'X Factor' Debut: Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul Reunite At Judges' Table

Highly anticipated Fox singing show puts emphasis on contestants' hopeful backstories over gag auditions.

A 20-year-old mama's boy, a 42-year-old stay-at-home mom and a 13-year-old with big pop dreams were among the discoveries on Wednesday's (September 21) two-hour [article id="1670572"]premiere of "The X Factor,"[/article] Fox's highly anticipated new singing competition.

The show, adapted from the British hit, featured the American television return of Simon Cowell who, after nine seasons, left [article id="1486475"]"American Idol"[/article] to launch "X Factor" Stateside. Cowell was joined on the judges' panel by record executive Antonio "L.A." Reid, his former "Idol" sparring partner Paula Abdul and pop stars [article id="1665284"]Cheryl Cole and Nicole Scherzinger[/article], who played a game of musical chairs in the premiere episode. (Cole appeared at the L.A. auditions, and then ceded her chair to Pussycat Doll Scherzinger.)

There are several major differences between "X" and "Idol," foremost being the $5 million recording contract that will be awarded to the "X Factor" winner. Other distinctions? "X" is open to singers ages 13 and up, including groups of artists; contestants will eventually be divided into four categories (boys, girls, over-30s and groups); and early audition rounds are held in front of a live audience rather than the closed quarters of the early "Idol" rounds.

Also, judging by its premiere offering, "X Factor" is going for a more hopeful, positive vibe than "Idol," focusing on contestants' inspirational backstories rather than gag auditions. This tone was set early with the first contestant at the Los Angeles tryouts, 13-year-old Rachel Crow, who even at her young age called the audition "the most important thing I've ever done in my life."

The spiral-haired Crow, who sang a cute, spirited version of Duffy's "Mercy," told the judges she wanted a bigger home for her six-person family, which is currently crammed into a two-bedroom home. The judges took to her act, with Paula saying she did "exactly what we need people to do on this stage." She sailed through to the next round, perhaps a beneficiary of the judges' early good moods.

Siameze Floyd, a 30-year-old "megastar"-in-waiting, who already has dreams of his own energy drink ("Siamenergy!"), had a slightly tougher road to travel. With his blown-out Prince 'do and heels to match, he took the judges by surprise with a series of spins, splits and high kicks that recalled David Lee Roth by way of James Brown. L.A. Reid wasn't sold, questioning Floyd's "originality," though the other three judges sent him through, despite (or perhaps because of) Cowell's prediction that "he will be a total, utter nightmare."

The disagreement between Reid and Cowell was teased in a montage of the two bickering with each other, all set to "Eye of the Tiger." If "Idol" was focused on the back-and-forth between Simon and Paula, "X Factor" is foreshadowing a clash between the two big dogs at the opposite ends of the judges' table.

But both Cowell and Reid were able to agree on Stacy Francis, a 42-year-old stay-at-home mom who treated her tryout like her last shot at glory. Saying she'd been kicked around and told she was too old for the past 12 years, she told Cowell, "I don't want to die with this music in me," and proceeded to let it out with a version of Aretha Franklin's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" that Cowell called "one of the best auditions I've ever heard in my life." Francis handily graduated to the next level of the competition, sob story in tow.

Seattle auditions were highlighted in the show's second hour, and 20-year-old Marcus Canty wowed the judges with his confident, footloose take on Stevie Wonder's "I Wish." Reid, in one of the show's biggest votes of confidence, compared the singer to a young Bobby Brown, while Cowell tagged him as "one to watch." Canty, a self-described "mama's boy" who put off college to pursue his pop dreams, fell to the floor of the stage when he heard the ovation from the crowd.

The Anser, a boy band trio from Salt Lake City, Utah, also made an impression, but the show's closing slot was given to Chris Rene, a 28-year-old trash collector and recovering substance abuser whose original song, "Young Homey" won over the judges as well as the crowd at the Seattle arena. The song featured confessional sung/rapped verses, and Rene entered into a (slightly shaky) falsetto at the chorus, but the judges scooped it up. "What did you write, 'Lil homey, what you trippin' on'?" Scherzinger asked, referencing the lyrics of the song. "Yeah honey, I'm trippin' on you. I'm serious." She said that Rene had, you guessed it, the "X factor."

The two-part "X Factor" premiere continues Thursday night on Fox.

What did you think of "The X Factor" premiere? Let us know in the comments!

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