Tuesday night, on a Very Special Episode of "The X Factor," the show that was supposed to be antidote to the warmness and fuzziness of the post-Cowell "American Idol" suddenly got all weepy on us, pulling out all the manipulatively emotional stops for Thanksgiving week. There were no less than three gospel choirs, several sobbing moms, a few Nicole Scherzinger crying jags, a couple of Paula Abdul meltdowns, lots of cute baby photos, a surprising number of Steven Tyler-esque softball critiques, an impassioned and heavily accented speech from a contestant who'd previously seemed about as milquetoast as it gets, and even a moment involving a grand opening of the heavenly gates. Gee, I didn't think Simon went for this sort of sap...
Anyway, really one of best performances was by the top nine's least warm 'n' fuzzy contestant, the ever-controversial Astro, who instead of dedicating a five-hanky ballad to a beloved relative or to God, rapped a swaggy Jay-Z song for his fans, the "Astronauts." It was easily the most exciting number of the evening, but I am still afraid he'll go home Wednesday (a double-elimination night, on which the lowest vote-getter automatically gets cut without even getting a chance to sing for the judges), since he didn't quite demonstrate the humbleness and contrition viewers were likely demanding from him after his onstage tantrum last week. In an evening when Marcus Canty serenaded his teary-eyed mother, Rachel Crow thanked her adoptive parents for rescuing her from a crackhouse, LeRoy Bell sang a song associated in many people's minds with heartbreaking Humane Society commercials, and Josh Krajcik proved that he's the world's coolest dad, Astro's shtick, as awesome as it was, probably didn't melt viewers' hearts or trigger their dialing fingers.
Below is my recap of how everyone, including Astro, fared during Thanksgiving week. Which two will be heading home for the holidays after the votes are tallied?
Rachel Crow - The former crack baby and happy adoptee dedicated a choir-enhanced, confetti-showered cover of Yolanda Adams' "I Believe" to her adoptive parents, while dressed in some sort of fancy, festive, Pilgrim-ish costume that I could easily imagine her wearing to Thanksgiving dinner. It was not her best performance--some of the sassiness sadly seemed sucked out of her, and I longed for the old soul of "I'd Rather Go Blind" or even the peppiness of "Walking On Sunshine." The judges loved this, however. "You did it again! I wanted to be critical, but you shut me down," said L.A. Reid. "You've made a believer out of me and everyone in America. You are such an inspiration!" raved Nicole. "If anyone ever questions if there are angels that exist here on Earth, it is you," said Paula. There of course was nothing wrong with Rachel's performance, and I am sure she'll be safe this week. This just wasn't quite a wow moment for me.
Marcus Canty - This self-declared mama's boy naturally dedicated his performance to his mama, and the song was, well, Boyz II Men's "Mama." I loved the sentiment; Marcus's mother is the one who lit the fire under him to get his music career going by age 20, after all, so she's the reason he's on this show in the first place. And seeing her fanning her tears as Marcus sang to her was touching indeed. But unfortunately, this was Marcus's weakest performance yet. The ballad didn't allow the guy, who is usually one of the show's most dynamic performers, to flaunt his showmanship, and his voice was not nearly up to par as well. Maybe emotion just got the better of him, since he usually sings so fabulously, but he notably hit some very bad notes towards the end of the song. However, maybe I shouldn't say "notably," because NONE of the judges, oddly, noted this gaffe. "That was so beautiful and so precious," gushed Nicole. Paula praised Marcus's "passion and connection" and told him, "You did it again!" Simon said this was the first time he'd seen Marcus so connected to a song. Actually, come to think of it, it looked like Simon was about to say something negative--before Marcus's mentor L.A. pulled a Steve Jones and cut Simon off. I really wonder what Simon might have said, because I was confused by all this unanimous praise. Did the judges just not want to bash Marcus in front of his sweet mother? They did him no favors in the long-term by not giving him an honest critique.
