If there was one thing to be learned from watching Wednesday night’s episode of The X Factor, it is this: It needs Simon Cowell behind the judges' table to keep things rolling along.
For the entire first hour, judge Louis Walsh, manager of Irish pop stars Johnny Logan, Westlife and Boyzone, sat in for the ailing Cowell when he was unavailable for the Kansas City, Mo., auditions. Although Walsh has a sterling reality-show resume (“Pop Stars, You’re the Star, Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor), Cowell’s bite and colorful commentary was sorely missing, despite L.A. Reid’s comments that he didn’t miss him “that much” and an obviously staged clip of contestants partying down after learning of the caustic judge’s “illness.”
Still, the first hour had plenty to offer in the form of the rebirth of Vanilla Ice, the “CeCe-fication” of Christina Aguilera, a stolen microphone after a judge walkout, Demi Lovato letting her hair flow, Britney Spears sweetly serenading Reid for his birthday and a country crooner that could rival Brad Paisley if he gets a shot at the country charts.
Cowell’s return, however, made for a very different show. It was far more entertaining for the viewers and nerve-inducing for contestants, including wannabe boy band Citizen, whom Cowell deemed was about 10 years too late in their look and act. That kind of criticism is what we expect from Cowell, the most seasoned judge on the panel who has heard it all and makes no bones about telling us what he hates. For the record, Cowell and American Idol's mentor, Interscope chairman Jimmy Iovine, seem to agree on their disdain for hopefuls tackling the songbook of Adele.
Here’s the thing: When Cowell loves something, the viewers will take notice. If she makes it through Boot Camp, asthma victim Panda Ross, could be a favorite to win in the over-30 category. She not only won Cowell’s heart with her outgoing personality and unusual story of her birth name (her mom was in jail with a white cellmate, and they came up with the name together), she already has inherited season one diva Stacey Francis’ theme music, the inspirational Supremes hit “Ain't No Mountain High Enough,” for her video package. Plus, after belting the Sam Cooke classic “Bring It On Home,” Cowell deemed her voice as “a legend.” Voters don’t take that lightly, and America may be ready for a piece of “Panda Pie” if she makes it to the live shows.
Also of note: For all of last week’s talk citing Spears as the newest meanie judge, she was pretty tame Wednesday night. Even her “I’m sucking on a lemon” grimaces were few and far between last night. There were, however, plenty of lemons auditioning, and Cowell was there to verbally browbeat each of them off the stage. Here are some of the highlights:
Rizzloe Jones, an 18-year-old rapper from Kansas City with a resemblance to Derek Hough of Dancing With the Stars fame. His announcement that he intended to freestyle rap at first raised an eyebrow from Reid, who challenged him to incorporate X Factor into his audition. Jones proceeded to blow all four judges away with his quick rhymes, prompting Spears to compare the teenager to Vanilla Ice. Lovato said she expected the Kansas City boy to sing country based on his appearance, and Reid was “impressed.” Can Jones keep that up throughout Boot Camp, though? It will be interesting to find out.
CeCe Frey, a 22-year-old mail clerk. At first, it seemed she was yet another backstage mean girl being set up for a fall. At first, she made fun of Jones, and next tried an intimidation tactic with a duet team backstage. “I’m not here to make friends,” she told the camera. Normally, this kind of bravado is rewarded with a kick off the stage, and it seemed it was going that way when Frey began with a boring rendition of Cowell’s favorite song, “Unchained Melody” by The Righteous Brothers (who knows what would have happened had he been there for that moment). Lovato thankfully intervened, obviously confused why a girl with a leopard tattoo painted on her face would do such a staid audition. Quickly, Frey decided to “CeCe-fy” Aguilera’s “Ain't No Other Man’ (BOLD move in front of Spears -- those Mickey Mouse rivalries cut deep). Just when it seemed Frey was fried, it became another audition entirely. She had swagger and confidence, plus a perilously addictive vocal that earned praise from Spears, who told her she was “the whole package.” Lovato, Frey’s “girl crush” as we learned later, loved it and Walsh accepted her “ambition” with open arms. Frey will be dangerous, as well as cut throat, in Boot Camp. She is one to watch.
Vino Alan, a 39-year-old musician. Unlike Frey’s paint job, Alan had real tattoos on his face and earnest motivation for success: his 15-year-old son. His audition with Ray LaMontagne’s “Trouble” (a classic that goes all the way back to American Idol and Taylor Hicks' winning run on season five) showcased a soulful, unique tone that probably is a big hit at the military bases he regularly entertains. Walsh believed Alan deserved a “chance,” and he was unanimously put through.
