Cowell’s X Factor Jumps the Pond

Rachel Crow, 13, has chubby cheeks, frizzy hair, pink clothes and wants “The X Factor USA”’s $5 million recording contract prize because “[her] family has, like, no money.” She also wants to donate to an orphanage because “[her] mom adopted [her], and she’s, like, the best mom ever!” She is, in essence, manufactured to be cute and likable.

But she’s real, and she can really sing. To put her in context, if she were a boy, as the lyrics of Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy” rang loud and clear at her audition, she’d be better than almost all the a cappella guys at Yale.

In modern pop culture, televised reality singing competitions are essentially trite. When “American Idol” debuted a decade ago, the nation’s eyes were glued to the screens as they cheered on their favorite contestants. Viewers followed their ‘idols’ on emotional journeys from the audition to Hollywood Week to live shows, and ultimately were left with one of the nation’s most iconic pop stars, Kelly Clarkson. A household name was created.

Since then, though, nearly all winners have faded into oblivion after the media’s obligatory doting, their 15 minutes of fame. We’re left with Lee DeWyze (who?), Taylor Hicks (lol) and a slew of other forgettable or infamous names. The contestants who end up the most successful after the show are often given the boot early, and suddenly, “American Idol” is no longer fun, hip or entertaining. Similar shows proved even less successful at producing pop stars, including “America’s Got Talent,” “The Voice” and “The Sing Off.”

However, “The X Factor USA,” whose name is based on the show’s search for contestants who have the “x factor,” is unabashedly meta — “The X Factor” has its own x-factor. Unlike “American Idol,” we aren’t plagued by bad auditions, nor are we cut off from seeing auditions altogether like we are in “The Voice.” The show as a whole is more visually appealing, from the set to the editing to the contestants themselves. It avoids being hackneyed by its unique structure — first are the auditions, then boot camp (think Hollywood Week for “American Idol”) and finally the Judges’ Houses stage, where the final contestants are flown to the luxurious destinations to vie for a place in the live shows. The four judges, including the mastermind Simon Cowell, are assigned to mentor each of the four categories: boys under 30, girls under 30, groups, and the over 30s. The other judges, Paula Abdul, Nicole Scherzinger and L.A. Reid, also produce and coach each contestant individually. The results, as the original “The X Factor UK” demonstrates, are not just elaborate sets, but rather an intimate mentorship process that produces dynamic performances and legitimate careers.

Aside from the cute, small, adopted, poor Rachel Crow, we have divorcée Stacy Francis, 42, whose pain and hurt from a busted marriage and recent father’s death drives judges and audience members to tears. There’s the male-model-turned-singer Brennin Hunt, 26, who’s rightfully confident, and there’s also the overweight, balding, chicken plant worker Thomas Wells, 34, who could very well be the next Susan Boyle.

Everyday Americans become superstars in these kinds of shows — granted, though, they weren’t ever ordinary to begin with. “The X Factor” is extraordinary in its ability to capture each contestant’s transition from nobody to somebody, almost like a documentary within a reality television show. Unlike any other show, cameras always must be on, but not to gather enough footage to manipulatively edit contestants into heroes or villains. The intention of the show is true — to show clearly the process of mentorship and the contestants’ subsequent growth. In the end, the show actually becomes a story of the 16 final contestants. That is the appeal that most people, who normally write off shows like this, hopefully will not fail to see. To me, it is an experience more fulfilling than most televised drama series can offer.

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