The true contenders are starting to emerge on "The X Factor," as it continues its gradual, glitzy march toward a winner. Sure, all 11 acts still competing for the $5 million prize (and the Pepsi commercial –- don't forget the role in the Pepsi commercial -– which host Steve Jones made me guffaw by calling "extraordinary stuff") are talented. But some, we learned pretty clearly on Wednesday night's show, where the contestants tackled songs somehow connected to movies, appear to be more talented than others.
Astro: Holy crumb! Just when I'd started to grow tired of his self-written rap routine (intertwined with established hits), this 15-year-old Brooklyn kid upped the ante in a way that made me realize that, no, seriously, he's for real. On Wednesday, with a rewritten version of Eminem's "Lose Yourself," he dug deep and rapped movingly about grabbing our chances in life and making the most of it. And you know he wrote it fresh this week because he mentioned the deaths of Heavy D and Joe Frazier. It was topical and timeless and meticulously performed, proving that the "Stop Looking at My Mom" kid is not just a one-hit wonder. No matter how America votes, he's got a future.
Rachel Crow: Simon Cowell wasn't kidding when he said he'd been making bad decisions on Crow's behalf. Those teenybopper song choices and cutie-pie, boyish outfits? Completely wrong, as it turns out. This 13-year-old has a mature, throaty, bluesy voice, singing with a resonance beyond her years; it's only her round face that's childlike. (We also now know that Crow has a deep well of emotional experience to draw on, if she chooses.) On Wednesday night, her song was of her choosing, Etta James' "I'd Rather Go Blind," and she owned it.
Marcus Canty: Yes, Canty's been terrific from the start, but on Rose Royce's "I'm Going Down" from "Car Wash," he showed a vocal vibrancy and shimmering star quality (beyond just that twinkly jacket he got tangled up in mid-song) I'm not sure we'd fully seen before. A serious contender.
Is "The X Factor" really finding the next great Milli Vanilli? Simon Cowell's flashy singing competition series is catching some heat for lip syncing.
The scrutiny came after Thursday's episode when contestant Leroy Bell was heard singing before the microphone reached his mouth during an opening group medley. But an "X Factor" spokesperson said in a statement that such a practice is a common occurrence with ensemble performances:
"All survival songs are performed live, with just a backing track. For the group ensemble performance, the vocals are pre-recorded to allow acts to concentrate on preparing for their own live competitive performances on Wednesdays -- this is also no different to what other competition shows do for ensemble performances."
And "The X Factor" certainly isn't alone in the matter. Network sibling "American Idol" has also copped to group numbers using recorded vocals.
Photo: Leroy Bell performs on "The X Factor." Credit: Fox
It turned out their mothers couldn't save them after all. The act sent home by America on "The X Factor's" first voter-results show Thursday night was … InTENsity -- that sprawling group of kids thrown together after their individual Boot Camp eliminations, the one Simon Cowell kept comparing to "Glee" as the rest of us thought "Disney."
(Were there 10 group members? Is that why the "TEN" was in all caps? I never bothered to count. And now, really, I suppose it hardly matters.)
As the young members of InTENsity sobbed onstage, even host Steve Jones felt compelled to avert his eyes as he urged them ("Guys, I know it's hard …") to watch the tape of their time on the show. Later, as the episode wrapped, he declared InTENsity to be "inconsolable."
Poor kids. You couldn't say they'd lacked commitment and optimism. Or, for all I know, talent. But I guess America cares about the groups on this show about as much as I do. Which is to say not much at all. Because InTENsity had landed in the bottom two with an act that was not just another group, but the one of which Cowell had said, on Wednesday night, "I don't think there's a band in the world right now who are as good as you." Low results indeed for a group that had garnered such (absurdly) high praise.
As the "X Factor" judges/mentors and host Steve Jones periodically reminded us Wednesday night during a two-hour live show in which the top 12 performed, it's now up to you, America. Yup, we've moved on to the voting stage.
So now that the judges have no actual choosing to do, how are they amusing themselves? By offering exceptionally bland commentary on the contestants' performances ("You're amazing," "I like you," "I love your voice") and by picking on each other in a way that's increasingly discomfiting. ("The grownups are talking"? Really, Simon?)
