Sep. 22, 2011 at 9:10 AM ET
It’s official. Simon Cowell is back on television, crushing dreams and feuding with his fellow judges.
And let’s be honest ... you missed him. At least a little.
He’s returned to TV with “X Factor,” a new reality show that made its U.S. debut Wednesday night, and he hasn’t changed much since his “Idol” days. The cockiness, the one-liners, the willingness to smack down or roll his eyes at a top record executive because he wasn’t agreeing with Simon’s critiques ... it’s that extra spice of drama and snark that makes two-hour audition episodes bearable.
“X Factor” made it obvious from the opening scenes that this is a member of “American Idol’s” immediate family, and if you liked the latter, you’d presumably like the former.
Simon and Paula Abdul are two of the four judges, looking like they came fresh off the “Idol” 2006 Reunion Tour. Epic Label CEO and former head of the Island Def Jam record label L.A. Reid looks a little like Randy Jackson’s younger and more sophisticated brother. And Nicole Scherzinger plays the role of Random Fourth Judge Without Much Memorable to Say nicely (though Cheryl Cole was fierier, and I’m sorry she didn’t stick around). Host Steve Jones is kind of like a very poor man’s Ryan Seacrest, if Seacrest was quieter, stayed backstage and came from Wales.
But just in case anyone thought they’d misread their calendar and “Idol” season had already started with new sets, “X Factor” also began the process of tweaking audience expectations. Simon and L.A. Reid both made it a point in the introductions that they had left sure-thing moneymakers to start fresh with something great. Think that was foreshadowing what they’d ask of the audience?
The stakes are higher here. The “X Factor” winner gets a recording contract that guarantees $5 million, or roughly five times what the “Idol” winner gets. That came up once or twice during the premiere. Or, you know, every time the judges had the chance to ask an auditioner what they would do with that kind of coin.
In addition, the auditions take place in front of an audience and to music, which led to some much better performances than what we see on similar shows. There are also fewer restrictions on who can audition. Hopefuls can be as young as 12 and as old as ... well, at least 83, as we found out in Los Angeles with one unfortunate act. Groups can audition as well as individuals. And the emphasis is on finding singers with that mysterious and undefined x-factor, rather than another pop idol.
That contrast was evident in those who got airtime in the Los Angeles and Seattle auditions. The vast majority were those who would be ineligible to try out in front of Ryan Seacrest and the “Idol” gang.
Anyone think it was a coincidence that the first singer to take the stage was 13-year-old Rachel Crow? Or that she had poise far beyond her years and a strong voice to match the personality, inspiring Simon to gush “You are the reason why we were right taking the age down?” No way. That was “X Factor” trying to mark its territory as something (slightly) different.
Indeed, the first hopeful who fit into the age parameters wasn’t shown until 43 minutes into the airtime. Of the auditioners in the 15-28 age range, Marcus Canty was likely the only one “Idol” would like to have had a crack at. He was compared to both Bobby Brown (Reid) and Usher (Simon), and at 20 years old has a long career ahead of him.
But the most memorable performances -- apart from the guy who dropped his pants and sang about being a stud, causing Paula to sprint offstage and into the bathroom to throw up -- were a couple of singers who had no reason to expect success.
Stacy Francis is a 42-year-old single mother who said she was told for 12 years that she was too old and not good enough to make it. Shockingly, that kind of feedback had not inspired her to make music her career. Until now. She overcame those hurdles, arrived on the "X Factor" stage, and wowed both the judges and the crowd with “Natural Woman.”
“I’ve done this a long long time. That was one of the best auditions I’ve ever heard in my life,” Simon said.
Then there was Chris Rene, who closed the show. At 28, Rene would technically qualify for “Idol,” if that show had a penchant for tattooed hip-hop singers who said they were just out of rehab (from pot, alcohol, cocaine and meth) and had been clean for 70 days. Which it does not. At any rate, Rene sang an original song that impressed all four judges even as they weighed the risk of picking a guy with that kind of risk and baggage.
“I’ve worked with some of the greatest hip-hop artists, from Jay-Z to Kanye West and all my boys, they would be proud of me today to tell you that you are The Truth,” Reid said.
“Always my favorite feeling in the world when I sit in this chair and meet a star for the first time,” Simon added.
Or at least, he’s hoping that’s the case. It may be nice to see old friends on TV again, but it will take more singers like Rene, Francis, Canty and Crow to get the audiences that “Idol” generates.
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