"The X Factor" aired its first live show Tuesday night, and once again it was a production to match Simon Cowell's supersized ego. The stage was seemingly the size of an airplane hangar; the ginormous screen that ran bio clips of the contestants looked like it belonged in an IMAX theater; and the episode was an unprecedented two-and-a-half hours long, with the Fox network actually preempting its nightly news for the first time in, um, ever to make room for the extendo-broadcast. I guess this was Simon's revenge for that baseball game that infuriatingly preempted "The X Factor" a couple weeks ago.
But the one thing that WASN'T big about Tuesday's "X Factor" show? The surprises. Oh sure, there were definitely some surprising song choices, most of them from the '80s, and Paula Abdul's thigh-high Pretty Woman boots were a little bit shocking. But when it came time for the judges to pick which five of the remaining 17 contestants to eliminate, they went with the obvious--and, let's be frank, CORRECT--choices. As much they hemmed and hawed (even Simon grumbled, "I don't want to do it!" when faced with his decision), I think they doth protested too much. It was clear which 12 needed to stay, and the judges pretty much did their job.
Here's how it went down...
BOYS - mentored by L.A. Reid
Brian "Astro" Bradley - Before the Astronomical Kid took the stage, I thought he might be the most at risk among L.A.'s boys, since he's the only contestant in this singing competition that doesn't really, well, sing. But once this pint-sized MC emerged from a cloud of dry-ice vapor and started to rock the mic, as hip-hop dancers in parkas struck thug poses and pyro exploded all around him, I knew he'd be making the top 12. His version of Kriss Kross's kiddy-rap classic "Jump" had me doing just that: jumping out of my seat. To quote a hackneyed phrase used often on "American Idol" by Randy Jackson, I felt like I was at an Astro concert! "I couldn't think of a better way to kick off the live performances in America," Nicole Scherzinger said of Astro's high-energy set. "This is what you're going to be doing for the rest of your life," raved Paula. "I said you were the most obnoxious, confident contestant I've met. Now that's times triple," said Simon, though he totally meant this as a compliment...and Astro totally took it as one.
Chris Rene - Chris came into this competition as the man to beat, but tonight, he faltered a little bit. The main problem was L.A.'s song choice for Chris, Rose Royce's disco ballad "Love Don't Live Here Anymore," which Chris probably never would have picked for himself. Starting the mellow number seated on a faux front stoop, his performance just didn't have that, well, X factor I'd seen before during "Little Homie" and "Every Breath You Take." I have to wonder if even L.A. himself was disappointed, or if he second-guessed his song choice (even Nicole questioned it, marking this a rare time that Nicole and I agreed on anything). Luckily, the song improved once Chris launched into his own rapping interlude, and some of his old swagger came back. But following Astro's manic performance, this was a letdown. Paula and Simon were kind, with Paula saying, "There is a genuine truthfulness that's authentic about you," and Simon explaining, "You're not one of the best singers in the competition, but you're one of the best recording artists," which explains a lot about Simon's goal with this show. But only L.A. really got behind Chris, naturally, saying to him, "What you and I have in common is we like the unpredictable. Unlike these guys [the other judges]!" I agree that this song choice was not predictable...but that doesn't mean it was appropriate.
Phillip Lomax - Talk about bad song choices! L.A. might as well have picked up poor Phillip, carried him outside, and tossed him under the next express bus cruising down Beverly Blvd. Phillip is a modern-day crooner a la Michael Buble, so really the only chance he had of seeming cool or relevant was to keep doing leftfield covers, like his Rihanna song during Judges' Houses week. Instead, L.A. gave him Neil Diamond's "I'm A Believer." And while I love both Neil and the Monkees' recordings of this classic, it was all too easy for Phillip's Vegas-y version to seem hokey, old-fashioned, and just uncool, more like something from "America's Got Talent." My only theory is that L.A. was just trying to make his decision easier by making one of his contestants look so bad. Nicole and Paula praised the handsome showman's charisma with comments like "you were radiating up there" (Nicole) and "your smile is your golden ticket" (Paula), but Simon, of course, was more straightforward about this "cabaret" performance. "From day one I thought you stood out," Simon told Phillip, "but you are like a racing driver and L.A. put you into a tractor. L.A., on this guy you were a 100 percent failure." L.A. defended his decision, saying Phillip had "stepped out of his comfort zone" and was "no longer imitating Frank Sinatra," but the damage was done. No one was a believer after this performance.