Melanie Amaro - This was one of the most startling performances of the night, but NOT because of the song itself. The song was fine. Melanie did a gospel-ish R. Kelly ballad, "The World's Greatest," dedicated it to God, sang with a choir twice the size that "Idol's" Lee DeWyze got for "Hallelujah," etc. It was a little dull, but her vocals were as solid as ever. No, Melanie's time onstage really got exciting AFTER the song was over, when she suddenly shapeshifted into an entirely different person. Overcome with emotion because her family was in the audience, Melanie suddenly lapsed into a Virgin Islands accent that she'd previously suppressed, and tearfully shouted, "This is me! This is Melanie!" The effect was actually really jarring, and it probably made a minority of viewers feel a little distrustful--like, why had she been hiding her accent, and her fiery personality, all this time, and what else is she hiding? But it was ultimately a smart move to let America finally see the real her. I was beginning to think Melanie was just another boring all-American girl with a good voice, and that she was starting to flatline...but after she let loose this week, she became about 1,000 times more interesting to me. Nicole burst into tears and hopped onstage to hug Melanie after this emotional display. Paula raved, "I have waited week after week for the vulnerability to come out--and it came out! Always show that from now on." I wish Melanie had been herself from day one, but hey, better late than never. I just hope she can infuse a little more of her personality into her actual performances now.
Chris Rene - Chris made a huge impression early on in the season with his original song "Young Homie," which I fully believe would be a massive hit if played on the radio today. But since then, he has struggled on the show, never quite getting a song that showcases his true talents. This, of course, is because his true talents are writing and producing, not warbling Carpenters songs, or really anyone else's songs. Anyway, this week L.A. finally just let Chris sing "Young Homie" again. True, it was mashed up with the Beatles' "Let It Be," which didn't quite work as well, but at least Chris got to do what he does best and remind us all why he got to the top nine in the first place. That, combined with his song dedication to his rehab counselor Tim and redemption story (the recovering addict was in a car accident while driving intoxicated, which spurred him to seek help), will probably ensure his safety this week. "Look how powerful the music is that you write! You're such an example. We're so glad we have you," said Nicole. "It's so great to get you back to where we fell in love with you," said Paula, a sentiment Simon echoed (although he agreed with my sentiment that "Let It Be" was flawed). Simon also told Chris that he is inspiring million of addicts to get help. Um, I am not so sure druggies are actually watching "The X Factor," but I hope Simon was right. Chris's story is undeniably inspirational.
Lakoda Rayne - After their identity crisis earlier in the season, as they flip-flopped between pop and country, manufactured girl group Lakoda Rayne have been wise to play the country card in this competition, and represent the extremely popular genre when no other contestant is doing so. But this performance, while it certainly defined Lakoda Rayne genre-wise, left me a little cold. I don't think they really did anything new or interesting with Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me," and considering how many genuinely inspirational, intensely emotional country songs there are in the Nashville songbook, a ditty about a schoolgirl crush seemed like an odd choice to me. (Especially since three of the Lakodas dedicated the song to their dads.) "This week you managed to drum up some excitement," said the obviously easily excited L.A. "I felt like I was watching Lakoda Rayne in concert," said Nicole, who clearly borrows critique crib notes from "Idol's" Randy Jackson. Simon declared this their best performance yet, and Paula was joyfully sobbing. But Paula may be sobbing not-so-joyfully on Wednesday, as I don't know if this was enough to keep her one last group from avoiding this week's double elimination.
LeRoy Bell - This here was a real pass-the-Kleenex-box moment. Not only did LeRoy dedicate his performance to his late mother, but his song, Sarah McLachlan's "Angel," instantly brought to mind visions of the poor neglected puppies and kitties in Sarah's anti-animal-abuse PSAs. And there was a choir, of course. Usually I am not into choirs on these shows--I feel they're the musical equivalent of having an onion shoved under my nose, a blatant attempt to trigger my tearducts--but since LeRoy's performances are often a little too quiet and subtle, I think the choir really added some extra oomph to his evangelical number. L.A. was underwhelmed, but Paula intervened with, "I could not disagree more. I finally feel that there was passion and connection!" Said Simon, "Normally I agree with L.A. Not tonight!" I think L.A., and many other people, are underestimating LeRoy. The guy has actually never been in the bottom two, and I don't think he will be this week, either.
