Judging The X Factor: The Live Shows Begin With Terrible Bangs and Even Worse Song Choices

For reasons still not entirely clear to them, Grantland editors Jay Caspian Kang, Mark Lisanti, and Emily Yoshida have decided to track the second season of The X Factor. Take their hands as they escort you to a magical world of singing, dancing, and laughter, and then leave you to die there, just as they did.

TEENS

Arin Ray

Kang: I don’t remember much of his performance because I ate a grip of M&Ms last night and an entire Reuben, both of which put me on the brink of a food coma. What I do remember about the beginning of the show was that all the girls had done something absolutely insane with their hair. Fox, you can trot out ZoZo to sing the national anthem at the World Series to cross-promote New Girl, but do you really have to give everyone on The X Factor her haircut? Poor Jennel Garcia looked like someone had taken to her head with a weedwacker and then opened up that weedwacker’s oil tank and dumped it on her head. Demi, who had wowed us with her mermaid hair, now looks like Punky Brewster.

Lisanti: If we want to get technical about it, it was poor little Beatrice Miller they turned into Punky Brewster; Demi was comparatively cutting-edge in her plucky street-urchinizing. What they did to Jennel was criminal. It’s like they threw away their scissors halfway through shaping her bangs and said, “You know what? Let’s get crazy! I’m just going to start pulling out your hair with my hands. Everyone’s doing it at all the best salons. By the way, Britney, you’re next, but we’re going to do more of a ’1987 Mom From Great Neck’ thing.” I suppose the moral of this story is Vote No on Prop Bangs. (This message paid for by the Alliance to End the Senseless Mutilation of Our Pop Stars.)

Oh, Arin Ray: I kept saying to myself, “Please be the next Usher! Please be the next Usher!” Mostly because Usher is someone I’ve heard of, and there’s no reason to reinvent the Usher-wheel at this stage of the show. So is Arin Ray the next Usher? Sure. Let’s call him that. He seems like a nice kid. And they didn’t give him bangs. Whew.

Yoshida: I’d be sneaking back and retroactively editing my odds for Arin Ray (which I already skewed high due to cuteness) if it weren’t for journalistic integrity and the fact that he is still one of the weaker vocalists on the show. But this was a great song and a great look, and odds are there are a lot of tweens swooning right now. Brit knew what to do with this kid. I’m rooting for him, but if I were Judge No. 5, all I’d really have to say tonight would be “Sing better, guy.”

Carly Rose Sonenclar

Kang: The food coma must have made me hallucinate, because I also seem to remember that every performance came with flashing lights and bright colors and backup dancers dressed up like it was Mad Max week at the Castro Theater. I vaguely recall watching Carly Rose Sonenclar strut around the stage in a postapocalyptic “Britney in ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ Catholic schoolgirl” outfit, and although I want nothing more than to scrub the sound right on out of my ear-memories, I heard Sonenclar butcher not one, but two Etta James songs.

In Planet B-Boy, a documentary about the world championships of break dancing, there’s a scene in which a member of the Japanese team says, “[The Koreans] are amazing technically, but their dance does not touch my heart.” (It’s at 45:35 in this video. And yes, I just spent 20 minutes tracking down this one quote, because I am a journalist.)

It’s a devastating moment to anyone either in Korea or in the diaspora because it cuts straight to our deepest insecurities. Yes, we can work on our head spin for seven years and invent moves that nobody else in the world can do, but the Japanese can just walk onto the stage and adjust the way an orchid leans in its vase and all our industry will be for naught.

Carly Rose Sonenclar is the Korean break-dancing crew. She works hard, she’s technically amazing, she’s clearly a better singer than my girl Beatrice Miller, but her labor does not touch my heart.

(By the way, if you haven’t watched Planet B-Boy and are currently sitting in one of those cubicles with high walls, put on your headphones and click the video above now. The only documentary that got me more verklempt was Anvil! The Story of Anvil. And yes, Yoshida and I carry the respective flags of our Japanese and Korean forebears to every recap …)

Yoshida: Sorry, weeping quietly now thinking about Anvil! One sec.

I started thinking during CRS’s performance about how strangely inconsequential an Idol-esque show feels in a DJ-centric age. They naturally have the contestants perform big pop hits, and in the year of our lord 2012, of course some rendition of Avicii’s Etta James–sampling “Levels” was going to rear its head. But the vocals are the icing on those songs, not the centerpiece, and so poor Carly was left having to compete with the memory of both Flo Rida’s version and a thousand dubstep remixes, armed only with the part of “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” that nobody knows.

