X Factor’ Premiere: “Musical Exorcisms” and Autotune Accusations

Simon Cowell is bringing his UK talent show X Factor to American shores next fall, and the seventh season premiered in Britain on Saturday. Like American Idol, the show is known for its often brutal auditions, and the premiere had more than its share. “Opera-trained” 30-year-old Shirlena Johnson produced an audition that would have gotten her laughed off of Idol, yet her totally mad performance of Duffy‘s “Mercy” left judges Cowell and Louis Walsh so transfixed that they voted her through to the next round.

Johnson’s act contained very little actual singing: instead she growled, exhorted the audience to “Release you! Release me!,” and pretty much made things up as she went along.

A grimacing Cheryl Cole was the sole judge to give Shirlena a “no” vote, but Cowell explained to her why he voted “yes”: “I just want to know what she’s gonna do next. I’m fascinated with her.”

Watch the performance that Simon called “fantastically nuts.”

This year’s X Factor has not been without controversy: many viewers went on social media sites to accuse the show of using autotune to enhance certain singers’ voices. Check out video from the premiere of Gamu Nhengu‘s audition, in which she performed “Walking on Sunshine.” Her voice does sound a bit like it was filtered through the T-Pain iPhone app every now and then:

A spokesperson tells The Guardian, “The judges make their decisions at the audition stage based on what they hear on the day, live in the arena. The footage and sound is then edited and dubbed into a finished program, to deliver the most entertaining experience possible for viewers.” Another “industry insider” added that “autotuning techniques were commonly used, especially in American TV talent shows.” Woah. I’m trying to think of any blatant autotune use on a U.S. show, but I’m blanking. Although I think many American Idol viewers would have embraced the technology during this past lackluster season.

Kevin Wicks

Kevin Wicks founded BBCAmerica.com's Anglophenia blog back in 2005 and has been translating British culture for an American audience ever since. While not British himself - he was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri - he once received inordinate hospitality in London for sharing the name of a dead but beloved EastEnders character. His Anglophilia stems from a high school love of Morrissey, whom he calls his "gateway drug" into British culture.

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