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‘X Factor’ Boot Camp, Pt. 1: Time To Face the Music

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks

"It's called Boot Camp for a reason," Simon Cowell intoned during the epic, commercial-free, 18-minute intro to Wednesday's episode of "The X Factor." Um, is that reason because IT IS AWESOME?

Okay, so that last sentence made no sense. Lots of things about the first episode of "X Factor" Boot Camp made no sense, really. Like when sweet blonde 14-year-old Drew Ryniewicz was forced to duet, quite creepily, on Radiohead's "Creep" with 49-year-old homeless funk-rocker Dexter Haygood. Or when singer-songwriter types like Josh Trajcik, Brendan O'Hara, and Brennin Hunt were forced to do Britney-style choreography to Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" with "So You Think You Can Dance's" Brian Friedman and Mark Kanemura. (Attitudinal child rapper Brian "The Astronomical Kid" Bradley actually refused to take part, snorting, "MCs don't dance. You don't see Jay-Z dancing." He sort of had a point.) Or when Simon started actually acting nice, making me think that at any moment he was going to put on that fuzzy pink sweater he wore in one of the "Idol"-lampooning "X Factor" promos (or making me wonder if he'd undergone some sort of "Freaky Friday"-style body-swap with Paula Abdul).

But still, overall, this episode was awesome.

For those not in the know, "The X Factor's" Boot Camp was basically the equivalent of "American Idol's" Hollywood Week--except it took place in Pasadena (calling it "Pasadena Week" wouldn't sound quite as cool), and it was, surprisingly, a lot nicer. The full-on backstage meltdowns, epic fails, crushed dreams, overbearing stage moms, shocking eliminations, and judge squabbles that have typically characterized "Idol"s Hollywood Week were nowhere to be seen at Boot Camp, and when one crestfallen reject begged for another chance, Simon even comforted the poor kid backstage (instead of telling him he sounded like a cat in a blender/hotel lounge singer/defective Bieber doll, like he usually does). For the most part, the first Boot Camp episode just concentrated on the contestants' musical performances, one after the other and shown in their entirety, with shockingly little or no feedback from the judges, and with very little drama.

I actually thought I'd miss all the television trainwreckiness to which I've become accustomed during my years of jaded reality-blogging, but instead I just enjoyed the standout performances by many potential "X Factor" winners. And at least there was the added interest of a big hot tub party for the 100 contestants who made it through day one. I enjoyed that too. No, I ain't gonna lie: I did not mind seeing a potential heartthrob like Nick Voss without his shirt on. Hey, that's certainly one way to secure the important female vote!

Anyway, the 162 contestants who initially received a golden ticket (or whatever they call it on this show) and got "through to Pasadena" (or whatever they say) were quickly slimmed down to the aforementioned 100 after the feather-vested Friedman put them all through their awkward paces. And some of the early castoffs were hunky Brendan O'Hara, who paid the ultimate price for his lyric-mangling of Jessie J's "Price Tag," and math-geek jokester J. Mark Inman (the Norman Gentle of "X Factor"), who gave his all during his rather un-Haley-Reinhart-like "Benny & The Jets" and took the news of his subsequent elimination in his usual stride, coiling in a fetal position on the floor while howling, "I don't have a life! I don't have a life!" At least J. was as memorable in his last "X Factor" appearance as he was in his first.

Meanwhile, some memorable early hopefuls got through, among them Melanie Amaro, Marcus Canty, the absolutely-fabulously androgynous Siameze Floyd (who quite thrillingly belted Boston's "More Than A Feeling"), recovering druggie Chris Rene (whose "Sexual Healing" was actually kind of sexy)...and, interestingly, Chris's sister Gina Rene, whose first audition was apparently never shown. The moment when the two Renes found each other in the crowd of 100 and congratulatorily embraced was supercute--cute enough to have Paula beaming QVC-earring'd-ear to ear and even the curmudgeonly Simon cracking a smile. But just in case you thought Simon had really gone soft, he did give hard-luck-story mom Stacy Francis and blonde bombshell Tora Woloshin some stern scoldings--the former for oversinging the longest-held note in reality television history, the latter for picking a song he didn't dig. But both ladies also eventually skirted through.

So after all this blood-letting and hot-tubbing on the first day, the surviving hopefuls were sectioned into singing groups, with results that were as mixed as some of Paula's finest metaphors. Group performances have always been a major source of TV drama on "Idol," and while the contestants on "X Factor" seemed to get along pretty well during their rehearsals, putting their differences aside for the greater good, when they hit the stage some of their musical differences led to performances that were, well, just plain bad.