We'll find out the results of the voting tonight. Based on overall appeal, if I were making the decision, I'd send home those fresh-faced kids in the "X Factor"-manufactured group InTENsity. But because they have the advantage of having all their mothers vote for them -– the group is so big even Simon Cowell hasn't bothered to learn any of their names -– it's really anyone's guess who'll get the boot. We'll have to wait and see.
One thing you don't have to wait any longer to find out is whether the show will be back for another season. It will, as Cowell smugly announced Wednesday to those who hadn't already heard. That means I might as well get out my suggestions right now for things the producers might want to change next year, while there's still time.
In a show that at times sounded like an overproduced amateur hour (Simon Cowell's two questionable picks) and at other times like something out of "Jerry Springer" (those judges are bound and determined to cook up some bad blood between them), "The X Factor" burst into its new "live" format Tuesday night.
It was one weirdly paced 2½ hours of TV, but at the end of the day, after each chunk of singers sang, we were left with 12 more-or-less deserving finalists waved through to next week's shows by the judge/mentors. (For those of you planning to return to see how things progress next week, the finalists will perform live on Wednesday, Nov. 2, with the first voting results revealed the following night.)
We were also left with a sort of strange taste in our mouths (at least I was), and a lingering question about just how much more of Simon Cowell the American TV audience will tolerate.
Other questions that spring to mind:
How much do you think Ryan Seacrest is secretly paying host Steve Jones to make him look so good? I'd always thought of "American Idol" host Seacrest as a sort of a stiff until Jones came along. Jones seemed even more out of his element than ever hosting the live show, where it fell to him to simultaneously keep things moving by pretending the dramatic stuff (e.g., an eliminated contestant expressing regret for disappointing a judge/mentor) was unexciting while periodically slowing down the action to read canned copy -- er, exciting announcements! -- about the show's corporate sponsors from a teleprompter. It was alarming when he barked at the judges about being pressed for time as they tried in vain to comfort the contestants whose hearts they'd just broken. Maybe the Welsh accent made it sound extra harsh? On the other hand, I'm pretty sure he made it through the whole show without mispronouncing a U.S. locale. (Was he called upon to pronounce any at all?) So at least there was that.
OK, it's official. Simon Cowell is out of his mind. The good news is that by the end of Tuesday night's episode of "The X Factor," in which each judge decided which four acts in his or her category would be put through to the live shows, and which would be sent home, even Cowell seemed to recognize that he was completely bonkers.
Cowell had a change of heart, which still doesn't quite prove he actually has a heart, but was heartening nevertheless. Because some of his choices were completely and utterly (as he might say) ridiculous.
But let's save Cowell's big last-minute save -- a judges' save before we even get to the live episodes? I guess with a new show, you can make up the rules as you go! For a moment.
First, let's just review how the final 16 initially broke down:
The remainder of the final 32 contestants performed at the judges' homes — perched on the edges of swimming pools, set atop sweeping vistas and tucked under weeping waterfalls — Sunday night. And as host Steve Jones (whose pronunciation of Maryland we can now add to the ever-growing list of words he says funny) repeatedly informed us, the "girls" were with Simon Cowell (but not Mariah Carey) somewhere in France, the "boys" were with L.A. Reid (and Rihanna) in East Hampton, N.Y., the "over 30s" were with Nicole Scherzinger (and Enrique Iglesias) in Malibu, and the "groups" were with Paula Abdul (and Pharrell) in Santa Barbara.
Over the course of the two-hour show we saw the following performers sing:
Jazzlyn Little: Cowell said at auditions that he could see her becoming a major star, but Little still hasn't managed to shed her nerves. She sang Chantay Savage's "I Will Survive," but will she? One of the three show staffers (a vocal coach and two music producers) summoned to kneel at Cowell's feet said he found her too "high-school talent show."
Brennin Hunt: This pretty-boy singer said he wanted to be "bigger than Lady Gaga." His voice has an appealing gruffness that his face and demeanor lack. But Rihanna said she found his take on "Like A Star" by Corinne Bailey Rae "a little bit corny" and reminiscent of a "'90s boy band."
