Interview: Simon Cowell on 'The X Factor' auditions
While "American Idol" has been chugging along quite well for itself in its first season without Simon Cowell, Cowell has been busy preparing America for the arrival of his other hit British singing competition series: "The X Factor." Among the differences between the two shows (besides Cowell being a producer as well as a judge): 1)The judges (Cowell and music mogul Antonio "L.A." Reid so far, with two more judges still to be named) divide up the finalists and pick several to mentor; 2)The age range is much greater, with anyone 12 years and older eligible; and 3)Groups can compete against solo acts.
The cattle call auditions have been going on for about a week, first with a stop in Los Angeles, today in Miami, followed by Newark (April 14), Seattle (April 20), Chicago (April 27) and Dallas (May 26).
We're still a long way away from the show's fall premiere - and seeing whether the two shows can co-exist (in the UK, "Pop Idol" was canceled when Cowell started up "X Factor") - but I spoke with Cowell for a few minutes this morning about how things are going at this early stage, why he prefers this format, and what changes he's noticed so far in "Idol" without him.
It's still early in the audition process, but do you feel like you've done enough to sell America on what makes "X Factor" different from "Idol"? Do people coming in to audition know what to expect?
I think they do now. We've worked really hard over the last few weeks to get the message over that hopefully this is a different show, to explain to people what we're looking for, what the prize of the competition is. America's a big country. It took a few weeks, but now I think a lot of people do know about it. From the feedback from Los Angeles is that people started to understand it.
Well, what are you looking for from an audition that's different from what was happening on "Idol"?
I think there's been a tendency for auditionees to turn up with a talent show mentality - which is sing a certain kind of song, pretend you're doing this to buy your mom a bigger home, and not represent what's going on in the music business. This is what I do for a living. One of my co-hosts, LA Reid, has been a successful producer for years. When you're auditioning people in real life, it's not a popularity competition. You look for swagger, confidence, attitude. Something different. I want people to understand that from the minute Lady Gaga arrived, she created a new set of rules: being different is good, embrace it. The show has to reflect that, because otherwise you live in a weird bubble for the whole time you're in the competition.
There are still two judge spots to fill, and there have been all these leaks and rumors about who you might get. Other than keeping the show's name out there in the press, have you gotten value out of that? Have you used it to maybe take the public's temperature on different names?
Honest to God, I wish I was that intelligent. All that happened was that everything leaked. We haven't been able to make our mind up. I tried to get everyone to agree on Monday night. They couldn't agree, so we're still discussing. I am hoping that by Monday latest, I can confirm one, if not two, of the final names.
Because this is your show, and because you get to mentor the contestants, do you tend to feel more attached to the people on "X Factor" than you did to contestants on both "Pop Idol" and "American Idol"?
For sure. There were times, even from the first series, where you just wanted to get closer to the contestants, give them proper advice of what they should be singing, wearing, and you couldn't. Yous at there week after week thinking, I can't say much or do much. And that's why this show eventually replaced "Idol" in the UK. I wanted it to represent more what I do for a living. You do get involved in those decisions. It gave the judges more of a role on the show than just saying, "Oh, I hate what you're wearing" or "I hated that song." It was frustrating. It just gives you more to do. And it puts more pressure on you. It's almost like you're competing right along with the contestants.
So who's an example of someone from "American Idol" whom you feel would have gone further if you'd had the ability to actively mentor them?
Jennifer Hudson. Whenever you read about Jennifer - and everyone goes that I criticized her and didn't like her, but when you look back on her on the show, she got more positive feedback than negative feedback - if I was mentoring her, the week she got voted out, she never would have sung that song (Barry Manilow's "Weekend in New England"). She was doing well, but she chose the wrong song on the wrong week. That wouldn't have happened on "X Factor." She would have been given a much better song.
Not that she's complaining now. It has all worked out fine for her.
I don't know how much of this season of "Idol" you've watched, but the judges have been much more uniformly positive than you were. It seems like something like Casey Abrams being voted out a few weeks ago wouldn't have happened with you there, because you'd have scared either Casey or his fans out of complacency.
I only saw part of one of the live shows. From what I did see, it was a very very different tone, different kind of show. I think the judges are there to give positive feedback more than anything else to keep people's spirits up. And that's not the show that I was doing.
So what exactly, does the $5 million "X Factor" prize mean? What does it consist of?
There's the recording contract, which is a Sony recording agreement. The $5 million is a guarantee against royalties. Whether you sell 1 record or 10 million records, you get to keep the 5 million. It's guaranteed cash. Apart from it being more fun, is that when you've got the final and you've got two people, and you get to the finals and they go, "I don't care about winning" because they're going to get a recording deal. But when you've got that huge gap between what you can win and lose, we've got more opportunity to get the finalists competing like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier did all those years ago.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com