'X Factor's' First Live Show: A View From Inside

Which contestant got the loudest cheers? Who of the judges was ready to rumble? What was Tuesday night's most awkward moment? Its most triumphant? THR had a prime view of the Top 17's battle for vocal supremacy.
Frank Micelotta / FOX
Stacy Francis

Tuesday was a big night of firsts at CBS Television City. It was the first live broadcast of fledgling Fox show The X Factor, pinning the hopes of 17 contestants on the minute-long whimsy of four judges. It was the first time the X Factor set would be seen by a studio audience of some 700 -- with many millions more tuning in at home. And it was the contestants’ first time on a national stage -- complete with pyro, all manner of lights and blinding strobes and an ever-present spaceship-blue hue.

PHOTOS: 'X Factor' Top 17 Finalists: Get to Know the Artists

First impression: a slight case of vertigo, with the lights only partly to blame. You see, after covering American Idol from that very room for the better part of seven years, something felt amiss and this reporter later learned it was because the stage is now positioned on the opposite side of the studio, which meant all the stairways, doors, and myriad entrances exited elsewhere. Talk about confusion.

As for a second impression? Big. Everything about the X Factor set screams grandiosity, from the two-story-tall video screens to the effervescent stage to the production value and for a first run, things were surprisingly smooth. Dare I say, it had the feel of a seasoned show like Idol but was so much looser. In fact, Simon Cowell told the crowd during one commercial break, “You can do whatever you like!”

PHOTOS: Behind the Scenes: THR's 'X Factor' Cover Shoot

And so they did. There was hooting and hollering. People stood up when they felt like it, and sat down without being prompted. Some even chewed gum (a strict no-no during Idol tapings), others simply made their presence known, like my back row next-door neighbor, Perez Hilton, who said he already has the top 4 picked: Melanie Amaro, Stacy Francis, Lakoda Rayne and Astro. Read: duh.

Predictability was probably the one common complaint that came out of Tuesday’s show, where 5 contestants were eliminated by the judges straight away. That’s because it seemed as if they each included a throwaway -- someone they hoped would wow them, but for whatever reason fell short. For the Brewer Boys, it was lack of charisma, for Simone Battle and Tiah Tolliver, the vocals simply weren’t strong enough, Phillip Lomax came off camp while Dexter Haygood’s shtick didn’t sit much better.

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

Scores of dancers were hired to accentuate the numbers and allow the audience to see what these contestants might look like as professionals, and where it didn’t gel (like during the Brewer Boys’ performance), it was at times painfully obvious. The same goes for the occasional firework or flame, whose aim seemed more to distract than to complement.

On the other hand, this is a competition, with each judge trying to outperform the other by dazzling the audience with their finalists no matter what it takes, be it bells and whistles or verbally browbeating their fellow mentors and making no apologies for it. Actually, the moments when L.A. Reid, Cowell and Nicole Scherzinger traded insults were among the highlights of the show. The back and forth banter with Paula Abdul? Well, we’ve seen that before.

Still, the end result was pure entertainment and even at two-and-a-half hours, it flew by in no time. Here, our recap of the 17 performances from inside X Factor headquarters along with a few things the cameras didn’t catch.

