This week brought the news that Nicki Minaj and Keith Urban have joined "American Idol," and that Usher and Shakira will replace Christina Aguilera and Cee Lo Green on the next season of "The Voice." And in this competitive and cutthroat world of reality singing shows, "The X Factor" of course had to get in on the action too--drumming up some buzz of its own by replacing its head judge, Simon Cowell.
Okay, not really. No need to worry that Ellen DeGeneres, Steven Tyler, or Jennifer Lopez have been recruited for "The X Factor" just yet. But it certainly was jarring on Wednesday's episode when--after falling ill in Kansas City--Simon sat out the show's first hour of auditions, and flew out his old "X Factor U.K." co-star, an affable Irish gent named Louis Walsh, to fill in for him at the last minute.
For those of you unfamiliar with Walsh--i.e., those of you asking the same question L.A. Reid was, "Who the hell is Louie?"--he's a pop impresario over in Britain who has managed the likes of Westlife, Boyzone, Girls Aloud, Samantha Mumba, and JLS. He's a bit of a buffoon on "The X Factor U.K.," sort of fulfilling the show's useless-Randy-Jackson-esque role, but he can take credit for discovering "X Factor U.K." wondertwins Jedward, with whom I am stupidly obsessed, so Louie's cool in my book. The man seemed delighted to get his big shot on American television while seated next to American pop princess Britney Spears, and while he didn't have Simon's bite or bile--apparently not all British/Irish reality stars are crabby, contrary to popular belief--he did a pretty decent job. As L.A. Reid put it, I was "missing Simon...but not that much."
But of course, it didn't really feel like "The X Factor" until Simon returned to the show in the second hour and was soon back to his nasty old tricks. Among his many barbs were "I won't remember you in 15 minutes"; "It was like the six of you were waiting for a bus"; "You're a bit like a singing candle, you just stand there and melt"; and "I can't have any more Adele songs!" It was like Simon had been languishing in his sickbed, imagining sweet pushover Louie letting everyone through while he lay there helplessly, and he was now making up for lost time.
Here's who sang for either Simon or Louis and the rest of the "X Factor" gang at Wednesday's Kansas City and Austin auditions:
Rizzloe Jones - I expected this 18-year-old freestyler, who kept talking about himself in the third person and announced his intention to audition with an improvised rap instead of with an actual song, to be a total trainwreck. And he kind of was, but at least he was interesting. Like a true improv pro, Rizzloe took lyrical ideas from Demi Lovato and L.A., and when Demi asked him to rap about marshmallows (excellent suggestion, Demi), and L.A. suggested he rap about "The X Factor," the Rizz somehow managed to do both--and he even incorporated a few Britney lyrics in the process. "I admire how brave you are to stand up there and do that...and you know, it was really, really good," said a surprised L.A. "You spit that out and I was like, 'What, are you kidding me?' I was so impressed," said Demi. Louis called Rizzloe a "real little pop star!" And Britney told him, "You were like a young Vanilla ice ice baby"--which I am pretty sure she meant as a compliment, or at least that's how the overconfident Rizzloe took it. And so, Rizzloe bizarrely, improbably made it to the next round. Word to your mother.
CeCe Frey - Clearly positioned as this episode's token villainess due to her backstage dissing of Rizzloe ("He's not a threat at all," she stage-whispered), fake face tattoo, and tendency to parade around in her leather short-shorts like a cat in season, Miss "Capital C-e-capital-C-e, no space" was the kind of contestant viewers love to hate, and that Simon Cowell simply loves. (Simon has a thing for catty girls with a crazy streak, for some reason.) It was too bad for CeCe that Simon missed out on her audition, especially since she tried out with one of his all-time favorite songs, "Unchained Melody." That was a performance only a Simon could love--actually, it was terrible--but when she was somehow allowed to do another song (no, that wasn't staged or anything, insert-eyeroll-here), her sassy cover of Christina Aguilera's "Ain't No Other Man" was a surprising improvement. "I love ambitious people with talent. No one's going to stop you!" said Louis. "You have attitude, style, passion, ambition, and I think you have the X-factor, sweetheart," said L.A. "I kind of have a girl-crush on you," admitted Demi. And then Britney committed a huge sin that would have never gone unpunished on Simon's watch, by daring to utter the name of Simon's hated rival show as she told CeCe, "You're the voice!" Oops. Anyway, I don't really think CeCe was that great, and since likability is so important on shows like these, I doubt she'd ever get many votes. But I bet Simon will have fun with her when he finally meets her.
