THE X FACTOR – Season 2 Introduction and a Closer Look at the Top 24

The UK version of The X Factor debuted in September of 2004 and has run every fall since.   Created by Simon Cowell, an original Pop Idol judge and burgeoning (and often notoriously mean honest) music producer icon, X Factor gave Simon complete control (something he did not have on Pop Idol) to steer the ever popular reality performance competition juggernaut.  His offseason side job was a little program called American Idol, a more successful version of the UK counterpart that only lasted two seasons (or series, as they call them in Britain), and Simon became an even bigger star in the States and internationally than the talent he was trying to cultivate.

The UK X Factor has spawned the careers of some major acts (Leona Lewis, One Direction) and some acts that have only seemed to make an audible dent in Europe (No, I have never heard of Matt Cardle or Alexandra Burke either).  With the Idol brand on a downward trend (beyond an Olympic miracle, last season’s winner, Philip Phillipps, was going to go down as the least memorable Idol champion since Taylor Hicks), Simon knew that it was time to make a change and bring the X Factor to the United States.

Last season’s American version debut had some successful components (music mogul LA Reid as a judge, live prelim auditions), but failed to reach Simon’s lofty preseason ratings predictions and failed to find its own, dare I say, “x factor” as a television program.  You could see the kernels of something great, but there was something wrong in the overall mix.  Changes had to be made.  Simon said “thank you, but don’t come again” to judges Nicole Scherzinger (a little bit out of her league and ostracized for her terrible decision to send the incredible Rachel Crow home) and Simon old-faithful Paula Abdul (whose career second act may have peaked in 2003).  The unintentionally comedic host Steve Jones (who spent the season as a befuddled, awkward, and hilarious Welsh import) was also given his metaphoric pink slip (I do miss his tomfoolery).

With Simon and LA Reid remaining on the judges panel, Simon wanted to find two new woman judges who could provide more of the buzz and vitality that the program strives to achieve.  In Britney Spears (not a girl, not yet a thirty-one year old woman), The X Factor has a megastar judge (she received top billing even over Mr. Cowell) who is still relevant (although I think her singing abilities have always been a little more “oops” than “hit me baby one more time”) and deserves credit for her longevity in the industry amidst some career-defining tough moments.  Demi Lovato, the twenty-year-old Disney factory pop/actor starlet, is a more unconventional choice as the second judge, but she brings with her a connection to younger fans who have been reared on her tween focused performance projects.  No stranger to some personal (and sadly public) problems, Demi has lived her twenty years, but has risen above these struggles.  Both Britney and Demi are at a pivotal point in their careers as they embark on the X Factor judge/mentor circuit this fall and both seem hungry for a career win.

In a stroke of unexpected genius, Simon removed the host from the audition/boot camp portion of the show allowing for more contestant intimacy and access throughout the many nights of audition coverage.  It is rumored that the always professional Mario Lopez and potentially underrated Khloe Kardashian will be stepping in for the live shows, but so far it has been a pleasure to be freed from the clumsiness of Steve Jones during these early stages.

This week, X Factor finished the emotional roller coaster known as boot camp (to the delight of tissue companies everywhere who are sure to capitalize on the sudden rise of tear shedding) and chose the top twenty-four acts in four major categories.  Last season, the categories were Girls, Boys, Groups, and Over 30s.  Complacent he is not in season 2 and Simon’s desire to make positive changes shook up this expected format.

This year, the four categories are Teens (under 17), Young Adults (17-24), Over 25s, and Groups.  The older group last season felt like it never had a shot, there was too broad an age, stylistic, and maturity (remember poor Astro’s attitude about being in the bottom two) difference between the older “girls” and “boys” and the youngest competitors, and the whole group idea felt forced (and straight up struggled under the leadership of Ms. Abdul).  These redefined categories and mentor assignments (Simon attached to the groups is brilliant, Britney is adorable with the little ones) should provide a more palatable formula for season two success.

Let us breakdown the final 24 acts and how they did at the mentor’s houses:

THE YOUNG ADULTS (17-24)

Mentored by Demi Lovato and assisted by Nick “I like your new clean cut look” Jonas brother.

Location: Demi’s noveau chic LA pad

Jennel Garcia, 18, student, Rochester, MA – She is a sweetheart in life, but has this tremendous sexy fire when she performs.  Her “I Kissed a Girl” was not her best work and may have been overly affected by Demi’s pre-performance chat.  Jennel: “I thought we would kind of chat before I started singing, but we didn’t and I thought they would say something after I sang, but they didn’t.  It was really nerve-wracking – I lost so much confidence, but I did everything I could possibly do.”  Demi was “bummed” that her “light was a little dimmed” after giving Jennel advice.  Jennel has the it, but with a very talented group, is not a lock for one of the four spots for the live shows.

