"The X Factor has created more global stars than any other singing competition in the world."
That tagline kicked off the new season of the U.S. version of The X Factor, the third to air stateside, and the one that hopes to be the first to actually live up to that laughable opening humble brag. While the Simon Cowell-led exercise in bloated bombast and excess can lay tangential claim to discovering One Direction, that group was formed in the U.K. version of the series, one with infinite more levels of popularity among its countrymen than the U.S. iteration. The fact remains that, just like The Voice, The X Factor has yet to discover an artist that can, even in the most generous definition of the phrase, be considered a star.
Be honest: do you even remember who won the competition last year, let alone the year before? And if you're insufferable and Googled the winners' names just to be difficult, did you buy their albums? Can you sing a line from one of their songs? Exactly.
With no track record of introducing America's Next Big Thing (or, you know, accomplishing its sole reason for existing as a television program), The X Factor, then--and, again, like The Voice--hopes to lure viewers by giving them an entertaining show with entertaining judges. The series has been so steadfast in its mission to offer those entertaining judges that it has recast its judging panel in each of its three seasons.
Wednesday's premiere delivered the debuts of singers Kelly Rowland and Paulina Rubio alongside returning Demi Lovato and reality stalwart Cowell as judges. It should already be a foregone conclusion that the quartet will be utter failures when it comes to finding a new hit recording artist. But do they at least give us the so-called entertainment we're looking for?
To use one of Cowell's favorite digs from throughout the years, they were ghastly.
Let's begin with the way the two newbies introduced themselves to the world/dozens of loyal of X Factor fans. "I'm hoping to find somebody with passion, who wants it," said Rowland. "Who's hungry. Starving." Rowland clearly aced the "Buzzwords and Clichés" lesson in her Reality TV 101 course. That, or she's using this whole judging thing as the opportunity to test out character slogans should she ever be cast in a Real Housewives spinoff.
Next up was Rubio. She said...OK it was, respectfully--but truthfully--completely unintelligible. The "wah wah wah" teacher in Charlie Brown is easier to understand. The one discernible bit sounded like she said "soup or star." Presumably, she meant "superstar," but it sounded so unmistakably like "soup or star" that we're really on the fence about this.
Then came the part, as it does each year, in which each judge says to the camera what they're looking for in a successful X Factor contestant. Rowland's response: "It's something you can't describe," which is an interesting thing to say, when one considers that she has been hired, literally, to describe just that on a weekly basis.
Several tactics have been used by various singing competitions--especially elder statesman American Idol--to reinvigorate the judges panel and, in turn, the series. They've tried to recapture the Simon Cowell/Randy Jackson magic from the Idol launch by bringing in a not-famous expert to offer credible critiques. Kara DioGuardi was a bust. They've tried bringing in a really famous non-expert to offer critiques with no credibility. Ellen DeGeneres was a bust. They've tried really famous people, purely for the sake of having really famous people on the show. Steven Tyler, Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, Nicki Minaj, Shakira, Usher--all a bust.
Credit The X Factor producers with going in a different direction this season: bringing in only-kind-of-famous-with-a-very-specific-group-of-people experts with minimal audience draw. If Britney Spears doesn't prove to be must-see TV, then "that girl who was in Destiny's Child--not Beyoncé" and "she's a Latin singer...I think...but, no no, it's not Shakira" don’t stand a chance.
Last year, it appeared that Simon had discovered, if not a new singing star, at least a new reality one in Lovato, whose debut run provided an endearing blend of poise, petulance, and rough-around-the-edges. Sadly, Lovato seems to have been Rowland's classmate in that Reality TV 101 course during the off-season. Gone is that real-girl charm. In its place is an over-rehearsed bore, a put-on "personality" instead of a relatable "person." At one point, she's trying so hard to cry--the camera was in tight close-up, after all--that, while we can't be totally certain, there appeared to be real danger that she was on the verge of launching her eyeballs from her sockets. "I'm still crying," she quipped in the "off-the-cuff" (totally scripted) banter in the segment that followed. The thing is... she wasn't.
If a reality TV singing competition can't be sold as a reputable talent search and doesn't deliver on a promise of entertaining viewers with engaging judges, one can't help but wonder what you're left with. As it turns out, what you're left with is The X Factor. And it's not very good.