On Sept. 11, 2013, Fox televised part one of "The X Factor" U.S.'s third season premiere. It's clear that the show is taking major cues from "The Voice" by showing less "bad" auditions that humiliate contestants and is instead focusing on a more positive tone by showing more "good" auditions.
Unfortunately, in terms of contestant talent, "The X Factor" U.S. is still lagging far behind "The Voice" U.S.
In an attempt to reinvent "The X Factor" U.S. as a "kinder, gentler" show than it was in previous years, the judges (Simon Cowell, Kelly Rowland, Demi Lovato and Paulina Rubio) have become predictable, safe and quite boring in their feedback. Yes, even Cowell, who used to be known as "Mr. Nasty" as a TV talent show judge, but now can be known as "Mr. Naughty but Nice." There are only so many times he can over-praise someone with lines like "this is the best audition I've seen" before it starts to sound insincere. Save that kind of praise for the true potential superstars, not an "X Factor" contestant who had one good audition.
Still, there were a few standout contestants who were showcased in the episode. One example was 54-year-old Lillie McCloud, who did a powerhouse rendition of CeCe Winans' “Alabaster Box.”
Rubio said to McCloud after the performance: "That was unbelievable, lady."
Rowland exclaimed to McCloud: "Where you been? Where you been hiding? The fact that you sang to people a song they didn't know ... And y'all could feel that, couldn't you? Every single part of this room, you touched with your voice!"
Cowell raved, "Honestly, an incredible voice. [You] absolutely nailed it!"
Lovato added, "Oh my God. [You] ripped my heart out of my chest! I feel like I'm listening to Whitney [Houston]. And I feel like your time wasn't supposed to happen until now."
I first wrote about McCloud in my review of "The X Factor" auditions that took place in Uniondale, N.Y., on June 19, 2013. At the time, I couldn't include her name in my review, because journalists who attend these auditions are asked by the show not to report contestants' names until after the episode has been televised.
I wrote in my review: "Lovato and Rowland were moved to tears by the performance. Lovato said, 'I was blown away. I feel like God is in this room.' This contestant was the oldest person to audition that day, so she beat the odds by getting great feedback from the judges, considering how much 'The X Factor' U.S. is favoring contestants under age 25."
And that is part of the problem with "The X Factor." No matter how much praise is heaped on McCloud, and even though she looks at least 15 years younger than her real age, everyone knows that she's not going to be signed by Sony Music (the record-company partner of "The X Factor"), which almost never signs talent-show contestants who are over the age of 40. ("Britain's Got Talent" alum Susan Boyle was an exception because her quick rise to stardom was truly a rare phenomenon for a singer who is middle-aged.) McCloud has released music under the name Nicole McCloud and has already had some minor hits on the dance charts, but it's highly unlikely that "The X Factor" will be her ticket to becoming a huge star.
Even though "The X Factor" U.S. is open to contestants ages 12 and up (with no upper age limit), the reality is that "X Factor" alumni who get record deals with Sony Music are the ones under age 40. Country singer Tate Stevens, the winner of "The X Factor" U.S. in 2012, was one of the oldest contestants from the show to get a record deal with Sony Music. (He was 37 when he won on "The X Factor.") Had he not won on the show, it's debatable if Sony Music would have given him a record deal due to his age, since the music industry in biased in favor of signing new artists who are in their 20s or younger.
Here's an example of what's wrong with the judges overpraising contestants. It's no secret that "The X Factor" usually has a hard time finding duos and groups to fill the Groups category. Maybe that's why the judges were so quick to gush over the boyfriend/girlfriend duo of Alex & Sierra (ages 21 and 22), who did a slow, acoustic version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” that was awkward due to their extreme nervousness and amateur stage presence. Sierra kept looking anxiously at Alex during the performance, which had some shaky vocals that did not deserve this kind of praise from the judges.
Lovato raved, “Not only are you talented, but you are so down-to-earth. You were freaking out in the middle of the lines … I’m rooting for you. You’re so cute together.”
Rubio added, “I believe in you guys. I believe in love.”
Cowell said, “I thought this was going to be quite corny when you first came out, but you’re both cool and you’re quirky. It was an incredible version of the song.”
Being a "cute" and "quirky" couple does not mean they are talented. But I suppose the judges were desperate for more contestants to fill a quota in the Groups category, so Alex & Sierra got "yes" votes from all of the judges.
