Previously on "The X Factor": some people nobody cared about sang, a person nobody remembers won, and half the on-air talent got fired. But they want you to forget pretty much all of that. Seriously, there was not a single mention of anything to do with Season 1 in the S2 premiere. Not one. They referenced that the show existed prior to this, but this very much felt like a new start for the series, which it needed. It's not like the first season bombed in the ratings, but given the relentless hype there's no doubt that it failed to live up to expectations in numerous ways. The question is, will the changes for this season make a difference? (I predict yes.)
Speaking of changes, note that there was no host for this premiere episode, and so far as I know the show has yet to announce one. (I am sorry they fired that scorching hot Steve Jones. I don't care if he was terrible. I just wanted to look at him.)
Throughout tryouts most of the typical hosting duties seemed to fall to new judge Demi Lovato, who asked the contestants their names, ages, etc. from the judging table. I initially balked at Lovato on the panel – she's only 19, and at the time she was hired she was best known as a Disney Channel star with very little name recognition outside the tween demographic. But Simon Cowell has once again proven that he's an evil genius, because Demi is currently breaking through in her solo career with "Give Your Heart a Break," which is all over the radio right now. I also think her argument for why she deserves her spot -- that she knows what her generation is listening to -- is pretty smart. I was going to give her a provisional pass, but by the end of the episode I found her to be charming and refreshing. The father/daughter vibe between her and Simon was the best part of the panel and made me like both of them more.
As for the really big get for the panel, Britney Spears, I frankly think she needs this show right now as much as it needs her. Yes, she has rebounded substantially from her dark period a few years back. But she needs a forum where America can fall in love with her personality again, and this show could do that for her. Britney's current issue is, people think she's a puppet at best, an idiot at worst. Being a judge here will allow her to speak directly to the people, albeit in a highly regularized format. (And as tonight's episode proved, she's not all sweetness and giggles and y'all. She's got a bite to her, and I loved it.) There's no question she's benefiting the series. I'm basically only watching because she's here. Part of me wants her to be a trainwreck, but the bigger part of me really wants to see her succeed, be awesome, and say, "Suck it, America! There's a reason I've been a pop-culture icon for the past decade and a half."
The auditions started off in Austin, Texas, with Britney and Demi joining the returning judges, Simon and L.A. Reid. I immediately enjoyed the chemistry between Britney and Demi, and between Simon and the two of them. L.A. is a bit of a stick in the mud compared to the three of them. I also enjoyed Britney's hot pink boob-window dress. I am always on Team Boob Window.
First up was Paige Thomas, a gorgeous, funky 21-year-old mom from San Antonio. Britney was totally adorable while interacting with Paige's 3-year-old kid, who was off to the side of the stage. Paige has been going to school for nursing, but of course she really wants to be a star. She picked "I'm Going Down" by Mary J. Blige. Paige's vocal wasn't great -- she was off pitch in parts, but she's got some soul, and she sold the performance. I think the song was actually too high for her, as she was frequently flat (although that may have also been a product of singing in a stadium). Britney called her bright, beautiful, and flawless. Well, that's not accurate, but it's sweet. L.A. told Paige to stop delaying the inevitable, because she's a star, and then compared her to Rihanna. Demi commented on the stage presence, which I think is what Paige had going for her the most. Simon said that she looked and sounded like a pop star, and also she's got a great sob story that he can milk (my words, not his), calling her "commercial with a capital-C." She was put through to Boot Camp.
Kaci Newton, 22, is a total Heather, a stealth bitch who describes herself as Carrie Underwood mixed with Adele. Well, that sounds just awful. The show totally turned her into a villain, airing clips of her talking huge shit about basically every woman in the holding pen, while simultaneously talking herself up. I cannot with Kaci's pantsuit, which reminded me of very rare roast beef. Simon said Kaci reminded him of Britney, which is a terrible insult to his new coworker. Kaci picked Katy Perry's "Firework," which was appropriate, because the girl set fire to her reputation and career on national television. She did a cutesy version of the song and was almost constantly off pitch, and she got worse as it went on. It was the very definition of Simon's old "Idol" chestnut, "a ghastly lunch." Simon told Kaci that it sounded like she was dying. Kaci argued that she was nervous and broke into Duffy's "Mercy," which was marginally less awful, but still not good. Simon, L.A., and Demi all told her no, Simon called her annoying, and she was just cast as an untalented, hateful bitch on national TV. THIS! Is "X Factor"!
Shawn Armenta is a 50-year-old airline worker who is a rapper/singer. He performed an original song called "Candy Girl," and he came off as a pervert. And embarrassing. The look on Britney's face -- when she wasn't chewing her gum like a cow chews cud --was priceless. Shawn was very shouty and intense, and just thoroughly mortifying. Simon called him "a mouse trying to be an elephant," and called the performance "just wrong." Shawn got all uppity, saying he spent way too much time writing and rehearsing for this kind of treatment, and then threw some shade at Demi using AutoTune. And then! Britney gave some Grade-A side eye and told Shawn that he made her uncomfortable, and that she wondered who let him on stage. This began the Bitchy Britney montage, which was amazing to behold. Britney was dismissive, haughty, blunt, and occasionally creative in her critiques and I LOVED IT. She's not the new Paula at all! Our Lady of Cheetos is not playing. This is what happens when you're raised by Baptists and show-biz homosexuals. Heaven.
