Thursday, January 5, 2012

Today's Feature: The X Factor Seattle Auditions - On The Scene Report

(All images courtesy of Jeff Dodge)
Today is Day 4 of featuring either a writing piece or something I participated in from the past couple of years. Yesterday, I featured my opinion piece on why Jennifer Lawrence would make a great Katniss in The Hunger Games, based on my viewing of Winter's Bone.

Today's feature is an On The Scene report I did last summer (June 2011) when I attended one of the Seattle audition tapings for The X Factor season 1. It was originally featured on OMGWire. But for the first time, I will also be including the pictures I took while there.

The X Factor Seattle Auditions: On The Scene Report
On Wednesday, June 29, 2011, I attended one of six audition tapings in Seattle for Simon Cowell's new singing competition show, The X Factor. If you are not familiar with this show, it essentially replaced Pop Idol (the original Idol incarnation in the world) in the U.K. Unlike the various Idol shows, including American Idol, Simon Cowell has direct control over The X Factor. He's the creator, executive producer and judge. During season 9 of Idol, he made a deal with FOX here in the states that would, besides letting him retire from Idol, bring The X Factor to American and debut in the fall of 2011.

During the past couple of months, Simon has not only announced the judges (himself, Paula Abdul, Nicole Scherzinger and L.A. Reid) and host (Steve Jones), but the nationwide casting call has begun, sending the judges all over the country in search of the best big singer or singing group. Their final stop took them to Seattle, in my homestate.

This On The Scene report will take you through my experience of attending one of the Seattle audition tapings.

Key Arena, waiting in line
The action began outside the Key Arena as we waited in line (standing, for over an hour, mind you). Fortunately, it wasn't raining, only some light wind. Not too far away from the line, a camera was set up with a bunch of crew people surrounding it. The host of The X Factor, Steve Jones, was on a slightly raised platform, talking into the camera. His back was to us people in line; he was closer to the front of the line than where I stood, though I was still pretty close and could see what was going on. Since those in the front of the line would be on camera, they had two crew members cuing them when to waive their hands in the air, when to cheer, etc. As a viewer of shows like American Idol, I am familiar with seeing shots like these on camera, so seeing the set-up of it all is interesting to watch in person.
Host Steve Jones
About a yard behind me in line, a producer placed a contestant and her brother and mother into the crowd. With a different crew member holding a hand-held camera, the producer had the contestant talk to her family, and to give the camera other reactions, including having her think about her upcoming audition. After they had the shots they needed, the family were taken out of the line and whisked away. We noticed later on that the producer and camera woman were at a different part of the line way back behind us somewhere, apparently doing the same thing with different people. I found this whole thing to be fascinating. On American Idol, when they do intro videos to certain auditioners, they show various shots of the contestant, sometimes with their family doing things and/or in line. What was particularly intriguing about this was that this line we were in was for people to be in the audience watching the auditions. But by placing that family in in the line, it seems like they're going to make it appear on air to be as if they were in the audition line (maybe recreating when they were initially in the audition line however many weeks before?). If they end up showing that bit on air, it will be interesting to see if they play it the way I just said.

After what seemed like forever waiting in line, we finally made our way inside and to our seats. We were seated a few rows up in the back section. Being in the back section may seem like bad seats, but they were anything but. By being raised up a little, we could see everything -- the stage, the judges and everything else. If you are at all familiar with the Key Arena, you will know how big the arena is inside. But they only used half of it; the other half was blocked off, out of sight. The stage was at about the midway point on the floor. From our vantage point, we were about straight on facing the stage. Most of the right side of the seating in the arena (our right) had a huge covering over all the seats, blocking them from anybody sitting there. I couldn't figure out at first why they did this, but soon realized that most of the cameras were on that side of the arena, facing towards the stage and audience; one of those cameras was on a very long rig and had the ability to make wide, sweeping shots across the audience. There was another camera up in the seating area where people could sit, up and to the right of us. And two more cameras were situated at the back of the stage, facing outward. Besides the judges table, the "control room" was also on the floor, but quite a ways back from the judges. And from where I sat, I could see the monitor where all the cameras' feeds were displaying all at once. And from that, I later realized that one of the cameras on the stage was to shoot the judges.

Leading up to the start of the taping, producers and crew were getting everything ready. And at one point, a lady came up on stage to do sound check. She talked to the audience and proceeded to sing "Last Dance." She was, actually, surprisingly good. Then the stand-ins for the judges talked into the microphones to check for their sound levels. And the audience kept saying we couldn't hear them, so they had to turn up their mics a few times.

According to our tickets, the taping was scheduled to begin at 2pm, but didn't start until about 2:30 or so.

Steve Jones, the host, came out from backstage real briefly to say a few words, but we didn't see him again after that. And we were informed that during the time we were waiting for the taping to begin, the contestants were backstage being interviewed.

