The X Factor returned to New Jersey on Wednesday for the first of two days of judges round auditions. EW joined an audience of roughly 5,000 for the day’s second taping at Newark’s Prudential Center, which featured 22 contestants. Fox told journalists to refrain from IDing performers and revealing their song choices, backstories, and comments to the judges, as well as quoting the judges’ critiques, so we’ll have to speak generally. But we were able to cull together the following list of 10 things you can expect from The X Factor this fall.
1. No booing, even when it’s warranted. The audience was warned by the warm-up guy that unlike America’s Got Talent, this show’s audience is “supportive.” So if you don’t like someone, you are simply to remain quiet in a form of silent protest. The Jersey crowd didn’t boo (remarkably), but there was, at various times, snickering and groaning — the latter when an offending contestant would get to sing a second song because one of the judges was feeling punchy and either asked him/her/them to or allowed it when begged. (The X Factor, remember, is open to ages 12 and up, solo artists as well as groups, and the prize is a $5 million recording contract.) Curiously, the warm-up guy didn’t ask the crowd to stop applauding when a horrible song finally ended — perhaps that motivation will be clear to at-home viewers — but he did try to get people to stop waving their arms to a certain rock anthem because it could be interpreted as support for that singer’s vocals, which deserved none, instead of just trying to make the most of a painful/cheesy situation.
2. A search for the next Susan Boyle. Though Boyle’s name was only brought up once, I assume the reason we sat through a surprising number of bad auditions (at one point, Simon actually said, “I am losing the will to live here”) is because producers know that Boyle is always in the back of viewers’ minds when seemingly non-photogenic people too old to audition for American Idol take the stage. It’s guaranteed to produce suspense. Did they make it in front of the judges because they’re “good TV” or because they’re genuinely good? The American version of Susan Boyle could be a female fifty-something substitute teacher wearing skinny jeans, a grown man with a mullet and his father who look like Sopranos extras, or of course, anyone full-figured. The judges really tested the audience’s patience by spending so much time talking to these contestants to get their backstories — a situation made worse when the contestant finally sung a note and it sucked after all. But I will say this: Of the evening’s three legitimate standing ovations, the loudest, longest one was for someone who falls in this category.
3. A reminder why we love (or hate) Simon Cowell. I didn’t realize how much I missed him until I found myself straining to see whether the collar on his black shirt was V-neck or crew as the judges made their entrance. Simon spoke to the audience before any contestants took the stage and assured us it was good to be back. “No more Mr. Nice Guy,” he said. He sensed an evil presence in the room, he added, which is why they’d come to Jersey. He may have been right, too: We all laughed in gleeful anticipation when he began one negative critique with the phrase, “You sounded like…” and paused.
4. A lot of deciding votes. Contestants need a “yes” from three of the four judges to move on, and it comes down to the last judge casting his or her vote in the rotation quite often. All four judges can be tough, but it seems like Nicole Scherzinger, whose first day on the panel was Wednesday, was the most likely to vote “yes” if she was on the fence. Paula Abdul was next, then L.A. Reid, who, as my colleague Dave Karger pointed out when he attended the very first X Factor taping, definitely gives Cowell a run for the title of harshest judge.
5. Nicole tends to coddle the lost causes. Nicole is like Paula in that she will try to say something positive if at all possible. But unlike Paula, she hasn’t yet learned how ridiculous you look giving real advice to someone who will, sadly, never be more than a joke. During one critique, Paula actually hugged Nicole because it was obvious Nicole was going out of her way (and mind) to take someone seriously. I think Simon may also have laughed at her at one point. To Nicole’s credit, she reined it in, and found a way to be respectful and succinct. She’s clearly the fourth judge, but she’s got promise. We only saw one contestant flirt with her. Let’s hope that’s representative of other cities and her sex appeal doesn’t become a focus of the show. When the season ends, I want to remember something she said, not a contestant kissing her or how she shook her fringe-covered bottom.
6. Nicole addresses contestants as “my love.” Don’t worry, she only used it twice in four hours. So we’re not looking at a”dawg” situation.
7. Better critiques from Paula Abdul than she gave on American Idol. Granted, this could change when they get to the live shows and are pressed for time, but I was really impressed by how articulate and thorough Paula was. Whether she was explaining why she loved someone, what they needed to work on before the next round, or why they weren’t right for the show, it all made sense — even if Simon did still roll his eyes at her.
8. More of Simon and Paula’s mysterious chemistry. I didn’t know how much I missed that either until Simon made it through the crowd to the judges’ table during their entrance, turned around, looked for Paula, and started yelling, “Come on, Paula! Come on, Paula!” while slapping his thigh as though he was calling a puppy. While Nicole and L.A. spoke their introductory words to the audience, Paula stood there with her arm around Simon, and I believe I said “Aww” aloud. He may try to cut her off when she’s talking — particularly when they’re approaching the four-hour mark and a quarter of the audience has left — but it’s clear they’re happy to be back together. He likes her because she gives him plenty of verbal set ups and can handle it when he spikes them. She’s even gotten better about volleying.
9. Possibly some Idol references. During one critique, L.A. jokingly asked if he was allowed to use the word “pitchy.” There was also a contestant some fans may remember from the early rounds of season 8 (though Simon didn’t, naturally).
10. People get real second chances. One group from the day’s first set of auditions was invited back to the second taping after being instructed to alter their lineup one of two ways; one solo singer was given the option of returning Thursday with a song that she or he had hopefully made his or her own. I assume they’ll show both auditions for those people. Talk about suspense. I know I’ll be wondering what happens to that solo act today.