Astro - Attempting to come back after alienating much of America last week, Astro challenged his fans, I assume to vote, with Jay-Z's "Show Me What You Got," announcing at the start of the song, "Fifteen is the new 25!" (My apologies for previously saying Astro was only 14 years old. He is in fact 15. But considering his immature behavior last week, such a miscalculation is understandable.) After six ballads in a row, Astro's performance was exactly the shot of adrenaline the show needed, and he seemed more likable during this performance than he did before, occasionally flashing what he once facetiously called on Twitter a "Disney smile." But was he likable enough for America to forgive and forget--and vote? "Last week I had a moment. I'll never let you down again," Astro told the judges and fans after his song...but really, a line like that, or like "I could have handled myself better," was not quite the emphatic apology he needed to give in order to truly win back America's favor. The judges seemed more than ready to forgive, however. "I'm very proud of you. Always remain grateful, because that's what's going take you all the way," said Nicole. Paula declared herself a card-carrying Astronaut. Simon, while questioning the not-exactly-thankful song choice, stated, "I admire you. We all have tantrums. The music business needs unpredictability. I like people who are passionate." I totally agreed with Simon--the entertainment world is filled with outsized personalities with outsized egos who make great music with their outsized talent--but I am not so sure voters will feel the same.
Drew Ryniewicz - Drew dedicated her cover of Demi Lovato's "Skyscraper" to her longtime BFF Shelby, and it some ways it was the night's most touching dedication. As she went on and on about how much her best friend means to her--how Shelby had taught her to be herself and not care what others think (good skills to have in the cutthroat world of reality singing competitions), how they'd gone through "loser status" together, etc.--it was really sweet. "Every girl deserves a Shelby," Drew gushed, while Shelby stood in the audience giddily clasping her hands. Aw. In the beginning, I loved Drew's ethereal version of the Demi song (is there any Drew version of any song that isn't ethereal, really?), but then I winced when she hit her first bad note of the season. The judges didn't seem to notice that, or maybe they avoided mentioning it so as to not bum Shelby out, but L.A. was still unnecessarily harsh on Drew. "You're doing songs for people who are 40," he griped, somehow ignoring the fact that Demi Lovato is only 19 years old. (Kudos to Paula for pointing this out to L.A later and putting him in his place.) Simon let it rip at that point, barking to L.A., "I am sick to death of your pointless, stupid criticism. This is unfounded, and it is inaccurate." The two proceeded to bitterly bicker like warring relatives around the holiday table, until host Steve Jones delivered his only awesome interruption of the season. "Guys. Thanksgiving," Steve intoned, trying to get them in the holiday spirit. I'm not sure if Englishman Steve even knows what Thanksgiving is, but this was a rare moment of personality from the often wooden emcee--and it added a bit of much-needed levity, when Drew was standing there looking pained and awkward and probably just wishing she and Shelby could run off to the serenity of her pastel-colored dressing room and braid each other's hair and listen to Bieber records.
Josh Krajcik - Can we just give Josh the $5 million contract already? This guy is so good, when I am eating my Tofurkey burrito this week at the Thanksgiving table and saying grace, I'll be giving thanks that this burrito cook-turned-rock star auditioned for this show. Josh never disappoints, and his cover of the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses," dedicated to his teenage daughter, was another tour de force. It was also nice to see him playing piano, since no contestant had played musical instruments on "The X Factor" since the Brewer Boys, of all people, strummed guitars on the top 17 show. This was more magic from Mr. Krajcik, pure and simple. "You have everything it takes to win this competition," said L.A. "You are brilliant," concurred Paula. "That's what it's all about: great song, great voice, and you mean every word you sing," said Simon. Like I said, just give the guy the contract. I think he's already won this thing.
So, now it is prediction time. There will be a bottom three this week, with, as I mentioned many paragraphs ago, the overall lowest vote-getter of the three going home automatically. I think Lakoda Rayne, Astro, and Marcus Canty will comprise the three, though I suspect there will be a shocker of sorts when Astro is NOT the one with fewest votes, with Lakoda Rayne going home instead. However, if the judges have to choose who to save between Marcus and Astro, I am not sure that they'll give Astro a second chance. So only if the Astronauts really rally, and show Astro what they've got, will he have any shot at redemption in the top seven.