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Grantland Goes to The X Factor

I went to The X Factor last night. Here’s a running diary. All times in PST.

4:15: Everything on The X Factor is smaller than you’d expect. The crammed stage is backlit with glowing screens. On the floor, converging lines of light pulse to give the illusion of depth. The studio audience runs somewhere around 300 deep and sit on black dining room chairs set on risers. If it weren’t for the glowing screens behind the stage and the little girls holding up signs, this setting, with its black walls, it’s intimate seating, and its dusty spotlights, could be Ground Zero for a breakout of The Vagina Monologues. Forty minutes before the show, those screens loop through a somewhat dated graphic sequence culled from what the future must have looked like in 1982. Lane Brown, our departing culture editor, says he feels like he’s at Captain EO. It sounds about right.

4:40: Twenty minutes before show time, all the seats have all been filled. There are two women in their late 60s seated in the row in front of us. One is jumping up and down enthusiastically. The other sits nervously. I ask Lane if we should go to the bathroom before the show starts. He agrees. We pick our way through the audience, only to find out at the door that we have to return to our seats. On the way back up the risers, I push past Breaking Bad‘s Jesse Pinkman, who sits next to an absolutely stunning blonde, the rare Los Angeles stunning blonde who doesn’t fall apart upon closer inspection. For some reason, the thought that Jesse Pinkman has found love, or at least a worthwhile diversion, eases my growing anxiety over the blaring music, the flashing lights, and the Captain EO stage.

4:45: Some guy comes out to warm up the crowd. Apparently, it is Michael Jackson night on The X Factor. I kind of feel terrible for the warm-up guy, but first must acknowledge that my feeling terrible probably comes out of some ugly elitism, whereby I can’t look at a short guy dripping with sweat and hair product as he prances on a stage he will never occupy, at least not in the way he wants, without feeling a bit depressed for all the dreamers out there. This guy probably likes his job and is doing better than most of the waiters, baristas, and valets in Los Angeles. By this town’s measure, he is doing much better than me. With five minutes ’til show time, I feel happier with my rationalizations — everyone is having fun, and the old ladies who are screaming and stomping seem to genuinely like the warm-up guy, and there’s nothing really wrong with that.

4:59: Steve Jones looks like a product of market research — if you created a factory for Fox singing competitions, it would spit out a tall, good-looking Brit with his very own “Banter with Simon” button. Which is exactly why Steve Jones is terrible. Nobody wants to be hugged by someone perfect, nobody wants a perfect specimen to introduce you to anyone. As the show starts and the crowd stands and screams, Steve Jones sticks his left hand in the pocket of his gangster-ish jacket and strikes a rakish pose in the center of the stage. I can’t really hear what he’s saying. The glowing screen behind the stage splits in half, and out come the Jackson brothers. I can’t really hear who is there, but through the screaming, I think I hear the name, “Marlon,” and immediately think back to the “cut a switch,” scene from the Jacksons’ miniseries.

It gets weirder when Steve Jones announces that Michael Jackson’s mother is in the crowd along with his children. The screen cuts to an old lady seated in the front row who says something about being happy and how The X Factor is her favorite show, but I can’t really hear her either. The camera pans past Blanket, Paris, and Prince. Blanket looks bored, Paris is composed, and Prince has a very Joey Lawrence look on his face.

5:06: I can’t hear Josh Krajcik’s voice, and it’s not until about halfway through his performance that I figure out he’s singing “Dirty Diana.” I wonder if the judges can hear what’s going on, and Lane points to a row of monitors placed right in front of their table. Still, it’s hard to imagine that, with the crowd noise and the deafening volume at which the music is being played, any of the judges can really hear what’s going on. Lane suggests that they might sit in at a rehearsal and come up with their comments then.

Every time Nicole Scherzinger gets past the third word of her critiques, a producer by the stage takes out a rolled-up piece of paper and waves her on. This must be maddening for her, but you know … As her critique rambles on, the waving gets more and more insistent until she finally punctuates whatever she’s saying with her platitude of the moment.

5:15: Astro is better in person, and if I were a betting man, I’d put money on him winning the competition. His narrative arc was set a couple of weeks ago, when he pouted after being placed in the bottom two. America protested and Simon lectured him about being appreciative and now he seems to be rejuvenated. Of all the contestants, he seems most comfortable with the show’s Vegas styling — he pays about as much attention to the dancers as they deserve, and although I can’t really hear any of his specific lyrics, Astro, at the age of 12, already has better breath control than 95 percent of the greater rapping population.

5:25:I have to admit, I’m enjoying myself. The crowd rattles its signs and boos lustily at Simon. A woman in the row ahead of ours raises her fists over her head and screams for Marcus with such fervor that I’m afraid she’s going just up and faint and take out the old ladies standing next to her. Lane keeps checking his watch. Four contestants have walked on the stage, performed, listened to their critiques, smiled next to Steve Jones while flashing their number, and walked away. We try to figure out how many people are left. Neither of us can remember that Chris Rene is still in the competition.

6:02:I don’t know what will ultimately come of Drew, but it’s a shame she’s just 14, because if she were 23, or even 19, some very smart record producer could turn her into a better version of Jewel. As it stands now, can she really be anything other than another teeny-bop star singing teeny-bop songs? Her voice is the only one we can really hear clearly. Of all the contestants I’ve watched during my decade-long singing-competition addiction, she’s the only one who seems to be a legitimate singing prodigy. There’s nothing really affected about her warbling, and unlike the legions of belters and grunters she seems to know exactly when her voice should crack, when she should ramp up her pleadings, and, thanks to Simon, when she should just sit down and sing yet another slowed-down cover of a song from the ‘80s. And although the arrangement was a bit predictable, is there really a singer who isn’t a bit predictable?

6:22: When Simon announces that Melanie will be singing a song that was a huge hit for Michael Jackson but one that most people just don’t touch, I yell, “Man in the Mirror!” before realizing that everyone in every singing competition has shaaa-moaned their way through that one. When the screen starts flashing images of rainforests, Lane snickers and says, “Come on …” This past Thanksgiving, we had watched This Is It and decreed that “the song about the fucking rainforest was terrible.” Tonight, Simon’s build-up feels ludicrous — I don’t think there are singers out there who really want to cover that song about the fucking rainforest, but just won’t, out of respect and/or fear.

But Melanie plants her feet and screams out about rainforests with real ferocity. There are two types of fierce in music these days — there’s the manufactured fierce that Simone Battle tried to hock, where flailing dance moves, a sneer, and mediocre singing try to pass themselves off as attitude. Then there’s the fierceness that can be delineated back to Whitney Houston. (The fierceness of Etta James and Aretha Franklin is officially extinct. Please don’t tell me about Jill Scott …) Other than Drew, Melanie is the only contestant we can really hear. The judges stand and clap, and everyone in our row stares at Nicole Scherzinger’s ass, and there’s some sort of jam-up on stage as all the contestants come out like it’s the end of Saturday Night Live.

6:43: Outside the studio, the Santa Anas have kicked up. Before the show, everyone in the audience had to surrender their cell phones. Now they stand in a long line, beaten down by strong gusts of wind. A woman behind me huddles in her sweater and talks about how Twitter doesn’t let her vote for Rachel Crow anymore because she overloaded her account. Three of Melanie Amaro’s relatives are nearby, holding a bedazzled, painted sign with Melanie’s image on it.

I say to Lane, “I kind of wish I had watched this on TV.”

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: The X Factor Preview: In Defense of TV Singing Competitions