THE X FACTOR (Nino Munoz)

How did Simon Cowell make the “Boot Camp” portion of X Factor different enough from Hollywood Week on “American Idol” to avoid losing a lawsuit?

Let’s find out, shall we?

Another opening filled with foreboding music. Another Judges Motorcade – this time a convoy of ominous black Chevy SUVs that probably ran a whole line of smaller cars off the road on their way here.

Hoards of auditioners are descending on the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, standing in for Los Angeles. Pasadena Civic Auditorium — a venue also favored by The TV Singing Competition Show Which Shall Not Be Mentioned.

Show host Steve Jones tells us that 162 acts that made it through the audition rounds will face the toughest week of their lives.

It’s Time.

To Face.

The Music.

Says Steve.

Is anyone else out there already as sick of that tagline as I am?

The singers will be judged on “styling,” “their attitude,” and, of course, their voices, Steve says, like “voices” is an after thought.

By the end of this week, the singers will be stripped down to just 32 — eight boys, eight girls, eight “Over 30s,” and eight “groups.”

The four judges will each mentor one of the groups, Steve explains – again.

“The battle is on for a place in the judges’ homes,” where they will apparently live and train — from which we deduce Paula will not be mentoring the boys.

Do they get bathroom privileges? Breakfast with the judge privileges?

A parade of homes passes by — some more palatial than others.

In the auditorium, the competitors are forced to dance. All singers must also be dancers, Simon explains, because Michael Jackson could.

Choreographer Brian Friedman is here to teach them the routine. Brian has come dressed as Big Bird, wearing the remains of an ostrich he just skinned. This guy is frightening – no wonder all 162 started dancing like crazy on the stage. It looks like Fox’s Howie Mandel flash mob show. We see little 14-year-old rapper Brian Bradley refusing to dance — apparently the only one in this whole star-blinded crowd with any sense of self. Go Brian!

Enough dancing — on to speed auditions. We see a max 3-4 seconds of so many singers. We sneeze and missed half a dozen. Some of the singers we met in auditions flash by. There’s Rachel Crow, the 13-year-old who’s singing so she can afford her own bathroom, and our fave Tara Woloshin, the singing mechanic – uh, oh! Simon calls her “disappointing.”

Chris Rene, Just Out of Rehab Guy, gives another smooth audition. And then Stacy Francis gets a lot of screen time because she holds a note so long she sounds like a tornado warning. “That was way over the top,” Simon complains.

Then it’s all over and the judges have made their decision on the initial cut – after 13 minutes of air time. What is that, like 3 months in “American Idol” time? The X-Judges are some kinda organized! The guy who writes those “4-Hour Work Week” books is finished, tell you what!

One group is called on stage and told they’re through to the next level of competition. Another group is called on stage and told they’re going home – and not taking it well. One of the unlucky ones, a guy, screams “I don’t have a life! I don’t have a life!” — because, as we’ve already learned from watching “X-Factor,” there are no other singing competitions on television.

Then a third group is called on stage and told they have survived. This is so different from “American Idol,” where the groups were put into rooms and the judges had to walk from room to room to deliver the news.

There’s a reunion of the two surviving groups, much joyous hugging. Paula is thrilled that Chris Rene and his sister have found each other and are embracing. Then, the survivors all go to a party where mixed drinks are being served and everybody ends up in a Jacuzzi. Well, not including the minors or the over-30s, who “decide to go to bed early,” Steve says.

Now it’s time for the group-sing part of the competition, in which everybody gets assigned to groups. This includes the people who are actually competing in groups already, which hardly seems fair since a quartet can sing louder and attract more attention than a single contestant. On the other hand, from what we’ve seen so far, the groups don’t qualify for the back-story footage so they’re all probably doomed anyway.

The groups have five hours to learn their numbers, including choreography, which, we’re shown, is going to be challenging for 49-year-old James Brown impersonator Dexter Haygood because, one of the specialists notes, Dexter’s now trying to do Mick Jagger. Also in this group is Audrey Turner, 52, who was married to Ike Turner after Tina. Talk about living in a lot of shadows! Audrey’s a former backup singer who says this is really her last chance. Audrey comes on strong as the group performs “Creep” by Radiohead; Dexter doesn’t. Also good is 53-year-old Elaine Gibbs, and the number ends with soft-voiced singing rugby coach Caitlin Koch, who gets a break because the backup band take a lot off the volume. Anyway, the judges are pleased, though they disagree on who was the weakest; Simon insists it was Dexter.

Next group will tackle U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Among them is Stacy Francis, the champion note-holder, and Jazzlyn Little, the intense little 16-year-old who turned her stage fright into a big hit at auditions and is clearly beloved by the producers. Also in this group: Melanie Amaro with that great big, mellow voice. So this is like all-star draft picks for those out there who may have already formed a Fantasy X-Factor League.

Jazzlyn forgets her words but still sounds great; Stacy takes it down some decibels and rocks it. Melanie also is consistently good, so this is an entertaining segment. A tearful Jazzlyn gets a lot of screen time backstage and a group hug from her fellow contestants who have figured out that’s the only way they’re going to get any screen time, too.

