The X Factor Makes Its US Debut, Crazy People Get Humiliated

Categories: Freak Show
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So, this week The X Factor -- Simon Cowell's new reality show/ singing competition -- arrived on U.S. screens for the first time, and we've already had two nights of occasionally exciting, often harrowing, auditions. In case you missed it on Wednesday and last night, the operating principle is exactly as you would expect: four judges (L.A. Reid, Paula Abdul, Nicole Scherzinger and, yes, Simon Cowell) cast judgment over a string of contestants in a variety of cities. One of the key differences between this and other music talent hunts is that the auditions happen in front of an arena-sized audience (America's Got Talent-style) which, in turn, also passes judgment -- sometimes very vocally. 

You might wonder why we need The X Factor when we've already got an American Idol and the Voice, but X Factor tries to distinguish itself by allowing old people, children and groups to audition. The children part is actually proving to be a really good idea, even if only to find a new cast for Glee (13-year-old Rachel Crow was ridiculously cute on Wednesday's show). But the desperation on display from some of the contestants is frequently disturbing to watch.



The show is designed for viewers to relish watching exhibitionist lunatics get booed and laughed off-stage by an arena full of people, before getting further abused by the judges (L.A. Reid told one woman last night that she made him want to slit his wrists; Cowell told another "You sing like a three-year-old with a cold"). It's as if, because the contestants volunteer for the show and apparently know what they're getting themselves into, we're supposed to feel okay about watching the madness unfold -- but, frankly, that's debatable.

The truth of the matter is, we are living in the midst of a culture where reality television has embraced shambolic, deluded characters to the enth degree and rewarded idiocy on a gigantic scale -- we need only look to Jersey Shore for proof of that. If you tell the crazy people of the nation, over and over again, that being a talentless lunatic will make you famous, then they'll probably start believing it. If you then dangle five million dollars (no, really -- that's the X Factor prize money) in front of them, they're going to go for it. So it seems a little cruel to make such a spectacle out of their misguided efforts afterwards.

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Make no mistake about it, last night's X Factor was awash with people who transparently needed psychiatric assistance -- so maybe it's not cool to humiliate them on top of everything else they're clearly going through. Even when they're perfectly sane and rejected for needing to "grow," the effects can be clearly traumatizing. Sixteen-year-old Caitlynne Curtis was reduced to such a bawling mess by her rejection that Paula Abdul (god bless that strange lady) had to get on stage with her and hold her until she'd calmed down enough to get herself out of the arena.

The X Factor has been a staple of British Saturday night television since 2004. Its launch in America caused a boatload of controversy in Britain before the show even hit TV screens here, for employing UK pop darling Cheryl Cole as a judge and then firing her almost immediately for unknown reasons (not being American enough was one rumor, but extremely Welsh host Steve Jones seems to have been accepted whole-heartedly so far). Cole appeared on Wednesday's episode and then, poof! She was gone. See? On this show, even the judges get humiliated sometimes!

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Most bizarre of all is that in seven years of British X Factors, despite huge ratings and millions of public votes, only one truly big star has emerged -- Leona Lewis -- and that even on a UK level, only one other winner has really had a lasting career (Alexandra Burke). It'll be interesting to see what America will do with its first X Factor winner (aside from make them a millionaire), but we have to wonder how many nervous breakdowns the show will cause on the way there.    

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