Britney Spears and Demi Lovato Debut as Judges on 'X Factor' Season 2 Premiere

X Factor judges L.A. Reid, Britney Spears, Demi Lovato and Simon Cowell

This week the singing competition The X Factor returned for season 2, and with it came the debut of two new judges, Britney Spears and Demi Lovato, who join show creator Simon Cowell and returning judge L.A. Reid on the popular show.

A lot is riding on the second season of The X Factor. Simon Cowell still needs to prove that he’s got television cred after splitting from American Idol to produce and star in this stateside edition of his UK sensation (he also needs to stop worrying about The Voice going toe-to-toe as his Wednesday night competition, despite the fact that the NBC show beat his Fox show this time out). Meanwhile, fellow judge and holdover from last season, L.A. Reid, needs to prove that he isn’t, in reality, RuPaul – they are nearly identical when the drag queen goes straight and dresses in natty men’s attire.

This year Cowell brought on two new judges, Britney Spears and Demi Lovato. Each has to prove that they have power beyond the pop charts and that they both can hold it all together after their  long-discussed personal problems.

To that end, Spears is the best thing about this season’s X Factor.  A portrait of caustic calm, Spears says “no” more times than she says “yes”.  She calls one contestant a cross between “Vanilla Ice, Lauryn Hill and West Side Story” and doesn’t mean it as a compliment, she makes scrunchy faces when she disapproves of a singer’s squeaks, and in the case of creepy 50-year-old Shawn Armenta, Brit says, “I wanna know who let you on stage. I feel uncomfortable with you even staring at me”, before dismissing the dude.

Britney and her damning eyes are truly put to the test when Don Philip performs. Philip is a long-time vocalist who, once upon a teen-pop-time, sang a duet with Spears. The years haven’t been too kind to Philip, who blames “a lot of maybes and a ton of almosts” for his time away from the mic. Still, he needs to give stardom one more shot, and to that end he sings “Halo” with a scratchy grace. None of the judges like the performance though, and Britney, though she understands the deep struggles that Philip has been through, can’t embrace his singing. She again votes “no.”

How effective is Spears? Philip goes on a crying jag backstage, feeling bad that he put Spears in a weird place. “Did you see her eyes?” he wails. “I didn’t mean to hurt her.”

If you can make someone else feel responsible for your criticism of their art, that’s devastating. I’m practicing that stare-down as we speak. Even Cowell couldn’t achieve that kind of reversal. His best was a few catty Cowell-isms such as “you were like a mouse trying to be an elephant”, and “you sang like a dog trying to lay an egg.”  He did get in a mean but apt barb when Texas belle Kaci Newton sang Katy Perry’s “Fireworks” ever-so-unrecognizably. Of her audition, Cowell says she sounded as if she was “dying and suffering and singing.” He is also the Cowell we know and love when he tells smooth-faced Vincent Thomas (who called “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” by Elton John a “blues song”), “There used to be boy bands years ago, there’s five of them, and there’s always one that doesn't sing. That’s you.”

Reid, the sartorially correct record executive, is a fine judge, but he doesn’t seem to light up the stage with his criticisms. He’s a bit cool to the touch, and passes off wriggling in his seat for dancing. You know – just like a real record label executive.

Jillian Jensen
For her part, Lovato played the nice judge, sympathetic to those who weren’t dynamic, effusive to those whose voices were golden (Emblem3 in particular, a situation that led Cowell to remind his young female charge about “boundaries”), and soothing to those singers, such as the husky voiced Jillian Jensen,  whose back story includes tales of being bullied.  Lovato, who also has been bullied, shed tears at Jensen’s history (Cowell admittedly choked up too) and hugged the dark-haired youth on stage.

Along with Jensen, there were several fine contestants who definitely have a future with The X Factor, if not further. I may not have loved Emblem3 whose self-penned rap-pop “Sunset Boulevard,” was the hit of the night (though my wife insisted on playing their YouTube video over and over after the show), OR Jennel Garcia whose version of “Paris” (Grace Potter & the Nocturnals) made her into a junior league Pat Benatar (and that’s just what the charts need now says Cowell). But, I certainly heard each act’s potential to be huge.

Paige Thomas and her daughter
Paige Thomas was the first singer to take the mic for season two. She may have hogged a mirror backstage (to the dismay of Kaci Newton), but the Rihanna-look-alike triumphed over “I’m Going Down” from the Mary J. Blige songbook. She looked fantastic, she had great stage presence, and she had an adorable daughter as her sidekick.

Reed Deming
My personal favorite was a 13-year-old with Bieber bangs, Reed Deming. He sang a bit of “It Will Rain”, before Cowell requested a song change that led to a sturdy take on a piano-only version of Bruno Mars’ “Grenade.” Deming asserted himself by telling the judges “I don’t want to fall into that Bieber stereotype.”  Love that kid.

Quatrele Da'an Smith
Quatrele Da’an Smith, a cake decorating drag queen in a wedding dress got my favorite response. After singing a shaky yet soulful version of “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga, Smith surprisingly won the approval of three judges including Cowell, who turned to the camera after comparing Smith to the offspring of Madonna, Bobby Brown and Dracula, said, “Sometimes I have to embrace the madness. Today, I am. I’m gonna say yes to it.”

That’s my feeling about The X Factor too - I embrace the madness, wholeheartedly. See you next week.

Photos ©Talkback Thames, FremantleMedia, SYCOtv

Sunset Boulevard video, music and lyrics ©Emblem3

Posted on Thursday, September 13, 2012 5:07 PM