The greatest thing about a Simon Cowell production is the use of the most inventive comparisons on television. With the premiere of “The X Factor” Wednesday night, we were privy to a couple of great ones, and they didn’t even all come from Simon himself, although he did offer the gem of likening one singer to the child of “Madonna, Bobby Brown and Dracula” and another to sounding “like a dog trying to lay an egg.”
But no, the best use of this mashup form of description came from new judge, Britney Spears, who wasted no time showing her toughness. During a montage of some of her meanest lines, she came up with this: “Vanilla Ice meets Lauryn Hill meets ‘West Side Story.’” I cannot fathom what that would actually be like, and they didn’t show us the audition, so we’ll never know. But any time a judge can be creative enough to describe something on the spot that has elements of late-‘80s white rap, neo-soul mastery, and the musicalization of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ they are a keeper.
Thus it was an excellent music competition judging debut for Britney Spears, and “X Factor”s other newbie, Demi Lovato. While Lovato filled the role of the stunningly beautiful softie a la last year’s Nicole Scherzinger, Spears created a whole new role of her own on the panel. She was thoughtful, measured and honest, and proved her trustworthiness when a guy she recorded with 10 years ago bombed his audition and she had to let him down. “Your voice isn’t up to the standards of ‘The X Factor’ and what we want,” she told him, and it felt almost as painful for her as it was for him. The singer, Don Philip, sobbed hysterically afterward, obviously affected by the great power of Britney Spears. “Did you see Britney’s eyes?” he blubbered to his buddy. “I saw her face and I feel like I hurt her.”
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Meanwhile Lovato had her own powerful moment during the audition of Jillian Jensen, a girl who, like Lovato, was bullied in her youth. Raspy-voiced Jillian cried throughout her audition of Jessie J’s “Who You Are,” and it was beautiful. Afterward, Lovato gave her a hug, and even on a show as overproduced as this one, it got me — and Simon! — to tear up.
On the note of overproduction: last year, it was all about the performances, with huge dance crews and fireworks and the whole nine yards making everything look fake and plasticky. This season the over-the-top production quality has turned its eye backstage during the auditions, mic-ing contestants as they interacted before their auditions, and pitting disparate contestants against one another for the sake of some potential drama. The whole thing was laid out pretty awkwardly at first, when-after the first contestant Paige Thomas was introduced-another contestant, Kacy Newton, was overheard bitching about Paige, then rolling her eyes during Paige’s audition, making faces during other auditions, and finally getting her own turn to sing about 20 minutes later.
The pairing up of contestants backstage happened again in the segment we’re sure was titled “old boy band vs. new boy band” on someone’s index card somewhere. Vincent Thomas, a singer from a boy band that saw some marginal success overseas, met Emblem 3, a trio of brothers from California. Vincent tried to give the group all sorts of useless advice, like “just have fun with the crowd” and such, then sang the most boring rendition ever of “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word.”
Then Emblem 3 took the stage, and you could practically hear the cash register cha-chinging in LA Reid’s head. Though the three boys seem like total annoying jerks, their original song “Sunset Boulevard” is the “Young Homie” of 2012. It was rap-funk-harmony, with sort of a Maroon 5 quality, but totally new, too. Simon said that compared to Vincent Thomas, “it feels like there’s a 30-year difference.” And the good news for “X Factor” is that there’s a one-year difference between this group and the paltry offerings last season.
Other standouts to watch: Reed Deming, a 13-year-old Bieber-lookalike; Jenell Garcia, who is Pat Benatar meets “Showgirls” (my own mashup, thank you); and Quatrele Da’an, who got the Madonna, Bobby Brown, Dracula descriptor from Simon. Quatrele sang Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” in a bridal veil, fishnets, and the hottest pink lipstick I’ve ever seen, and did sort of an amazing job. Quatrele got three yesses, including Simon. And if that’s any indication of what’s to come, we’re in for a fun season full of backstabbing, creative commentary and bridal drag.