Yeah, this is me adjusting them orchids.

Lisanti: In This Is Spinal Tap, a documentary about a once-prosperous heavy metal band in tragic decline, there’s a scene where the Gothic majesty of the stage production of their hit “Stonehenge” is undermined by incorrect measurements on the schematics of what is supposed to be a life-size reproduction of the ancient landmark. As a result, a tiny Stonehenge is lowered onto the stage, rendering Spinal Tap’s performance ridiculous.

In this analogy, Carly Rose is lead singer David St. Hubbins, and the Incredibly Bad Song Choice is the tiny Stonehenge. There are no orchids, because I have no fucking idea what the two of you are talking about. (Listen! Sssshhh … to what the flower people say.)

YOUNG ADULTS

Paige Thomas

Kang: She’s still on the show?

Yoshida: Oh my god, they brought back Tiah Tolliver!

Lisanti: Those are the craziest bangs I’ve ever seen! They’re made of metal and go all over the place! I bet her stylist had to use bolt cutters to get them like that!

[Uses bolt cutters to sever own carotid artery, gurgles something else about "bangs" through a mouthful of blood, dies.]

CeCe Frey

Lisanti: I’m not sure it counts as a “makeover” if you just dye someone’s hair blonde, dip them in a vat of Mystic Tan, and then roll them around Lady Gaga’s Goodwill donation bag for an hour. CeCe’s suffering from a fatal identity crisis because up until two weeks ago, that identity was “talented but unlikable person,” and ever since then they’ve tried, with very limited success, to cure her of that in some misguided attempt to sand off her edges. She doesn’t have any other tricks in her personality bag. It’s time for Demi to say “You do you” in that way everyone says it every five minutes now, and let Cheetah Girl re-embrace her inner Holy Shit, This Person Is a Musical Tire Fire.

Kang: CeCe might not make it. She’s one of those singers who needs to spend a week at one of those meditation retreats where they don’t let you talk and you get whipped by oak branches all day long. Because her direct consciousness always seems to be getting in the way of her performances. Last night was robotic and weird and completely sexless, and if CeCe is going to claw her way to the top, she needs to give the middle finger to the slut shamers, paint that crazy leopard shit on the side of her head, and run through the Ke$ha discography.

Yoshida: You guys, it just occurred to me that Demi Lovato, as wonderful as she is in all other regards, maybe isn’t very good at this whole song-selection and staging business? Except for Jennel Garcia, who can’t win in a market where there’s already a Demi Lovato on the charts? I think Paige and CeCe’s lackluster performances were partially a result of Demi trying to pull a Grace Jones/Gaga, respectively, and it’s clearly not an area of expertise. Demi’s mentoring seemed to extend to CeCe’s hair and not much further, as if the objectionable part of her personality lived in her hair coloration and all she needed were some harsh chemicals to scrub it out. It’s hard for naturally likable people like Demi to teach naturally abrasive people like CeCe how to connect with people, because they assume it’s like teaching someone how to breathe. CeCe should throw on some suspenders, head to the skate park, and hang with Beatrice Miller for a day to try to soak up some of her realness if she wants to win this thing.

OVER 25s

David Correy

Kang: Pass.

Yoshida: David Correy is L.A.’s only real shot to win this thing, so you can bet he’s going to be pimping him out with the most carefully considered song choices and staging for as long as he lasts in the competition. This song did him a lot of favors, but Correy’s gratingly one-note try-hard act overpowered it. So imagine my delight when Simon called him both “manic” and “desperate”! There are few things that give me more pleasure on TV than when Simon Cowell takes the words out of my mouth and says them in a British accent. Simon-patico.

Also, didn’t he find his parents? Don’t “love you, wherever you are” me with those big goopy eyes. You heard it here first: David Correy is definitely a sociopath.

Lisanti: His adopto-parents seem like nice people. They can’t have been happy once he started inking up every available inch of skin on his body. Their friends at church were probably getting all whispery about it.

On the other hand, I bet they see Vino Alan and realize things could have gotten much, much worse, tattooing-scary-things-all-over-his-scalp-wise.

