It's time to face the music. Simon Cowell and Fox have had two seasons to get "The X Factor" right…and both seasons ended, well, badly. Shortly after Season 1, Simon fired judges Paula Abdul and Nicole Scherzinger and host Steve Jones; that season's "winner," Melanie Amaro, never even released a full album, after all of her singles stalled on the charts. Season 2 saw the departures of judges L.A. Reid and Britney Spears and replacement co-host Khloe Kardashian; that season's winner, Tate Stevens, did manage to get an album out, but its sales were lackluster.
So far, nothing has truly worked. Not even stunt-casting a superstar judge like Britney (for $15 million!) last year brought in supersized ratings. But the third season might be the charm for "The X Factor," judging by the Season 3 premiere that aired Wednesday night. Why? Because the episode's focus wasn't on superstar judges. The focus was where it belongs on really any talent show. The focus was on the aspiring TALENT, plain and simple.
Wednesday's premiere was short and sweet, clocking in at one easy hour, with only the shortest and sweetest of introductions for new judges Kelly Rowland and Paulina Rubio and returning judge Demi Lovato (all of whom, it should be interestingly noted, earn just $4.5 million combined). Then, within literally the first five minutes of the show, these judges started doing their actual jobs. The auditions kicked off immediately, one right after another, and the contestants were always the real stars. Simon might finally be onto something, here…
Without a doubt the biggest star of the night was 54-year-old soul sensation Lillie McCloud.
Yes, you read that right: This dynamite lady is FIFTY-FOUR YEARS OLD. She's even a grandmother! Remember how everyone wondered what juice-cleanse/fountain-of-youth/blood-of-virgins liquid diet or face cream "X Factor" ageless wonder LeRoy Bell used in Season 1? Well, apparently the perfectly preserved Lillie has been following that anti-aging regimen as well. When she strutted out in her fabulously foxy 'fro and form-fitting Leather Tuscadero catsuit, looking like an awesome '70s action-flick heroine or like Lenny Kravitz's (younger) sister, and told the judges her age, everyone in the arena audibly, understandably gasped. I imagine vain Simon, known for his own addiction to youthifying superfood smoothies, probably wanted to take her aside and find out her secret.
Lillie's audition actually offered the best of both worlds: She may have looked like a hot young pop starlet, but she had the voice of wisdom and experience that only comes from a life fully lived. When Lillie belted out the Cece Winans salvation song "Alabaster Box," she poured years of passion and deferred dreams into her performance, and despite the fact that few people in the audience were familiar with the gospel ballad, she completely won over the crowd and soon had everyone on their feet and in tears. This was the stellar performance of a world-class diva.
"That was unbelievable!" declared an impressed Paulina. "Where have you been hiding?" exclaimed a sobbing Kelly. Simon told Lillie, "You have an incredible voice. This was like listening to someone like Gladys Knight. It really was that good." And Demi, also choked up, even said, "You ripped my heart out of my chest! I feel like I'm listening to Whitney! I feel like maybe your time wasn't supposed to happen until now."
Over on the other end of the age spectrum was the night's other star standout, 13-year-old country girl Rion Paige. Rion was born with a rare joint condition called athrogryposis multiplex congenita, but she had a sunny, breezy attitude about her lot in life (blindness in her right eye, curvatures in both hands) and didn't try to present herself as some made-for-TV sob story. The bubbly blonde, whom Demi compared to Taylor Swift, blew all of the judges away with her intense, fearless cover of Carrie Underwood's "Blown Away," so much so that Simon said he got flashbacks to that fateful day when Carrie herself entered the "American Idol" audition room in 2005 and he knew right away that she would become a major, major star. "I think you're a literally extraordinary. In every single way, you are a beautiful person…This is the easiest yes I have ever given in my life," Simon told Rion.
Little Rion was a sweetie for sure, but she had competition in the cute-overload department, in the form of loved-up duo Alex & Sierra. The real-life smitten couple's alt-country duet of the aforementioned Britney's "Toxic" was almost toxically adorable; when they weren't mooning over each other and gazing goopily into each other's starry eyes, they were breaking into incredulous, childish chuckles, completely tripping out over the fact that they were on the "X Factor" stage garnering such a warm response from the crowd. These crazy kids were really selling themselves short — their honeyed harmonies were just lovely, Sierra's voice was particularly smoky and sexy, and their natural talent and chemistry were thrilling to behold, so there was no reason for them to act so shocked. But their aw-shucks humility only made them even more likable. And luckily, their giggle fits never marred their vocals.
"I have the chills all up and down my legs. Not only are you talented, but you're so down-to-earth…You're so cute together! There's magic!" said Demi. "That was the sexiest darn rendition of 'Toxic' that I have ever heard," said Kelly. (Take that, Britney!) "I believe in you guys, I believe in love, I'm just a believer!" raved Paulina. "I thought this was going to be quite corny, but actually you're both cool, and you're quirky…All you need is love," gushed an uncharacteristically lovey-dovey Simon. Apparently love really does conquer all, even the cynicism of a crusty old singing-show judge.
There were the usual reject auditions, of course — including an eardrum-shreddingly shrill one by a loopy, googly-eyed registered nurse named Sally Hessnice, who mangled "The Greatest Love of All" (this fiftysomething lady did not sound Whitney) and coaxed out Simon's familiar nasty side as he quipped, "I just heard that 8,000 dogs are trying to get into the venue."
But most of Wednesday's auditioners were impressive, including one guy who may become Season 3's resident heartthrob (and has already done time in a millennial reboot of Menudo). Carlito Olivero, a 23-year-old hunky barista with a sweet falsetto, charmed everyone with his swagger-laden, lady-killing performance of Rihanna's "Stay"; the coffee boy brimmed (no pun intended) with confidence, even venturing beyond the judges' table to directly serenade the audience. He had star quality, no doubt. Demi compared him to Frankie J and Trey Songz. Paulina cooed, "I adore you!" And Simon probably spoke for much of America when he stated, "I like everything about you."
So there you have it. Is "The X Factor" finally on the right track? Possibly. The show has disappointed me before, and this episode was basically just a little teaser reel of highlights from various audition cities. The real test will be Thursday's two-hour episode — or, of course, the upcoming live episodes, when the show can no longer rely on creative editing. But I'm cautiously optimistic.
While I did slightly miss the edgy, "Hills"-style documentary approach from last season, I certainly didn't miss boring Britney, grumpy L.A., or shouty Khloe, and I didn't miss all those exhausting minutes of screentime previously devoted to inter-judge shenanigans while the contestants seemed like mere afterthoughts. So if Season 3 can keep finding talents like Lillie McCloud and Rion Paige — and keep those talents as the main focus of the show this season — "X" may at long last hit the spot.