Judging The X Factor: America Takes the Contestants Hostage

Ray Mickshaw/FOX Diamond White on The X Factor

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. It’s not an abusive relationship, it’s just a very complicated one.

Last night, America’s third-favorite singing competition dragged itself to the Final Six. For the first time this season, YOU, America, had the opportunity to pick one of the contestants’ songs in the Pepsi Viewers’ Choice Supermax Dragon Fire Contest. Well, America, on a night when 4Chan trolls could have forced Tate Stevens to sing 2 Live Crew’s “Pop That Coochie,” you somehow out-boringed the show’s producers, who seem to believe that the best way to improve “music” is to glue sparkly shit onto everything. The X Factor has become pretty hard to watch as of late, and sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, think back on the literary ambitions of my youth, and start sharpening the ends of random Q-tips in the hopes that maybe one day there will be an earthquake here in Los Angeles and tectonic force will just take care of what I can’t do myself.

Anyway, Pepsi onward and Pepsi upward. — Kang

CeCe Frey

Kang: I’m back on #TeamCeCe because she’s a whole lotta ducky blonde ambition and because she’s that girl who very quietly buys a takeout dinner for a homeless guy and then goes to cry in her car because the world is unfair. Maybe she can’t sing, maybe life will spit her out in a subversive Off-Off Broadway production of Cats as “Sexy Granny Grizabella,” who rides motorcycles around stage and smokes catnip while wearing a backward baseball cap and a Cramps denim vest, but at least she’ll go through all that with a strong sense of dignity and belief in America’s great meritocracy. I can’t say the same for someone like Paige Thomas, who seems willing to throw babies in front of every problem like she’s Chuck Knoblauch or even my girl Beatrice Miller, who was hiding the fact that she has an even more decorated child singing past than Carly Rose Sonenclar.

Lisanti: America tried to turn CeCe into Katy Perry last night. Then Demi Lovato was all, Nope, you’re gonna be Ke$ha AGAIN and you’re gonna like it, now stop crying, put on your garbage costume, and get back out there, everyone’s gonna love you, finally. Or was that actually a Perry-inspired ensemble? A casual Gaga? They’ve spun CeCe through the Identity Centrifuge so many times that I can’t make sense of the puddle of essential elements they’ve harvested from it. Can anyone? But what has become absolutely clear is that she’s lost her ability to sing. Maybe the incredible G-forces of her weekly spin-out are tough on the vocal cords. There was a point, early on, where she could sing, right? I’m not imagining that? Someone tell me what’s going on! She almost goes home and then she stays and then she’s up there all off-key and then the judges are like, “we love you, you have spunk” and then she almost goes home and then she never goes home and then it’s Christmas and whoops Carly won.


Yoshida: I watched The X Factor on DVR last night because I went to go do karaoke at the Brass Monkey. About halfway through the night, out of nowhere, this sweet-faced, kind of portly gentleman stepped up to the mic and proceeded to roll out a gorgeous, heartfelt rendition of Beyoncé’s “Listen” in a flawless soprano. The room was silent, and over the course of the song people started to gather around him, almost magnetically pulled by the soulfulness of his performance. When he was done, the room exploded into applause. It was beautiful, and made me realize what’s so special about karaoke and shows like The X Factor and Idol: the idea of an average person getting a chance to touch people’s hearts purely through performance. After he left the stage, these two girls who were friends with the KJ came up and sang a 10-minute duet from Wicked and I actually got my bag and was about to leave because it was so unpleasant. It made me realize that the impulse to perform is one of the most delusional, indulgent human tendencies, and one that we as a society should constantly, vigilantly be trying to squash. I ended up staying because it was my friend’s turn to sing Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much.” As she stepped up to the mic, the KJ quipped, “This is a song about my naked body.” Nobody laughed. What I’m trying to say is, I think there’s a lot of room for CeCe to have a very successful career as a KJ.


Kang: So their promise, “We’re going to play instruments next week!” actually just meant that Stoned Guile would hold an acoustic guitar in his muscle-y arms while Blue Steeling the camera? By the way, I understand “making love to the camera,” but there needs to be a new term for what Emblem3 does. I would say they “dry-hump the camera,” but if that’s true, why do I feel like I’ve been sprayed by something bleachy and horrible every time they sing? Let’s go with “masturbate into a sock into the camera” or something like that.

I’m with Mario Lopez, who said he wants to see Emblem3 complete the prophecy and sing Sublime, at which point the Frog Prince will drag himself out of the waters surrounding the Huntington Beach pier, hop resolutely down to Laguna Beach, and climb the mountain where Lauren Conrad’s father built his dream home. Breanna Conrad will be sacrificed on a pyre of broken skateboard decks and after her last ember wafts out over the Pacific, the Great Bro Republic will finally have come to this earth, never to perish.

I also think Stoned Guile and Demi Lovato should have a “my face is too small for my head” contest.

Lisanti: I think what Mario Lopez was trying to say with that Sublime thing was, “I would like at least one of you to die of a drug overdose.” Don’t let the fact that a miniature face-Zamboni resurfaces his cheeks during every commercial break fool you: Mario has dark places.

And so Emblem3’s latest threat of live instrumentation goes unfulfilled. SpongeArms SmallFace playing three chords on an acoustic guitar is not exactly the Arcade Fire–style 10-musician orgy of vintage accordions and tiny pianos struck with mandolins I was hoping for. Maybe next week. Maybe. Keep stringing us along, you naughty phantom virtuosos.

Yoshida: Asking Emblem3 to sing Sublime is like a 4-year-old asking for a Bentley for Christmas. It’s too big, the insurance alone would be untenable, and more important, we wouldn’t know what to do with it for another 13 years. That said, “Santeria” is the obvious choice, but I think “What I Got” would be a better showcase for Stoned Guile’s Dadaist freestyling skills.


Carly Rose Sonenclar

Kang: Look girl, if you’re going to sit your ass on a stool and go through the entire canon of “Mariah stool hand motions,” you gotta commit a bit more. Otherwise, you just look like someone cut all the tendons in your shoulder and then stuck you in a wind tunnel.

She’s fine and all, but honestly, what does she do other than play Budding Adolescent Cosette? I guess if someone wrote a Taxi Driver musical, she could play Jodi Foster’s character in that? Or maybe if someone decided to set Moulin Rouge in Cambodia, she could have a role in that?

Yoshida: I’m so tired of Carly Rose’s stupid soul-face. Who cares if Beatrice’s child star Wikipedia résumé is longer than Carly’s? If this were 1994 and we still had to wait another year before their Encyclopedia Britannica entries were published, my heart would tell me that, out of the four original teens, Beatrice was the fresh-faced, promising ingenue, and Carly Rose was the washed-up Broadway casualty. I recognize her formidable technical vocal talent, but I feel less than nothing when she sings.

Lisanti interrupting: Dead inside! Dead inside!

Back to Yoshida: I was in the checkout aisle the other day and I saw Taylor Swift on the cover of no fewer than three magazines. Even though the print world is dying and blah blah blah, I still feel like if publishers feel someone will sell copies, that’s an important indicator of one’s reach as an artist. One of these days I just might impulsively grab that copy of Elle; part of me undeniably does want to know what’s goes on in Swift’s head when she performs “We Are Never Ever” that I can’t see or hear. I would never read an interview with Carly Rose because I’m pretty sure all that she’s thinking when she sings is when to hold up her hand for emphasis, and when to furrow her eyebrows and close her eyes. It’s all very one-and-two-and, and it manifests in her vocals as well.

Lisanti: You know why you’d never read an interview with Carly Rose? She’s 13. No one wants to listen to a 13-year-old talk. (My parents taught me this by plugging their ears with their fingers from sixth grade until I came back from my sophomore year in college, when I discovered they’d moved to Belize.) But she is, at 13, doing a pretty amazing impression of an older person who actually understands what they’re singing about. Just think of her like Data: Her programming produces an occasionally convincing simulation of emotions, but not the actual emotions themselves. She’ll get all Swifted up soon enough. The Kennedy family and at least one member of Emblem3 (the biggest band in the world in 2018) will be involved.

I think what everyone’s mad at is the fact that they’re letting these kids in the competition. Which they shouldn’t. They should enroll them in some kind of military singing academy until they’re 19, then unleash them upon the world when they are properly trained musical killing machines. Simon Cowell will need an army.

Yoshida: That’s actually exactly what they do in Korea. It’s not a bad strategy, and something tells me it would come quite naturally to Simon.


