This week's top 10 show on "The X Factor" was originally supposed to be Lady Gaga/Madonna Night. But at the last minute, Simon Cowell changed it to Rock Night. As it turned out, the switch made little difference. Rock Night just didn't really, well, rock. Of course, with a top 10 cast of mostly R&B, pop, and country singers, it was understandable that few of the contestants were willing, or able, to tap into their (possibly entirely non-existent) inner rock stars. But some of them didn't even get assigned actual rock songs that would have allowed them to do so, anyway.
Stacy receives a non-rockin' critique
But you know who did rock? The judges. They were all on FIRE this evening--particularly Simon Cowell, who earlier this season had been accused of going soft but was definitely back to his mean old tricks this week. No one was spared his wrath: He told at-times-annoying host Steve Jones to "shut it for a second," compared LeRoy Bell to a dolphin, dusted off one of his classic "hotel lounge singer" critiques for his nemesis Stacy Francis, and bickered bitterly with all of the judges, particularly his fellow alpha-male L.A. Reid (who dished it right back, of course).
As Steve Jones reviewed a scoreboard of the judges' popularity rankings, he saw Simon in the lead with 53 percent of the vote, and he noted, "It seems the meaner you are, the more popular are." This was far and away the smartest thing Steve had ever said on this show. After a year of watching Simon's "American Idol" replacements act as enablingly nice as doting parents at an elementary school recital--telling everyone how "beautiful" and "in it to win it" they were--viewers were clearly pleased and relieved to see some honest, even ruthless criticism return to reality TV this week. (Incidentally, Simon officially joined Twitter minutes before Wednesday's East Coast broadcast and had acquired more than 54,000 followers by the show's end.)
And on an episode when hardly any of the rock performances had any real bite, at least Simon and L.A. still showed some teeth. That's practically the only thing that saved Rock Night from completely hitting rock bottom. Read on to learn how the top 10 rocked, soft-rocked, or just plain non-rocked this Wednesday...
LeRoy Bell - Although I have always liked and definitely respected LeRoy, I still expected him to be in the bottom two the last couple weeks, and I was shocked when he wasn't. This week, if he is safe again, I'll really be surprised. First of all, he sang in the disadvantaged first spot. Then his mentor Nicole Scherzinger, who clearly is not qualified to guide ANYONE'S musical career (please note her album Killer Love got delayed for, like, the 17th time this week), gave him Bob Seger's snoozy "We Got Tonight" to sing, a move almost as sabotaging as making Dexter Haygood cover Katy and Britney. "LeRoy is boring. B-O-R-I-N-G," L.A. nastily spelled out at the start of the show--and I'm sad to say that as much as I wanted LeRoy to prove L.A. wrong, with a song like "We Got Tonight," he really wasn't able to. His performance picked up a little bit towards the end, when LeRoy suddenly had an epiphany and realized he was actually allowed to leave his mic stand and make full use of the stage, but this was hardly the kind of tour de force that'd get voters to pick up their phones. It. Did. Not. Rock. "We're no longer simply trying to get through to next round, we're looking for stardom. You look great, you sound great, but you're still not working it like a rock star," L.A. grumbled. "There is no mistaking, darling, that you have a great voice, but this is live television and there needs to be more of a connection," sighed Paula Abdul. Simon, of course, was the harshest. "Nice song, good voice, but in terms of originality and what you've done with the song: zero," Simon began, holding nothing back. "You're being mentored like a session singer. We have heard the same kind of songs now for four weeks in a row. You should have been like a shark tonight, but you were like a dolphin. Right now, you can't win this competition." LeRoy, mature man that he is, took his critique in stride, but I bet he was beginning to realize just how appropriate those Seger lyrics were. He's got tonight, who needs tomorrow, indeed--because tomorrow he may likely be going home. He knows America's plans don't include him.
Rachel Crow - The Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" is undoubtedly one of THE greatest classic rock songs ever, but I am not so sure it was the best choice for a THIRTEEN-YEAR-OLD GIRL. True, Rachel's version omitted the original's lines about cigarettes and makeout sessions, thankfully, but she still kept eye-sexing the camera and vamping it up, and it was bordering on some "Toddlers & Tiaras"-style creepiness at times. I don't really know what Simon was thinking, since part of Rachel's appeal is that she's a sweet kid who doesn't try to look or act older than she is. Born performer Rachel belted this out with her usual gusto and enough swag to almost make Astro look shy, so she saved the song, but this was not on par with her amazing performance from last week. Still, the judges went easy on her. "The question is, can you sell records, and can you sell tickets? The answer is yes," L.A. asserted. Nicole bizarrely said this was her favorite Rachel performance so far, proving just how misguided and unqualified she is on this show. Simon called Rachel a "winner." I do still think Rachel has a VERY good chance of winning this season, but this was not her best moment. Nicole is obviously insane.
