The X Factor Series Premiere Recap: Homie Is Where the Heart Is

Pop quiz: Which of these unlikely acts advanced to Round 2 during the season premiere of Simon Cowell’s hyped-to-iPad-proportions talent competish, The X Factor?

a) The chick in the striped top who left L.A. Reid “completely underwhelmed” with a sound she described as “a threesome between a cheerleader, a hipster, and a drag queen”
b) The dude in the powder-blue mesh (!) shirt who undulated on the stage floor and expressed the desire to launch an energy drink named after himself
c) The 42-year-old mom who wound up with alarming rivulets of mascara streaming down her face.
d) The recently-out-of-rehab meth addict who performed an atrociously titled, self-penned track “Young Homie”

If you answered “all of the above,” then congratulations! You’ve won the right to sing “Happy Birthday” to Nicole Scherzinger, a true honor that you can cash in on June 29 (the date Nicole entered the world) or June 30 (which used to be Cheryl Cole’s birthday until Nicole wrestled it away as part of a vicious final act in her X Factor contract negotiations).

Seriously, though, for all its America’s Got Talent-ish contrivances — the gasping audiences, the contestants’ relatives crying tears of joy in the wings, Simon’s withheld-till-the-last-second grins of approval — there were moments during The X Factor‘s long-awaited premiere that resonated with genuine emotion and a sense of the unexpected (starting with the decision to retire the word “singer” in the intro package for “choreographer and performer” Paula Abdul).

But just like the show itself, let’s not wade too long in the production minutiae, and instead get the motors of our 18-wheelers running, head out on the highway through the scrubby desert, and look for adventure or whatever comes our way in the quest to find a musical act that’s worthy of a $5 million recording contract. Over the course of the two-hour telecast, we saw a half-dozen acts who exhibited enough promise that it’s not hard to envision them lasting well into the holiday shopping season. (Side note: If you’re like my sister Kathy and have half your holiday shopping completed, I don’t wanna hear about it!) Let’s review the evening’s best and brightest:

* I had every reason to root against scrappy 13-year-old moppet Rachel Crow: For starters, I’m a disciple of the school of thought that says you should at least be old enough to have a driver’s license before you can qualify for a record deal. And then, of course, there was the way Rachel seemed to have rehearsed and polished her interview answers into glistening, 14-karat sound bites. Her X Factor audition, naturally, was “the most important thing” (chops air with hand) “that I have ever done” (chops air with hand again) “in my life” (chops air with hand once more, just for added emphasis). And I may be wrong, but her bit about being a girl and needing her own bathroom may have been lifted wholesale from an ancient episode of Full House. All of my misgivings went out the window, though, when the music kicked in and Rachel starting belting out a rendition of “Mercy” that was ragingly powerful and completely in tune. Better still, the kid exhibited a deliciously natural flow — as if she had read and processed every word of the lyrics and then delivered them with a connectedness that couldn’t be learned from someone merely mimicking Duffy’s original. Simon (because he’s Simon) had to immediately drill home that Rachel was proof positive that The X Factor did the right thing in lowering its minimum age to 12, but I’m taking a wait-and-see approach: Rachel could be the exception, and not the rule, y’know?

* If you’re a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, then prepare to get obsessed with saucy Simone Battle, a college student who wears red satin booty shorts, dreams of autographing people’s babies, and wants to title her debut album Honey, Work. (Insert spontaneous snap in a Z formation here.) Plus, her sound is informed by drag queens, cheerleaders, and hipsters! I had to agree with L.A. that her rendition of “When I Grow Up” was utterly pedestrian, and not really worthy of a “yes” vote, but I wasn’t unhappy that Simon pushed Simone to give the audience a second number to better showcase her vocals. That subsequent performance of “Bulletproof” showed off a muscular tone and a “you must love me” fervor that any good pop star ought to have. You could eye roll at Paula for declaring Simone “individualistic” and telling her that “being smart, witty, and current” would set her apart from the competition, but I kinda know what she meant.

* Last week, Fox leaked most of 42-year-old Stacy Francis’ audition as part of an eight-minute promo reel, and it promptly activated my tear ducts. Amazingly, though, I found myself getting choked up watching it a second time on Wednesday night, even as my ears detected more flaws (a loss of control on a couple of runs; some unnecessary caterwauling where a straightforward delivery would’ve sufficed). The thing is, it wasn’t just Stacy’s back story — an abusive past relationship held her back from pursuing her singing dreams, as did the busted industry perception that she’d been too old to make it since she turned 30 — that got to me. Nor was it merely the tidal wave of mascara that washed over Stacy’s face as she wept at the judges’ standing ovation. Nope, there was a deep-rooted center of emotion in Stacy’s rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” that’s all too often absent in the work of younger, less life-tested vocalists. Somehow, this woman who’s forced to practice in her bathroom after her young children go to bed at night, was able to convey all the past pain and current joy of going through it, and from that breathtakingly filmed vantage point looking out on the crowd of thousands, saw a light at the back of the auditorium. In Simon’s gleeful words: “Stacy Francis, that’s 4,304 yeses.”