  1. Kick-Astro: What an opener. Following the six-foot sparklers that accompanied the judges’ entrance came a stunning lighting theme reminiscent of Kanye West’s “Runaway” performance at the 2010 VMAs. Astro slayed his performance of Kris Kross’ “Jump,” prompting Cowell to comment, “You are literally insane.” An equally peculiar line? When L.A. Reid did his best Ryan Seacrest and introduced his star pupil with, “Thissss… is Astro.”
  2. And the rhetorical question of the night award goes to… Nicole Scherzinger, who asked Chris Rene, “Are you enjoying this?” following his performance of “Love Don't Live Here Anymore,” which was covered by Madonna on her 1984 breakout album Like A Virgin. Granted, Rene did look anxious when he first came out on stage with fist to heart, and a lot more confident after the judges’ critique. No longer were the words “recovering drug addict” the only ones to precede his name, as Cowell added “recording artist.”
  3. Phillip Lomax trades Sinatra gold for Neil Diamond: In an effort to prove how contemporary he can be, L.A. Reid weirdly saddled the 22-year-old with a Monkees hit from 1966 (written by the Jazz Singer himself, Diamond), and for a minute there, it looked as if neighboring show Dancing with the Stars had taken over the X Factor studio. Awkward moves met dated grooves with some confetti thrown on top, and after a stinging indictment from Cowell (“too cabaret, you 100% failed”), Lomax was later sent home.
  4. The 80s are alive and well on X Factor! Icons of that decade like Boy George and Irene Cara owe a debt of gratitude to music decision makers on X Factor -- no less than nine songs chosen were from the 80s, including the Culture Club classic “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me,” which Marcus Canty sang. “You make it too easy,” said Scherzinger, kicking off a unanimous round of kudos. Perez Hilton’s reaction? An audible groan. He was not feeing the judges’ song choice.
  5. When retro works: Stereohoggz, with their nod to old school choreography befitting a group like The Temptations, got a rousing round of applause for their take on the Kanye West-Jay-Z-Otis Redding mash-up, “Otis.” Good enough for a spot in the top 12!
  6. The Brewer Boys played expertly on their two-song medley of Hall & Oates “Rich Girl” and George Michael’s “Faith,” but ultimately, their acoustic leanings sounded strangely out-of-sync with the rest of the X Factor clan.
  7. InTENsity equals eight too many: The jungle gym idea was a logical choice for the 10-person musical hodgepodge that is InTENsity, but Glee they are not, as the group’s take on “The Clapping Song" mashed with "Footloose" would prove. No matter, Paula has a soft spot for the X Factor creation, so they remain.
  8. What’s in a name? Lakoda Rayne better hope not all that much, because while they look and sound the part of future stars, their moniker leaves a lot to be desired. Still, the constructed foursome dazzled on 1982's “Come On Eileen,” so much so that Reid paid them the ultimate compliment: “you’d be signed by now.”
  9. The night’s most awkward moment came during the group elimination where, pressed for time, host Steve Jones cut off Paula Abdul while in the middle of a tearful goodbye to her beloved Brewers, the siblings from Temecula. Their parting words: “Sorry we didn’t live up to your expectations.” Sniff.
  10. Swagger over substance: If Sly Stone starred in the 1986 Robert Palmer hit “Addicted to Love” it would look somewhat like Dexter Haygood's X Factor performance, which had Nicole Scherzinger on her feet. But his screechy take on Britney Spears’ “Womanizer” meets Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” or the weirdest milkshake in the world, as Cowell aptly described, just felt wrong. Of the Over 30s, he would be sent home.
  11. Is 60 the magic number? The jury seems to still be out on 60-year-old Leroy Bell, whose take on Pink’s “Nobody Knows” had half the crowd entranced and the other tuned out. Perhaps there is a lack of confidence or awkwardness, as Cowell described, while Reid had this to say: “Nothing is missing.” It’s what may have saved him.
  12. As frontrunners go… Stacy Francis is the perfect X Factor specimen, what with her dramatic backstory and years of career false starts. Now, truly transformed thanks to a stellar makeover (her hair was styled by Ken Paves, who does Jennifer Lopez and Jessica Simpson) and major weightloss, she looked flawless and sounded great, but Cowell wasn’t feeling the outfit or song choice, George Michael’s 1988 hit, “One More Try,” insisting on a massive shift. For a second there, it looked like a rumble might ensue, with Scherzinger ready to throw the first punch.
  13. Josh Kracjik has a Bo Bice moment: Scherzinger’s choice of “Forever Young” had multiple meanings for her over 30 star, but the performance was also reminiscent of an American Idol showstopper, Bo Bice’s a capella rendition of “In A Dream” during season 4. Kracjik’s rendition came with instrumentation, of course, but as Cowell mentioned, being “understated” actually went over well as Scherzinger called her star pupil’s performance “soul-stirring.”
  14. Elimination pile-up: In what was one of the more difficult moments to sit through, both in the studio and at home, Dexter Haygood’s elimination was met with a single comment by the former homeless man: “I’m confused.” Stacy Francis and Josh Kracjik were, too, as Steve Jones practically had to shoo them off the stage with an “off you go.” They didn’t stay out of sight for long, though, as both raced back to center stage for a group hug.
  15. “America, this is where the talent starts.” Nothing like a little modesty from Cowell, who has even more to prove with two on the chopping block. Simone Battle, however, would not be the one to clinch it with the 80s hit, “Just Be Good to Me.” “I don’t get it,” Reid remarked. “I never understood why you put her through… Maybe you’re out of touch.” Those may have been fighting words, but they didn’t do Battle any favors when it came time for elimination.
  16. Go Crow, go! From inside the X Factor studio, there was no doubt as to who had the public on her side -- young Rachel Crow. Her introduction was met with deafening cheer and her mash-up of The Supremes “Where Did Our Love Go” and Justin Bieber’s “Baby” proved a real hit. Cowell is going for a “retro-pop” artist, he said -- a curious goal considering her age, but then again, the likes of Bruno Mars and Cee-Lo have shown that a throwback sound does work.
  17. Mission accomplished? After Drew Ryniewicz’s slowed down, somber take on “What A Feeling,” Cowell stood up, turned to the audience and encouraged all to cheer louder for his star pupil. The head judge declared that he returned to American television “to find someone like you.” Indeed, Drew at 14 years old seems destined for Top 4.  
  18. Panel pow-wow: Following Drew Ryniewicz’s turn which featured few visual distractions, Cowell and choreographer Brian Friedman came together at the judges table to go over Tiah Tolliver’s fire and brimstone-themed twist on “Sweet Dreams.” Sadly, it felt more like a nightmare with freaky red ghosts and violinists in Victorian garb. Least memorable? The vocals. Reid put it best: the production may be great, but they’re “looking for who can sing.”
  19. Cue: finalist-in-training Melanie Amaro. There was no doubt she would be the show-stopper, seeing as the studio audience gave Melanie Amaro a standing ovation before she sang her first note. True to the footage we’ve seen so far, she did not disappoint, even on a Whitney Houston song, which Cowell famously discouraged contestants from singing while on Idol. No matter for Amaro, she didn’t fumble a single note on “I Have Nothing,” a song that has tripped up many an Idol contestant. No wonder the producers gave her the so-called “pimp slot” -- the last voice viewers hear before voting.
  20. All episode long, Perez Hilton was cheering for Simons’ “sexies,” Simone and Tiah, arguing that they have more pop star potential than their competitors and counterparts (of whom Drew Ryniewicz returned to the stage barefoot),  but in the end vocal ability trumped a foxy look as both were sent home.

And there you have your Top 12. Any disappointments or did the judges make the right calls? Tell us: how will you vote in the weeks to come and what should we keep an eye on as the competition progresses? 

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin