If Carl Orff were alive today, he might be a little pissed off. His immortal (for better or worse) “O Fortuna” — accompaniment to any and every cataclysmic film trailer and sports highlight reel of the last two decades — seems doomed to its own seat in a perfunctory hell. Shorn of its dynamics and forced to create drama that doesn’t exist otherwise, Orff’s 1936 cantata remains the unwilling participant in this now-standard mechanical transaction. And here, in the opening montage of the American debut of “The X Factor,” is “Fortuna,” called in for the heavy lifting, so beautifully calculated and hollow you can’t help but smirk. Carl might’ve vomited.
The X Factor
Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m.
Now, nine years after “American Idol” translated the success of the UK’s “Pop Idol” into Coca-Cola, Ford Focus and Kelly Clarkson, the U.S. has its nauseous successor. “The X Factor,” now seven years old in Britain, has made its way to FOX’s primetime for its inaugural season. Created by Simon Cowell and crafted for maximum ratings impact, it fills the void left before the 11th “Idol” season debut in January.
In tone and style, the shows hit the same sharp pitch. The arrangement of “X Factor,” however, is a little different. While it’s still a “singing competition,” gone are the “Idol” age cap and group limitations. Finalists go on to something called “Boot Camp” and the judges apparently get pretty hands-on later in the season. Auditions are made (after preliminaries, where magic goes to die) in front of a studio audience. Pepsi’s the soda of choice.
The show’s an “Idol” palette swap with the contrast driven way up. Over the course of two physically and emotionally demanding hours we’re treated to all the standard tropes: the guy who works at a burrito joint with a voice of gold, old lady stuns everyone with a flat belt, aimless riffage from a tweenage white girl rewarded with ovations and kneeling prayers. The American Dream, still boundless and recession-proof, flies and dies in eight minute vignettes. “The X Factor” is a master-class in the artifice of the edit. It’s all relentless fortissimo and glitter — spray-on tears and strobe montage of titanic proportions.
While the sugar high feels nice in little doses, “X Factor” aches of a nation unwilling to look itself in the mirror and deliver any blunt honesty as to the state of things. Criticisms are fluff and ovations are party favors. A monumental hollowness pervades the entire program. The criticism never gets past “good,” “bad” and “nice outfit.” Parents weep as their child gets a solitary affirmative vote. Nothing of the rampant pitchiness, flimsy breath support nor any indication of a nascent representation of vocal phrasings. But hey, it’s never really been about singing, right? It’s all drama.
You’ve got to imagine the actual drama of putting on the entire “X Factor” production is very interesting — all the manipulation and fake cues. Interns scrawling fake signs for fake fans in the crowd. Custodians slipping some carisoprodol into Paula Abdul’s 40-ounce Diet Pepsi during breaks. The people turned away for having too good a voice (it happens).
And perhaps the original promise of “Idol” was a novel one: that in this lightning-quick technology age we can craft a wholly transparent interactive television production … that the American monoculture can still clutch upon some notion of understanding.
For now, the promise remains defiantly hollow.
Orff’s “Fortuna” is an adaptation of a 13th-century poetic satire on fate and luck. “Sors immanis / et inanis” goes it’s second stanza — “Fate, monstrous and empty.” Maybe Orff would be fine with it. For “The X Factor,” the tune feels curiously appropriate.