* I can’t pinpoint why exactly I get a Fantasia Barrino-meets-Kris Allen (but with better dance moves) vibe from 20-year-old Marcus Canty, but I’ve got to agree with Simon that the kid is “one to watch” based on a funky, flawless take on “I Wish” that detonated the conventional wisdom that one should never cover Stevie Wonder on a televised singing competition. (One of the few recent exceptions to this rule, if you’ll recall, was American Idol‘s Melinda Doolittle, so clearly Mr. Canty is in good company.) Bonus points for that jaunty sidestep dance, and for having a mother who gave the kid a two-year window to pursue singing, and then “after that, he’s gonna have to go and get me a degree.”

* You don’t need to tell me that Terrell Carter’s “Ribbon in the Sky” proved to be the rule to Marcus Canty’s exception on the “thou shalt not audition with Stevie Wonder” commandment. But anyone that mind-numbingly good-looking can’t be underestimated if he makes it to the public vote. I got my biggest laugh of the night when Cheryl Cole — who in her limited screen time came off as warm and engaging and completely not the kind of person whose employment you’d ever think to terminate — told Terrell that “you’ve got the package,” then paused, and blushed with pitch-perfect embarrassment.

* And finally, there’s the matter of Chris Rene, a 28-year-old trash hauler and father to a young son who came almost directly from rehab (at 70 days sober) to his X Factor audition and performed a self-penned track called “Young Homie.” Sure that title teleported straight from 1998, but Chris’ steady flow and the song’s pulsating instrumentation felt stunningly radio-ready, and the guy clearly possesses the rare ability to flavor every word he delivers with the spice of his hardscrabble life experience. (L.A.’s robot-serious face and machine-like swivel dance provided irrefutable evidence of this fact!) So what if Chris’ falsetto was a struggle, or if nerves occasionally percolated up through the verses? As Simon repeatedly noted, it’s the job of The X Factor‘s mentors to take these garage-sale steals and polish them into gleaming living-room showpieces. (Sorry…that metaphor got away from me. It can be yours for 50 cents.)

The only real worry with Chris is the question of whether it’s advisable, or even ethical, to take a guy a mere two months sober and thrust him into the intense glare of the national spotlight. I don’t pretend to have an answer, but I will say that the trouble with addiction is you can fall off the wagon at 70 days, 170 days, or 700 days, and you can take that fall just as easily from The X Factor stage as you can from a garbage truck. Whether or not the young homie in the natty fedora is ready for a happy chapter of life is up for him to decide, but it was nice to see L.A. Reid engage in an honest moment and tell the guy that he’ll need to stay clean to stay in the race. “Maybe you need the show,” added Simon. “Maybe we need you.”

And now, some quick takes on the season premiere’s less-promising auditioners — both those who got a coveted “yes” from a minimum of three judges, and those so putrid they had Paula Abdul riding a wave of nausea to a backstage hideaway.

* John Lindell: Fresh-faced youth with a magical red-striped hoodie that hypnotized all four judges into voting “yes” to  his exceptionally unexceptional “Just the Way You Are.”

* Siameze Floyd: Remarkably coiffed gentleman with a magical powder-blue mesh shirt — I repeat, mesh shirt — that hypnotized three out fo four judges into voting “yes” for his exceptionally strange “Give It to Me Baby.” Definitely a contender if X Factor gives out Best Split or Excellence in Hair-Flipping consolation prizes. (Burning question: Was that “vocal coach from hell” Peggi Blu in his entourage?)

* All of the other youth-types. Y’all ain’t no Scotty McCreery! Yer not even really Mikalah Gordon!

* The Anser: A too-old-for-boy-band-dom trio that failed their spelling classes at the Blaine Anderson School of Music and Fashion. Everyone said yes, and not in an ironic, joke-y kind of way? Wha?

* Dan and Venita:  I dunno, guys, in the future, I might reconsider the white, misty confessional treatment for wheelchair-bound octogenarian contestants. It’s really more ominous than adorable, although I loved Venita’s dream of winning and then touring only the most glamorous senior centers.

* Nici Collins: Her tone-deaf, self-aware slaughter of “Emotions” lasted longer than the entire run of Fox’s brilliant-but-canceled Lone Star. At least Paula got a chance to prove her lucidity with this critique: “I feel like you did this on a dare.”

* Geo Godley: The biggest misstep of the premiere, as far as I see it, was failing to leave this fame-seeking creeper on the editing-room floor. Was anyone remotely entertained by the sight of a paunchy, pale, middle-aged man dropping his saggy velour trousers while groaning about wanting to do “Bill Clinton stuff.” L.A. was right that the whole spectacle was “offensive, disgusting, distasteful, upsetting,” but again, it was Paula back on the Lucid Train who got up from her chair, walked backstage, and refused to participate in the ridiculata. “I’m disgusted. It made me sick to my stomach,” said the “Straight Up” singer. And for once, I think she was speaking for all of us.

What did you think of The X Factor premiere? Will you tune in for Episode 2? Who was your favorite act? Were there any decisions you vehemently disagreed with? And what about the Cheryl-Vs-Nicole debate? Sound off below, and for all my reality recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!