Tate Stevens, a 37-year-old father with a white cowboy hat, a deep, smoky voice and an adorable sense of humor. He first got a laugh telling the judges he was going to “rap,” and then smartly demurred to his wife’s wishes for the $5 million prize. The Missouri crooner has a great story for the country audience (he’s a road worker), and he has already perfected the art of storytelling through song, as he demonstrated on Randy Hauser’s “Anything Goes.” Reid expressed anger that it took Stevens until his late-30s to attempt performing, Lovato already wanted to listen to his album, and Spears teared up, telling him he was her “favorite.” The over-30 category is starting to look pretty darn good, especially since Stevens managed a standing ovation during his audition.
Diamond White, a 13-year-old who obviously watched every move Rachel Crow made last season. Her “we live in a shoebox apartment” and desire for her “own room” was almost note-for-note Crow with her “I need my own bathroom” spiel. White is adorable, however, and although her version of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” by James Brown doesn’t come close to American Idol season 11 third-place finisher Joshua Ledet (will anybody do that song as well as he did?), she has a lot of heart, and Cowell’s comment that she just proved that the world isn’t just for men will carry a lot of weight in later episodes.
Ally Brooke, a 19-year-old from San Antonio, Texas, who has the look of a young Jennifer Lopez and the pipes of the real Selena. She revealed big dreams: She wants to do films, act, have a perfume line and have a career like Beyonce’s. She auditioned with a song by Latin and Christian Contemporary artist Jaci Valasquez, “On My Knees.” It’s a big worship song, and she brought down the house with it, continuing to sing a capella after her background music ended. Cowell had to bring Brooke out of her moment, asking her not to sing or talk, while he gave the greatest praise of the evening, “I have a feeling we are looking at a future star.” He may be right.
Brandon Hassan, a 17-year-old from Texas. His looks do not match his bluesy vocals, and that’s his secret weapon. His version of LaMontagne’s “Trouble” is just as good, if not better, than Alan’s. Cowell informed him that he had “4,329” yesses.
Jessica Espinoza, a 22-year-old San Antonio native who is already a hit on YouTube, with her videos drawing 6 million hits. Her version of “Nobody Knows” by Pink blew away the judges, and Lovato said, “I don’t know where to start…You have a sparkle in your eye seen only in people who have the X factor.” Espinoza, with her pink streaked hair and can-do attitude, quite simply, as Cowell put it, sang for her life.
It was so obvious things were going to go quite badly for Deandre Wallace the second he started talking about himself in the third person. It was even worse when he said he was “better than Britney” and dismissed Lovato as a “Disney princess.” In front of the judges, he dissed Justin Bieber right in front of Reid, who immediately told Wallace “you are getting on my nerves.” His comments that he was going to purchase an Escalade and a Lamborghini with the $5 million prize went over like a lead balloon. To add insult to injury, he performed Chris Brown’s “With You” so badly all four judges walked out. Wallace then proceeded to steal a $3,000 microphone from the show (all taped, of course, while police were called). Wallace, arrested to the theme of Cops, was apparently charged with a misdemeanor, and obviously won’t be returning to Boot Camp.
Adrianna Lewis, 14, committed the cardinal sin of boring Cowell with Adele’s “Rumor Has It,” a song he apparently hates. Her eviction from the stage elicited an outburst of tears that scared the wits out of White, who waited her turn backstage. Note to auditioners: Unless you plan to kill it Haley Reinhart-style, avoid Adele.
Elevate. The group was so out of tune Cowell growled, “it was like the six of you were waiting for a bus and someone screamed to you to sing a Demi Lovato song."
While Lovato, Reid and Spears all gave an enthusiastic yes to the boy band amalgamation known as Citizen, Cowell quite simply said he didn’t get it. He had a point. Their decision to perform “Don’t Let Go” by En Vogue felt like it was from another time period entirely, and their robotic dance moves were more like the pathetic boy band Z Guyeeez that American Idol Season 4 alum Constantine Maroulis (sorry, he is the only one I will ever acknowledge as Drew in the stage version of Rock of Ages) is forced to join after his metal career implodes. Bartender Patrick Hartigan is a nice-looking guy, but that shirt, collar up or down, did him no favors. “You are 10 years too late,” hissed Cowell. “It’s like you are in a time machine for me.”
The Best Cowell Quips
To the group, Harmony: "That was like something out of a horror movie."
To Olivia Bonila: "I won’t remember you in 15 minutes."
To an unnamed girl: “You are a bit like a singing candle. You just stand there and melt. ...I wouldn’t play that at my funeral.”
Normani Hamilton, the group Sister C and cuties Jeremiah and Josh, with their original song, all have potential, with Spears telling the double-J's that their voices are “magical and I wish you could wake me up in the morning.” This comment, of course, earned ribbing from Cowell, but isn't that what makes him, well, Simon?
What did you think? Who has the mettle to go the distance?