Once upon a time -- 13 years ago, to be exact -- Britney Spears was the biggest pop star on the planet. Her debut single, “...Baby One More Time,” was a No. 1 smash, and so was her debut album of the same title. On it was the ballad “I Will Still Love You,” a duet with an upstart teen heartthrob named Don Philip.
At the time, Philip was a high priority with Jive Records, Britney’s label, hopefully, the next Ricky Martin, who was still “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” or another Justin Timberlake, without 'N Sync deflecting his spotlight. His publicist brought him by the Teen People magazine offices in New York City and introduced him to the staff as a future male solo pop star. We considered his assets: He was cute and charismatic. Mostly importantly, he was on Britney’s hit record, so he was a known entity to any teen or tween who’d bothered to read the album credits.
Could he sing? To this day, I’m not so sure that it really mattered to Jive. He had a great name and a great face -- did he really need a great voice, too? It’s not like Britney could blow like Celine Dion. Christina Aguilera blew her away -- and Britney was still the bigger star. We assigned a one-page feature on him.
That was the last I heard about Philip until this past June, when the news broke that the singer, now a 32-year-old out gay man, would be popping up on the September 12 season premiere of the second cycle of The X Factor. When he walked onstage to audition during last week's show, I was impressed that Britney recognized him because I wouldn’t have. The last decade and three years haven’t been so kind to him, and not just because he’s pretty much lost his teen-idol looks. That plum spot on ...Baby One More Time had been his last hurrah. He’d spent the years since looking for love (in the professional sense) and not getting any.
As for his singing, well, Britney said it best in her critique, with the other three judges -- Cowell, Demi Lovato and L.A. Reid -- concurring: “Your voice really isn’t up to the bar of the standards of The X Factor and what we want.” So much for that declaration of everlasting love in the title of their ...Baby One More Time duet!
Ouch! In fact, much to the surprise -- and delight -- of viewers and critics, Britney spent much of the season premiere being as nasty as she wanted to be. That's entertaining, yes, but call her hypocritical (not maybe, definitely!). While a part of me secretly loves the idea of Britney being a queen B is for bitch (why should Simon Cowell have all the fun?), another part of me can’t help but cringe. Yes, she’s sold millions of records, and she does indeed have that extra something that it takes to be a star. But if she knows what a great singer sounds like, God only knows what she hears when she listens to herself.
Apparently, though, when it comes to talent, the standards for judging The X Factor are not right up there with the ones for moving on to the second round. It’s not like Cowell hired Britney because of her skills. She practically ensures ratings (or so he thought -- her X Factor debut couldn't beat The Voice, which airs at the same time and features her one-time rival Christina Aguilera in one of the four judges’ chairs), but she owes her career to Auto-Tune and other studio trickery. If she were just coming out today, would she be “up to the bar of the standards of The X Factor”? Please. What made her a star in 1999 does not necessarily apply in 2012 -- not any more than what made the perfect duet partner for pop’s soon-to-be reigning princess back then, as Don Philip now knows.
You still need the right look or some colorful shtick that can make everyone forget that you’re not really much of a singer. That’s how Nicki Minaj, Britney’s one-time remix collaborator (along with Ke$ha, speaking of the marginally talented, on “Till the World Ends”) gets by. It’s how Minaj got her own spot in the pop-star firmament and by extension, her new gig as an American Idol judge. Compared to her, former Idol judge Jennifer Lopez and ex-X Factor and Idol judge Paula Abdul are Mariah Carey, the first Idol judge who can actually give aspiring singers vocal advice while keeping a straight face. (So can Keith Urban, who has just been assigned to the Idol table, which will make Idol's upcoming 12th season half as legitimate as The Voice, which features four sturdy, undeniably great singers as judges.)
Don Philip is not about to get as lucky as that other Phillip (Phillips, Idol's talented season 11 champ). He may have missed his final shot (at least that’s what he seems to think), but other X Factor rejects shouldn’t be too quick to toss their dreams of stardom. Despite the criteria required to soar on The X Factor, Idol and The Voice, one can still be a pop star with a modicum of singing talent -- or none at all. And when your career starts to sag, if you’re really lucky, you just might be offered a job sitting next to Simon Cowell or Randy Jackson and crushing others' dreams.