Will The X Factor become Simon Cowell's Oedipal revenge on American Idol?
They might as well hang a sign on the door at the Fox network: The time for playing nice is over.
“You are talented, but you are deluded,” Simon Cowell tells one singer, who takes the stage like an amped-up lovechild of Prince and Rick James.
"I just witnessed a nightmare,” Paula Abdul moans, shellshocked after another contestant deliberately exposes his, um, naughty bits during an audition.
These are the juicy moments awaiting viewers tonight when they show up for The X Factor; former American Idol judge Simon Cowell’s attempt to Xerox his successful singing competition in England while tackling the last challenge left for him:
Beating Idol at its own game.
“If I thought we couldn’t beat these (rival singing) shows – I know this sounds very arrogant – I wouldn’t do it,” Cowell told me in June, when he stopped by Miami to audition the semi-finalists unearthed by producers during auditions in April. “(American Idol) has literally burned the memory of Simon. But I think that’s hopefully a good thing; if people miss you, you’re gonna come back and give them what they want.”
Critics haven’t seen the full episodes airing tonight and Thursday, so it’s tough to say with certainty exactly what X Factor will offer them (it’s also impossible to say how much they will show of auditioner Amanda Puyot, a St. Petersburgh High School student whose Miami tryouts I watched in April and June.) See my April story here; my June story here.
But based on 95 minutes of material made available to critics by Fox, there’s a few impressions I can kick around.
Like Idol, X Factor seems to pretend its many levels of pre-auditions don’t happen. Auditioners in Miami faced several tryouts before nameless producers at a cattle call audition in April, with a select number invited back to perform on camera in June before a live audience. They also faced superstar judges Cowell, Abdul, Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Nicole Scherzinger.
Which means that, however embarrassing some auditioners may be on camera, they passed several rounds of tryouts and were specifically chosen. In Miami, auditioners were told to wear the same clothes in June they wore in April; the preview footage I saw edited those days into a seamless whole, leaving questions about whether the judges knew who they were about to see and what they were about to do.
Certainly, someone did.
X Factor differs from Idol in a few important respects: those who audition before the on camera judges also face an arena filled with about 3,000 fans (some of whom were paid about $10 to attend the Miami auditions, according to the Miami Herald). And once they pass the first big audition, they're put into a boot camp and mentored by the judges, who compete against each other. The $5-million grand prize doesn't hurt, either.
Likewise, X Factor seems to continue Idol’s taste for blending personal stories of contestants with their onstage performances. Clips I saw featured a vivacious 13 year old who admitted straight up, “my family has, like, no money,” as motivation for winning the show’s $5-million prize; another guy who took the stage fresh out of rehab tugged at the heartstrings with a story of trying to impress his young son through success in sobriety.
There wasn’t much explanation for why British pop star Cheryl Cole was removed as a judge after the first auditions (“I said to do the U.K. show, where I thought she’d be more comfortable; she obviously didn’t want to,” Cowell said to me in Miami)
And while the clips seemed to play up disagreements between Reid and Cowell – with a curt attitude, Reid often competes for status at the show’s resident S.O.B. – there is less ridiculing of contestants obviously brought onstage as comic relief.
In an odd way, so much of X Factor’s genesis has felt a bit Oedipal; bad boy Cowell’s ruthless attempt to create a show he controls which capitalizes on his Idol-born celebrity in America. In the process, you sense he wouldn’t be disappointed if X Factor eclipsed Idol in the U.S. the way it did to mothership Pop Idol in Britain.
“This format, when it works, is the best show in the world,” said Cowell, who has appeared everywhere from G.Q. magazine to the cover of USA Today to publicize his new venture. “It’s all dependent on the judges having chemistry, the contestants being good…’cause if everyone’s terrible, it’s not gonna be a good show.”