Josh Krajcik: The soulful burrito maker revealed that he had a daughter, for whom he intends to set a positive example by winning this competition. He also revealed a bit too much chest underneath his button-down shirt as he dug deep and emerged triumphant on Roberta Flack's "First Time I Ever Saw Your Face." I wouldn't mind seeing him win; I also wouldn't mind seeing him wash his hair.
If you're confused about "The X Factor's" schedule, here's the deal: The first judges' houses episode, which was supposed to air on Wednesday, aired Thursday instead, due to baseball rain delays. The second episode, originally scheduled to air Thursday, will now air Sunday night.
The extra day's wait may have contributed to my sense of vague disappointment in Thursday night's "X Factor," which really could more accurately have been dubbed the judges' lawns episode. (We got barely a glimpse inside the actual residences: a shot of Paula Abdul and Nicole Scherzinger's gleaming kitchens here, the briefest toe-dip into L.A. Reid's family room there, and if we ever entered Simon Cowell's house, I wasn't left with any impression of it.)
But the lawns, oh, the lawns: chic decks, sumptuous swimming pools, breathtaking views, waterfalls, and acres of lush green grass.
At times, it was difficult to focus on the singing. (Scherzinger's incredible cliffside vista was particularly distracting.) And the tracks sometimes seemed a little overproduced (did they dub the voices in later?), almost canned.
The setup? The 32 remaining contestants, having been divided up into four categories – Boys, Girls, Over 30s and Groups – were shuttled to their judge/mentor's residences (big reveal!) to perform a song said judge/mentor had selected for them in front of the judge/mentor. A special guest judge was also invited to sit next to the judge/mentor, nod sagely and remark benignly on the performances.
Well, that was fast! At the start of "The X Factor" on Wednesday night, as Boot Camp kicked off, 162 contestants were still in the running, cramming the stage with their hopes and dreams. By the end of Thursday night's episode, the vast majority of those contenders had been shed, their hopes and dreams waved away like a bad aroma by judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Nicole Scherzinger and L.A. Reid.
After a few more group performances, the numbers were thinned to 64. Those remaining contestants were given one last chance to impress the judges with a solo performance, choosing their songs from a prescribed list, before the final selections were made. Then, quite precipitously, only 32 acts remained.
There were some surprises: Dexter Haygood, the homeless soul singer who channels James Brown and Mick Jagger, did make it through. (Back in the '80s, Haygood was the lead singer for a band called Xavion, which toured with Hall and Oates: See a video here.) Simone Battle, a confident-bordering-on-delusional performer who said she brought "to this competition something that the world has never seen before" and that there is "no other artist like me in the world today," also got a top-32 slot, despite having forgotten every single word to Elton John's "Your Song" during her final performance. And several solo artists who'd been cut -– weeping tears of bitter disappointment in the arms of moms and other loved ones –- were brought back to form two groups to round out that category. (I would have found that much more surprising if a Show Tracker commenter hadn't predicted that the producers would do just that: Good call, Stephen McMillan!)
There were a handful of wait-who-is-that-again? choices: I really can't keep the groups straight. Abdul, who will mentor that category, really has her work cut out for her, and she seems to know it.
And there were a few performers we're maybe a bit sad to see go home, if not because we'll miss their talent, then because now we won't get to see how their stories play out: Will Makenna and Brock find love amid the shards of their "X Factor" ambitions?
"The auditions are over," Steve Jones, host of "The X Factor," reminded us Wednesday night at the top of the show. "Tonight, it's boot camp as 162 acts face the toughest week of their life."
Over the course of two shows, the second of which airs Thursday night, the 162 acts –- some we remember vividly from their auditions, some we feel as if we've never seen before –- will be reduced to 32 contenders, eight in each of four categories: boys, girls, over-30s and groups. (They'll be judged not only on their voices, but also on factors such as style and attitude.) Each of those groups will be mentored by one of the four judges, Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Nicole Scherzinger and L.A. Reid, whom they will meet in their homes.