Reed Deming is 13, a seventh-grader, and a Justin Bieber lookalike. Lord, help us. Are children really that relentless for fame at that age now? Is that a good thing? He picked "It Will Rain" by Bruno Mars, which is song that was way too mature for a kid who hasn't even hit puberty yet. Simon stopped him about 12 bars in -- it was pretty tortured -- and told the kid to pick another song where he didn't have to try so hard. Instead Reed switched to a stripped-down version of "Grenade," and it was much improved. He still tries way too hard and basically copied moves and vocal tricks from other music acts (of course -- he's 13, he has no idea what he's doing). Simon told Reed that he needs better vocals,Demi thought he was adorable, and L.A. mentioned the Bieber thing, at which the kid bristled. You know what, child? You don't want to be compared to Justin Bieber, don't walk out on stage looking like his clone. Come on. Anyway, they all way overpraised him and unanimously put him through. I'll say this: I already like Reed more than that Eben kid "Idol" tried to force down our throats last season.
Then the auditions moved to San Francisco, which of course included a segment on transvestites/transsexuals. Sigh. But it had a happy ending (get your mind out of the gutter). Quattro Da'an Smith is a 21-year-old trans cake decorator who came in dressed as a bride, because she was here to marry "X Factor." Bless her heart. Predictably, Quattro sang "Born This Way" by Lady Gaga, but at first she mostly just scampered around the stage. When Quattro started singing, it wasn't awful! It wasn't great, but it wasn't bad. Britney found Quattro charming, Demi loved her, Simon called Quattro the child of Madonna, Dracula, and Bobby Brown, but he liked it in a weird way. L.A. said no, but the other three sent Quattro through. Simon told L.A. to embrace the madness. A victory for that elegant sugar flower and transgendered people everywhere!
Vincent Thomas, 22, is an actor from Los Angeles. He's a former boy bander -- a European boy bander, which is the worst kind -- and he needs to be careful when he says things like, "I've done group stuff." Because that could very easily get misinterpreted. He picked "Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word" by Elton John. It was decent, although he went flat, and there's a...delicateness to his voice. And to him, too. Simon told Vincent that in a boy band, he would be the one who wouldn't sing. L.A. called him "dull and boring" and Vincent was promptly shuffled stage. I didn't think he was as bad as the judges made him out to be.
Our first group audition of the season: Emblem 3, featuring three teenage skater boys who annoy the living shit out of me already. The three them made a lot of noise about not being "manufactured," but were totally ignorant as to how cookie-cutter they already are. Zero self-awareness. They did an original song called "Sunset Boulevard," which was terrible, and riddled with cliches, but the three of them can sing/perform. It's a rap/pop hybrid, and the crowd and judges were getting into the song. L.A. loved them, Britney liked the funky vibe and smooth voices, Demi was a smitten kitten (Simon immediately told her no, no, no), and Simon loved the whole audition. Unanimously put through.
Don Philip, 32, from the Bronx, did a duet with Britney a decade ago, but his personal showbiz career failed to take off. Britney recognized him immediately, and Don broke down while trying to talk about his lack of success in the recording industry. Britney was initially very supportive, and you could see in her eyes how empathetic she was with this guy. He went with Beyonce's "Halo." There was something weird going on with Don's voice -- it sounded strained, like he was getting over being sick. It seemed to me that he knows the techniques required to sing, but the voice wasn't there, and his diction is terrible (I'm just going to put this out there: I think Don has been through some physical stuff since Britney first knew him, as he looks visibly different). Don got progressively worse as the song went on. The performance was also odd and off-putting, and Britney got visibly uncomfortable as it went on. Simon told Don full on that he doesn't have a good singing voice. Britney paused for a second, commented on some vague personal struggles, and told Don truthfully but kindly that his voice is not at a level that they're looking for with "X Factor." I found that really brave of her, a true test of whether or not she's suited for this gig. Don was shocked and hurt, tried to sing a second song, and the look of betrayal on his face when all four judges said no was brutal. Backstage he started sobbing, wondering if he hurt Britney. She was upset by it, but Simon comforted her. That was a difficult segment to watch, and manipulative on multiple levels for multiple people. But it served its purpose: it humanized Britney, showed us that she's capable of doing this in the hardest of circumstances, and further established the bond between the new judging panel (again, minus L.A., who is the worst).
Then the auditions moved to, of all places, Providence, Rhode Island. Janelle Garcia, 18, is adorable as can be, even if she called Pat Benatar "old rock." Child. She went with "Paris (Ooh La La)" by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. She's got some soul and blues in her pipes and she really took to the stage. I liked this girl more than any other audition of the night. She needs to tone down the hair flipping and is desperately overdue for a makeover. I was getting an Allison Iraheta vibe from her, and that is a good thing. The judges loved her, with Demi commenting on how she's so cute and unassuming...until she opens her mouth and howls. Simon said that she's what is missing from pop music right now. They all sent her through.
Jillian Jensen is a 19-year-old piano teacher from Rochester, Massachusetts. From the stage she spoke to Demi about their shared experiences with bullying -- which is a platform that Demi has spoken about publicly -- and I'm going to be really honest with you. At first I was interested in the segment, and then she said something about how people were mean to her and it "was not fair" and I just rolled my eyes. Excuse me white, middle-class American who seems to have all of her parts intact and is in at least decent health. Please go to other areas of the world where people live in poverty, famine, and war, or talk to kids born blind or with AIDS, and then tell them how unfair life is that some bitches in your school were mean to you. Perspective, folks. The song she picked was way, way too low for her in the beginning. But she did get markedly better, and really emoted -- I would argue too much. She became unhinged at one point. It was like watching a therapy session set to music. Jillian is talented, but she needs to lock her shit down, focus her issues into her craft, and go for it. I'm very torn on her. Demi got up on stage and hugged her, and the two of them had a moment. Demi should also go and hug whoever was responsible for getting her onto this show, because this is what is going to take her career to the next level. She came off better than Britney tonight, and I was NOT expecting that. The judges lavished Jillian with praise and unanimously put her through. Simon even got teary eyed. He does have human feelings!