Vino Alan - This 39-year-old father looked a little scary when he first came out (his face tattoo, and his full shaved-head tattoo, were not fake), but when he sang Ray LaMontagne's "Trouble," he gave me a total Josh Krajcik vibe: soulful, raspy, rough, and real. "I was prepared to not like it at all, but I did hear something rather unique in your voice," said L.A. "I think you've got something very interesting," said Louis. "I was inspired!" raved Britney. "It shocked me. I thought it was really great!" gushed Demi, who happened to love Vino's tats. I am excited to hear more from this dude--this show really needs some strong contestants in the Over-30's mix, and I think Vino could lead that pack.
Deangelo Wallace - Deangelo was unlikable from the start, bragging about his supposed star quality ("If the judges don't see a star, they're fools!"); claiming he's a better singer than Justin Bieber (not that that's saying much, but it was still untrue); and already planning to spend his $5 million in prize money on a Ferrari. "Do you have any idea how much you're getting on our nerves?" L.A. asked him rhetorically, before Deangelo had even warbled a single off-key note. Things just went from bad to worse when Deangelo decided to cover the also-unlikable Chris Brown, and so he was sent away--but he left while still wearing his $3,000 microphone, and a probably-staged-but-still-entertaining chase ensued, culminating in his on-camera arrest. "I'm getting arrested," Deangelo sang to the tune of Drake's "Find Your Love," as Kansas City cops cuffed him. Actually, that performance was way better than Deangelo's Chris cover.
Tate Stevens - Country music was very under-represented on Season 1 of "The X Factor," maybe because Simon has made it very clear that he's not a fan of the genre, but 37-year-old dad Tate might change all that. With Simon M.I.A., Tate auditioned for Louis and company, and he blew everyone away. Now here was a contestant that was likable! His cover of Randy Houser's "Anything Goes" was solid, professional, and very commercial, but there was more to him than that--he just seemed like a great all-around guy, and that counts for a lot on these popularity-driven shows. "Do you realize how awesome it is to get people to stand up like that?" raved Demi, as everyone in the auditorium got on their feet. "You've got an amazing, authentic, effortless country voice; we've found ourselves a country star," declared Louis. "You're my favorite so far," confessed Britney. "I'm only mad at you for waiting so long to do what you're doing," joked L.A. Let's hope for Tate's sake that Simon will be this enthusiastic.
Citizen - Simon returned to the show just in time for this boy band, who are undoubtedly hoping to become the American equivalent of "The X Factor U.K.'s" One Direction. "If you look at everyone who is popular right now, half of them are boy bands," stated one of the Citizen boys, who apparently only listens to four current bands. (There's One Direction, the Wanted...and, um, that's two. Who else?) I thought these guys seemed smug and shallow, more concerned about their hair than their vocals, but when they announced their intention to cover En Vogue's "Don't Let Go," I was intrigued by the song choice. And I didn't think they did a bad job with it. The girls in the crowd certainly seemed to be feeling it, and Britney and Demi seemed to speak for all those girls when Britney raved, "You guys totally rocked up there!" and Demi told them, "You guys have really great voices!" Even L.A. liked Citizen. But surprisingly, Simon, the one judge that Citizen probably wanted to impress the most, "didn't get it," describing the group as "10 years out of date" and "like something out of a horror movie." And Simon was the one judge who voted no. I didn't think Citizen deserved such a harsh cririque, but I did appreciate the fact that Simon wasn't about to snatch up just any random group of semi-cute, semi-well-coifed boys who hit the stage in semi-matching outfits. "It's really nice to see you come back so mean," joked Demi. Citizen still got through, but if the rumor is true that Simon will be mentoring the Groups category this season, they obviously won't be sticking around for long.
Diamond White - This precocious 13-year-old with the fantastic made-for-marquee name told a hardship tale of living in a "shoebox apartment" and sharing a bed with her single mom, which made Rachel Crow's situation from Season 1 look like nothing. (Rachel just wanted her own bathroom; Diamond wants her own BED!) But it turned out Diamond shared Rachel's knack for mastering an old-soul classic, as her cover of James Brown's "It's A Man's, Man's, Man's World" was incredibly impressive. (Not Juliet Simms/Joshua Ledet-impressive, but really good for a 13-year-old.) "Your mother got it right--you are a diamond," said L.A. "You have a sparkle in your eye that we look for...which I think is called the X-factor," said Demi. "You totally brought it," said the increasingly succinct Britney. And Simon summed it all up with: "It's ironic that you sang that it's a man's world, when you plainly proved that it isn't!" Expect Diamond to really shine at Bootcamp and beyond.