"So," Jones intoned, "the battle is on for a place at the judges' homes."
While we were digesting the vastness and majesty of the judges' houses (paraded before our eyes in brief exterior shots) and the somewhat-mystifying willingness of the judges to let the show invade them, the action got underway.
Thank goodness "The X Factor" auditions are over. Though they were less grueling and tedious than audition rounds on many other shows (well-paced, they seemed to give somewhat gentler treatment to the seriously delusional), by Wednesday night's final audition double-header all the "X Factor" hopefuls were starting to blend together in my mind's eye to form one massive, melted, multiheaded monster of a singer.
Here's a flash of platinum blond hair. There is a ripped-jean-clad knee. And over there is a be-ringed hand holding the mic. (Perhaps I need to get more sleep?)
The final audition episode took us to Newark, N.J., and some unspecified West Coast city indicated by a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge. (Why did host Steve Jones never explicitly say the auditions were in San Francisco? Was the second half of Wednesday night's episode an amalgam of towns? Or was it that Jones couldn't pronounce San Fran? He did struggle with the pronunciation of Houston, which he amusingly called Hoo-ston!) And if you focus your eyes and look a little closer, a few auditions did stand out.
Brian Bradley –- A brash 14-year-old from the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., he said he wanted to be bigger than Jay-Z and Kanye. (He's apparently already a big hit on YouTube.) Then he picked a faux fight with Simon Cowell, getting Cowell's full attention for a resounding original rap: "Stop looking at my mom." Bradley threw down some rhymes -- "That's my mother. That's my mother. She looks so young he thought I was her brother" – and nabbed four yeses (and high praise from L.A. Reid, in particular).
Cari Fletcher -– This 17-year-old New Jersey native had, as Reid put it, "a star's name … a star's face … and a star's voice." She sang Heart's "Alone," prompting Cowell to gripe that he found her a bit "boring" and Paula Abdul to encourage her to pick songs that are "relevant" in future. Nevertheless, she got four yeses.
AusEm -– Dueting 15-year-olds Austin and Emily came with their own cheering section and put the judges in a tough spot. He had talent; she seemed only average. Would the judges split them up? Ultimately, Autin's talent carried them both through; AusEm collected four yeses. But along the way, we saw a brief return of the uncomfortable dynamic between Cowell and Nicole Scherzinger.
Tora Woloshin -– My favorite audition of the night. This 21-year-old not only had an arresting look (Marilyn Monroe hair, tattoos, purple boots and a glowing smile), she was also pursuing an unexpected career: She's learning to be a race-car mechanic. Then she strutted through the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" like she owned the place, which she quickly did. I loved her, and so did the judges. Four yeses.
Brennin Hunt –- The producers led us to expect that this male model -– who had a very inflated sense of self -– would crash and burn onstage. But he didn't, triumphing on a (not bad) song he himself had written. Cowell was particularly impressed, saying he believed Hunt had not yet been successful in his music career because he thought he was getting bad advice, but that he thought he could help change that. Four yeses.
Jazzlyn Little -– Another surprise. This 16-year-old was seriously shaky when she walked out on that stage before thousands. She could barely hold a conversation with the judges, and her answers seemed to set her up as a nobody who'd go no place. But then she sang –- coming alive and working her way fiercely through Mary J. Blige's "I'm Going Down." The judges called her a "tiger," a "brilliant little gem" and "one to watch" and a possible future "world star." She got four yeses, but wasn't one to dwell on her success, noting, not unhappily, "That just means more work."
So on to "Boot Camp," from which only 32 contestants will emerge. These remaining contestants will then be divided into four groups – Boys, Girls, Over 30 and Groups – with one of the judges assigned to mentor to each group.
What did you think of the final audition episode?
-- Amy Reiter
Photo: Jazzlyn Little, 16, performs on "The X Factor" on Thursday on FOX. Credit: Screen grab from the Fox show.
"The X Factor" has its mojo back. After last week's impressive premiere was followed by a woefully weak second episode, Simon Cowell's new singing-talent competition appeared to regain its footing Wednesday night, when the show swept through Chicago and Seattle. (I'd make fun of how host Steve Jones pronounced the name of the former if I could figure out how to type with a Welsh accent.)
