This week, "The X Factor" welcomed its "fifth judge"--aka, the American public--as the top 12 contestants competed for viewers' votes for the very first time. And Simon Cowell seemed superhumanly confident, as he often does, that America would get it right. So obviously someone had swiped some sort of Men In Black-esque memory-erasing pen in front of his smug face, causing him to forget his entire nine-season tenure on "American Idol"--you know, when he witnessed, aghast, America's premature eliminations of Tamyra Gray, Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry, Michael Johns, Allison Iraheta, Alex Lambert, Lilly Scott, et al. Would "X Factor's" voters choose a little more wisely?
Well, however America votes this week, it'll be a tough decision, with a dozen talented contenders to choose from among Simon's girls, L.A. Reid's boys, Nicole Scherzinger's over-30's, and Paula Abdul's groups. For the most part this week, everyone was in it to win it, to borrow a catchphrase from Simon's old show--but there were a few contestants who didn't quite make their mark on the "X" spot. Read on to find out how everyone did...
Stereo Hogzz - Already disadvantaged for being a group (as opposed to one of this show's more heavily promoted, fan-favorite solo singers), the Hogzz faced the additional challenge of going first, in the kiss-of-death slot. But while their performance was far from perfect, the utterly over-the-top production was still a perfectly unsubtle way to start off the show. The opening of their Janet Jackson tribute was very shaky vocally, but eventually out came their swagger--and out came a Rhythm Nation's army of Mr. Roboto/Daft Punk-helmeted android dancers. This was when Janet's pleasure principle really kicked in. Yes, it was cheesy, and not nearly as edgy or interesting as last week's "Try A Little Tenderness"--but Paula, who used to choreograph for Janet, gave the Hogzz another fun, fierce routine here. I do think the judges were a little too enthusiastic in their praise, however. Said L.A., "That was great! The whole idea here is, do you have what it takes to be a star? And you absolutely have what it takes." Said Nicole, "The Hogzz have landed! I was like, what show is this? THIS is 'The X Factor,' and you represent it so well." And Simon, in an uncharacteristically sportsmanlike manner, heaped so much high praise all over the Hogzz, he actually made THIS crazy statement: "I don't think there's a band in the world right now that's as good as you." Um. No. Stereo Hogzz are great at what they do, but they're no Coldplay/Florence & The Machine/U2/Muse/insert-name-of-your-favorite-band-here. They're not even technically a band, really, unless Simon meant "boy band." But even then, his comment seemed overarching. These judges needed to pace themselves--seriously, the show still had 113 minutes and 11 acts to go! Calm down, everyone.
Chris Rene - Attempting to redeem himself after last week's self-admittedly disappointing "Love Don't Live Here Anymore" performance, Chris struggled through the song L.A. gave him, the Carpenters' "Superstar"--and once again, he didn't seem like a superstar at all. Whoa, what HAPPENED to this guy? A few weeks ago, he was the man to beat, with enough swagger to make even Astro look timid and the potential to rule the urban charts with originals like "Little Homie" (the song he sang at one of the best reality-show auditions I've ever seen). But this week, Chris was out of his element and virtually unrecognizable, singing an old-fashioned easy-listening ballad and dressed like Rick Astley. It was like Chris had been Rickrolled. "The problem with Chris is he's just better on his own songs," L.A. explained. Well, that's true, but giving him a CARPENTERS song certainly wasn't going to correct that problem, was it? What was L.A. thinking? In all fairness, Chris showed glimmers of greatness when he got to freestyle-rap over the song's middle section; he instantly seemed more comfortable, and more like himself. But sadly, it seemed like this little homie's coolness factor, or X factor, was still lost, possibly for good. L.A. later praised him, but I could have sworn I saw L.A. looking dejected and sullen before the cameras quickly cut away. Meanwhile, all of the judges went way too easy on Chris, inexplicably acting nicer and cuddlier than Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez. "I have so much mad love for you. You sounded absolutely amazing. That was beautiful," Nicole simpered, lying through her veneers. "With this, you found your groove. This was your song, and you owned it," cooed an equally deluded Paula. "For about 10 seconds, I thought this was going to be a disaster, but then it kicked in," said Simon, proving he should always go with his gut and his first impression. I'm just wondering if the "fifth judge" is going to kick Chris off after this. I like the guy, but I am beginning to think that he's simply not a good fit for this show. I think his only hope is if he can coast on the massive amount of goodwill generated by his excellent early auditions, until L.A. wises up and hopefully gives him a more appropriate song--or lets him sing another original.
