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.”
The most notable difference reflected the newfound presence of semi-professionals in the talent pool, like the 26-year-old Nashville man who’d been touring as a backup singer with Christian acts since he was 19 and was on his way to Los Angeles to work with a producer. Rather than just letting the contestants perform their song and then offering commentary, the judges first peppered the performers with a volley of questions (which sometimes came up as factors in the judging) before allowing them to perform. But even then, the judges took a dominant role. They once asked a contestant to perform an entirely different song than the one she had prepared (like the 12-year-old who launched into a somewhat incongruous cover of Rihanna’s blood-soaked “Man Down” before Simon let her perform her original choice, “At Last”), and in almost all cases asked for an additional song beyond the first in order to better judge the contestant’s potential (to hear something more modern, to get a better idea of their voice, etc.). The whole thing felt more like the audition phase of Britain’s Got Talent than that of Idol—Abdul and Scherzinger got one woman to lose a regrettable hat and shake out her hair, a transformation that turned the judges’ sentiments in her favor. All in all, the mood wasn’t one of evaluating performance so much as it was evaluating potential, like the contestants were auditioning for managers or agents rather than a singing competition.
It was a mood reflected in the crowd, a diverse group who, like the performers themselves, seemed to hail from all over. Some were locals, like the cheerleading squad and girls’ soccer team the producers had bused in for guaranteed enthusiasm, but others came from as far away as Utah, Alaska, and Hungary. Moreover, many seemed to be there less to see a show than to somehow become famous themselves, whether by osmosis or accident. It was an understandable ambition, given that the whole idea of audition-as-live-event is itself incongruous. But in the context of the show, it makes a kind of sense. Just as Idol began the process of breaking down the barrier between the invisible process of making pop and the open act of consuming it, X Factor allows some to participate not just through voting but through their physical presence. They were attending, in effect, a concert about picking pop stars.
The audience warmer-upper told the crowd that they were the “fifth judge.” That is to say that not everyone was the fifth judge—just the people inside the building, each one 0.001% as famous as the other four judges but infinitely more famous than those unfortunates left outside. There was a persistent sense of imminent involvement, the looming possibility that, at any moment, someone might be plucked from the crowd just as the performers had been, graced with a makeover by the tastemakers and loosed into the world, destined for stardom. Or maybe just the possibility of being glimpseable on television was enough. Maybe that was why so many in the audience had dressed up far beyond the dress code, wearing full-blown suits and fedoras and short skirts and patent-leather heels, even though they would not be shown below the midriff, even though the light was not on them. It didn’t matter. The light was on nearby; the borders had been limited just enough to make the people in attendance seem a little bit special, like the possibility of instant success was as close for them as it was for the contestants who’d already been judged worthy. What was important was not that they were part of it but that other people were not part of it.
Ultimately, making everyone see our greatness is a lot of work. It’s far easier, and far more achievable, to make four very important people see our potential and have them make our dreams come true. If X Factor is successful—and it probably should be, since even this public audition was immensely entertaining to watch—then it will mean that, in some way, the American public misses the machine. It made things easier to concentrate power into the hands of a few, to have the more qualified other do the heavy lifting before it was our turn to make a decision. Yes, at the end of it all, we’d like a say. But we’re happy to have other people do most of the work.