It wasn't so much that the talent that marched across the audition stage in each city was so fantastic –- though, as a whole, what we were shown wasn't bad –- as that the producers showed they had a knack for a back story. The way a mother nervously primped and fussed before sending her son to face the judges, the way a father kneeled as if in grateful prayer after his teenage daughter appeared triumphant, the way a male half of a duo gazed lovingly at his singing partner, who seemed only vaguely aware of his intent look and its emotional import: These are the moments that drew us in, prompted a smile or a streaked tear, and made us want to keep watching.
Unfortunately, though, late in the episode, after Nicole Scherzinger replaced Cheryl Cole as the second female judge, an irritating conflict emerged at the judging table, one that I hope will not settle in for the season: boys against girls.
Cowell griped to the camera that the two women then at the table -– Scherzinger and Paula Abdul –- were prejudging attractive women (regardless of talent) and declining to put them through, revealing that he and fellow male judge L.A. Reid had started joking that these hot hopefuls were "D.O.A." This after Cowell shushed Abdul, saying "the grownups were talking," and compared a modestly talented candidate to the significantly talented Scherzinger. (Doubters should review her winning "Dancing With the Stars" run a few seasons back.)
Scherzinger responded to Cowell's dis by belting out "I Will Always Love You." But I fear the die is cast: The show will henceforth be edited to make Cowell and Reid look like pure sobriety, reason and sound judgment and Scherzinger and Abdul look like tasteless, easily threatened flakes. (See also last week's Scherzinger accent montage.) Male toughness will be portrayed as taste and experience, female toughness as competitive queen bee behavior.
That's just disappointing -– and not very pleasant to watch.
Regardless, the show had its moments. Here were the most memorable auditions:
Brock and Makenna: Makenna, the female half of this talented duet from Springfield, Mo., insists that she and Brock are just "good friends." But the camera keeps showing him looking at her longingly. He says when he thinks of her his "heart jumps out of his chest." "I love her, but she doesn't know it," he says, wistfully. "I think one day she'll know it. She'll learn." If she didn't know it before, she certainly does now.
Skyelor Anderson: This 16-year-old charmer from Mississippi wants to win the competition to help support his mom, who works in a motorcycle factory.
J. Mark Inman: This philosophy graduate student's highly unusual audition was riveting in its peculiarity.
Josh Krajcik: The biggest surprise of the night. This rumpled, 30-year-old burrito-slinger from Columbus, Ohio, with the adoring mom –- "He's so gifted and talented and cute and cool," she enthused -– had me expecting a trainwreck. Then he opened his mouth to sing Etta James' "At Last."
Drew Ryniewicz: This 14-year-old with the sweet, supportive family also had the markings of self-delusion –- what she really wants is a chance to sing with Justin Bieber, whose "Baby" she sang. But darn if she didn't impress me (and the judges) with her soulful rendition. And given that L.A. Reid is a direct connection to the Biebs, Ryniewicz might just get her wish.
Peet Montzingo: This uber-earnest 6-foot-2 son of two dwarves (his sister is also a dwarf) wants to fit in – and to be a famous teen heartthrob (despite the fact that he's now 21). Alas, he wasn't such a great singer and didn't make it through to the next round, but perhaps someone would like to sign his family up for a reality show? I'd watch it.
4Shore: This boy band from Virginia Beach harmonized well on Reid's "End of the Road." Cowell told them he could see them gaining worldwide fame and doing the U.S. proud.
Philip Lomax: An OK singer with a swagger and a killer smile, the judges seemed to put him through based on his charm alone.
Tiah Tolliver: It was when this full-lipped, throaty deli clerk, who sang without a backing track, took the stage for an attenuated audition that the judges' gender conflict reached its peak. Ultimately, though, she collected her three yeses (Abdul was unmoved) and moved on to the next round.
What did you think of the episode?
-- Amy Reiter
Photo: J. Mark Inman of Westborough, Mass., performs on Wednesday's episode of "The X Factor." Credit: Ray Mickshaw / Fox.