LeRoy Bell - This over-30's contestant has one of the best, most pure voices in this competition; the guy doesn't need any bells and whistles and smoke and mirrors and the entire USC Marching Band and cast of "So You Think You Can Dance" behind him to put on a good performance. However, I still worry for the man. Yes, he could make a great album (seriously, just close your eyes and listen to his Charlie Rich-reminiscent cover of Lonestar's "I'm Already There" from this week, and you'll realize just how wonderful he truly is). But he's hardly the most high-energy performer of the bunch, and I see how he could get easily lost in the shuffle among the show's flashier acts. I don't really think it's a "confidence problem," as Simon has too frequently argued (including this week); I just think LeRoy is a quiet, mellow older man (he may look 35, but he is 60) who's just not going to jump around like the spastic kids in InTENsity and act like something he's not. But as LeRoy's mentor Nicole said, "Sometimes less is more," so maybe LeRoy will find an audience among music fans turned off by some of the other contestants' gimmickry. Anyway, L.A. griped that he didn't like the Lonestar song choice (which I actually thought suited LeRoy well), but told him, "I love your voice. You're a really special guy." Said Paula, "I've never seen anyone work so hard. You wrap your life experience around every song, and that's what connects with America." We'll soon see if Paula is right. I hope she is.
Rachel Crow - "Walking On Sunshine," the feelgood '80s hit by Katrina & The Waves, was a smart song choice for the kid with the most unflappably sunny disposition in the competition; the song also had a retro/girl-group vibe that suited Rachel's wannabe-Janelle Monae makeover. I can't be a hater here: This was a fun, vivacious performance that tapped into all the elements that make Rachel a fan favorite. My one gripe? Why change the oh-so instantly recognizable chorus to "you're my sunshine"? Don't today's kids walk on sunshine anymore? While this was Simon's doing, not Rachel's fault, the lyric switch threw me off and took me out of the moment, since I initially thought Rachel had committed the ultimate sin of forgetting the words. (When Nicole criticized Simon's decision to change the chorus, he snarled, "It's called being inventive." Whatever.) But regardless of the words Rachel was singing, this Little Miss Sunshine did a bang-up job. "You must be one of the most charismatic people I've ever met. You're so lovable!" raved L.A. "You are America's sunshine," said Nicole, who compared Rachel's voice to a young Michael Jackson's. "When you see Rachel, you think of sunshine. Do you know how good you are?" Paula asked. It was a rhetorical question, of course; Rachel acted all sweet and humble, but after all this praise (and audience screaming), she had to have some idea that she had done well.
Lakoda Rayne - When Paula, at her kooky best, announced that she was having her four Lakoda girls represent the four seasons (an idea Simon called "literally insane"), in spring/summer/autumn/winter-wear, I desperately hoped that they'd be singing "Girl For All Seasons" from Grease 2. At least that would have been funny and interesting. But no such luck. Instead, they warbled "Landslide" (the countrified Dixie Chicks version), and didn't come across as seasoned entertainers at all. These ladies are talented and marketable, yes, but nothing about this performance really worked: the off-the-rack rainbow prom dresses, the pageant-y staging...I didn't even think the harmonies sounded very together. And I agreed with L.A. that they came across too much like "tweeners"--i.e., not country enough, but also not pop enough. The men on the show spent too much time debating the girls' Miss America gowns (L.A. thought they looked "incredible"; Simon hated the outfits; host Steve Jones told Simon to get his eyes checked), but everyone other than myself did seem to think that their vocals sounded fantastic. "Tonight, I felt the harmonies blend," said L.A. "The four voices sound like one voice tonight," concurred Nicole. But sometimes four voices just are not better than one, I say. This was not terrible by any means, but in an evening filled with GREAT performances, this simply was not one of them.
Josh Krajcik - Josh--or more specifically, Nicole--ripped a page from "American Idol's" David Cook/Kris Allen playbook and did the gender-swap thing, taking a feminine song and making it masculine. Josh belted out Christina Perri's "Jar Of Hearts," adding some very manly aggression with gritted teeth and Eddie Vedder death-stares, and it was all very believable and intense. I will say I wasn't a fan of Nicole's styling--with his mop of curly hair and hulking leather jacket, Josh almost looked like he needed Whitesnake playing behind him, and the whole retro-rocker look just didn't fit the vibe of the song. But of course, I couldn't find fault with Josh's amazing voice or the raw emotion he brought to this breakup ballad. "You can sing anything and I'm a believer; you just nail everything," Paula said, very astutely. "When you sing, I feel your voice in my veins; you make music run through all of us," Nicole purred. "That was incredible; it's like you wrote the song. Absolutely stunning," said Simon. Last week, Simon confessed that he thought Josh posed the biggest threat to his three girls, and I am sure this performance didn't change Simon's opinion one bit. Simon should be afraid, be very afraid.
Melanie Amaro - With "no silly outfits, no silly seasons," as Simon snarkily put it, this girl-next-door-turned-diva simply came out and belted out the Eagles' "Desperado," half of it a cappella, and that was all she needed to do to prove she is one of the strongest singers on this show. There was nothing fancy about this--but there didn't need to be. "There is no limit to what you and your voice can do," raved Nicole. "Your voice is like fine china; you bring it out for the best occasions, and this is a special occasion," said a metaphor-muddling Paula. "The only thing Simon ever did right was bringing you back," snipped L.A., referring to Simon's decision to reinstate Melanie as a bonus contestant after initially cutting her in the Judges' House rounds. Said Simon: "I didn't realize how good you are. You're the one to beat, trust me." But I don't think Simon should get TOO confident just yet; he did say he was worried about Melanie becoming a "one-trick pony," and there's still a risk of her pulling a Pia Toscano and getting voted off the moment she tries to do something different and more upbeat. Remember, at one time everyone thought classic diva Pia was going to win "American Idol" this year, too. On "The X Factor," it's still very much anybody's game.
The Astronomical Kid
Astro - Poor Chris Rene keeps getting stuck with sappy '70s ballads, but for some reason L.A. always lets Astro have his way, and lets him just rap his own original lyrics during every performance. That doesn't seem very fair to me. But whatever, there's no denying that this Astronomical Kid is astronomically good at what he does. He should be allowed to perform his own material! Rapping his own verses over Naughty By Nature's "Hip Hop Hooray" and Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On," Astro had the studio audience hip-hopping and freaking out from start to finish, and L.A. was doing that little head-wobble tick of his that comes out whenever he's especially excited. By the end of the number, confetti was raining down from the ceiling all over Astro, and it felt like he'd already won the whole show. "You know how to get the party started right! I wanna go to the club with you right now!" howled Nicole. "You march to the beat of your own drum. I know Jay-Z has got his eye on you," said Paula. "You are a real little star," declared Simon. Wow, could a NON-singing contestant actually win "The X Factor," which in every other country has always been, well, a singing competition? You know, I wouldn't rule it out. I guess that will just depend on how many hip-hop fans are actually watching this show.
InTENsity - Personally, I thought Kim Wilde's "Kids In America" was a dumb choice for these kids. Yes, it's a new wave classic and an awesome song, but it's already been done Disney-style (by the Jonas Brothers, as "Kids Of The Future," and by No Secrets) and dance-pop-style (by Atomic Kitten and Cascada, among many others). So it all seemed too predictable. InTENsity's performance only really kicked in when it morphed into LMFAO's undeniably irresistible "Party Rock Anthem." Of course, this was a sanitized version--no "going through these ho's like Drano" line--but there was a little bit of PG-13 rebellion to the performance that I enjoyed, as did Simon. (Let's see if InTENsity cover "Shots" or "Sexy And I Know It" next week.) "Fun, fun, fun!" shouted L.A. "That was fun-tastic! Fun-omenal!" agreed an equally effusive Nicole. Party rock was in the house, indeed. It was a little corny and cartoonish, and not really my thing, but hey, I can't begrudge a gaggle of crazy kids for having a good time on national TV.
Drew Ryniewicz - Okay, I refuse to call this girl "Drew." She has an unusual last name, and she should own it, just as she so confidently owns everything else about herself. Drew may be young, but she is a real artist, and she took charge of her performance this week, having as much input as Simon did regarding the staging and arrangement. ("I'm not her mentor; she is my mentor now. I'm learning from her," Simon announced.) The result was THE best performance of the night. Lying on a petal-strewn floor for the intro, Drew rose to her feet and blossomed as she warbled a radical techno-folk remake of Nelly's "Just A Dream," and it was dreamy indeed. It was original, it was COOL, and it was the perfect demonstration of how "The X Factor" can push the envelope and differentiate itself from "American Idol." Said L.A., "You are really something. You have the spirit of a superstar. You have everything right." Said Nicole, "You're so relevant. You could sing your folky stuff, or you could be a guest on Eminem's track." (This is true; Eminem, please call this girl.) "I'm seeing a star emerge in front of me right now," said Simon. I think I may be seeing a champion emerge, as well. Winning this show may not be just a dream for this special girl.