Ally Brooke - This 19-year-old seemed cute and likable enough, until she started announcing her world-domination master plan to have her own perfume, clothing line, movie roles, and a career as big as Beyonce's. Sheesh. Yet another "X Factor" contestant crossing that thin line between confidence and arrogance. Don't these contestants realize it's humility that wins America's votes? Ally's performance of Jaci Velasquez's CCM hit "On My Knees" was actually great, and it was obvious that Simon liked her ("That's how you do it," he murmured), but then after her backing track ended, she kept on singing, and singing, and singing, indulgently and with seemingly no ability to realize that she'd overstayed her welcome--until Simon started grimacing uncomfortably and actually ordered her to stop. I thought she'd totally blown it, but then all of the judges put her through anyway, with Simon even saying, "I have a feeling that we're looking at a future star here." Ally has potential, but she needs to realize that sometimes less is more.
Brandon Hassan - This cute kid's performance--also of Ray LaMontagne's "Trouble"--reminded me of "American Idol's" Alex Lambert, all floppy hair and throaty vocals. "Three-thousand, four-hundred, and twenty-nine yeses," said Simon. Make that 3,430 yeses, Simon--I liked Brandon too.
Normani Hamilton - This diva's "Chain Of Fools" performance was brief, but it gave me a slight Jennifer Hudson vibe. The reality TV world needs more old-school divas, so I'll be looking for this lady at Bootcamp.
Sister C - This country trio was kind of like Lakoda Rayne--except they were assembled by birth (they're actual sisters), rather than forced by Simon to sing together and then forced by Paula Abdul to dress like the four seasons. Their harmonies on Pistol Annies' "Hell On Heels" therefore sounded sweet and natural, but they still had a rough outlaw-girl thing going on that I dug. "I've been looking for a group like this for a long time," said Simon. He may not like country music, but he likes what sells--and Sister C could sell a lot of records.
Jeremiah & Josh - This duo's original song, "Life Starts Now," was terrible, and I could not wait for it to end. But with the right songs, these boys could be good. "Your voices are magical...I wish you could wake me up in the morning," sighed Britney. She then blushed and claimed she meant she wanted J&J to wake her up in the morning, platonically, with their SINGING, of course. (Her fiancé, Jason Trawick, was in the audience, FYI.) Good save, Britney. Good save.
Jessica Espinoza - "I may look well-fed, but this is from the dollar menu," joked Jennifer, a tough broad from a rough part of San Antonio. Jennifer's cover of Pink's "Nobody Knows" was pure passion, the performance of a woman who's really lived, and she brought down the house. "She's got soul, she's been through a lot--you can tell," observed Demi. "You are really, really special. You dig deeply and come out with all that emotion," marveled L.A. "You have such a strong voice, and it's really deep," agreed Britney. "I didn't like it--I loved it," raved Simon. I can easily see Jessica being a fan favorite. She's the kind of contestant that viewers will root for.
Panda Ross - Panda is an endangered species for sure, because you don't meet women like this every day. At first I expected this 42-year-old Simon obsessive and pneumonia patient, who actually busted out of the hospital to make it to her audition, to be a disaster. (It's a good thing Louis wasn't sitting in for Simon that day, or Panda would have risked her health for nothing!) "Simon is my babydaddy!" this big woman with the big personality howled. "Simon is my boo!" It all seemed so comical, until Panda started singing Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home" and she was seriously great. That's when Simon fell in love with her, along with the rest of the panel and all of America. "I can't deny how good that was," said L.A. "I loved every bit of it," said Demi. "I was completely entertained," said Britney. "You sound like a legend!" exclaimed Simon. Panda's pneumonia worsened right after her audition and she had to go back to the hospital ("Don't let Simon see this!" she yelled as paramedics wheeled her away), but hopefully she'll quickly recover and be in top shape for Bootcamp. In the words of Ms. Ross herself, let America have another little piece of Panda!
Well, at least Simon will be fully recovered on Thursday's episode, with Louis Walsh's services apparently no longer needed. Will Simon and company find any contestant as awesome or fun as Panda? My guess is NO, but come back then to find out.