What is the X factor in The X Factor? What makes it different from, say, American Idol or The Voice? What makes this show special?
OK. The format's different at least. Way different. Granted, it does still feature a whirlwind of auditions at the front end of the season and high-stakes competition toward the back end. But in the middle they send X Factor hopefuls off to boot camp where they're mentored by the judges. Wild! Why, if it hadn't been for The Voice, that mentoring thing would've been an incredible innovation. And instead of the viewing public determining who stays and who goes home, this time it's the judges who do the actual judging. Sometimes. Unless it's one of the rounds where the viewing public determines who stays and who goes home.
And then there are the judges. It's not stylish music producer Randy Jackson on this show; it's stylish music producer L.A. Reid. And to completely cloud things up, snarky Brit Simon Cowell moved from Idol to X. First season singer/dancer celebs Paula Abdul and Nicole Scherzinger have been replaced with Britney Spears and Demi Lovato.
There are scads of other differences too. You know, like Pepsi being the sponsor instead of Coke.
Oh, who am I kidding? The X Factor isn't much different at all. Singers sing. Some sing badly. Some soar. Some improve. All but one get cut by the finale. The singers who sing the sweetest songs and have the best stage presence snag scads of simoleons. What else can you really do with a singing-based talent show?
Well … you can add in some shock factor to the X Factor. In Season 1, the premiere featured a contestant dropping his drawers and flashing Paula while giving the program's trademark "X" a whole new meaning. The Season 2 premiere proffered a male cross-dresser prancing on stage in a wedding gown/lingerie combo.
But this competition has its heartwarming moments too—as all these shows have. Singers sometimes cry their eyes out onstage, and are given hugs from the judges and standing O's from the audience, sometimes as much for their backstories as their performances. On The X Factor, vocal talent walks hand-in-hand with likability, and even a form of secular morality.
Take the Season 2 premiere, in which 19-year-old Jillian Jenson breaks down before she ever even sings, telling Lovato she too got a tattoo that reads "Stay Strong" after almost succumbing to bullying. Then she belts out "Who You Are" by Jessie J: "Tears don't mean you're losing/Everybody's bruising/Just be true to who you are."
Jillian didn't have the best voice that night. But she had the best story, and that story saturated every note. "When you sang, you broke my heart," said Lovato (who also suffered from bullying and has "Stay Strong" tattooed on her wrists), and even Cowell admitted to getting a little misty. Their "yes" votes were votes for Jillian's talent of course … but they also sent a message to all those bullies at home—watching Jillian take her star turn on TV, as Lovato said—that they were wrong and should be ashamed of themselves.
And then, right off that emotional high we see clips for the next episode, with Spears mimicking a sheep while telling someone they're "baaaaad" and Cowell saying, "The last thing you should ever, ever consider is a career in singing." Part of me wonders whether Jillian might've been told the very same thing by her bullies.
Back to business as usual for The X Factor.
"Season Premiere, Part 1"
One performer shows up in super-tight hot pants and nylon stockings. A man takes the stage wearing a makeshift wedding dress/lingerie outfit and pink painted lips. He dances and sings his way through Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" and is selected to move on. Spears wears a somewhat translucent blouse and a red dress, both of which showcase her cleavage.
Winning The X Factor is absolutely everything to many of these contestants. One 13-year-old says he'd "crawl on broken glass" to become a star. Another singer, this one 18, says, "Life starts now." And when they're rejected—some in rather cruel fashion—some break down in near agony. A crooner who once upon a time sang a duet with Britney fails to make the cut, and he's inconsolable, sobbing backstage and nearly collapsing. Another insults the judges as he stalks off the stage.
After one guy creepily rasps his way through a misogynistic tune he wrote, Spears tells him she's "uncomfortable with you even staring at me." (It's a tad ironic, considering how much of her career has been predicated on strangers staring.) People say "b‑‑ch" and "h‑‑‑." One obscenity is bleeped. God's name is misused as many as a dozen times.
"Results Show 7"
More than 30 million voters decided to send Josh Krajcik, Chris Rene and Melanie Amaro to the finals, leaving Marcus Canty out in the cold. "God blessed me so much," Canty says as he leaves. "I gave it my all and that's all you can do."
Florence + The Machine performs, with singer Florence Welch wearing a backless gown. Scherzinger also sings; before she takes the stage, a montage of clips runs of her performing in other venues—showing her scantily clad and dancing seductively. Scherzinger's live performance is fairly tame, however—suitable for her song "Pretty," in which she laments that that's all a former boyfriend considered her.
The word "d‑‑n" makes an appearance during that song. We hear someone misuse God's name.
"Performance Show 7"
The four remaining contestants sing for judge accolades and audience love. Scherzinger is booed—punishment for making a perceived judging misstep. She says she can endure the boos and that "God is good."
Contestant Marcus Canty sings the old Boys II Men song "I'll Make Love to You." Scherzinger enthuses, "You are bringing sexy back!" adding that he does so as a gentleman. Lithe dancers writhe during musical numbers, and Melanie Amaro sports a bit of cleavage. Cowell declares a number to be "bloody fantastic," and we also hear "h‑‑‑." Judges snipe at each other.
Josh Krajcik, meanwhile, sings the Leonard Cohen staple "Hallelujah." And we hear more of the back stories of contestants: Chris Rene, a former drug addict, breaks down in an interview and again onstage when thinking about his late father. "I wanted to make him proud," he says, "and I never did."