Group one consisted of Bieber-fevered teen Drew Ryniewicz, James Brown/Mick Jagger-impersonating funk cat Dexter Haygood, boy band the Anser, rugby coach Caitlyn Koch, some guy named Clayton Senne (who dat?), powerhouse wedding singer Elaine Gibbs, and the widow of the infamous Ike Turner, Audrey Turner, whose first L.A. audition bizarrely never aired. (I was there, back in May; for those who care, Audrey sang the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women," and she was fantastic.) I expected greatness from a Dexter/Audrey duet, but instead Drew and Dexter started off the song--which, considering their 35-year age gap, was kind of weird. Anyway, under normal circumstances I would have rallied for Drew's immediate disqualification based solely on the fact that she'd never before heard her group's song, "Creep" by Radiohead (Drew really needs to listen to music besides Justin Bieber's), but her voice sounded gorgeous here, and she sold the song despite her unfamiliarity with it. Dexter, meanwhile, looked lost, in his own world of rock 'n' roll fantasies, flitting about wildly while seeming oblivious to the fact that this was supposed to be a group performance. (The judges later declared Dexter the weakest link of this bunch, while Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger" amusingly played in the background.) The Anser were weak as well--they seemed to have trouble hearing themselves, or at least I hope that was their excuse--but Caitlyn's understated performance gave the song the tenderness it needed. However, big belters Elaine and Audrey were the real standouts of this number--finally, both ladies got their chance to shine, both at the advanced age of 53.

Group two gelled more together as a unit on their jazzy cover of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." R&B-rocker Aaron Surgeon didn't get much screentime, indicating that he won't be making it much farther after this, but Stacy Francis reined it in for a tasteful performance (and she showed a little leg, which youthed her up a bit), and her fellow diva Melanie Amaro proved that her powerful "Listen" audition was no fluke. But sadly, 16-year-old baby diva Jazzlyn Little, who came out of nowhere to wow the judges at the very end of last Thursday's New York episode, let her nerves get the better of her this time: She forgot the lyrics (a cardinal sin in Simon's eyes) and left the stage in tears. It remains to be seen if Jazzlyn can later tap into the power she summoned at her first audition and recover, but she may just be too young and too fragile right now to handle this competition. As for this group's other members--Heather Gayle, Arin Day, and an ensemble called Special Guest--they just seemed like fodder to me. Next.

Group three was an "interesting bunch," according to Simon--and also a very blonde one. Paige Elizabeth Ogle, Cari Fletcher, Dani Knights (who?), and Chelsea Musick (again, who? nice surname, though) were almost interchangeable. Of the four, Paige and the previously little-seen Dani made a better impression, since their buttery voices seemed perfectly suited for the country-tinged song they got, the Eagles' "Desperado." Meanwhile, Cari, who polarized the judges last week, failed to make much of turnaround and still seemed flat and dull. Leroy Bell, a 59-year-old crooner who used to pen songs for Elton John in the '70s and claimed this was his last showbiz chance ("I don't plan on trying again," he said), was especially good, since he was the one group member old enough to actually remember the Eagles from back in the day. (I still can't believe this dude is FIFTY-NINE. I really need to find out his, and Audrey's, anti-aging secrets.) On the other end of the age spectrum, 16-year-old country kid Skyelor Anderson certainly sounded believable on this song, but he lost his way and also flubbed the lyrics. Messing up the words caused Brendan O'Hara to go home early, but we'll have to wait and seen if Jazzlyn and Skyelor will get a free pass after their similar lyrical crimes.

Group four featured Brian Bradley, the 14-year-old wannabe MC with the Kanye-like 'tude and the undeniably viral rap song "Stop Looking At My Mom," so he was no doubt psyched when his team got "Wishing On A Star" as remade by his idol Jay-Z. His group was filled with several fodder contestants who got pretty much no screentime till now (Lauren Ashley? Jennifay Joy Nichols? Tinuke Someone? Who?), and they didn't get much screentime this week either, since Brian totally dominated the proceedings, rapping all over everyone and giving no one else a chance to shine. (Seriously, this kid's a mini-Kanye.) The only contestant in his group who gave him any competition was a fearsome dreadlocked girl name Reina Williams, who had the attitude to match his. Brian almost lost his swag for a bit, seemed threatened, and then...yes, you guessed it, messed up his words. Judge L.A. Reid, who'd practically dubbed Brian Tupac reincarnate last week, seemed to be having second thoughts and said he thought Brian might be too young for the rap game. I'm not sure if this performance will be Brian's undoing, but it may be the humbling reality check he needs. I love the kid, but unless he chills out and becomes more likable, he will never connect with voters, who will soon tire of his shtick.

