Like a baby that doesn’t want to be born, the American iteration of X Factor has made its creator suffer through endless agonies, disappointments and false alarms.
There was the strange case of the disappearing Cheryl Cole, and the even stranger case of the disappearing chemistry between Simon Cowell and a barely re-animated Paula Abdul. There was the awkward, tongue-tied hosting skills of Steve Jones, a rakish, sharp personality in his U.K. homeland who sadly left his confidence in U.S. Customs. And then there were the high-expectations stoked and stage-managed by Cowell: that the American X Factor would debut with ratings comfortably inside the 20 million mark. It would uncover a global superstar and reward them with a $5 million prize and make rival singing competitions look woeful and threadbare by comparison.
Despite remnants of egg still visible on his face, Cowell’s belief in his track record remained high for its second season: the year when he paid a reported $15 million for Britney Spears only to find out that she wasn’t comfortable speaking in public. Or interacting with the other judges. Or acknowledging their presence.
But Spears' Corpse Bride-like performance wasn’t the only impediment to enjoying season two. There was also the complete disengagement of Cowell’s fellow music mogul, L.A. Reid, who may have mentored the year’s winner but whose season-long demeanor declared, "I’ve made a huge mistake." The show’s one bright spot was a spunky and spirited showing by Demi Lovato. Initially underestimated as a cheap hire who would lurk in Spears’ shadow, Lovato quickly established a role for herself as as wise-cracking kid sister to Cowell -- a smart-mouthed brat who reveled in sassing her boss about his age, relevance and vast expanses of exposed chest hair.
Demi seems to have made an indelible enough impression on Simon Cowell that he’s remade season three in her image. No more overpriced superstars. No more industry vets. Instead, an entire panel of sassy little sisters. Alongside Cowell and Lovato, this year’s judging panel features Kelly Rowland and Paulina Rubio. On the surface, this seems like a smart fix. Rowland did a tour of duty on the U.K. X Factor. Rubio has done time in the spinning chair of both the Mexican version of The Voice and its dreaded spin-off, the kids edition. Together, they make for a demographic dream team: the pop starlet, the R&B stalwart and the Latina sensation. Plus, a judging panel consisting of three women makes a progressive and long-overdue statement.
Except it’s not just three women: it’s three women and a guy who models himself after James Bond circa 1979. It’s three women who, if we’ve learned anything from singing competition history, will willingly allow themselves to be condescended to, dismissed as "sweetheart" and, if they address an unfavorable opinion towards an attractive female contestant, derided as jealous and insecure to the accompaniment of meow noises. Nicole Scherzinger was sensational on the U.K. X Factor -- funny, silly, sexy and a million percent committed to her contestants. Coincidentally, there was also a woman called Nicole Scherzinger on the first season of the American show, but she boasted none of these attributes, existing solely as a punching bag for Simon Cowell to mock as mentally unbalanced and incapable of nurturing talent.
It’s possible Cowell’s unpleasant attitude towards women won’t capsize season three of his show. It’s possible he’s put together a line-up of judges with explosive, unmissable chemistry. Certainly, America is not averse to X Factor-affiliated acts. Four graduates of the UK show -- One Direction, Cher Lloyd, Olly Murs and Little Mix -- are currently scaling the Billboard Hot 100. There’s even a chance that American acts like skater-boy band Emblem3 and simpering girl group Fifth Harmony may enjoy a modicum of success.
But will the show itself ever become a part of the national conversation? Will it ever be perceived as anything more than an underachiever that finally wore out the audience’s patience for over-singing and family misfortune? No. Because it matters too much to Simon Cowell. American Idol wasn’t his show. He had nothing invested. He could be as boorish and insensitive as he wanted. He’s a different person on the U.S. X Factor: A guy given to fervent over-praising; a guy who leans way too heavily on that $5 million dollar prize money -- a figure that may change come season three.
Maybe the combination of Demi Lovato, Kelly Rowland and Paulina Rubio will give the show the buzz it’s been lacking and the boost it’s desperately needed. Maybe America will see the X Factor as more than than TV’s No. 3 singing show. But I’ve got a feeling to accomplish that, Simon Cowell needs more than a panel packed with sassy little sisters. He needs to buy a time machine to take him back to 2008, which is when he should have left American Idol.