Chris Rene - I really don't know what the heck happened to Chris. I loved him at Boot Camp and at the Judges' Houses, but every single one of his performances on the live shows has left me disappointed, confused, and wondering if "Little Homie" was just a fluke. This evening he came out looking like Vanilla Ice (the dude needs to put his hat back on, seriously), doing a Bob Marley song, "No Woman No Cry," that really wasn't very rock. Yes, Marley himself rocked--his songs are still always in high rotation on classic rock radio--but Chris's version was a real stretch. Simon looked utterly confounded throughout this performance, and spent most of his critique blasting L.A. for the song choice (even though there was much to criticize about Chris's uneven performance too). "I loved the performance, and it would've been great if the theme this week had been reggae music," Simon snarked. Said Nicole, through gritted veneers, "That was very, um, original, and I rocked with it...but it's not my favorite performance by you. I was a little confused." (Then again, Nicole is always confused.) "It doesn't matter if you are the best vocalist or not," Paula said a little too diplomatically, "because I buy into you. You're original." Oh, original, o-smiginal. This was not good.
Stacy Francis - After Stacy's odd performance last week (of Whitney Houston's "Queen Of The Night," in a lady-of-the-evening micro-mini), I was hoping she'd get back on track this week. The rock songbook is full of '80s pop-metal power ballads that I think this diva could have done well (she has the big voice to hit those Skid Row mega-notes), but Stacy's "rock" song choice, Meat Loaf's "It's All Coming Back To Me," was not really "rock" at all, since she pretty much sang the Celine Dion version. Once again, Nicole failed here--yes, it was Stacy's decision to do this song, but Nicole should have intervened, should have realized that letting a singer with a (self-admitted) tendency to oversing do such a histrionic, blowhardy ballad would only result in disaster. And oh, what a disaster it was. Stacy was shrieking her way through most of it, trying way too hard, and she was no Celine. I know Stacy is capable of so much better--think "Natural Woman," think "Purple Rain," think "Up To The Mountain"--but sadly, this was her at her worst. And. She. Did. Not. Rock. She actually rocked a lot more convincingly when doing "Queen Of The Night," come to think of it. The usually blunt and brutal L.A. must have momentarily thought it was Opposite Day when he told Stacy, "You really sang that song really well," but at least Paula and Simon were more truthful. "This was my least favorite song you ever performed. Your pitch was under. I just didn't feel it," said Paula flatly. Said Simon, "Let me start with the good news: You hair looks better this week. The bad news is, as soon as I saw the feathered microphone, I knew what was coming. It was like something at the Hilton hotel, with people turning their backs, eating peanuts. I wanted rock; that was a pebble." Nicole then proved once again she has no idea what she's doing by calling Stacy a "glam-rock diva." Does Nicole even know what glam-rock is? It takes more than tying a feather boa to a mic stand to be glam-rock, you know.
Melanie Amaro - First, let me say that Melanie is one of the finest singers in this competition, and there was nothing vocally wrong about her stripped-down performance of R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts." She sang it beautifully. But did she rock? No. Not at all. "Melanie and edgy? Fuhgeddaboutit. How do you say 'Melanie' and 'edgy' in the same sentence?" chuckled L.A. He had a point. Even Melanie herself freely admitted that rock is not her thing. And of course I certainly did not expect Simon to make her, say, belt out a James Durbin-style Judas Priest song while wearing pleather pants and standing in a circle of pyro flames. But by having her sing a quiet, depressing VH1 ballad accompanied by only a single piano, Simon didn't even give her a chance to step one centimeter out of her comfort zone. Paula told Melanie, "You took us to church!"--which was supposed to be a compliment, but that only hammered home the point that this was a not a rock performance. "That was rock, right? Ha. Melanie, that was SO not rock," said L.A., side-eyeing Simon, who'd criticized his Marley song choice earlier. Simon then likened Melanie to Adele and Alicia Keys, to which L.A. countered, "Wait--Adele and Alicia? That's rock?" Simon sassed back, "Why don't you call up R.E.M. and tell them they're not a rock band." Oh, I could have watched these two argue all day, if that impatient Steve Jones just would have let them. Their bickering and bantering was far more entertaining than many of the actual performances on this episode.
Josh Krajcik - Josh is really the only rock singer in the top 10, so expectations were already set really high for him. Luckily, he did not disappoint when performing the Foo Fighters' "The Pretender," coming across as thoroughly authentic, Vedder-esque, and just a little badass. This was no pretender here--Josh was the real deal. I wish he'd made the song a little more his own--his cover was pretty faithful to Dave Grohl and company's original--but at least he was totally believable in his rock 'n' roll role. "You have the authenticity, you have the stage presence, you picked the right song, and you're the only person who's really rocked the house tonight," said L.A. "Everything tonight has worked unbelievably well for you," agreed Paula, who declared this her favorite performance of the night so far. Simon called Josh "bloody fantastic." Josh's mentor Nicole then tried to boost her rock cred by mentioning she was once in Days Of The New. Er, I'm not sure that really helped her cause.
