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The X Factor Preview: In Defense of TV Singing Competitions

It's not American Idol, but our Diva-ologist weighs in on Simon Cowell's latest venture.

How cynical and lazy we have become! How complacent! We have lionized a bland corporate beauty who, even when she’s trying (and she tries), cannot make you feel a thing about anything. Why has Beyoncé’s greatness become an assumption? A ubiquitous assumption, at that? Why, when Barack needed someone to sing at his inauguration, did he default to an artist who, in 50 years, when the Ant Overlords dissect our “culture,” will be dismissed as an example of how to effectively market blandness, perfect hair, and enticing thighs to the masses? Why have we just accepted Beyoncé as something good, something to be admired, something worth celebrating? Has she ever made anyone cry? Does she raise goose bumps? Or do we just appreciate her, the same way we appreciate the terra cotta soldiers or El Greco? Yes, it’s impressive one person can do that, but when all is said and done, all you have is a bunch of pretty shit jammed together in one space. Over the past 10 years, I have had dozens of conversations about the Queen B with people who are much smarter than me. I have yet to meet anyone who has any strong opinion about her. Sure, a lot of people say they love Beyoncé but only out of a sense of duty, almost as if admitting to not liking Beyoncé would cast them as soulless neophytes who, by extension, also hate Barack Obama, Aretha Franklin, Ma Rainey, and Muhammad Ali.

I don’t buy into any of that. I refuse to accept Sasha Fierce. I watch singing competitions because I believe that life can be better than Beyoncé.

Over the next three months, I will be writing about The X Factor. I will provide updated odds and recaps, nonlitigious YouTube videos, and my “analysis” (scare quotes provided by Carles), but the Queen B will never be far away. She will be the counterexample, the dark spirit who hovers over what will be a joyous and completely earnest exploration.

Why do this? It sounds stupid, but the only real source of emotion in music these days comes from televised singing competitions. Say what you will about manipulation and Fox and whatever else, but at least there are a few minutes every week when someone is singing a good, old song and it actually matters, most importantly to her, whether or not she sings it well. And for that moment, despite the scaffolding and the absurd context, there is a microphone and a singer we do not really know, who has not been thoroughly processed and molded into a sellable product. We can project our own hopes on that contestant, and although there will always be the shame of having bought into such a manipulative spectacle, it should also be clear that in this new economy, where most careers are just the simulacra of past careers, and where ambition in the arts must be sweated out along a scale of “likes” and YouTube-ability, there isn’t much difference between our spammed, compromised lives and American Idol or The X Factor.

And so, let’s begin by introducing you to this year’s contestants and their respective odds of winning the competition. There’s no need to explain the silliness of how we got down to the finals. Let’s just say people cried, groups fought with one another, and Simon lounged around, frowned, and played his never-ending game of Chest Hair Basic Instinct with America. With all that ugliness gone, we’re down to the classic singing-competition format. The following contestants will sing, and they will be eliminated by America. I have excluded the groups on the grounds that I morally object to their inclusion in any singing competition.

Phillip Lomax

Odds — 100:1

Crooners are to singing competitions as kung fu was to old MMA. We can bathe a bit in nostalgia and wonder why this sort of music isn’t created anymore, but by Week 5, it’s clear why there isn’t a new Frank Sinatra. Maybe crooning worked in a lounge or on a grainy TV feed of a lounge, but in the age of HD and hip-hop beats, guys like Phillip Lomax just sound corny. Maybe your mom will like him, but she doesn’t vote because she doesn’t know how to text message anyone but you.

Dexter Haygood

Odds — 100:1

Dexter’s skid row story should get him through the first few weeks. But he keeps doing the same James Brown impersonation over and over again, down to the “It’s a Man’s World,” man-crying. Every American knows exactly four James Brown songs, and although they may profess to liking all four, they really only like “I Feel Good.” And only at weddings. So, I can see three weeks of Dexter being in the bottom two, making it through, sobbing uncontrollably, and then finally being sent home after butchering something unexpected like “Party in the USA.”

Leroy Bell

Odds — 90:1

Leroy is 60 years old. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with that information. He’s a perfectly OK singer. If I walked into a Barnes & Noble and had to kill two hours because my mom had gotten lost in a 50 percent clearance section at Nordstrom Rack, and if Leroy was singing in that Barnes & Noble, I’d think that was really just fine. I don’t think I’d stop to listen to him if he was busking at a subway stop, though.

That being said, the overproduction of the auditions made it pretty hard to tell who was good and who was not. Simon, I understand you want to sell songs on iTunes, but maybe part of the reason why the show’s not doing so well in the ratings is because your public actually wants to be able to sit down on the couch, dig out a big pinch of Skoal Long Cut Straight, spit into an empty Diet Coke bottle, and judge some goddamn singing. When you Auto-Tune a singing competition, what the hell are we supposed to do?

Simone Battle

Odds — 45:1

Gaaaaaaaah. H8 her. If that makes me a h8er, then I’m a h8er4lyfe, I guess. I see too much of the Beyoncé effect here — the reedy timbre masquerading as “the real,” the affected moaning, the mindless chiffon, the big belt buckles, the hotness, and the dirty feeling that I’m somehow being manipulated into thinking that being kinda good at every part of being a pop star should somehow add up to being a pop star.