It’s the second day of boot camp, Steve intones, and he manages to not say “Los Angeleez” and instead say “Los Angeles.” Steve has obviously stepped out of the Judges Motorcade a few times and had a chance to mingle with some real Americans.

Next group will sing “Desperado,” The Eagles 1973 slow-country song. The group is a disparate bunch, including likeable Leroy Bell, who’s 59 though he looks much younger, and 18-year-old Paige Ogle, from Baltimore. We think 22-year-old Dani Knights is about to deliver one of those lines about how God made her such a good singer, so we stick our fingers in our ears so as not to be influenced.

The song opens, and they’re all standing on platforms swaying, and we realize that all of Big Bird’s choreography pretty much involves the singers swaying or doing a little walking around on stage. So, what was all this carrying on about how they had to dance?

Seventeen-year-old Cari Fletcher has some breath control problems and poor Skyelor Anderson gets completely lost; Dani also seems a bit off tune though its hard to hear her. But Paige really comes on strong, and Leroy shows off a soft and soulful voice.

It’s a rap number that’s been assigned to the next group (though Steve tells us many in the group have never rapped before). The number is Jay-Z’s “Wishing On a Star.” We see little rapper/dance-refuser Brian Bradley say that in five years he’ll be better than Jay-Z; we suspect Brian got this group because he refused to sing the Eagles or U2. You go, Brian!

This whole number seems designed to showcase Brian, actually, though at the end we hear “X Factor” Judge Antonio “L.A.” Reid say, “purely from a rap perspective, he’s too young” – and the others agree.

Whoa there, Judges Table! You can’t open the competition up to kids and then say they’re too young. What next, the over 30s are “too old”? The groups are “too many”? Actually, yes, that’s probably how it will go down.

Next up, the group that gets to sing “Superman” by Five for Fighting. It’s one of those overcoming-obstacles songs you like to hear in a singing competition but, oh dear, this group is not overcoming. Fifteen-year-old Nick Dean starts them off and forgets the words. James Kenney, 33, is loud but uneven. Then Tiger Budbill, who nearly didn’t make it through initial auditions, starts weak but finishes strong, and the whole performance ends on a high as Josh Krajcik, 30, comes on like a new Joe Cocker.

Well, there’s been precious little interplay between Paula and Simon in this show, despite all the buildup about bringing together this oil/water/love/hate/he says/she says couple. So we’re looking forward to the next group, because it includes Tiah Tolliver – the striking chick who had such a hard time staying on key in her audition. Simon and Paula went head-to-head over Tiah, with Simon loving her look and stage presence and Paula turning her down, apparently for key-change fouls. Tiah only survived because Simon bullied “X Factor” judge Nicole Scherzinger into giving her a “yes” vote.

Anyway, the number this group’s gonna sing is “Feeling Good,” the jazzy Nina Simone standard. Look, there’s Fox network’s reality-TV evil genius Mike Darnell, talking to the judges! Is he telling them to ratchet up the Tiah drama?

“I want to be remembered as the girl that has steel eyes,” Tiah pouts before the number starts, and she’s seen staring daggers in the direction of the judges’ table, presumably at Paula. When she gets her at-bat with the song, Tiah really belts it out and commands the stage, giving Simon a chance to gloat.

“I never actually felt so much anxiety over someone,” Simon says afterwards. We never knew Simon was capable of feeling anxiety.

Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” is the challenge of the next group, which includes 13-year-old, adorable Rachel Crow, who’s having a hard time learning the tune. The vocal coach says Rachel’s struggling, and the producers cue up some tension-inducing music, so we feel even worse. Also on the team: the four guys from Virginia Beach known as 4Shore, and an overbearing 14-year-old Ellona Santiago who gives one of those music-is-my-life speeches.

Rachel does well on the singing but really sells it on personality. 4Shore seems to do more dance moves than singing; Ellona wanders off key, but judging by Simon’s reaction, that must not matter. But Hayley Orrantia chimes in with a big voice and looks like a comer on their round.

Our personal X-Factor is starting to drain by now, but the producers have put together some interesting characters to keep us watching the last group sing of the night, covering Snow Patrol’s “Light Up.” We take a back-story detour into the lives of young duo Brock Wade and Makenna Sullinger. You see, Brock’s in love with Makenna, we hear him say.

But, on stage during their audition, Makenna says they’re not going steady — so there’s your conflict. Footage of Brock taking advantage of some moment of tension to put his arm around Makenna — the sneak! Anyway, by the end of the taped bit Makenna’s telling us, “There’s definitely the possibility of a relationship coming soon, I think” so there’s hope — but stay tuned!

Also, we meet Emily Michalak, a tiny blonde who looks even younger than her stated 12 years, who’s having a terrible attack of stage fright. We’re getting kind of uncomfortable seeing such a young girl put under so much pressure without being a gymnast.

But Emily gets out there and blows it wide open! Brock and Makenna are just okay at singing, as at love, we discover. The whole performance of this group (and there are a lot of them) really moves judges Nicole and Paula, who end up in each other’s arms.

Tomorrow night the final 32 will get selected and, with one look at Paula’s tortured face in a preview, we are informed it’s gonna be a three-hankie night.


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