Marcus Canty - This was one case where a seemingly bizarre song choice by L.A. actually worked out. Culture Club's "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?" could have been a disaster, but Marcus tapped into the blue-eyed soul of the original, gave it a modern twist, busted out some funky dance moves, and owned the stage. This version could be released to radio right now and become a hit, and even Simon said it was a "brilliant" song choice on L.A.'s part. "You just make it look too easy! You were born to be on that stage," purred Nicole. "I feel like I'm watching a veteran on that stage," said an equally impressed Paula. Simon even gave Marcus props, saying, "Out of the four boys, you're the one who thought this through. You understand there's a $5 million contract on the line." L.A. seemed pretty pleased too, telling Marcus, "You stepped up to the plate once again. You made me really proud."
ELIMINATED: Phillip - Come on, who didn't see this coming? I'm sure even Phillip did. L.A. clearly has a preference for urban/pop music (as evidenced not only by his own career history but by his total snub of any country singers in his original "X Factor" category of eight), so of course he was inclined to keep Astro, Chris, and Marcus. Honestly, L.A. will probably fare better with those three, so it's not like he made a bad decision. But it's too bad for Phillip that his one performance on the main "X" stage had to be such a silly, cruise-shippy one.
GROUPS - mentored by Paula Abdul
Stereo Hogzz - The Hogzz are probably Paula's biggest hope, so a lot was riding on their performance. Luckily, for both themselves and for Paula, they cleaned up nice and rose to the occasion. Dressed in natty suits and executing some fairly badass choreography, they mixed retro and modern vibes seamlessly on Otis Redding's "Try A Little Tenderness," and came across as a new-fangled Boyz II Men. Sort of like Hogzz II Men, if you will. I was pleasantly surprised, as were all of the judges. "You guys have come a long way. As much as I want to have criticism, I can't!" said L.A. Nicole called them "foolproof, solid, current and classic at the same time." Simon grudgingly grumbled, "I'm trying to say something, and my mouth won't say it: Paula, you did a really good job." He also told the Hogzz, "There should be a band like you in the charts." Paula was delighted, telling her charges, "I put you through your paces, you trusted me. Thank you so much for working so hard." Looks like Paula's category may not be so doomed after all.
The Brewer Boys - Until tonight, I'd been underwhelmed by the Brewers, not really sure of what sort of genre they fell into or what they represented. To me, they were just a couple of cute kids with good hair. But after seeing them do a folksy, acoustic, kind of jugband-ish medley of Hall & Oates's "Rich Girl" with George Michael's "Faith," I was actually impressed. They were the only contestants of the night to play instruments, and there was a sort of country element to their sound that I thought America might latch onto. But the judges certainly didn't latch onto this. L.A. told Paula she seemed out of her comfort zone with this duo and said he "wasn't blown away." Nicole just said if she were a teenager, she'd have Brewer Boys posters on her wall, then used the opportunity to point out how much older Paula is by mentioning that she used to plaster her childhood bedroom walls with posters of Paula Abdul. (Oh, snap!) Simon said the Boys "didn't shine" and "hadn't progressed." Paula told them they'd "nailed it," but if the judges' critiques were anything to go by, this was the nail in the Brewer Boys' coffin. Too bad. They had potential.
InTENsity - The first of this season's prefab groups, ranging in ages from 12 to 17, looked more like they belonged on The Hub's "Majors & Minors" than on "The X Factor." Climbing all over what appeared to be a jungle gym (or maybe the leftover scaffolding from Paula's "Cold Hearted" video), they sang a relentlessly peppy medley of "The Clapping Song" with "Footloose" (another '80s oldie!) that I am probably too old to appreciate but probably had massive appeal for the underage masses. I will say, though, that mini-powerhouse Ellona Santiago is this group's not-so-secret weapon. I have no real idea if the other nine kids in InTENsity can actually sing a note, but if not, Ellona can probably carry them all--she's that good. "I'm really impressed. I feel you've grown together as a group," L.A. remarked. Nicole went into Paula-esque babblespeak and offered one of her many odd metaphors of the night with, "You're my pumpkin-patch yummy pumpkins!" (Um, okay, I guess that means she liked them.) Simon was surprisingly positive, raving, "That was equivalent of a music miracle. I've got the new young 'Glee' in front of me." (Simon also said the song "Footloose" was "current," which raised a few eyebrows, but at least he was right to single out Ellona for praise.)
Lakoda Rayne - "Guys, you're gonna wanna date 'em, and girls, you're gonna wanna be 'em," is how Paula introduced this prefab group of country-pop golden girls. I'm not so sure I want to be one of the Lakoda ladies, actually, but I am sure many male viewers are hoping they stick around. Lakoda Rayne are definitely attractive, and while they're not really my thing, they're extremely marketable, sort of like Atomic Kitten Go To Nashville. "If the four of you walked into my office, you'd be signed to a worldwide contract," industry-savvy L.A. told them, and Simon said, "There is a gap in the market for a group like you." I actually thought I was going to hate their twangy cover of yet another '80s song, Dexy's Midnight Runners' "Come On Eileen," which I personally think is The Greatest Song Of All Time (I still resent Save Ferris for ruining it by turning it into a ska song in 1997). But the Rayne played upon the square-danciness of the original, and it all sort of worked. "You make girl groups look good," smiled girl-group veteran Nicole. Paula said through happy tears, "You make me so proud because you, of all the groups, had a lot to prove." I bet Paula, who arguably got stuck with the most problematic category in this competition, was relieved that she'd managed to get something out of all these kids. Maybe those were tears of relief.
ELIMINATED: The Brewer Boys- Again, this was a non-shocker. I actually appreciated the Brewer brothers' homespun vibe (I have a soft spot for anyone who covers Hall & Oates, even if it's because Paula Abdul forces them to). But I knew Paula wouldn't send home either of the groups the show created, and that Stereo Hogzz were a shoo-in. So the Brewers were doomed from the start. I just felt so bad for them when brother Nathan told her, "I'm sorry we didn't live up to your expectations" (aw, poor kid), and then Paula was cut off by time-minding host Steve Jones when she tried to pep-talk them out of their funk.
OVER-30's - mentored by Nicole Scherzinger
Dexter Haygood - While I'd questioned whether Dexter, with his fragile nature and tendency to forget his lyrics, belonged in this competition, I'd never questioned that he was a dyed-in-the-denim rocker, through and through. So what the heck was Nicole thinking by forcing the chump to sing a medley of Britney Spears's "Womanizer" and Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl"? Once again, a bus might as well have just driven across the stage and right over Dexter. Dexter actually did pretty well with what he had to work with: He whooped and hollered, sold the songs, riled up the audience, worked the stage, did his best Jagger impression, sang on key, and remembered all his words. (I admit when he sassed, "I'll show you crazy," that was priceless. And also convincing.) But Scherzy simply sabotaged poor Dexter; in the words of Def Leppard, Nicole, look what you've done to this rock 'n' roll clown! "I don't know what you were thinking, giving him those songs," said L.A. to Nicole, though he told Dexter he'd done well. Simon was amused, saying that, like the line in Katy's song, this "felt so wrong, yet felt so right," and likening "the combination of Dexter, Nicole, Katy, and Britney" to "the weirdest milkshake." But this milkshake didn't go down so easy. Poor Dexter.
LeRoy Bell - This gracefully non-aging 60-year-old eschewed the crazy choreography and fireworks displays favored by some other contestants (or at least Nicole eschewed such glitzy trappings when masterminding this performance), instead standing alone in a simple, single spotlight to cover Pink's "Nobody Knows." LeRoy looked current and cool, down to his Urban Outfittered styling--but did he sound current, like something that'd be on the radio today? Maybe not, especially since Paula compared him to Michael Bolton (she meant this as a compliment, but still). However, this performance was haunting; the man really does have one of the most gorgeous voices on the show, so maybe there'd be a place for him in the pop marketplace after all. "I don't even get why you haven't become a star already," said L.A. Paula, along with the Bolton comparison, described LeRoy's voice as "velvet" and "pure magic." Simon said LeRoy had "one of the best voices in the competition," but claimed that LeRoy showed "a lack of confidence and a bit of awkwardness," which he blamed on Nicole spending too much time choreographing Dexter's busy number. "I actually wish I was mentoring you," Simon said, complimenting LeRoy while simultaneously insulting Nicole. Nicole stood up to Simon, for once, retorting, "I don't know if you would have put the two weeks into him like I did. I am so proud of him. He's grown so much."
Stacy Francis - Stacy sashayed out in painted-on pants and a fun-fur jacket, a look that didn't really suit her age or her grown-up ballad, George Michael's "One More Try" (yes, ANOTHER '80s tune!). But she worked it out. Stacy owned this song, reining in her tendency to oversing and delivering a performance that was far more subdued and tasteful than her club-kid outfit. The crowd went nuts every time she hit a high note, and she exuded a confidence I hadn't seen from her before--no tears, no freakouts. "I'm most proud that you're not crying--so don't start!" joked L.A. "You came out looking like a star, and you told a story. Brilliant delivery," said Paula. Simon was the only dissenter, complaining that Stacy's flashy outfit and song choice didn't suit her because she's supposed to be a "church singer," not a pop-star type. "You can't sell records like that. This needs a massive shift in the right direction," he grumbled. Stacy countered with, "It's my dream to be a pop star"...but we'll see next week if Nicole takes Simon's advice and has a sedately attired Stacy belting out a gospel hymn with a robed choir behind her.
Josh Krajcik - Bob Dylan's "Forever Young" (no, not the Alphaville song, despite the evening's ongoing unofficial '80s theme) was an interesting song selection for someone from the "over-30's" set. But if Josh keeps delivering knockout performances like these, he'll have a long career ahead of him; this is just the beginning. Once again, Krajcik was magic here. It was just a man and his voice, standing in front of an elegant black-and-white movie screen, in THE least cheesy moment of the night. And his performance was perfect. "You're one of the greatest singers in this competition," L.A. told him. "Your voice is my favorite voice I think I've heard in the past decade," gushed Paula. "That was a soul-stirring performance. That was so beautiful," swooned Nicole. And Simon said, "You are the artist I fear, because you've got it all going on. You are the real deal." This burrito-cook should have legions of minions serving him burritos on platinum platters and massaging his feet soon, because he deserves to be a star.
ELIMINATED: Dexter - Again, we all saw this coming...except maybe deluded Dexter himself, who, as expected and feared, took the news of his elimination harder than the other rejects of the night. He ranted, "I'm confused. I don't know why I'm confused! I'm in the 21st century twilight zone!" I couldn't help but feel bad for the guy. Yes, maybe it was his time to go, but it's a shame that he had to go out singing a Britney/Katy medley. No wonder he was confused. Everyone watching that performance was too.
GIRLS - mentored by Simon Cowell
Simone Battle - Okay, this performance was a mess, and not even a hot one. But it was a hot-pants'd mess. Simone did give it her all, prancing out in her signature micro-shorts and a multi-colored outfit that sort of looked like a unicorn threw up on her, dancing and wiggling up a rainbow storm to Mariah Carey's "Just Be Good To Me." But this just wasn't good, period. No one could accuse Simone of not putting in the effort, and there were moments that were total over-the-top pop fun (her bedazzled Jem & The Holograms microphone was a nice touch, for instance). But overall, Simone's performance came across as clumsy and amateurish--like something out of a local talent show, not a 5-million-dollar, nationally televised competition. And much of the time, she was easily upstaged by her dancers. The judges were understandably harder on Simone than they were on any other semifinalist. "Everything was right except your choice in contestant," L.A. snarled to Simon, as their made-for-TV rivalry started to heat up. "Simon, you have some 'splaining to do. I still don't get it. You must be really rich, because clearly $5 million doesn't mean much to you at all." Added Nicole, cattily and sarcastically, "That wasn't predictable at all, Simon." Paula tried to be nicer, of course, telling Simone she "looked the part," but admitting, "I just wish there weren't as many dancers, because I would have loved to see you perform more." Simon then got angry, stating, "Simone, I think all of this is intended to upset you, because none of these guys have ever liked you." Then he barked to L.A., "You would have said the same thing to Britney Spears and Katy Perry, singers who have backup dancers. Maybe you're out of touch." Um, no. Maybe it's Simon who's out of touch for thinking Simone deserved a place on his team instead of Caitlin Koch or Tora Woloshin.
Rachel Crow - Judging by the deafening screams inside the studio for Rachel--louder than anyone else's--Rachel has already won "The X Factor." (This method of prediction worked for "Idol" earlier this year; Scotty McCreery always elicited the loudest, shrillest screams.) But while Rachel is an early fan favorite, she still has to work to maintain her standing in the competition. And I am not sure this performance was enough. This actually wasn't her fault: Once again, song selection was to blame, and her mashup of the Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go?" with Justin Bieber's "Baby" simply didn't allow her to show off her full vocal range. The result was a little underwhelming, especially since she hardly worked the stage at all, remaining riveted to one spot on a Lucite pedestal as if she feared she'd trip and fall off if she rocked out too hard. Paula and Nicole thought the medley did Rachel no favors, but Nicole still called her "Little Miss Sunshine" and Paula told her, "You could run for President if you wanted to!" Simon paid his fellow judges no mind. "I think the audience at home is going to disagree with Squiddly and Diddly here. I needed to show that you are both a retro artist and a pop artist." I agree with Simon's strategy here--it would be cool to push Rachel in an Adele/Winehouse/Monae direction--but he should really give her songs that make the most of her abilities.