Steve Jones talking to the audience before auditions
The judges were introduced and came through the audience, shaking hands and such as they made their way to their seats. Nicole and L.A. got to their seats first, because the audience was there to see Simon and Paula. The order of the lineup at their table, from right to left if you're watching at home on TV, is Simon, Paula, Nicole and L.A. Simon and Paula are in their usual Idol seats. L.A. took Randy's seat. And Nicole had the seat where Kara sat during her first year on Idol.

Before the taping began, each of the judges said a few words to us. And they mentioned that it was Nicole's birthday, so we all sang "Happy Birthday" to her. For quite a while, every singer that came out mentioned her birthday, which I could tell she just loved. Then it died down and there wasn't any mention of it for a long time. Then, during her commends of one contestant later in the afternoon, she randomly blurted out that it's her birthday; the audience laughed at her when she did that.

The first act to perform was a trio of three men. They had beautiful harmony together; they were one of my favorites out of the whole night.

Immediately after that first group departed the stage, the hair and makeup people swarmed the judges table, applying touch-ups to all the judges. I'm sure they were already camera-ready when they first came out, so why do they need it again after only one act has performed? We found that to be quite ridiculous, frankly. I know they have to look perfect for the camera at all times, but this seemed a bit much. The hair/makeup people came back out after a few more acts had passed, and then at least one or two more times during the remaining time of the taping. If you have ever read any of the American Idol on-the-scene reports from various websites (such as, you'll know that during most of the commercials, Jennifer Lopez had her team out constantly. Sorry for the constant Idol mentions, but it's the closest show I have for comparison.

Whenever a singer or group came on stage, the judges would ask various questions, including finding out their name, age, job and musical influences. And what I found surprising was that the judges would ask for a different song after they first performed. I know that that happens on the Idol auditions, but they asked for different songs quite a lot, even asking some for the list of songs they had lined up. Overall, the judges spent a lot of time with each contestant. There was only one time where they whisked someone off fast. After her song, they did a quick no vote and that was the end of that.

X Factor banner outside arena
Most of the time when the judges were waiting for another singer to come out, they would be chatting amongst themselves the entire time. And even when a singer or group came out, they would continue talking to each other and not acknowledge the singers until they got to their spot on stage. Even though I would hate to have a seat behind the judges (you wouldn't be able to see hardly anything), I would have loved to be sitting right behind them and try to hear what they were saying.

Whenever the judges were taking too long on a contestant, there was a guy backstage who would walk a little on to the stage (but behind the camera) and make a hand motion to signal to the judges that it's time to wrap it up. This happened quite a bit.

I noticed that it seemed most of the auditioners were from out of state. There were a few from Washington, but many were from elsewhere, like California, New York and Tennessee.

One lady who came out said "I'm a wreck" after introducing herself. Her clothing seemed a little worn and shoddy, but it fit her quirky personality. She kept saying "I'm a wreck" over and over again throughout her time on stage.

The youngest auditioner was a 13-year-old girl. Either her grandma or mother wanted her to sing "At Last," but the judges wanted her to sing something that she would sing if she were in her bedroom with friends. She had a hard time picking a song, but eventually sang "Man Down" and then "Bust Your Windows." The judges remarked how violent the subject matter of her song choices was, and didn't feel she was ready for the show at this time. She cried after being rejected.

One of the older acts was a group of about four to five 40-year-old women. Paula said they needed to work on their image more. Both Paula and Nicole talked about image and style a lot throughout the taping.

A guy by the name of Stacie came out wearing a completely white outfit that would fit in well in Vegas. I don't remember what he said his age was, but Simon didn't believe him; he thought the contestant was older.

A trio of school-age students came out (high school, maybe?), one girl and two guys. Simon felt they were too theatrical and wanted less of the guys and more of the girl, saying the girl was the star of the group. So she sang on her own. Funnily enough, after her solo, the judges now wanted the group back together again, Because of their theatricality, there was some mention of Glee among the judges.

One auditioner used to have sociability issues, until three years ago when music came into his life.

At one point between singers, the judges took a quick break. Simon darted off somewhere backstage. We know he's a smoker, so I wouldn't be surprised if he was going back to have a smoke. During this break, L.A. left the table as well. But the girls stayed at the table.

Before the third to last contestant came out, a crew woman walked up to the front of the judges table to tell something to Simon. I'm not sure what really happened, if she tripped or what. But whatever happened, she ended up knocking over one of the Pepsi cups, causing the drink to spill all over Paula's lap. You could tell the woman was just stunned and couldn't believe that she just did that. She walked around to the other side of the table and gave Paula a big hug. Crew members, out of nowhere, swarmed the table, cleaning up the mess. I'm surprised that Paula didn't go backstage to change into something else, but they must have been able to clean it up well enough. After they cleaned everything up, the hair and makeup team swarmed the table yet again.

The X Factor Stage
One of the auditioners was a man who was just 70 days out of rehab. Musically, he has been influenced by Eminem, and it certainly showed in his performance. He mixed a few different styles to his song, including R&B, hip hop and rap. The combination of his rehab story and performance caused the judges and audience to give him a standing ovation. The judges wanted to make sure that if he makes it on this show, he needs to stay clean and sober. Simon, especially, wanted confirmation from him on this, even waiting to vote yes until he was satisfied with the answer. The way everything was set up, from the sob story and impressive audition to the standing ovation, I think it's safe to say that they will be showing this audition on air.

