The giant red “X” shooting through the solar system during “The X Factor’s” opening credits must be symbolizing that the latest reality singing competition is a reality singing competition like no other. But those graphics aren’t fooling anyone. Later in the two-hour premiere on Fox, Simon Cowell’s project looking for a star with the undefinable “x factor” reveled in the baseness of other TV series by featuring the contestant Geo Godley. The 43-year-old “Internet blogger” attended the Seattle auditions for the show in a loose-fitting light blue velour track suit. As he sang his original song, “I’m a Stud,” and jumped around the stage, his pants headed south to reveal a lack of underwear and Geo in all his glory. Or terror, really, as judges Nicole Scherzinger (The Pussycat Dolls) screamed, Paula Abdul walked out dry-heaving and Cowell and record executive/producer L.A. Reid sat in disbelief.
But Geo wasn’t stopped; the music wasn’t cut, and no stage hands rushed to stop his act. He exposed himself to an arena filled with thousands of people and a TV audience of millions. Thank goodness for blurring technology. Reid called Geo’s bit offensive, but apparently it wasn’t offensive enough not to air. “The X Factor” featured several untalented contestants, just as “American Idol” does, wasting everyone’s time with mockery instead of focusing on the talented wannabe stars and their performances. Viewers got to see the sweet 13-year-old Rachel Crow impress the judges with her take on Duffy’s “Mercy” and her story of a six-member family living in a two-bedroom house and in need of money. But they also saw Geo. No, there’s nothing out of this world about “The X Factor.” It unfortunately fits in the current TV market just fine.
Both Cowell and Reid are business men who have made their money by discovering talent, or at least marketability. (Reid’s credits include Mariah Carey, Justin Bieber, Rihanna and Kanye West.) And Cowell’s at-times brutal honesty is what kept “Idol” remotely interesting before he left in 2010 to bring “The X Factor” from the U.K. to America. Wednesday’s premiere featured a montage for a (likely fabricated) burgeoning feud between the two, who often disagree on contestants’ talent, but the debates have merit given their resumes. Abdul is there to be Abdul, and Scherzinger was brought in to replace pop star Cheryl Cole, a judge on the U.K. version who was cut after the L.A. auditions. The women are to be pretty and positive. The men are to make the business decisions. And host Steve Jones is to try to be the British Ryan Seacrest.
The stakes are higher for “The X Factor” at least. The audition process — for those that make it past a slew of producers — before the four judges takes place in front of an audience of thousands, and if a contestant gets at least three “yes” votes, they move on to boot camp, where they’ll be put into one of four categories: guys, girls, over 30 and groups. Each judge is assigned a group, and if contestants make the boot camp cut, they’ll head to their judge’s house where the acts with the most talent/best chance of winning will be selected for the live show, which begins Oct. 25. The prize is a $5 million Sony recording contract.
That reward has put stars in the contestants’ eyes, and the telling of some of their stories is when the show is at its strongest. Chris Rene, 28, of Santa Cruz, Calif., hauls trash for a living to support his young son and recently completed a stint in rehab. His original song, “Young Homie,” was surprisingly good and the judges sent him to boot camp on the assurance he stay clean. Marcus Canty, 20, had his entire family along for support in what they saw as his last shot at making a career out of music — his mother gave him a two-year window before he had to go to school, and time was almost up. His version of Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” got him four “yeses” and the chance he wanted. My favorite of the night was Stacy Francis, 42, a single mom of two young kids who listened to negative feedback so long she started to believe it. But her rendition of Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman” was amazing, and after receiving a standing ovation from the crowd, Simon told her, “That was one of the best auditions I have ever heard in my life.” These stories, of course, could use a lighter touch. Background music and slow-motion isn’t necessary; the tales of woe sell themselves. But the beauty of singers following their dreams came through despite the cheese.
That’s what these shows ultimately should be about — the dreamers. An audition process like this is a shortcut to fame, and countless hopefuls would do most anything for the opportunity. But at cattle call auditions, only so many can make it through to the main judges, and that’s including those singers that are truly terrible but make for what executives consider good TV. Laughing at them may make some shallow viewer feel better about themselves, but the experience only robs the truly deserving a shot. What would a series be like if it only focused on the music and not the product placement and ratings? If contestants with the most soul made it on screen, not the contestants with the most ridiculous outfit. That show would truly be one in a million.
Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama with her overly excitable Pembroke Welsh corgi.