Drew - Glam but barefoot, the lovely Miss Ryniewicz, who is apparently (and kind of lamely) going by only one name now, took on the umpteenth '80s song of the night, "Flashdance." And I must say I liked it a lot more than InTENsity's similar song from the dance-crazy '80s, "Footloose." Drew stripped the song of all its flash and its dance, singing it while seated on a plain podium, and yet she still took her passion and made it happen. This was flawless, stunning, gorgeous...oh, there are so many glowing, gushing adjectives I could employ here. The audience was so caught up in the performance, the studio screams almost drowned out Drew's delicate vocals, but she shone through in the end, like a star. This felt like a finale song, like a coronation song, already--it was that good. "You have an amazing voice. What pains me is I have to give Simon a compliment now," joked L.A. "It was so ethereal. You're my little folk princess," cooed Nicole. "You connect with the audience. With the sweetness in your voice, you tell a story," said Paula. And Simon declared, "This is why I wanted to be back on American TV: to find someone like you." And a contestant like Drew is why American viewers will keep watching this show.
Tiah Tolliver - Tiah was polarizing from the start, so it was fitting that for her first (and--spoiler alert!--only) live show, she gave a performance that people would either love or hate. I fell into the former camp. I thought her eerie, Halloween-appropriate rendition of the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams" (yes, another '80s song) was quirky and cool, owing as much to the Marilyn Manson version as the original, and the creepy, melodramatic performance, surrounded by red-caped gargoyles and barren black trees, had a Rihanna/"Disturbia" vibe to it. It was an intense and fiery performance that suited Tiah, and if anything, it shed a (crimson) light on how much goes into making the perfect pop star: costumes, lighting, staging, "SYTYCD" dancers, hair extensions, etc. But of course, haters are gonna hate. "That was quite a production. I was looking for the kitchen sink. I guess you're one of Simon's favorites and congratulations to you," shrugged a grumpy L.A. "If that was a sweet dream, I'd hate to see what one of the scary ones are like," smirked Nicole. "You looked fierce and you were committed, and I give you credit because you have this fierce drive about you. But if you want to do this for a living, you're going to have to work on your pitch," said Paula. Riled up, Simon countered: "You two are so predictable. She just worked her nuts off, and you are just two spiteful little cats." Meow!
Melanie Amaro - In the two-minute course of her classic-diva performance of Whitney Houston's "I Have Nothing," Melanie went from being the girl who almost didn't make it onto the show at all (she was brought in as Simon's bonus fifth contestant at the last minute) to the girl Simon now predicts could win this whole thing. Melanie's big, booming voice filled the big room, and by the end there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Melanie herself was in fact visibly moved and in tears, overcome with emotion. Whether her "second chance" was just a plot ploy on Simon's part, we'll never know, but Melanie's emotion was real, as was her rare talent. L.A. said they'd "saved the best for last." Nicole told her, "You're so special." Paula said, "I'm so grateful Simon brought you back." Now Melanie's only hurdle is not seeming too old-fashioned to younger voters--which will probably depend entirely on Simon's song choices. A Whitney song this week was a great way for him to prove the girl's got pipes, but on future shows, he should mix it up a little.
ELIMINATED: Simone & Tiah - As much as Simon tried to pretend that this was a difficult decision, we all know It. Was. Not. Obviously Melanie and Drew were guarantees, and Simon would never cut a fan favorite like Rachel, the girl that "America wants." It was clear that America did not want Simone, so it was easier to bid her farewell, but I found Tiah's "Sweet Dreams" performance intriguing and would have liked to see more dark, rock-tinged R&B from her. But truth be told, the show will be a little less fierce without both girls.
And so, now we have our dozen singers that will go to the voting rounds next week. Will any of them be forced to sing bad Britney covers or dance in rainbow short-shorts? Do any of them the X factor? And will there be any elimination shockers now that the decisions are out of the judges' hands? Stay tuned.
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