Willie Jones, 17, student, Shreveport, LA – Willie, the unexpected country crooner, took a risk singing “Nobody Knows” again after a self-professed “bombed” performance at boot camp.  Although a much improved rendition here (especially in the eyes of Demi and Nick), Nick is correct to point out that he needs to define his particular genre.

Jillian Jensen, 19, part-time piano teacher, Rochester, MA – Known for her emotional first audition that highlighted her unfortunate shared history of bulling with Demi, producers have not shown us a ton of Jillian singing since.  Her “Gravity” by Sara Bareilles was “kind of sexy” Nick Jonas and was a pleasant surprise.  Like Jennel, her confidence and emotions may be a future consideration further in this competition.

Nick Youngerman, 21, janitor, Tipp City, OH – The exuberant (“I love this song”) young MC “sang” “Tick-Tock” by Keshia.  Although not able to sing (the “oh oh oh” choruses were monotoned), he has definite stage charisma, but I am not sure his performance ceiling is that high.  Demi: “I couldn’t tell if I was like loving it or super annoyed by it.”  Yep.

Paige Thomas, 21, nursing student, San Antonio, TX – The mom of a lovely little three-year old has been an emotional theme park ride since going head to head with CeCe Fry at boot camp.  Bizarre outfit aside, I didn’t get her “Turn up the music” by Chris Brown.  Demi may be right that her best moment may have been in her first audition.  As she exposes more insecurities, Nick is right to ask if Demi can get her “back to that girl” that the judges fell in love with.

CeCe Fry, 21, mail clerk, Decatur, IL – CeCe is a bit of a head case (what’s up with the leopard spots that she paints all over her face and leg?) and must fight what Demi described to her as being sometimes “unlikeable.”  Her “I’m Sexy and I Know It” did take Demi’s direction and she certainly wants this thing badly.  Will America like her?  She will certainly fight to the limit to find out.

The four who should go on to the live shows: Jennel, Jillian, Willie, CeCe

The four who will (Demi’s selections) go on to the live shows: Jennel, Jillian, Nick, Cece

THE GROUPS

Mentored by Simon Cowell and assisted by Marc “smart to end up with Simon on X Factor, sorry Jennifer” Anthony.

Location: Simon’s Miami palace (although apparently it isn’t even his pad)

Playback, teens – This charming group of five young (and super happy to be here after all being eliminated as individuals at boot camp) lads turned on Simon (“there is a something naive and kind of likable about them”), but Marc did not get it (“I was looking at an airplane”).  Lead lad Owen’s intense long-distance relationship with Tori (“this is all for you, Tori”) is…something.

Emblem3, 16-19, Huntington Beach, CA – Sorry, boys.  I don’t get it.  Their awkward “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” reggae pop rendition stumbled when the dude who never wears a shirt got lost looking at the beautiful sky.  Simon says that “they lost their way” and I am just not sure they ever found it.

Sister C, 17-21, Mount Belvieu, TX – These three sisters from a small Texas town have a killer blend and tight harmonies.  Their performance sizzled and each solo would compete in the young adults category.  They could be the one to beat in this category if America can get them (as Britney at their boot camp performance did not).

Lyric 145, 19-23 – The combination of two brothers plus effortless rapper Lyric (another post boot camp creation) made “Party in the USA” come alive in ways I did not think were possible.  Marc and Simon agree that Lyric is a “superstar.” (Although, what is up with covering her eye like a pirate?)

Dope Crisis, 25 & 30, Philadelphia, PA – This duo has been together seven years and both Simon and Marc think they had a good audition, but aren’t sure there is any further they can go.

Lylas, 15-19 – This boot camp reject combination of five girls are all really good singers as individuals and kind of worked together singing Shontelle’s “Impossible.”  Simon thought they were “unbelievable” and I definitely could feel something when they sang together.  They could be one to watch in this category.

The four who should go on to the live shows: Playback, Lyric 145, Lylas, Sister C

The four who will (Simon’s selections) go on to the live shows: Playback, Lyric 145, Lylas, Sister C

THE OVER 25s

Mentored by LA “I am not happy about this category, but I want to win” Reid and assisted by Justin Bieber and his manager, Scooter Braun (still not sure why he plays such a key role)

Location: at LA’s actual home in Beverly Hills, an absolutely gorgeous view

Jason Brock, 34, computer tech, San Francisco, CA  – After a vocally impressive first audition, Mr. Brock belted a clean and clear performance of “I hope you know” by Fergie.  The judge/mentor response says it all: LA: “That was a strong…(pause)vocal.”  Justin asked, “Is that the one?” and Scooter reminded us that the winner wins “a big contract” (thanks Scooter).  I am not sure they are high on Jason.

David Correy, 26, musician, Riva, MD – The tattooed, vocally strong guy told us at his first auditions that he is different because he is adopted and hoping to reconnect with his birth mother.  His slow, California skyline adoring version of “Domino” by Jesse J. gave LA “chill pumps,” but he believes that “viability in the marketplace is the question.”  He can definitely sing.

Daryl Black, 37, musician, Elk Grove, CA – Daryl felt his performance of “She’s Gone” and put his heart and soul out there.  Although Scooter believed “he’s got a special voice, and with a band behind him…” (what could possibly happen, Scooter?), LA just thought it was “singing.”  I think he was more successful in his first audition.

Tate Stevens, 37, road worker, Belton, MO – This “only dude in the hat” (what about Vino’s beanie?) does not want to go back to asphalt work (who does?).  His countrified “Back at One” by Brian McKnight was well-received by LA as a song choice.  Scooter thinks “there is something about him that makes you want to root for him,” but Justin is “not sure about giving him the 5 million.”  Agreed.

Vino Alan, 40, musician, Waynesville, MO – Adorned with tattoos covering his head, Vino admirably wants to provide for his son.  His rendition of “Sober” by Pink hits some of the same emotional peaks and makes some of the emotional connections as the original (high praise from me).  Scooter’s take, “The dude is petrified, he’s nervous, he’s scuffing up your shoes, but he stepped up.”  LA “likes the soul but is worried about the package…the package.” (whatever that means)

Tara Simon, 27, vocal coach, Atlanta, GA – She feels like she is going to win the whole thing (and actually believes it) and is super lucky with the new format (she would be destroyed by the girls if this were last year).  It seems like the men in her category are not enthralled to spend time with this vocal coach who may want to think about a new profession.  Tara thanked Jesus and thinks she gave “a near perfect performance” of “The Reason” by Hoobastank.  Justin thinks “she should make sure to have more sweet moments with her voice” and in life (I added the second part).

The four who should go on to the live shows: David, Vino, Jason, Daryl

The four who will (LA’s selections) go on to the live shows: David, Vino, Daryl, Tara

TEENS (13-17)

 Mentored by Britney Spears and assisted by will.i.am who, according to Britney, “knows what kids are listening to.”

Location: at Britney’s LA home which apparently is not her actual home

Diamond White, 13, student, Los Angeles, CA – Diamond White is a star.  Her performance of “I’m With You” by Avril Lavigne was a definitive better vocal than the original.  She may be in a different league than most other performers.  Will.i.am thought she was “amazing,” but that she “cares about her moves too much.”  I am unimpressed with will.i.am’s overall appearance.

Reed Deming, 13, student, San Antonio, TX – This Justin Bieber-lite believes that his “entire life has been in preparation for this moment.”  Reed’s almost undistinguishable slow version of “Hey There Delilah” by the Plain White T’s (in retrospect, all of the teen performances were super slow.  Did Britney ask for this?) left Britney thinking “he was nervous” and “can deliver better than he did, “  Will.i.am compares Reed to “a little emperor, like a little emperor kid.” (Joffrey from Game of Thrones? Oh boy.)

James Tanner, 15, student, Groveport, OH – As the only teen rapper in the competition, Mr. Tanner has his work cut out for him against some great singers.  Britney and will.i.am seemed to agree.

Arin Ray, 17, student, Cincinnati, OH – Mr. Ray competed last year as member of the group Intensity (one of the many groups that Paula mentored and America never seemed to figure out last season).  His version of Nicki Minaj’s “Starships” was a competent, if safe performance.  However, both Britney and will.i.am saw something special.

Beatrice Miller, 13, student, Maplewood, NJ – After showing some nerves before her performance, she rocked a plodding version of “Titanium.”  Will.i.am considered her performance “fresh.”  I think she has a little fire inside of her and may be able to compete in close to the league of some of her best teen competition.

Carly Rose Sonenclar, 13, student, Westchester, NY – After her incredible first audition, it was clear that this girl has a killer voice.  Her “Broken Hearted” by Karmin was a soulful work of art.  In the understatement of the year, Britney said, “she is a very talented young girl.”  She could very well be the winner of this season’s The X Factor.

The four who should go on to the live shows: Carly Rose, Beatrice, Diamond,  Arin

The four who will (Britney’s selections) go on to the live shows: Carly Rose, Reed, Diamond, Arin

What did you all think?  Which contestants will go to the live shows?  How long before Scooter Braun has his own reality show?

David J. Bloom can be reached on twitter @davidbloom7 and writes about pop culture and the NBA for Bishop and Company.  His weekly X Factor column appears on the Afterblog at Afterbuzztv.com. 

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