Jason Brock

Yoshida: Jason Brock and LYRIC 145 are the two acts on the show who probably won’t make it past the halfway point, but whom I want to stick around for as long as possible just because of how much more fun they make the show. I liked that L.A. went a long way toward giving Jason the over-the-top spectacle he laid out in his audition — the whole performance was like a big exploding gay piñata, and it was the conclusion to a sweet little subnarrative. The choice to Elton him up and make him “Mr. Entertainer” was perhaps obvious, but for a reason — it seems to be a lane he can actually seriously excel in. I feel like Simon’s aggressively hateful reaction was a little much even for him, and will probably only win Jason sympathy points with whoever is watching this show at this point.

Kang: Of all the top 16, whom would you pay to watch perform for 15 minutes? My top five would go: (5) LYRIC 145, (4) Beatrice Miller, (3) CeCe Frey, (2) Emblem3, (1) Jason Brock. And yes, watching him strut around like Jon Lovitz onstage with a bunch of shirtless ab-machine models (I guess you could technically call what they were wearing “shirts,” although I’d go more with “harnesses”).

Lisanti: No one has to tell Jason Brock “You do you.” He is he, all the time. Take notes, CeCe and Demi.

GROUPS

LYRIC 145

Yoshida: I don’t know if I was disappointed or relieved that LYRIC 145 didn’t just do “Gangnam Style” straight up — that song has been flash-mobbed and parodied by Internet nerds the world over, but I feel like I need to see at least one convincing hood version before I can close the book on this meme.

Even though I really liked this performance, I worry about how much Simon actually knows how to direct a rap group. In the “mentoring session” he talked about how they had to win the crowd with stage presence since they weren’t vocalists, then added, “So that’s what you’re going to do with your choreography.” Sorry, choreography ≠ stage presence. Choreography is a good way to get singers to be more visually dynamic, but I feel like all three members of LYRIC 145 are already comfortable moving around the stage — it’s just a matter of finding points in the song to connect with the audience, and more important, the camera. I would like to see more stuff like [Note: I just went to the X Factor website to find the names of each individual member of LYRIC 145 and came up very short. This is not the first time and not the last time I will feel the need to express the fact that The X Factor website is useless] the non-contact-wearing kid’s “stuttering” verse — this group has energy and presence for days; now they just have to figure out how to ham it up a little more.

Kang: I want to hire the stage director who put together last night’s costumes to decorate my dreams.

Lisanti: For a Joel Schumacherian neon nightmare that made both Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff wake up in cold sweats with the palpable fear the wardrobe cannister they’d dumped in the Pacific back in 1998 had suddenly washed up in Santa Monica, that was pretty entertaining. But you could see LYRIC 145′s souls begin to leave their bodies the minute “Gangnam Style” played. They signed up to get famous, but they didn’t sign up for that.

Emblem3

Kang: It’s a wrap. Emblem3 will not only win The X Factor, but they might actually be the first singing-competition contestants to have a hit single out before the show even ends. Here’s the dirty secret about these bros from Huntington Beach: The middle one who does most of the singing is the best vocalist on the entire show. He’s better than Korean Carly Rose Sonenclar, he’s better than Beatrice Miller, he’s better than CeCe Frey.

Emblem3 are already stars. They have the bad-boy image, the chops, the “hey, we’re having fun,” and pretty much everything that the tweens of America value. It’s like if Phillip Phillips took steroids, learned to surf, got cockier, and then got dropped into your daughter’s high school. But now there’s three of him. Wouldn’t you immediately send your daughter to a convent?

Yoshida: Coincidentally, that’s what Sister C’s parents are doing right now.

These guys are geniuses.

Lisanti: My favorite thing about Emblem3 is that the little one in the middle has no idea what his name is.

My second favorite thing is that they are running a very successful douche-bag destigmatization campaign on national TV. No hate, bro.

My third favorite thing is that by the end of the competition, we’re going to learn that they were made in a lab by combining genetic material from Zachery Ty Bryan, Fred Durst’s hat, and the original Spuds MacKenzie.

I’m all out of favorite things about them. I’ll think of more tomorrow, after Simon Cowell unilaterally names Emblem3 the winners, and they in turn announce that they’ve put babies inside two-thirds of Sister C, one-half of 1432, and all of Demi Lovato. Everybody wins.

Jay Caspian Kang is a beautiful orchid.
Emily Yoshida has Skrillex wallpaper on her Samsung Galaxy III.
Mark Lisanti needs a nap.

Filed Under: Britney Spears, Carly Rose Sonenclar, Demi Lovato, Emblem3, Simon Cowell, The X Factor

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Jay Caspian Kang is a Grantland contributor. His debut novel, The Dead Do Not Improve, is on sale now.

Archive @ jaycaspiankang