living doll-gone-wrong wanted to hear.
Dylan Lawson - Dylan, a super-Southern boy who sold his truck to get to his "X Factor" audition, seemed poised to be the Kevin Skinner of this show. (Remember Kevin Skinner? The golden-throated chicken farmer from "America's Got Talent"?) But then he went insane and screamed an expletive-laden rant about his bladder for about 90 agonizing seconds, before passing out onstage. It was actually pretty punk-rock, like if G.G. Allin had gone the reality-TV route back in the day. But mostly, it was just terrible. I hope this dude can buy his truck back. And then drive far, far away from this show.
Curtis "Phoenix" Lawson - No relation to Dylan Lawson, I assume. But this guy was just as untalented. Paula likened his garbled vocals to the sounds of a lawnmower. "Learn a song in English--actually in Human," Simon advised. However, I'm pretty certain Phoenix would sound awful in any dialect, to any species. Still, Phoenix says in his spare time he likes to play with fire, so maybe we'll see him audition for "America's Got Talent" someday.
Xander Alexander - This chip-shouldered drama king cited "Whitney Houston before she lost it" as his main influence; described his style as "Donald Trump meets Martha Stewart without the jail time meets Britney Spears meets Beyonce without the ugly husband"; started mouthing off to Simon the minute he hit the stage; and then burst into tears (which Paula accused him of faking) when the judges rejected him. His voice was not all that bad, actually, and if he'd gone onstage with a cheerier attitude, he might have made it through. "Where you blew this was you got the audience to hate you," Simon explained, even though he admitted to appreciating Xander's "lippiness" and "gobbiness." I hope Xander learned his lesson here, because sometimes it's really best to play nice, especially when Simon Cowell is involved.
And so, after two more hours of "The X Factor," the judges have, in my opinion, only found SIX decent contenders (Nick, Kendra, Brendan, Melanie, Dexter, and Caitlyn). Is that enough to keep viewers watching next week? I'm not so sure. Let's hope Simon is saving the best contestants for last.