"The X Factor" is back for Season 2, bringing you more staged drama, coach cattiness, singer sob stories, a good vocalist or two, and Britney Spears -- all sponsored by Pepsi!
Since last year's host, Steve Jones, was unceremoniously booted from the show, the first audition episode was presented in a surrealistic docu-soap style that was eerily reminiscent of "The Hills," right down to the dead-eyed blondes who spent half of the episode sitting around and judging their competition with withering looks and copious hair flipping.
The artifice has always been more apparent on "X Factor" than any of the other broadcast "talent" contests, but there's something to be said for the way Simon Cowell's reality juggernaut unabashedly embraces its shallowness. Simon leers over every pretty young thing that crosses the stage, people burst into tears at the first sign of a camera, and the increasingly tragic backstories of the contestants form sensationalized narratives that seem just as important as their singing abilities by the time the voting begins. As "American Idol" has been insisting for a few years now: vocals aren't everything -- it's the whole package that counts. And unless it's young and attractive, that package better hop on over to "The Voice."
Replacing Paula Abdul and the (even less lucid) Nicole Scherzinger on the coaching panel beside L.A. Reid and Simon Cowell this season are teen idol Demi Lovato and former pop princess Brit-Brit. Though much has been made of Demi and Simon's banter in the build-up to the premiere, it was undeniably Britney's show -- the host-free opening montage dedicated a fair amount of airtime to roaming through the crowd and finding shaky Spears acolytes desperate for an audience with their idol, cutting to hordes of fans who screamed and cried like they were witnessing the second coming of Elvis when Britney entered the arena. Or maybe the announcer inside the stadium lied and told them One Direction was coming onstage.
Speaking of the diminutive British boyband ... Season 2 of "X Factor" seemed determined to throw off the shackles of the somewhat sub-par (in terms of ratings, at least) first year, choosing to focus on the successful acts that the UK version of the show has produced: Leona Lewis, Cher Lloyd and the aforementioned One Direction, with nary a mention of Melanie Amaro or Chris Rene throughout. Whether the audience has been struck with amnesia or not, the do-over got off to a strong start, with plenty of tearjerking moments and a few stand-out artists in the bunch. We've whittled down a list of the most memorable moments from the night's good, bad and ugly below, in case you couldn't be bothered to sit through the whole show.
Paige Thomas: "I'm Going Down"
The vivacious single mom, 21, brought her adorable daughter Jade to the auditions, and got all tearful when Simon asked her about why she had yet to score a record deal; she's been going to nursing school to provide for her daughter. Her rendition of "I'm Going Down" was full of gravel and sass, and though her nerves were apparent in places and led to some flat notes, she owned the stage admirably.
Coaches' verdict: Yes x 4. Britney called her "bright and beautiful and flawless," L.A. compared her to Rihanna, Demi dubbed her a "superstar," and Simon declared it one of his favorite auditions to date.
Reed Deming: "It Will Rain/Grenade"
Justin Bieber's clone got a lot of attention from the teenage girls (at least I hope they were teenagers), but Simon wasn't too impressed with his first song choice, Bruno Mars' "It Will Rain." The 13-year-old was understandably nervous and the shake was apparent in his voice, but I thought he acquitted himself better than some of the contestants that the coach-judges let through. His second attempt was more stripped-down, and through Simon still had reservations, Reed's confidence filled up the stage impressively. The weirdest moment of his audition was when an attractive and obviously producer-planted girl called him over in the holding room to "informally" interview him about his backstory and what he hoped to achieve in the competition. She didn't have a visible contestant sticker, but we never saw her again ...
Coaches' verdict: Yes x 4. "I think we could be looking at a future pop star with you," Simon observed, after saying he wanted better vocals from the teen. "Your stage presence just shines," Demi gushed. "You're completely and utterly adorable," Britney cooed. L.A. compared him to Bieber, and Reed drew a laugh when he confidently asserted: "I don't wanna fall into that Bieber stereotype. I gotta be me."
Emblem3: "Sunset Boulevard"
A non-boy band (they were very firm about that) from Los Angeles comprised of two brothers and their friend, Emblem3 were the only group we really got to see, and they were impressive. Aged between 15-19, the group allegedly play their own instruments and proved to be talented songwriters, launching into a self-penned track that was thankfully the opposite of One Direction and much more reminiscent of The Script. They were also easy on the eyes, and if we have any hope of seeing a group make it into the finals (or hell, past the first few weeks of live shows), we definitely need more like these guys and less like all of Paula Abdul's rejects from last year, whose names I've already forgotten.
Coaches' verdict: Yes x 4. L.A., Demi and Britney loved them (and Demi went so far as to get a little flirty, prompting Simon to tell her "no," several times), while Simon told them he loved everything about their audition and predicted big things ahead for them.
Jennel Garcia: "Paris"
Sassy 18-year old student Jennel was cute as a button when she came on stage, but soon blew the audience and the coaches away with her rendition of the sultry Grace Potter and the Nocturnals number. She had just enough grit and attitude to command the stage, but reverted to being sweet and unassuming as soon as the song had ended.
Coaches' verdict: Yes x 4. "You're a feisty little fireball. I'm so feeling you," L.A. declared. Britney called it "absolutely incredible." Demi said she was hot, and Simon called her different and exciting.