Fifth Harmony

Lisanti: I want them to stay around forever, if only for L.A. Reid’s continuing, hilarious fixation on how they never sing actual harmonies. “You should be called Fifth Unison!” he’ll bellow, week after week. “You’re like if Voltron never became a giant robot with an electric sword, and stayed just a bunch of incredibly cool armored lions flying around the galaxy. Give me my giant robot, ladies. It is only through harmonic convergence into a greater whole that we can save the universe from Alligator Emperor Vino Alan!”

It is at this point I finally reveal that I took some cold medication an hour ago. Brrrrrrrrzzzzzz~~!!!

Kang: Let’s get these boring fake divas onto Making the Band 15. Only ritual humiliation will make them interesting.

Yoshida: I’m only rooting for Fifth Harmony at this point, but it’s hard to when they put Allie in those LMFAO glasses and then don’t make enough for the rest of the girls.

Diamond White

Kang: America decided Diamond White should sing “Diamonds” because her name is Diamond. That’s it, I’m tying my tubes. Not bringing a child into this world.

Lisanti: “That’s very clever.” — Mario Lopez describing how a child named Diamond sang a song called “Diamonds” while being lowered to the stage inside a giant diamond. But I think I detected the briefest of glints in his tiny, coal-black button-eyes, so maybe he was being drolly scathing. Then again, that glint might have been the reflection from the back of Britney Spears’s solid-gold iPhone as she texted “BORRRRRRRRRRRRED :-(((” to 90999, transferring her entire net worth to the Red Cross for boredom relief.

Yoshida: Being a 13-year-old girl, Diamond is not allowed to say the word “ecstasy” on a television show. That was the one really good decision made tonight w/r/t her performances. I was a Diamond naysayer back when she was still new and cute and shiny and had still only gotten through about one-fifth of Whitney Houston’s catalogue, and I still am annoyed by the fact that when she goes for high notes her voice loses all edge — it kind of sounds like she’s smothering herself. She’s also one of those people who, if you close your eyes while listening to them, they sounds like they’re frowning. And if you open your eyes while listening to her, especially during one of those big, smothered wails, you will notice that she almost definitely still has most of her baby teeth, which just makes me uncomfortable.

Tate Stevens

Kang: When Simon has to ask, “This is the second Bon Jovi song you’ve sung?” it means all culture has come to a screeching halt and that the people who actually watch The X Factor are the same people who put “Don’t Stop Believing” on the jukebox at 1 a.m. and start making out with whatever’s nearby because “WE WORK HARD AND WE PLAY HARD … THIS IS THE NATIONAL. FOOTBALL. LEAGUE!”

There are a million beautiful country songs. Even without reaching back to Roy Orbison or Guy Clark or Willie Nelson or George Jones or Nanci Griffith, there are good country songs. Tate Stevens, despite having very little talent, has stuck in the Top 2 because he does country. So why the hell are they making him sing Bon Jovi? I swear, when they sweep back the curtain to reveal the Wizard who has been running X Factor, it won’t be some foppish, effete British guy dressed like Elton John in 1973. It will be a mouse with a helmet on his head with some electrodes running into it.

Yoshida: Here is L.A’s inner dialogue while trying to figure out how to broaden Tate’s appeal:

What is Tate? COUNTRY
What country things are coastal millennials into? TAYLOR SWIFT
What country things are coastal millennials into other than Taylor Swift? ERROR
What else is Tate? OLD

PLEASE SEE WIKIPEDIA ARTICLE: “List of songs in Glee (season 2)

(I’m not sure why L.A. Reid turned into HAL during that bit, but it feels right.)

Lisanti: After Tate’s second-song performance of “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” Garth Brooks sent Randy Travis to run him over with a monster truck with a giant cowboy hat on it. R.I.P., Tate Stevens, pancaked by a cowboy-hatted monster truck driven by a Garth Brooks–controlled Randy Travis. (Tate Stevens will still be in the Top 2 tonight.)

I’m gonna go lay down for awhile.

Jay Caspian Kang only plays Boston songs on the jukebox.
Emily Yoshida squealed at the ST:TNG reference above.
Mark Lisanti has a cold.

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

Mark Lisanti is an editor at Grantland.

Archive @ marklisanti