Marcus Canty - I love Marcus, and I think he did well with what he had to work with here, but once again I had to question L.A.'s song selection. L.A., who worked with Bobby Brown in Bobby's long-gone glory days, clearly sees Marcus as some sort of Bobby 2.0, so this week he gave him the Brown classic "Every Little Step" (mashed up with some B.o.B.). I'm not sure it totally worked. The performance required a LOT of dancing, so midway through the number Marcus got pretty winded; maybe that's why L.A added so many backup singers to the mix, to drown Marcus out and detract attention from this. In the end, Marcus proved he had enough of his own talent to avoid seeming like a full-on Bobby Brown parody, but honestly, I preferred him singing a Culture Club tune last week; at least in that case, he was able to put his own spin on the song. "I think L.A. is desperate to turn Marcus into Bobby Brown. Why do we need another Bobby Brown?" said Simon. (Simon had a good point; considering Bobby's career downslide over the past couple of decades, maybe he's not best artist for Marcus to emulate.) But eventually, Simon came around, praising Marcus with: "You have come alive. This is what we love about you." Paula called Marcus "a total performer, the total package." Nicole borrowed a line from "Idol's" Randy Jackson and said, "I didn't feel like I was watching a competition; I felt like I was watching a concert!" But did she feel like she was watching a BOBBY BROWN concert, or a MARCUS CANTY concert? That is the important question here.
Stacy Francis - Stacy had a tough time this past week. She was dubbed a "church singer" and "too old for pop" by Simon, became Perez Hilton's number-one target in a series of bullying blogs, and had her credibility questioned as her past professional experience came to light. So this was a make-or-break moment for Stacy (singing in the coveted "pimp spot," yet). The pressure was on, but Stacy, who's been known to sob onstage before, didn't crumble this time. Instead, her many years of steady gigging paid off, as she drew on all that experience to put on her best "X Factor" performance so far. This week, Nicole took Simon's advice and had Stacy sing a "church song" of sorts, Patty Griffin's "Up To The Mountain" (a toughie, since frontrunner Josh Krajcik already memorably sang it this season), and you know what? Maybe Simon was right. This performance worked. ("I don't want to take any credit, but I am going to," smirked Simon. "This is what you should have been doing all along.") Stacy sounded strong, very much in her element, and the triumphant, rising-of-the-spirit gospel vibe of the Griffin song was perfect, considering everything she'd been through this week. Stacy seemed to funnel a great deal of pent-up emotion into her performance, in a way that wasn't annoying or forced (no tears this time), and yes, she proved she's a pro--but in the best possible way. "You are so poised. I am so proud of you. You stirred our souls," said L.A. "This was the shining moment tonight," said Paula. Simon, who bickered onstage with Stacy last week, even gave her a hug. Will America embrace her now, and forget about this week's backlash? We shall see.
So now, it is prediction time. My favorites of the night were Drew, Josh, and Astro, and I have a very good feeling that America will agree with me on all three counts. The kiddy and pop acts--InTENsity, Rachel, Stereo Hogzz--are likely to court the youth vote, and Stacy, despite being polarizing, gave a performance that not even her staunchest haters could deny was on point. As for Melanie, she's way too much of a fan favorite to worry about becoming this show's "Pia" just yet. So that leaves me with Chris Rene, LeRoy Bell, and Lakoda Rayne, who I think will comprise the bottom three.
If I were to predict which of those three will go home Thursday night, based on vocals alone, I'd say Chris. However, the momentum created by his earlier performances, and his potential to record relevant original R&B songs that people would actually buy in real life, will probably save him for at least a couple more weeks. Lakoda Rayne are the only act in the top 12 representing country music, even if they're doing so in the vaguest "tweener" way possible, so I have a feeling they'll scrape by too. And that means, by painful process of elimination...LeRoy will probably be the one who gets cut.
That would be a shame, since LeRoy is a major talent and a superb role model for people still trying to pursue their dreams in their later years. But really, no matter who gets axed, week after week, it's going to be a shocker of Pia-esque proportions. If any of Simon's girls or L.A.'s boys go, people will cry foul. If Stacy gets cut, fans will blame Perez for railroading her off the show. If the groups go, Paula's sometimes baffling song and costume choices will be blamed. And if Josh goes, I'll boycott this darn show myself.
So every week of "The X Factor" is going to be rough. I hope you're all ready to face the music.