Jillian Jensen: "Who You Are"
The undeniable stand-out of the night got the last slot of the show, and the 22 year old deserved every moment of glory (although the producers certainly dragged it out as long as they could). A fan of Demi's, Jillian has the same tattoo as her idol ("Stay strong") because she was also bullied during high school. In an appallingly manipulative moment, even by "X Factor" standards, the show "flashed back" to earlier in the day when Jillian had given her pre-audition interview, detailing how she was bullied at school, and the editors cut between her testimony and some other attractive female contestants putting on their makeup, as if they had been the ones to bully Jillian, rather than being what they were -- random hopefuls who were also hoping to realize their dreams. Gross. Aside from that one moment of ickiness, Jillian had a few moments of empathizing with Demi before launching into the Jessie J. number, and Demi noted you could "feel the pain" of the singer while listening. Jillian cried, Demi cried, the audience cried, we all cried. Even Simon cried.
Coaches' verdict: Emphatic yes x 4. The crowd and coaches were on their feet. Demi left her seat to hug Jillian and tell her how amazing she was (and seemed way less fake about it than Christina was during Monday night's "The Voice"). Britney called her "incredibly gifted." Demi said, "When you sang, you broke my heart. The fact that you have the ability to stand on stage and sing while you're crying is so brave." Simon was visibly choked up and took a few moments to gather himself before saying, "I thought that was incredible ... It was sung with so much pain. You're incredible." He later admitted it was the first time in his career he'd ever lost it, and Demi noted, "Aww, you have a heart!"
Vincent Thomas: "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word"
This California pretty boy went before Emblem3 and immediately made enemies of them by trying to impart his years of boyband wisdom from his time touring Europe with what was touted to be "the next Backstreet Boys" ... although he never named the obviously failed group. He then annoyed Simon by saying that his song was originated by Blue instead of Elton John. And then he was just bland and dated and dull.
Coaches' verdict: No x 4. Simon compared him to the obligatory fifth member of every boyband from the '90s who never sang (a.k.a. the male version of Victoria Beckham). Watching backstage, Emblem3 even declared him "super lame."
Don Philip: "Halo"
This had the potential to be Britney's Christina Aguilera/Tony Lucca moment, but luckily, she recognized him from when they sang a duet together on her first album 10 years ago. Sadly, unlike Tony Lucca, Don wasn't an "X Factor"-worthy singer. He's obviously been through a lot over the years, and the show chose to edit out the part of the audition where Philip admitted he was gay, which would've added some much-needed context to his emotional breakdown on stage, but the fact remained that his rendition of "Halo" was sharp and weak and altogether not good. It was gut-wrenching to watch him fall apart, though, and the edit seemed unreasonably cruel to someone who genuinely seemed unstable.
Coaches' verdict: No x 4. Although Britney was visibly shaken and reluctant to shatter his illusions, Simon delivered the bitter pill, albeit more gently than usual. "I just have to give you the honest truth. The problem you have ... you don't have a good singing voice." Britney agreed, "Through the years, I can tell you've gone through a lot of hardships and battles ... Your voice isn't up to the bar and the standards of 'The X Factor.'" Don looked shocked when she delivered the news, but later broke down outside: "Did you see Britney's eyes? I saw her face and I feel like I've hurt her ... I'm so sorry, Britney."
Shawn Arenta: "Candy Girls"
This 50-year-old baggage handler looked like an unassuming dad who had stolen his teenage son's wardrobe. But the fashion faux pas wasn't his only mistake. He attempted a self-written song about hot girls being like candy floss, or something equally mortifying, and topped it off with some terrible, Bieber-esque dance moves that were less superstar and more drunk uncle embarrassing himself at a wedding. It was all-around cringe-inducing.
Coaches' verdict: No x 4. "You're like a mouse trying to be an elephant -- it's just wrong," Simon said of the cognitive dissonance of the performance. Demi agreed, adding, "A lot of people work hard for their dreams, but it's not meant for everyone," to which Shawn responded "that's why you use autotune and I don't." Ouch. Britney wanted to know who had let him on stage and said he made her feel uncomfortable. With that, Shawn stormed off.
Kaci Newton: "Firework"
Pretty on the outside but ugly on the inside, the show spent the better part of an hour building Kaci up as one of the long-lost Plastics from "Mean Girls." She and her equally catty sister, Kaylee, lurked around backstage for what was presented as hours (when in actuality it was probably about 10 minutes), judging all of the contestants who seemed to inexplicably go before her despite how long she was waiting. She bitched about Paige Thomas' daughter spilling something on her jumpsuit, snarked about Paige having a run in her stockings, and declared herself better than the rest of the contestants. Meet "Hills Factor's" Heidi Montag, ladies and gents. Naturally, then, she was terrible, and we were all expected to root for her humiliation, which was delivered in spades when she launched into a screechy, off-key approximation of "Firework" that managed to be both sharp and flat.
Coaches' verdict: No x 4. "It sounded like you were dying. If you were dying and suffering and singing, I think that's what it would sound like," Simon told her.
Quatrele Da'an Smith: "Born This Way"
Decked in hotpants, a veil and hot pink lipstick, Quatrele certainly made a memorable entrance -- and he strutted better in platforms than most women. His rendition of the Lady Gaga anthem was pitchy and kind of all over the place, but his charisma was enough to enthrall the coaches. (All except L.A., anyway.) It was more performance art than singing, but it was entertaining.
Coaches' verdict: Yes x 3, though L.A. couldn't be swayed. Simon compared him to the baby of Madonna, Bobby Brown and Dracula, but admitted, "Sometimes I have to embrace the madness ... today I am. I'm gonna say yes." Demi loved him (and his lipstick) and so did Britney. L.A. thought they were all nuts.
"The X Factor" airs Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.
What did you think of the season premiere of "The X Factor"? Do you like Demi and Britney as coaches? Weigh in below!
[Correction: An earlier version of this recap mistakenly identified Jillian Jensen's song as self-written, instead of Jessie J's "Who You Are."]