'X Factor': Simon, Paula, L.A., and Nicole on the scene of Top 17 night
I’m torn. After spending two-and-a-half hours inside the sound and light and choreography blender that is The X Factor live studio, I cannot decide whether my nom du snark for the place should be the Xanadome or Starship Migraine. Whatever I’m calling the joint, it lives in the exact same space as American Idol‘s Idoldome — Studio 36 at CBS Television City in Los Angeles — but other than the live studio audience and the judges’ table, that is where the similarities end.
Every last square inch of the sound stage is used for this set, a dark, sleek, space-age monument to the belief that everything, everywhere can and should be as extravagantly flashy as possible, always. All the lines ultimately draw your eye to the very-most center “X” on the giant screen at the center of the stage (or radiate out from it, depending on your point of view), and it takes up so much room that I can safely guesstimate that the audience is a third the size of the Idoldome’s. But, somehow, it’s at least twice as loud. Like, loud. Like, I can’t-really-make-the-font-on-this-page-big-enough LOUD. Naturally, during one of the ad breaks, Simon took time to tell us that we were “probably the best live audience I’ve ever had. You can do whatever you like.” Which, in turn, only made people get even louder. Match that with a subwoofer system that may have liquefied my ossicles (yeah, I had to look that word up), and I’m frankly surprised I’m able to make out the discrete sounds of my fingers on the keyboard right now.
The other major difference from the Idoldome — other than the fact the stage faces the opposite direction, a choice that seems to be more about symbolism than logistical convenience — is how lax and easygoing everyone is. In the Idoldome, everyone gets a ticket, with an assigned seat; in Starship Migraine, you get a single letter hand stamp indicating which section of the audience you’re to sit in (mine was section “C”), and then you can take any available, un-reserved seat within it. For Idol, everyone must step through metal detectors and surrender all electronic devices; that practice was kinda in place for X Factor, but, I mean, at one point during the show, a woman a few seats down from me pulled out an iPad. Even the X Factor warm-up comic, named Bill, got the audience’s energy pumping with what appeared to be a free-form set built around getting us to rap along to “Rapper’s Delight,” in contrast to Idol‘s Cory the Warm-Up Comic and his regimented opening routine that has barely changed a whit since I first started covering Idol in 2007. (In fairness, both men share an unfortunate affinity for getting elementary school-age boys and girls in the audience to date each other, something that always delights every adult around me. People, have we learned nothing?)
Oh, and there is one final difference between The X Factor and American Idol, a difference that is an unequivocal good, a difference that may, in fact, be for some a tipping point for getting them to reconsider what my snark demon Smirkelstiltskin has been calling Simon Cowell’s Grand Experiment in Ego and Excess. Just before the show began, Bill began taking the audience through his expectations for our behavior. “I need you to be loud, live, active participants,” he implored. “If it feels big and stupid, you’re doing it absolutely right.” Then he put his arm in the air, and began swaying it slowly back and forth. “But please don’t do this. I will throw my mic at your head [if you do].” That’s right: The X Factor has outlawed swaybots.
So what was the best behind the scenery within the Xanadome once we went live? Here are the highlights:
Astro’s missing pyro As Brian “Astro” Bradley began his performance of “Jump,” I noticed some peculiar wires hanging just in front of the center screen. I wondered if it was some special lighting rig, but instead the wires held special firecrackers that went off at the end of his performance — firecrackers you never got to see on television. And if it’s not on television, does it really even exist?
Phillip Lomax’s confetti vacuums First of all, not to harp on this point, but the decibels pulsating through Starship Migraine were so deafening, they effectively canceled out poor Phil’s thin vocals. But, hey, the guy did get confetti cannons — and, you’ll notice, he was the only one, since it took a small platoon of PAs armed with wide mops and some serious-looking leaf vacuums to clear all those tiny slips of colored paper off the stage during the ad break. After Phil was cut from the show, by the by, Simon was the first up to the stage to wish him well. After L.A. Reid had paid his respects to the crooner, he shuffled back to his seat, dolefully blowing out his cheeks. I’m not sure if the woman sitting right in front of me in the Stacy Francis contingent also saw L.A.’s dejected mien, but right then she bellowed out, “YOU MADE THE RIGHT CHOICE, L.A.!” Not sure if that made the man feel better, but I’m happy she got that off her chest.
The purple light of judgment and doom After every contestant had performed, before the judges began their critiques, the four light columns at the back of the stage cascaded with a blast of bright purple light that never failed to feel like something was sucker-punching my eyeballs. I think I may have developed a pavlovian reaction to the lights by the end of the night. I really hope this doesn’t mean Donatello will stop being my favorite Ninja Turtle.