The fifth group was all dudes, ranging from fortysomething dad-rock wedding DJ Tiger Budbill (whose name was the only awesome thing about him) to 12-year-old Andrew Muccitelli (who I saw kill it with his barely aired Adele song--with Adele in the audience!--at the L.A. audition tapings, but for some reason he still got hardly any screentime this evening). Tiger failed to impress, as did blonde boybot Nick Dean, who lost his way during the first verse of Five For Fighting's "Superman" and quickly unraveled from there. James Kenney, a contestant I didn't recall seeing before, got my attention with his soulful vocal (I'll be keeping my eye and ear out for him, for sure), but it was my beloved burrito-slinger Josh Trajcik who OWNED this song. Simply owned. "Making burritos seems far away," Josh mused, as he pondered a tortilla-free future in show business. As for the other members, some group with the unfortunate moniker Kompl3te and a guy named Thomas McAbee, I don't remember anything about them, which does not bode well for their chances. Making burritos may not be so far away for them.

The conspiracy theorist in me wondered if the sixth group was given "Feeling Good" as an act of Simon sabotage, since surely Simon is aware of the Feeling Good Curse by now. This song has felled many a reality show singer, even the almighty Adam Lambert. But it turned out that group six had luck on its side after all. Old-school crooner Phillip Lomax still bugged me, but the song was undoubtedly the ideal fit for his swanky style. The same went for sultry Kelly Warner, with her kitten-purr of a voice. Platinum-topped hair stylist Austin Simmons had a cool look but delivered a lackluster vocal, but the equally rocker-coiffed Nick Voss intriguingly made the song his own. But of course, all eyes were really on steel-eyed Tiah Tolliver. Tiah had a lot to prove this time out, since both Paula and fellow judge Nicole Scherzinger had been unimpressed by her all-over-the-place first audition and had only let her through after Simon actually begged them to change their votes. (Only Nicole relented; Paula stood firm and said no.) Simon had a lot to prove as well: "I have actually never felt so much anxiety over someone," he said. Thankfully, Tiah came out with her steel eyes and rocked it. Everyone was amazed; even group six's one other female singer, Chesi Spriggs, looked a little threatened. "How did you get her to stay in key?" gasped judge L.A. Reid. "Aren't you glad you saved her?" choreographer Brian Friedman sassed to Nicole in his best I-told-you-so voice. And Simon just sat there, gloating and grinning. Even Paula and Nicole had to admit he'd been right, as much as it probably irked them.

Group seven was another fodder hodgepodge. (Anyone remember Joshua Maddox, Hayley Orrantia, Illusion Confusion, Caylie Gregorio, De'Quan Allen, or Ellona Santiago? Didn't think so.) The only recognizable contestants were 13-year-old Rachel Crow (the very first auditioner shown on the premiere) and boy band 4Shore. Rachel was nervous--what little girl wouldn't be, having to sing a big song like Whitney Houston's "I Have Nothing"?--but fared pretty well. 4Shore's longhaired vocalist, however, ruined the song; it was moments like this that I was bummed the judges didn't offer critiques on the spot, as I would have loved to know what Simon thought of that guy. The other singers were just forgettable, neither terrible nor terrific (though I think Ellona might have potential), and De'Quan became yet another contestant to mess up the words. (I was beginning to think I was watching "Don't Forget The Lyrics" at this point.) This was my least favorite group of the night.

The final group, however, really brought it home. When I first learned that glam-pop showboater Siameze Floyd, male soprano Jeremiah Pagan, Dru Hill wannabes Stereo Hogzz, teen country duo Makenna & Brock, and nervous 12-year-old Emily Michalak were all going to sing together (along with fodder contestants Cesar De La Rosa and the boringly named Song Preservation Society), I braced myself for a trainwreck so bad, "The X Factor" would soon be picking up Am-Trak as a sponsor. But as these contestants joined together for Snow Patrol's "Run," they all were way better than I remembered. Jeremiah sounded great. Siameze restrained himself and showed there's more to him than clownish theatrics and silky hair. Emily totally held it together. Stereo Hogzz weren't as cheesy as I recalled. Makenna & Brock, longtime friends about to take their relationship to the next level thanks to the Boot Camp bonding experience, sounded lovely and understandably had great chemistry. I actually hope all of these singers make it through.

But...we'll have just have to wait until Thursday night to find out if they do, since Wednesday's episode ended abruptly and somewhat cliff-hangingly at the 90-minute mark. On Thursday, the 100 remaining contestants will be even more abruptly cut down to 32, sorted into four categories of eight apiece (boys, girls, groups/duos, and the damningly dubbed "over-30s"). Such quota-filling seems unfair, since it's obvious  that there are more good acts in the first two categories than the latter two. (I've always felt the same way about the gender quotas on "Idol," and was pleased that no such requirements existed on "The Voice.") But hey, that's the way Simon wants it. And we all know he's going to take the strongest category (the girls, according to Internet rumors/spoilers, and my interview in which he predicted a female champion) for himself.

Find out just who made the final 32, and which category each judge will be mentoring, Thursday night! That's when it'll really be time to face the music.

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