Britney Spears' X Factor debut: The critics weigh in

The pop icon debuts as a judge on Fox's The X Factor, despite concerns about her history of instability and her qualifications to judge other singers

Britney Spears on "The X Factor"
(Image credit: Ray Mickshaw / FOX)

She's been a Mickey Mouse Club star, a teen-pop phenomenon, a mom, a head-shaving hysterical, and a tabloid whipping girl. Now, Britney Spears can add another bullet point to her resume: Reality show judge. Last night, Spears debuted on Fox's singing reality series The X Factor, alongside fellow adjudicators Simon Cowell, L.A. Reid, and Demi Lovato. Cowell's decision to recruit Spears was an attention-grabbing gamble: Despite Spears' huge, loyal fanbase, her numerous public breakdowns have made her unpredictable — and some wonder if her own wispy, atrophied singing skills leave her unqualified to criticize other singers at all. Was hiring Spears just stunt-casting? Here, 4 takeaways from her first night in the judge's seat:

She's a surprisingly tough critic

Many expressed skepticism about Spears' ability to be tough on contestants, but she proved that she's "not that innocent," says Carly Mallenbaum at USA Today. Throughout the night, Spears offered a string of memorable rejections "with grimaces and a dry delivery," telling one underwhelming performer, "I felt like I was listening to 'Alvin and the Chipmunks,'" and complaining to another, "I wanna know who let you onstage. I feel uncomfortable with you even staring at me."

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

But she still isn't qualified

"Britney thinks she can judge talent?" says David Lindquist at the Indianapolis Star. She's an expert dancer, and a "patron saint of electronic dance music," but her singing career has been characterized by "awkward phrasing, dropped notes, and an unremarkable voice that evaporates in the mix." She may have been a headline and attention-grabbing get for the series, but as far as actual qualifications go, Spears comes up short.

Her artistic cred doesn't matter

"Whether or not she’s an artist... is the smallest piece of the pie when it comes to discussing Britney," says Jessica Jardine at The A.V. Club. Spears has "seeped so deeply into pop culture that she simply exists in the way only a handful of stars can." As a judge on The X Factor, Spears' uncanny star power, which has repeatedly allowed her to weather high-profile breakdowns "in ways that pretty much no one understands," is far more important than any technical considerations of her singing voice. She's earned her spot on the show, if only "because, well, she's Britney." She's inexplicably intriguing, adds Ken Tucker at Entertainment Weekly, and her judging style has its own X factor: "A mixture of sweetness, shrewdness, nervous energy, unpretentiousness, and, occasionally, defiance...."

She might even turn Simon Cowell into a softie

When Simon Cowell recruited Spears for The X Factor, his motives were "pretty transparent," says Jodi Bradbury at the Christian Science Monitor: "Capitalizing on the country's fascination with Britney since her public breakdown." But the unexpected side effect is a "kinder Simon," who praised Spears' skill as a judge and showed concern for her when she was visibly upset after a former duet-partner of hers cringingly flubbed his audition. Until now, Cowell "often treated his female co-stars with a disdain that borders on misogyny," but Wednesday's episode showed that even Simon Cowell has a soft spot for Britney Spears.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.