A better audition came from 13-year-old Rion Paige, whose sob story is that she has arthrogryposis in her arms and glaucoma in her right eye. Paige sang Carrie Underwood's "Blown Away." It was a very good version of the song, but not spectacular, since she had a few off-key moments during the performance.
Cowell made a self-serving comment by reminding people that when he was a judge on "American Idol," he predicted big things for Underwood, who was the winner of "American Idol" in 2005. And not surprisingly, since Cowell is desperate for the U.S. version of "The X Factor" to find as many or more hitmaking stars than "American Idol" has, he compared Paige to Underwood by saying to Paige, "I'm going to say the same thing about you, Rion ... I think you’re literally extraordinary. This is the easiest yes I’ve ever given everybody in my life." (Very phony feedback. He's said that "easiest yes ever" line to several other contestants.)
Paige got unanimous "yes" votes from the judges. And so did Carlito Olivero, 23, who performed Rihanna’s “Stay.” Truth be told, he was a good singer but in a generic way. There is nothing about him that indicates he's going to be a major star.
But that didn't stop the judges from over-praising him.
Cowell gushed, "I actually like everything about you … I think you’re really good. There’s no one around like you at the moment."
Lovato added, "Your voice reminds me of a cross between Frankie J and Trey Songz."
Rubio said, "Carlito, I adore you."
Rowland commented, "We are witnessing a star. It’s an absolute yes."
In 2007, Olivero was on the reality show "Making Menudo" and won a place in the Latino boy band Menudo, but that stint in Menudo didn't work out for him because he's still trying to make it big in the music business.
It wouldn't be "The X Factor" without bad auditions being shown. Luckily, they were shown in small doses in this episode.
The bad auditions included Sally Hessnice (55 years old), who did a dreadful performance of Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All"; Valeria Colombo (41 years old), who butchered Harry Nilsson’s "Without You”; K-Nected, a mother/daughter trio that did a horrific version of TLC’s “Waterfalls”; John Tanner Davis (18 years old), who embarrassed himself with a pathetic version of Celine Dion’s "Titanic" anthem “My Heart Will Go On."
Cowell gave one of the few witty comments of the episode when he said to Davis: "John, I think you did a better job than the iceberg. You killed that song.”
Since these audition episodes are prerecorded and heavily edited, viewers won't really see until the live episodes how Rubio is the weakest link on the judges' panel. She's often inarticulate and makes vapid comments. Rubio is not as bad as Britney Spears was on "The X Factor," but Rubio is not much of an improvement either. Cowell rarely has conversations with Rubio on the panel. It's so obvious that Rubio was not Cowell and company's first choice to be a judge on this show.
In this episode, there was a little hint of Rubio's shaky grasp of the English language when the other judges thought she said "peachy" instead of "pitchy."
Anyone who attended several "X Factor" auditions this year, as I did, saw how Rubio is long on ego and appearances (she struts into the venue wearing sunglasses; unless you've got an eye problem, wearing sunglasses indoors is very pretentious) and short on consistently delivering feedback with substance.
Just wait until the live episodes, when viewers should have many laughs at how often Rubio mangles the English language.
In interviews, the "X Factor" U.S. judges have been hyping the "girl power" of the judges' panel this year. Lovato is at her sassiest when Cowell annoys her and she jumps at the chance to insult him. Rowland gives the best constructive criticism and feedback of the four judges, but "The X Factor" is not going to take her career to the next level, like "The Voice" did for Adam Levine and Blake Shelton. Rowland's personality just does not stand out that much for her to be a breakout star of the show. As for Rubio, she's the train wreck of the judges' panel, but she's not an entertaining train wreck; therefore, she is not fun to watch.
So far, there is very little indication that "The X Factor" U.S. is going to reverse its downward spiral in the ratings in 2013, compared to the ratings the show got in 2011 and 2012. At least the judges have stopped over-using the word "amazing" like they did in 2012, when Spears said "amazing" so many times, she became a self-parody. As long as "The Voice" U.S. has more talented contestants and better chemistry among the judges, "The X Factor" U.S. will always be trying to play catch-up.
Here are links to audition highlights in the episode that aired on Sept. 11, 2013:
Sept. 12, 2013 update: As I have predicted all along, the ratings for "The X Factor" U.S. are continuing on a downward spiral. The show's Season 3 premiere got a pathetic 6.5 million U.S viewers, according to the Nielsen Company. (Click here for more details.) Considering that season premieres are usually among the highest-rated episodes for "The X Factor," things can only get worse from here.