Last night, as the second slate of NFL games came to a merciful close, Fox aired an extended preview of the The X Factor. For the most part, the footage was recycled from the sneak-peek the network released back in July: Simon — back in V-neck — talked about walking away from the biggest show in America. L.A. Reid talked about being a music producer who wears glasses. Nicole Scherzinger talked about the long, winding road from obscurity to the Pussycat Dolls. Paula Abdul talked about Simon and then said something vague and self-congratulatory about being the fucked-up hairdo that sits next to Simon.
With this preview, Fox was clearly trying to differentiate between the X-Factor and American Idol. The first, and most obvious difference lies in the personalities of the judges — Idol is the private school of singing competitions, where precocious teenagers apply themselves and are kindly applauded and encouraged by a panel of overqualified, laconic instructors. Like all private school teachers, the instructors will mostly mail in their critiques, abuse prescription medications and cash their checks at the end of the season. X-Factor will probably be more “real life” — the contestants will lay out their life stories to be judged by Simon, Paula, Head Pussycat Doll and L.A. Reid. If that esteemed panel then decides that the contestant, indeed, has the X-Factor, he or she will feel empowered to share their gift with the world via a five million dollar recording contract. In previous seasons of Britain’s Got Talent, this Cowell-curated process — defining the underdog and scripting the narrative of their triumph over self-doubt and an uncaring society — produced Paul Potts and Susan Boyle.
Idol has tried to use this formula in recent seasons, but it’s hard to get the public to really care about the problems of a precocious teenage singing machine. The show’s producers generally reserve these sorts of stories for its audition weeks, replacing the old snark with schmaltz. But at some point, the Scott Savols of Idol will forget the lyrics to an Elton John song or whiff on two or three big notes or he will say something haughty or entitled that makes you stop rooting for him.
Britain’s Got Talent skirted this problem by limiting the number of performances. We only saw Paul Potts sing three times. Same with Susan Boyle. X-Factor will be trotting their contestants out for an entire season. As such, the singers should fall somewhere between Idol’s teenybopping singing robots and Britain’s Got Talent’s freak shows.
It’s telling that Rachel and Stacy were introduced as “Rachel Age 13,” and “Stacy Age 42.” If the X-Factor’s aim is to alternate between old people who “don’t want to die with this music inside me” and cute children who have been trained to be sassy, it’s difficult to imagine how the show will sustain the public’s interest. Cute singing children — even truly great ones like Bianca Ryan from the first season of America’s Got Talent — have a shelf life of about three or four performances before you start wondering about their awful parents. Old, sad contestants degrade even faster. Once the shock of the first performance is gone (ZOMFG! The gargoyle is blessed with the gift of song!), people stop caring — everyone remembers Paul Potts’ “Nessun Dorma,” and Susan Boyle’s “I Dreamed a Dream,” but if they keeled over and died tomorrow, would anyone bother to click on the YouTube links for their second and third performances? Would they even get R.I.P’d on Twitter?
There’s no doubt Cowell, the smartest producer in television, will figure out a way to stock the X-Factor with more bankable talent. And it’s certainly possible that the extended previews are feints aimed at teasing an emotional connection with the contestant that just doesn’t play anymore on Idol. But if the X-Factor’s aim is to supplant Idol as the singing competition that produces bankable acts like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Fantasia Barrino, Chris Daughtry and Adam Lambert — namely, anyone worthy of even a portion of a five million dollar recording contract — it cannot rely so heavily upon emotional manipulation.
Nothing deflates quite as quickly as a sob story who exhausts your good will. Especially when he keeps butchering your favorite songs.
Jay Caspian Kang is an editor at Grantland. His debut novel, The Dead Do Not Improve, will be published by Hogarth/Random House in summer 2012.