Thursday's "X Factor" audition episode featured a couple of baby-faced, perfect-haired male heartthrobs who had drooling female audience members yelling their faces off, and that was all fine and good. Cute pinup boys certainly have their place on "The X Factor." But it was two girl singers, Ellona Santiago and Ashly Williams, who truly wowed this evening. Maybe, just as females dominate the "X Factor" panel this season, they'll end up dominating the competition, too.
Here are the four contestants who made it through on Thursday:
Andrew Scholz – Last year, "The X Factor" tried to be all edgy and poppy and hip-hoppy, pushing contestants like Rihanna clone Paige Thomas, leopard-faced CeCe Frey, and surfer-dude boy band Emblem3. But then the winner was traditional hat-act country guy Tate Stevens. While Tate has failed to become a major player in Nashville since, Simon Cowell clearly must have realized that Tate's popularity on "The X Factor" (or maybe Scotty McCreery's success during and after "American Idol") meant his show should target a different audience this year. So far, Season 3 has been packed with likable, aw-shucks country singers, including this Andrew kid. His voice wasn't actually all that stellar: When he started off doing Alex Clare's angsty "Too Close," he didn't possess nearly enough passion or lung power to make the performance believable. In fact, Demi Lovato, Kelly Rowland, and Paulina Rubio all voted to send him home. But the 18-year-old star athlete exuded this all-American charm — he was a "nice little corn-fed country boy," as cougar Kelly purred — and Simon just couldn't let this boy get away. Simon for once disagreed with his co-stars (I do believe this was the first tiff the panel has had this season), begging them to reconsider. "You've got charisma, which is part of 'The X Factor,'" he told Andrew. "It would be crazy to let you go at this point; I genuinely believe that. Demi, give this guy a chance!" Andrew then got to sing a different song, Little Big Town's "A Little More You," and it was more than just a little bit better. In a nail-biting, made-for-TV turnaround, Demi suddenly exclaimed, "That totally changed everything!" And then all three of Simon's co-judges said yes, yes, yes. The ladies' 180 seemed a little staged, and I still suspect their initial reaction may have been correct; Andrew's vocals were hardly the strongest I've heard this season. But it seems that for now, Simon really has this country kid's back.
Ellona Santiago – Ellona made it to the top 12 of "The X Factor" Season 1, as part of the Paula Abdul-mentored, 20-legged kiddie collective InTENsity alongside future Season 2 soloist Arin Ray. Of course, Simon didn't remember her. But, in his defense, neither did I; there were just too many precocious tweens coming and going in that doomed group for me to keep track. But performing on her own this week, doing "Wings" by "X Factor U.K." winners Little Mix, the now 16-year-old Ellona was certainly memorable. This girl came to win this time. She stomped that stage like a baby Beyoncé, really werking it; as Kelly put it, "she meant business." Demi told Ellona, "If I had been here for the first season, you would have gotten through. You're going to be like, 'Simon, you're never, ever, ever, ever going to forget me again!'" Simon told Ellona, "You are the girl I think I want to work with most in this competition. The two-year difference is unbelievable!" (Side note: Paulina was missing in action again, just as she was on Wednesday. Why did Simon hire her? And why is she getting paid $500,000 more than Kelly, who's never missed a day on the job?)
Stone Martin – "Now that's a pop-star name," Simon declared. And this eighth-grader had the cutie Bop magazine looks and early-Bieber haircut to go with it. Sadly, though, he didn't quite have the voice or stage presence. He was extremely nervous, almost to the point of retching into his mom's purse backstage, and his quavering vocals were barely even audible. The good sign? His vocals were inaudible because of all the SCREAMING GIRLS in the audience. As he struggled through One Direction's "Little Things," there was so much hysterical shrieking, you would've thought Harry Styles himself was onstage. The show was at least edited to make it seem like tween girls were spazzing out in the aisles. Remember how Ashley Ferl sobbed over Sanjaya on "Idol" Season 6? It was sort of like that, except there were multiple Ashleys. Here are some example audience reaction shots:
"These little girls are dying and freaking out that you even looked at them, and this is your first time onstage!" marveled Demi. "You've got an incredibly likability about you, and this star glow," said Simon. Kelly was the only one who really mentioned Stone's vocal shortcomings, but only to say, "You're still getting to know your voice. You've only scratched the surface." Personally, I don't think Stone is ready for prime time; he's only 14, he'd never performed for more than six people before going on this show, and his voice needs work. I don't know if he's prepared for his "life to change forever," as the reinstated Paulina warned him. Stone would probably be better off auditioning for this show in a few years. But let's face it…this show might not be on in a few years.
Ashly Williams – A whopping nine minutes of Thursday's hour-long episode was devoted to this girl, and with good reason: She deserved every minute of that screentime. She earned it. She had an incredibly moving sob story — her mother was murdered 10 years ago, when Ashly was only 14, and Ashly auditioned the week of her mother's birthday — but she didn't share that horrific tale onstage when Simon interviewed her. Instead, she let her singing alone win over the judges and audience. Her powerhouse cover of the Whitney Houston version of "I Will Always Love You" had everyone in tears (even Ashly started crying midway through), and her entire song was shown, all four minutes of it. The four minutes flew by fast. Everyone was riveted. This was the performance of a star; I totally experienced flashbacks to the J.Hud/Fantasia era of "Idol." Said Kelly, "Thank you, baby girl, for spilling your heart out in that vocal!" Paulina said, "I was just captivated by your talent. That was an amazing performance!" Demi raved, "I'm like, speechless. I had chills all over my arms and legs…I want to mentor you!" And Simon declared, "This is why we brought the show to America: to find someone like you." I feel like I've heard Simon say that before, and Demi gets the chills so often on this show, I wonder why someone doesn't just turn up the thermostat in the auditorium already. But I think they really meant it this time.
So there you have it. While Thursday's episode was not nearly as promising as Wednesday's, which was teeming with talent, Ellona and Ashly made it all worthwhile. Will "The X Factor" keep up this pace at next week's auditions? I certainly hope so. Tune in then and find out.