L.A. Reid, cuddle buddy I think we can all agree Paula suffered the worst with her elimination last night when the younger Brewer Boy
detonated the guilt bomb told his now ex-mentor, “Sorry we didn’t live up to your expectations.” (Kid, don’t you realize Paula’s stunning transformation from daffy, seal-clapping accidental poetess to lucid, insightful music professional is one emotional breakdown away from crumbling into a pile of weepy glitter?) During the ad break, L.A. Reid walked over to Paula’s chair and gave the tear-streaked judge an over-the-chair, from-the-back hug that was as sweet as it was physically awkward to watch.
The undeniable allure of LeRoy Bell The difference between the audience’s investment in Paula’s Groups group and Nicole’s Over-30s group was palpable, no more so than with 60-year-old LeRoy Bell. As a gay man, I am wracking my brain to think of another time in my life when I’ve been surrounded by as much focused, potent female sexual energy as I was during LeRoy’s performance of Pink’s “Nobody Knows.” The women sitting on both sides of me were making all kinds of entertaining moans and squeaks during his performance; by the end, I counted at least a half-dozen soccer-mom types who appeared ready and willing to toss their unmentionables onto the stage. What I’m saying is: LeRoy, you are officially the X Factor dark horse.
The stage manager’s audience and/or judge baton Although my proximity to the aforementioned Stacy fan club may be skewing my perceptions a bit, the oft-sobbing single mom was also a clear audience favorite. No one seemed too thrilled with Simon’s negative critique of her outfit and song choice, and that displeasure appeared to be goaded on by a headset-wearing stage manager standing in the audience pit just to Stacy’s right. He had a roll of yellow papers that he kept rotating in the air whenever Simon said something negative, as if he was encouraging us to boo. Then again, he could have been trying to get the judges themselves to speed up their critiques; host Steve Jones told me after the show he had producers screaming in his ear piece to keep things moving.
Dexter didn’t do himself any favors If Dexter Haygood’s funky milkshake performance of “Womanizer” and “I Kissed a Girl” didn’t already make clear the man just isn’t ready for prime time, I fear his odd behavior during the elimination sealed his fate. First, he stopped well short of his spotlight, then he wandered over to LeRoy’s spot for a moment, before finally making his way back to his mark. When it came down to him and LeRoy, the audience immediately made their choice clear by bellowing “LEROY!” so loudly, Simon was compelled to turn around and watch the reaction himself.
“Oh snap. Simon just got served!” No, no one actually said that after L.A. Reid’s post-Simone Battle crack about Simon’s wealth (although one bespectacled entertainment journalist may have embarrassed his snark demon by clutching his imaginary pearls). But in case you’re wondering, no, there were no hard feelings afterwards — Simon and L.A. were all laughs and smiles. Although, L.A. did turn to the audience and ask, “Am I right?!” The crowd response of “Yes!” was so immediate and emphatic, Simon looked like he was almost wounded. Almost.
Inappropriately adorable audience confession of the night “I’m in love with Simon, and I’m only 13, and I want to marry him.” Naturally, Simon gave the girl a kiss on the cheek.
Simon, the shameless cheerleader Personally, I think the audience was rendered silent during the opening of Drew “You’re Too Normal To Have No Last Name” Ryniewicz’s pared-down rendition of “Flashdance…What a Feeling” out of respect for her talent. But Simon would have none of it. As Drew hit the chorus, Simon turned to the audience and began conspicuously applauding, as if to say, “Hel-lo, audience, if we can’t heeeeaaaar you, you don’t exiii-iiiist!” Cut to Melanie Amaro’s performance of “I Have Nothing”; when she hit the chorus, Simon pointed straight in the air, willing the lighting package into overdrive. You get the feeling Simon’s the sort of guy who points at red lights and thinks he made them turn green.
Grab that mic! Hazard of being a PA on a live singing competition show: When you dive on stage to clear a mic stand five seconds before the female contestant group steps up for elimination, you may run the risk of wiping out in front of the entire live studio audience.
MELANIE! MELLLLANIEEEEEEEEE! I have rarely heard an audience anywhere as united in support of destroying the dreams of two wildly telegenic, mildly talented wannabe pop divas as the Xanadome was last night. Yes, Melanie remains a rarely gifted vocal powerhouse (even if — forgive me, Dave Karger! — her high notes on “I Have Nothing” were mostly sharp). But I think the audience’s roaring cheers for Simon to pick her for his top three were also more than a bit about him not picking Tiah and Simone. Not that I blame anyone for feeling this way; just that part of me thinks it can never be fun to be faced with such an overwhelming mob of people screaming, essentially, “NOT YOU!” Fame, she is a fickle mistress indeed.
What did you make of the first live episode of The X Factor? Do you think there were enough backup dancers? (Silly rabbit — there’s no such thing as not enough backup dancers.) Do you think the Groups stand a chance? And did you miss the generously subdued lighting and comparative prudence of the Idoldome? I sure did.
Adam on Twitter @adambvary