Dispatch From The X Factor Auditions: Makeovers, Preening, And Missing The Machine
In Seattle on Wednesday, The X Factor was doing its damndest not to be American Idol. Producers had overseen the first round of auditions, and now, in front of an audience of 4,000, the few acts who had passed muster would perform for judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, L.A. Reid, and Nicole Scherzinger. The urge to differentiate X Factor from Idol was evident in everything from the kinds of performers who made it on-air to the process the judges used to evaluate them. Cowell's old show requires contestants to audition as a solo act, be between the ages of 15 and 28, and be amateurs; X Factor requires only that you show up and sing. Moreover, while Idol has increasingly emphasized winning the competition as a triumph in and of itself, Cowell's new show presents itself as a simulation of the usually behind-the-scenes process of making pop stars. The goal isn't to fulfill contestants' potential. The goal, as the judges emphasized over and over again, is to sell records.
The structure of Cowell's new show reflects this: Instead of having auditions lead fairly quickly to a series of weekly eliminations based on viewer votes a la Idol, X Factor has the judges make most of the decisions. Judges vote on who makes it through the second round of auditions; then each mentors a group of contestants before picking a small group of mentees to make it through to the final round, at which point the public finally weighs in. As such, the performers seemed not to be auditioning for a record deal so much as trying to win the right to a fantasy makeover. The message of X Factor isn't, as Idol would have it, that there is talent out there just waiting to be discovered. It is, rather, that only through luck and skill can you get sucked into the machine and transformed into a star. In an age of increasingly democratized pop culture, it is a weirdly retrograde idea. The public cannot make you a star, the entertainment industry says; only we can make you a star.
In some ways, the process is genuinely more democratic. Idol's age and professionalism restrictions reflected the pre-millennial idea that only the young could be popular, and the pre-Idol possibility that reality shows would stay meaningfully separate from the music industry. In just one afternoon, the X Factor judges considered a 13-year-old girl from Atlanta, a quartet of middle-aged sisters from Raleigh, and a soul singer from Memphis who claimed his age was 42 but was either lying or suffering from a mild form of Methuselah Syndrome. The end result may be no different, however. The only person outside Idol's age requirements to make it through on that particular afternoon was a 39-year-old woman from Los Angeles; all the other lucky ones were solid Hollywood-week material. The 17-year-old theater nerd from New York made it through, as did the trio of twentysomething dudes apparently trying to jumpstart the 'N Sync revival and the dreamy 18-year-old local boy who claimed Bon Iver and Sufjan Stevens as his influences before performing a folkish cover of Katy Perry's "Firework."