I have to say, overall, the talent over the course of this taping was not too bad. Even the ones who were cut had a voice of some sort. There was really only one singer who was absolutely terrible. She performed near the end and argued constantly with the judges when she received negative comments. She couldn't sing a note in tune. She said that L.A. is a big-time producer, Nicole and Paula are both singers, but "what have you done, Simon?" What do you mean, what has Simon done? He's only one of the biggest music producers and television personalities in the entire world. Since she's trying out for this show, I'm assuming she was aware of Simon from being on Idol, so how could she not know this? Simon kept giving her critiques, and she tried to continuously one-up him with smart alek remarks back at him, the "what have you done, Simon?" being one of them. The audience at one point boo'd her, and it looked like she was trying hard to restrain herself from talking back to us. When the judges asked her who told her she could sing, she said her grandma. And "we all know grandmas never lie," she said, to which Simon replied, "Your grandma must be deaf."

One of the best singers of the night was Haley, who I believe had the final spot of the night. She is a 17-year-old high school junior with an impressively great voice. Simon had her name off her selected songs. The judges kept saying no to all of them, except for "Bleeding Love." Simon said she reminded him of when Kelly Clarkson first auditioned back in season one of Idol. When someone like Simon makes a remark like that, you listen. He's been right about a lot of things (including saying that not only would Carrie Underwood win the show, but that she would also sell more records than any previous Idol winner), so a compliment like that is high praise indeed. Being in person listening to singers in a venue like this, the sound is much different than what you hear on TV. So if they air her audition, I hope she sounds as good as she sounded in person, because she's one of my favorites from this taping.

There's no question that Simon's opinion on American Idol meant a great deal, and viewers wanted to know what he would say next (disregarding his final season where he was bored out of his mind). And I greatly missed his presence during season 10, when Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson turned the show into the "that was beautiful" and "you're in it to win it" show and rarely gave critiques. That is why I can't wait for The X Factor to air in the fall. And being there in the arena to hear him was great. I loved his comments, especially the negative ones. Just from this brief glimpse into the auditions, so far my favorite judges are Simon and Paula. Paula was really good at balancing the positive with the critiques. No matter what anybody thought of her during her run on Idol, her final season was her best in terms of what she said, and I saw that at this audition stop. When Nicole was first announced as Cheryl Cole's replacement, there were a lot of negative comments online regarding the decision to put her as a judge. They said she didn't bring a lot to the table as a judge on The Sing-Off. I'm not that familiar with her, so this was really my first time getting to know her and see her personality and such. And I can see why the online reaction was the way it was. Even though we already have Paula on the panel, I can already tell that Nicole's going to be the Paula of the group, doing whatever she can to say something positive. And I couldn't really gauge what L.A. Reid's personality is like. He's definitely not afraid of telling the truth, so I hope that continues during the run of the show.

From where I sat, it was obvious that it was the Simon and Paula show. Nicole and L.A. were in their own little group at the table, talking to each other a lot. But Paula did talk to Nicole frequently as well.

The taping got over at about 5:15pm or so.

As the judges departed, they shook hands and interacted with audience members as they made their way out. At one point, Simon came over to our section. Even though I mentioned we had great seats, that was the moment when I was wishing I was a few rows down.

One of the X Factor trucks outside of the arena
I am someone who loves the behind-the-scenes of movies and TV shows. That is why I love watching the special features on DVD's. And that is why I loved being in the audience for The X Factor. We got to see things that you wouldn't normally see on air. The seating that is blocked off for the cameras, the crew preparing for the show, cuing the audience how to react to the singers, among other things. I can't wait for the Seattle audition to air and see how they edit everything together, what makes it on the show and what gets cut.

The X Factor premieres Wednesday, September 21 and Thursday, September 22 from 8-10pm on FOX.

If you watched The X Factor this past fall, one contestant I mentioned above might sound familiar. The singer just out of rehab was Chris Rene, who eventually placed in third. Back then witnessing his audition live in person, I never would have imagined he'd make it as far as he did. Other singers I saw that were shown on TV were the trio of three men who performed first (The Anser) and the girl who talked back to the judges.

I had a blast attending that taping. And if the show ever comes back to Seattle for future auditions, I will do whatever I can to be there again. Over the course of this first season, I wrote up recaps/reviews online. Click HERE to read my thoughts on the finale.

Tomorrow's featured piece will be an online essay I wrote on why I refuse to say goodbye to Harry Potter.

Follow me on Twitter @TheJeffDodge. I tweet various thoughts and opinions there. And anything I post on this blog will be tweeted there as well (so that's the best way to find out when the blog's updated). And if you have any questions, comments or suggestions, either tweet me or e-mail me.

See ya tomorrow...

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