Pretty girls don’t do well in singing competitions. Nor do people who come in with too much visible confidence. If you’re an undeniably pretty girl, it’s better to toss your hair in front of your face and play the “I was always a nerd” card. Katharine McPhee did this to great effect on American Idol, and she’s now being eaten by sharks on the silver screen! Simone did none of this, choosing instead to ride the Fierce/Pop Icon train.

Sorry, Simone. If America wanted you to be a star, they’d have been more keen on Ashley Banks’ singing career.

Also, last night’s decision to keep Ashley Faux-wles over Jazzlyn and the platinum-blond racing-car enthusiast was deplorable and shortsighted. In most reality TV shows, there’s value in keeping the villain — people will keep watching Lauras from Project Runway or Lisas from Top Chef because they enjoy hating them. But in singing competitions, America will just not vote and the villain will be gone.

Unless she really knocks out a great performance, Simone will probably be the first one to go home. (PLZ)

Chris Rene

Odds — 25:1

I’m rooting for Chris just like everyone else, but I’m worried he might have peaked during audition week. How could he top “Young Homie?” In American Idol‘s past, the peak-early contestant usually goes out by Week 6.

Here’s my advice, Chris: Stick to what you do well for three weeks. Get in danger, bust it out with “Young Homie: Remix,” pick up the portion of America’s vote that felt awful seeing you in the bottom three. And from there on out, go R. Kelly all the time.

On an unrelated note, there’s been news that Steve Jones, the show’s host, might be on the chopping block. If so, please, please, please get him the hell out of there. His only two responsibilities are to be British and to hug people. He’s OK at the British part, but he can’t hug anyone because he’s too goddamn tall. Ryan Seacrest’s secret is that he’s short enough to hug the girls. And when happy, tall guys bend down to hug him, a comedic moment is born.

Brian Bradley

Odds — 25:1

Close your eyes when you hear Brian Bradley talk. Doesn’t he kind of sound like Big L? Not when he’s rapping, but when he’s just talking about his parents and stuff? I can’t really get over it when I watch Brian, which is actually kind of nice, because instead of hearing Brian stumble through weird, Disneyish rhymes, I get to hear “Platinum Plus” in my head.

So, Brian, I understand you’re a kid, but here’s what a real rhyme looks like:

“The hell with you / And your broke ho / You ain’t a big dog / You’re more like Toto.”

Josh Krajcik

Odds — 20:1

We need to get rid of a lot of the stuff on Josh’s face. He has, by my count, three moles and one of those sparse, scraggly beards where you can see every individual hair on his face and the pale skin underneath. When you throw in the greasy hair, Josh kinda looks like what would happen if the Geico Caveman grew half-sentient, got into LARPing, and then got splattered by the mud kicked up from the tires of a passing truck.

To his credit, Josh has a nice, full, growly voice that should carry him nicely through Counting Crows and Doobie Brothers covers. But he lacks Taylor Hicks’ awww-shucks appeal. Hicks was something of a preternatural, Being There-ish Buddhist — by emptying himself of the desire to win, he became a magnet for the country’s votes. Josh isn’t quite that cool.

Tiah Tolliver

Odds — 15:1

LOVE HER. Love the pout, the Qi-line bangs, the erratic voice, and the attitude. If she were 10 years older, she could have won R U The Girl, TLC’s search for a replacement for Left Eye.

Rachel Crow

Odds — 10:1

There’s a moment in a Salinger story when Buddy Glass overhears a woman confess that she hates precocious children. I remember reading that as a kid and young adult and really hating that woman and all her normative standards for what a kid can be and should be.

Maybe she had a point?

Marcus Canty

Odds — 8:1

If you butcher any of the following songs, you should be immediately locked up for six to nine months. This list has been narrowed so that it includes only the past 25 years.

K-Ci and Jojo: “All My Life”
Mary J. Blige: “No More Drama”
Whitney Houston: “I Will Always Love You”
Whitney Houston: “I Have Nothing”
Celine Dion: “My Heart Will Go On”
R. Kelly: “I Believe I Can Fly”
Mariah Carey: “Hero”
U2: “One”
Sinead O’Connor: “Nothing Compares 2 U”
Prince: “Purple Rain”
Bette Midler: “Wind Beneath My Wings”
4 Non Blondes: “What’s Up”
Boyz II Men: “I’ll Make Love to You”
Toni Braxton: “Unbreak My Heart”
Guns N’ Roses: “November Rain”
Cyndi Lauper: “True Colors”
Michael Jackson: “Man in the Mirror”

Marcus Canty didn’t quite butcher “All My Life,” and so there’d be no reason for jail time, but he’d at least have to spend a night in jail.

Stacy Francis

Odds — 5:1

Good lord, what a set of lungs! I imagine that at some point, we’ll all get tired of having to watch Stacy Francis cry every day. And at that point, she’ll plummet out of the competition. The only way I see her getting to the finale is if she somehow can reinvent herself twice. And that’s pretty impossible, especially for someone who seems so committed to just belting out big songs. But here are two suggestions, Stacy. First, you should sing a Smashing Pumpkins song, preferably “Disarm.” When America starts to forget that curveball, plant your feet firmly on the stage and take on the two Jennifers: Hudson and Holliday. I believe you can work out “And I Am Telling You.” Just don’t do it early.

At the same time, there’s a lot of dislike about Stacy Francis. Please invest in some waterproof mascara and some empathy for your fellow contestants. Everyone, especially in your Over 30 group, really wants to become a pop star and win the five-million-dollar recording-contract prize. Your dreams don’t take precedence over theirs through force of will, tears, and Muppet-ish facial contortions. When I was at graduate school for creativity (a.k.a. the University’s money laundering system), I always hated my classmates who would get drunk and talk very smugly and very ringingly about how they had always wanted to be writers, ever since they went to some youth creativity boot camp sponsored by NPR or whatever the fuck. It was always a bit of a power play disguised as earnest, raw emotion — you knew that when it got down to it, they would stab you in the back and claim that they had “always wanted this their entire lives,” and therefore deserved to act like selfish little prigs. Well, Stacy Francis, you are really, really, really close to becoming that selfish prig.

Drew Ryniewicz

Odds — 4:1

I love everything about this girl. I love that she’s gangly and awkward, you know, like an actual 14-year-old. I love that she doesn’t seem to be as polished as the monstrous little singing machines that flood American Idol every season. I love that there’s a way to watch her perform and think that somewhere in Arizona, there was actually a girl who sang for her friends and family, and through rote repetition and practice created a sound that now gets shared by all of sentimental, stupid America. I love that I had to rewind four times on my DVR to transcribe her last name. I love the cracking tone of her voice. I love how she can sell a slowed-down version of a fantastic Roxette song. I love that it doesn’t really matter whether or not any of this is true about Drew Ryniewicz, because her voice can carry the storyline.

Athletes and singers shouldn’t need backstories. As far as I know, Whitney Houston was formed out of sea foam and raised in the guts of the world’s largest Stradivarius. That’s how it should be — the act of singing itself should carry the emotion. The singer is just the vessel. Which, honestly, is why we have such a problem right now. The singer has become the vessel for the marketing (Hey, I’m Katy Perry, and I am wearing this interesting cheese-colored cube on my head! BUY MY ALBUM!). I blame Madonna for this.

Melanie Amaro

Odds — 3:1

Nice twist, Simon. Send the best girl home, shock and piss off America, and then show up at her house to pull out a psych! This move might have been cute back in the days of Carrie Underwood and Fantasia Barrino, back when you could do no wrong. But nobody really likes The X Factor. And those of us who have watched every minute of your American career are starting to wonder if you’ve lost your fastball.

I was relieved, of course, when you saved Melanie Amaro, but I’m now just angry and on the verge of boycotting the show out of spite. Because, honestly, if you’re pulling out stunts like that before the live shows start, it might mean that you know the show’s in trouble. Why else create an artificial storyline for the girl who should win the competition?

And win it she should. Melanie Amaro’s audition was one of the best I’ve ever seen — up there with Lakisha Jones, Scott Savol, Paris Bennett, and Crystal Bowersox. (<3<3<3)

I know it’s a lot of videos in a row, but please watch the above performance of “Listen” and compare it to Beyoncé’s performance below.

Once you’re past the hair, the admittedly awesome makeup job, the see-through dress, the random growling (by the way, that’s the no. 1 indicator of someone who is “faking it.” Fake growls are closely followed by excessive pointing in the Great Bible of Faking It), what do you really have here?

Let’s examine:

At 1:58, this part is supposed to be sung at 11. Here, it’s like at 8.5 and already heading south.

At 2:15, what the hell is she doing? She keeps fanning her hand behind her ass. Is this her attempt to waft away a lingering fart? (No. 8425 in the Great Bible of Faking It.) And more fake-grunting?

Compare that to Melanie Amaro’s version of the song.

Watch at 3:08. You can see Paula actually catching goose bumps.1

So … how could an 18-year-old girl sing Beyoncé’s song better than the Queen B?

The answer: Queen B can’t sing. Melanie Amaro can. I’ll enjoy watching her until she gets voted off in a shocking Week 7 result, at which point I will accuse all of America of racism and/or ugly-ism and very, very seriously consider stockpiling weapons at a ranch in Montana.

Jay Caspian Kang is an editor at Grantland. His debut novel, The Dead Do Not Improve, will be published by Hogarth/Random House in Summer 2012. Follow him on Twitter at @jaycaspiankang.


Previously from Jay Caspian Kang:
Why the North Carolina Tar Heels Will Win the National Championship
Why the NFL Needs Tim Tebow
Red Sox Nation: F@#$ These Guys
We Need a Renegade Basketball League
Mayweather-Ortiz: What the Sucker Punch Just Happened?
Immigrants and the importance of Ichiro

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Filed Under: Beyonce, Celebrities, Jay Caspian Kang, Music, People, Simon Cowell, The X Factor, TV, X Factor

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