Superstar Britney Spears shines in her “X Factor” debut Wednesday night on Fox T.V. The 30-year-old took control with expectations and a $15 million contract on the line.
Brief segments on each judge heralded in capital-letter type introduced newcomers Demi Lovato and Britney Spears. Ex-Disney Channel star Lovato started off defending her youth compared to the other judges (and most industry professionals), and quickly hurled a pronouncement of authority.
“I know what music my generation is listening to right now.” Lovato muses to the camera. “I think I know what it takes to make a star.”
And with that, the background music falls out and Spears’ image fills the screen, silhouetted in black and white as the beginning hook to “Oops! I Did It Again” begins to play. She cites her considerable experience–mentioning she’s been performing since the age of 8–as a reason for being able to recognize talent. But fellow judge Simon Cowell’s response hints at the question most fans have been asking; how tough is she going to be?
“You’re going to see Britney, and Demi, unfiltered,” Cowell promises, as a clip of her demolishing a contestant plays beneath his words.
The show kicks off in Austin, Texas, where gridlock has gripped the city in anticipation of X-Factor auditions. Hopefuls file in and make small talk, but the real attraction is the judges.
After their convoy of black SUVs descends on Austin’s Frank Erwin Center, they meet in their own green room, and are seen shooting the breeze. Spears and Lovato seem to be developing a friendly rapport before Cowell hounds Lovato’s insecurity as a judge.
“Worst thing that can happen,” Cowell begins, continuing on to list a series of possible failures that ends with with “and your career’s over.”
Lovato doesn’t seem amused, but must have watched enough “American Idol” as a kid to know what to expect from her new boss. An announcer yells the names of the judges out as they filter into the auditorium to take their seats at the judges’ table, and the camera shifts to the show’s first contestant of note, Paige Thomas.
Thomas, 21, is a nursing student from San Antonio, Texas with a young daughter of her own. Aside from looking the part of a talented performer, she comes in with a clear bias; she says she’s been singing since she was nine, when she serenaded the Britney Spears poster on her bedroom wall.
“The fact that Britney’s a mom, and she’s still doing her thing, and she’s hotter than ever,” Thomas says of Spears. “I want to be like that.”
Leering at Thomas in the distance is Kaci Newton, a blonde southern belle with a competitive edge who describes herself as a mix of Carrie Underwood and Adele, without, seemingly, a trace of humility. “She’s so young,” she tells her friend, throwing a critical glance at Thomas. “I’m pretty young too,” she says, satisfied.
Thomas takes the stage, shedding a tear of in front of the judges out of joy for the opportunity, and performing Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Going Down.” The performance starts out well and Thomas really hits her stride by the song’s chorus–during which supportive cheering begins to erupt from the crowd–and finishes with enough emotion to get a standing ovation from the audience.
“Girl, you’re a star,” returning judge L.A. Reid says, telling Thomas her performance reminds her of a woman he met in his office a few years back named Rihanna. “I see that same something special
Cowell says, “You’re commercial with a capital C,” and with that the judges send her off with four “yes” votes. Before she can leave the stage Thomas is intercepted by her daughter and they share a hug that may have been the cutest moment of the night.
The next act begins the avalanche of pain from Spears the audience has been waiting for. Sean Armenta, a 50-year-old airline worker, seems like he’s been training for a marathon the way he explains his rigorous singing and dancing regimen to the judges. He then breaks out an original song, “Candy Girl,” and raises his arms victoriously after finishing the song–to a completely silent auditorium.
The judges wipe looks of absolute horror off their faces. It’s easy to hear the “no” votes before the judges say them, but Spears has more to add.
“I want to know who let you on stage,” Spears says. And with that, the beginnings of her song “Toxic” begin to fade in, the musical score to Spears’ wreckage of about a dozen performers, who get increasingly specific and depressing criticisms from the former Mickey Mouse Club member. Fittingly, the montage ends with the audio sound byte, “It’s Britney, bitch.”
It’s hard at first to know what to make of Reed Demming, the 13-year-old San Antonio boy who bears a striking resemblance to Justin Bieber. He recounts car trips with his dad singing Frank Sinatra and The Eagles, competing to see which of the two could sing the loudest. Demming chooses Bruno Mars’ “It Will Rain,” with his voice possessing more body than one would expect for a kid his size.
Unexpectedly, Simon makes him switch in the middle of the song, wanting to hear his voice with less accompaniment. Demming handles the unplanned switch well, launching into an equally confident rendition of Mars’ “Grenade,” which gets Reid’s head bobbing and Cowell’s mouth doing its best to
“Your personality is larger than this building we’re in,” says Reid.
“You’re too cute,” says Lovato, which is something she has said to several other performers by this point. Demming’s second chance earns him four “yes” votes and he leaves the stage a winner.
The long-awaited Kaci Newton is up next, and before hitting the stage she tells the camera she hopes “to be remembered for ‘that voice,'” like Michael Jackson and Celine Dion before her.
Her performance isn’t nearly as legendary, though, with her rich voice quivering and falling out of tune often enough to make the audience grimace. She tries to squeeze in another song as the judges decide to cast their votes, and seems satisfied by the attempt, but she receives four “no” votes and exits, dejected.
“Oh, well,” is all she has to say of the experience.
An unnervingly busty woman introduces us to San Francisco, where a similar bustle is taking place outside of the Oracle Arena as hopefuls line up for auditions.
The first to be featured is cake-decorater Quatrele, who practically took a page from Dennis Rodman’s playbook, showing up on stage in a wedding veil, stockings and frilly underwear befitting of a bride-to-be.
After his performance of “Born This Way,” Simon sums up his, Lovato’s and Spears’ opinions when he says “In a weird way, I quite liked you.”
Reid sums up everyone else’s: “You guys have gone mad.”
Next, Cowell trashes Vincent Thomas, 22, a boy-band veteran from Los Angeles when he compares him the five members of every boy band.
“There was always one who didn’t sing,” Cowell says. “That’s you.”
But he walks off, defeated, as another band of boys strides to the center of the stage. Emblem 3, a group from Huntington Beach, insist that they are not a boy band. The judges are skeptical of them at first, since they elect to sing an original song. But what comes out sounds a lot like Sublime, with a rap section in the middle of it, and the judges are pleasantly surprised.
“I loved everything about this audition,” Cowell says.
“I think you’re so cute,” says Lovato, again. The band of boys gets four “yes” votes.
Next up, Don Philip, a 32-year-old vocal coach, is trying out, his attempt at a career in music validated and nearly derailed by a duet with Spears that occurred 10 years ago. He seems on the verge of tears as the cameras follow him before he takes the stage, and does so before he sings. His rendition of “Halo” is a bit over-sung, with angular syllables to most of his words, and lacking emotion.
His reaction to the judges, though, is plenty emotional.
“The problem you have, Don, you don’t have a good singing voice,” says Cowell, triggering the first of several dramatic grimaces of horror from Philip as he hears the judges’ decisions.
Spears acknowledges the hardships he’s seen over the years, but votes against him in what seems like one of the tougher decisions she’s made so far. “I never meant to hurt Britney,” Philip sobs offstage.
Rochester, Massachusetts offers a pair of outstanding female vocalists as the competition switches to Rhode Island. Jennel Garcia, 18, paints a picture of small-town life that ends up making her seem humble; her singing, inspired by Pat Benatar and “old rock” as she says, is incredibly pure with some sultry grit she can really lean into.
She gets “a big fat yes” from Cowell and the rest of the judges, who agree she has an unexpectedly powerful stage presence–L.A. Reid calls her a “feisty little fireball.”
Jillian Jensen, a 19-year-old, is the Cinderella story of the day; both on and offstage she begins by talking about how she was bullied throughout middle school and high school. What seems to begin as a heavy-handed pandering to the judges morphs into something truly genuine–she shares a similar tattoo with Lovato, but what she’s most appreciate of is Lovato’s work against bullying, a personal issue of hers.
Jensen sings with one of the best voices of the night, raspy but even and so full of emotion, and a tear rolls down Lovato’s cheek as she listens to the performance. By the end of the song Jensen is practically crying as she sings, and it gives tremendous power to the music. She breaks down in tears when she finishes the song, and Lovato leaves her chair to meet Jensen onstage for a hug.
Lovato sums up everyone’s feelings when she gives a more insightful response than we’re used to from her:
“I knew that you had been through a lot,” Lovato says to Jensen. “But when you sang, you broke my heart.”
As Jensen’s tears turn to joy, her friends rush her on stage and surround her, celebrating a performance that Cowell later admits may have brought a tear to his eye.
Lovato told MTV News last week that the chemistry between herself, Spears, Cowell and music industry veteran L.A. Reid is “amazing.” She also revealed that viewers can look forward to some blunt honestly from the panel, as well as “tons of drama” backstage between the contestants.
“I have fun with every single person on the panel. We always joke back-and-forth,” Lovato said. “We feel really comfortable together and I really couldn’t ask for a better panel to be sitting together with. They’re just icons. All three of them.”