Astro - I loved Astro tonight. I love him every night. The kid is a natural performer who knows how to work a crowd, work for votes (his glowing praise of his mom and his happy-birthday shoutout to his sister no doubt won over many female viewers), and make songs his own (literally--he raps his own original verses in every performance). But it kind of bugs me how L.A. blasts Drew, Melanie, and other contestants for not mixing it up, but then lets Astro just rap every week, basically allowing Astro to do his thing with little or no variation. I mean, this week Astro did the Police's "Every Breath You Take," but of course it was really Diddy's "I'll Be Missing You," so this wasn't a challenge for Astro at all. Astro is totally the Scotty McCreery of this show. (Remember how on "Idol," contestants like Pia, Haley, and Jacob were constantly ordered to try different styles, but Scotty was encouraged to stay in his lane? It's like that.) But really, I can't hate on Astro. This was another solid performance from the little superstar, who L.A. boldly claimed is the most popular contestant on the show. Nicole and Paula told Astro he is ready for the big time, and Simon told him, "You've got more maturity and intelligence than some of the older contestants on this show. You know who you are and you don't compromise. I think you have a shot winning this, young man." I think he does too...but I wonder if the other contestants resent the fact that he hasn't been tested or pushed like they have.
Lakoda Rayne - Paula's one last hope, the one remaining singing group in the competition, was in the bottom two last week, and I pretty much assumed they'd be in the bottom two this week--since, you know, they don't exactly rock. But their medley of the Outfield's perennial favorite "Your Love" and Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way" translated surprisingly well to the Rayne's girly country-pop sound. Sure, that one girl (I think it was Paige? the blonde Lakodas all look alike to me) looked dumb in her giant toothache-cure head-bow, but other than that, this performance wasn't so awful. "What I'm happy about is this is the first time I've ever seen you have fun," said L.A. "Now, does it measure up to your competitors? Do you have what it takes to become global superstars? Was it amazing, was it great? I'm just not sure." Nicole was impressed, declaring, "I think you found your label: country-rock! I'd been missing some of the edge and the rawness." (Um, come on now, Nicole. This was a fun and energetic performance, but edgy? Raw? No. And by the way, it wasn't glam-rock, either, in case you were about to say that.) Simon was the lone dissenter here, of course, griping: "I thought overall it was complete mess." L.A. then told Simon, "You're being mean! It wasn't that bad!" Oh man, now that Simon is on Twitter, I can't wait to see L.A. and Simon engage in their first Twitter feud. #thatwillbeawesome
Drew Ryniewicz - I know there are some people who will argue that Drew's magically ethereal cover of U2's "With Or Without You" didn't rock per se. And I understand their point, as it's similar to the points I made about Melanie, or Chris, or LeRoy. But it was when Drew took the stage that I finally accepted the fact that this episode was not about the contestants rocking out, but about them putting their own spin on rock songs. In that context, Drew was great. She's always great. She's basically incapable of not being great. "I'm trying to keep my base on the genre that I want to be," she explained, and this made sense. I understood L.A.'s critique about him wanting Drew to mix it up more--but hey, if L.A. can let Astro freestyle over rap classics week after week, then Drew should be allowed to do her Sarah McLachlan-esque thing every week as well, right? As for Nicole's comment--"I was waiting for the tempo to pick up, waiting for more; rock has electric guitar and more energy"--this was coming from a woman who'd just called Stacy "glam-rock" and Lakoda Rayne edgy and raw, so I paid her no mind.
Marcus Canty - I assumed Usher-esque R&B heartthrob Marcus would have one of the toughest times trying to go rock. But I was wrong. To his credit, he was one of the few contestants this evening who really tried to embrace the genre--covering Janis Joplin's "Piece Of My Heart," wearing a studded jacket and Axl shades, crawling between the well-oiled legs of a gaggle of '80s-metal-video hoochie dancers--and he somehow never embarrassed himself. There was sort of a mid-period Lenny Kravitz vibe to his performance that felt believable to me, even if Simon disagreed and said, "I don't think the song suited you; this was like you pretending to be somebody else." But Nicole told Marcus he "lit that stage on fire" and Paula called him "the entertainer of the show," and they were right: This may not have been Marcus's forte, but he still rocked it.
So now, it is prediction time. While I think Lakoda Rayne may still be in trouble--based solely on the fact that ONLY groups have made it into the bottom two so far this season, and Lakoda Rayne were in the bottom two last week--I think they may be okay this week. Abdul fans may vote for Paula's one last group out of sympathy and to make sure Paula isn't soon out of a job, and country fans may rally as well. So, the solo singers that I think need to worry are LeRoy, Stacy, and maybe Chris, who I think is finally running out of the goodwill he amassed with "Little Homie," which now seems so very, very long ago.
But in the end, I think it's LeRoy who's going to go home. Tune in Thursday, when it's time once again to face the music, to find out if I'm right.