Confessions of an 'X Factor' Virgin

Long-time viewer, first-time studio audience member Jonathan Bernstein goes inside the belly of the Simon Cowell beast and lives to tell about it.
Ray Mickshaw / FOX; Khloe Kardashian by Kwaku Alston / FOX

My credentials as a battle-hardened X Factor veteran speak for themselves -- nine seasons watching the U.K. original; two years warming up to the American edition; plus three episodes of the Australian one (verdict: no future Kylies). But, until tonight, I’d never been an audience member.

In my experience, the ideal environment to gain optimum enjoyment of The X Factor is horizontal on a couch with a remote control close to hand. What better position to hatch conspiracy theories about the elevation of favored acts and moan in disbelief at the callous treatment of others? The opportunity to watch the Top 6 perform in person meant leaving the comfort of my couch. It also meant letting go of a few long-held beliefs

Like, for instance, that cavernous, black, shiny stage? The one that seems to dwarf performers and suck out their charisma. Inside the five hundred-seater studio where the series is shot, it’s not such an intimidating structure. The distorted, cacophonous sound mix that makes it so hard for viewing audiences to accurately discern the quality of the vocals? In the studio the singers are clear as a bell -- except for CeCe Frey whose Katy Perry cover sounded like someone who fell down a well screaming for help. The micro-managing of the audience’s emotions? That part was accurate. Even before the cameras rolled, warm-up man Frank didn’t just hype up the crowd to the point of hysteria, he commanded them to shriek their approval every time a singer went for a big note. There was a lot of approval.

PHOTOS: An 'American Idol' to 'X Factor' Timeline

The first truly ear-splitting bout of pre-show shrieking turned out to be spontaneous as the audience got its first celebrity sighting. It was Kris Jenner, publicity-shy mother of Khloe Kardashian-Odom. The subsequent mention of Khloe’s name by warm-up Frank when soliciting cheers for the judges -- L.A. Reid drew the mildest reaction -- was met with roars of approval. Khloe may be awkward and lumbering. She may read her TelePrompter lines with Siri-like detachment. But The X Factor live audience has no problem with her hosting ability. They don’t even give her a hard time when she starts the first show of the week with the observation, “Vino got sent home last night.”

Warm-up Frank did not ask the crowd to cheer the judging panel and the amazing chemistry they share. That might have been too much to ask even of this eager-to-please audience. Simon Cowell chats animatedly with Demi Lovato as their act’s videos play. L.A. Reid and Britney Spears may as well have just met in their orthodontist’s waiting room, such is their ease and rapport.

Chemistry isn’t this panel’s only problem. It also lacks authority. That, in a live situation, is the fault of the Giant Screens Of Judgment that flank the stage. They’re meant to give the judges the gravity of Gods from Olympus passing sentence on the quivering mortals beneath. What those colossal video screens actually do is magnify flaws. L.A. can’t keep a what-am-I-doing-here smirk off his face. Demi looks twitchy and nervous, as if she’s hearing the words that come out of her mouth for the first time and she’s not sure what they mean. Cowell comes across as incredibly smug, which is to say, the screens do him justice. And Britney looks like she’s about to burp.

PHOTOS: Inside Kardashian Inc.

If the live performances showed any act in a more favorable light than they generally receive on TV, it was Cowell’s girl group, Fifth Harmony. They were sassy, fun and bubbling over with personality. Unfortunately, they chose to display that side of themselves while they were waiting to start their song and when they were playing to the crowd over the end credits. During their actual songs, they were as sappy and sass-free as ever. (“No tears tomorrow,” said one Fifth Harmony mom sitting near me to another, about the Thursday night results show.)

But the one thing that surprised me about seeing The X Factor live was the one thing I’d always found objectionable about the American show. The kids. Coming off nine years of U.K. shows, plus those all-important trio of Australian episodes, I saw the inclusion of child performers as unfair and exploitative. Until tonight’s show when both kids killed. The judges were not wrong: Carly Rose Sonenclar’s "As Long As You Love Me" bested Justin Bieber's and her take on Beyonce's "If I Were A Boy" burned with a real grown-up rage. (Ironically, away from the microphone, she has a teeny-tiny wisp of a speaking voice -- apparently, she's saving it for someone special.) Diamond White doesn’t have Carly Rose’s hint of steel but she’s easily the most captivating performer of the remaining six. She even made Brian Friedman’s Diamond-inside- a- diamond-singing-"Diamonds" staging work.

If I was at home, I would have fast-forwarded through all of those performances. I’d have dismissed Carly Rose as a future Broadway singer and Diamond White as a Disney star in the making. And I would have been the poorer for it. Would I go back again? If I can bring earplugs. And my couch.

Twitter: @jbpeevish