Reality Rocks - Archive

‘X Factor’ Judges’ House Recap, Pt. 2: Simon’s Taking Back Sunday

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks

"The X Factor" took over the airwaves in a special Sunday-night slot this week, and while it remains to be seen how the show's many recent scheduling switchups due to Fox's baseball broadcasts will affect the show's ratings and Simon Cowell's lofty dreams of executive-producing the biggest hit show on TV, I do think he's got some potential hit singers on his hands, regardless. Some of the series' biggest early frontrunners--Marcus Canty, Melanie Amaro, Chris Rene, Jazzlyn Little, Tiah Tolliver, Josh Krajcik--put on their poolside performances this Sunday at the Judges' Houses, and I think quite a few of them are sure to advance to the top 16.

It's just a crying-like-Stacy-Francis shame that four of those top 16 slots must be filled by lackluster contestants from Paula Abdul's category, the groups...but I'll save that rant for the end of this article. Until then, here's how Sunday night's singers fared:

GIRLS - mentored by Simon Cowell, in France

Jazzlyn Little - The lovely scenery of Simon's French villa seemed to do nothing to soothe Jazzlyn's skittish demeanor, sadly. At her first audition, she'd practically had a nervous breakdown backstage, and in France, far away from the comfort of her family, she seemed on the verge of crumbling again. "I can already feel my throat closing; my heart's going boom boom boom boom boom," she hyperventilated right before her patio performance for Simon. (In fact, her fellow contestants were even consoling her with hugs and breathing exercises.) Thankfully, Jazzlyn once again pulled it together when it mattered most, but I was incredibly underwhelmed, and unconvinced that she would actually survive, by her rendition of "I Will Survive." Her voice was powerful and on point, but the weird, decelerated arrangement sucked ALL of the triumph and defiance out of Gloria Gaynor's empowerment anthem, transforming it into something sad-sacky and unsure. Still, Simon saw, or heard, something in Jazzlyn, saying, "Maybe she's put herself back in the frame." But in my opinion, this was not the performance of an "X Factor" survivor. Will she survive? We shall see.

Rachel Crow - This 13-year-old's somber, moody version of the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way" was an odd choice. I mean, she is the youngest contestant in the competition, and so plucky and cutesy and bubbly offstage. I see her going in more of a Disney-tween route. So when she gets all serious and stern and steel-eyed, I find it off-putting and confusing. Yes, Drew Ryniewicz, who is only one year older than Rachel, pulls off the not-a-girl/not-yet-a-woman shtick with ease, but when Rachel does it, I'm left a little cold. That being said, I do think she's a talented vocal powerhouse--I just think she may not be ready, that maybe she should wait a few years. ("It's bad luck that she's in this category with people who could probably deal with the pressure more," Simon lamented.) But Simon was wowed by Rachel's performance in the end. "That was unbelievable," he raved. "I like the fact that she takes risks, and I love her deep tone." Still, it's hard for me to imagine Simon giving her a spot in his final four, when he has so many other great singers to work with.

Tiah Tolliver - Tiah was understandably relieved last week when she found out that Simon--the only judge who had her back at the first audition, who fought for her when Paula and Nicole said no--was going to be her mentor. But it was still obvious that that experience had really shaken her and dented the confidence she first exhibited. She was shown crying before she performed for Simon this Sunday, her nerves as frayed as Jazzlyn's on a bad day. Her old swagger came back, however, when she sang Blackstreet's New Jack classic "No Diggity." I could have done without all those canned backing vocals (there's way too production on all of these performances), but Tiah's brassy, bold persona still came through. "There's just something about her. I just always felt she belonged on this show," said Simon, who was clearly charmed by her. Still, he did call her performance "slightly out-of-kilter," and he knows Tiah has a lot of opposition it's still unclear if he will make her one of his final four and continue to put his reputation on the line for her.

Melanie Amaro - Doing a big ballad like "Will You Be There" by the late, great Michael Jackson would be a tough task for most singers. But Melanie Amaro is not like most singers. And this was just the statement song she needed to stay in the game. "She gave me a look like, 'You've just wrote me off, now try to write me off!" Simon exclaimed, collapsing on his chaise lounge. There's no doubt Melanie has one of the strongest voices on this show, but as Simon's vocal-coach assistants told him, she needs to modernize her sound a bit, in order to fit in with today's climate of Rihannas and Katys and Ke$has and Gagas. But maybe the public is ready for another Mariah, Whitney, or Celine--and if so, Melanie could certainly fit that bill nicely.

BOYS - mentored by L.A. Reid with Rihanna, in the Hamptons

Brennin Hunt - This Nashville veteran's pre-performance interview began with him fretting that, at age 26, he is getting too old for the music biz. How depressing for him to think that, especially considering the fact this show's "over-30's" category is perhaps the strongest of the four. I guess that's the cold, hard truth of this youth-obsessed business. But anyway, it was clear that Brennin is just a little desperate and wants this bad: "It's gonna eat me alive if I don't make it through this round," he admitted. However, I am not sure if his cover of Corinne Bailey Rae's "Like A Star" was enough. While I appreciated hearing a man put his own spin on such a feminine ballad (though when the show later played Corinne's far superior original version in the background, it did Brennin no favors), and there was nothing technically wrong with his voice, his performance just seemed a little dated (and not in a cool retro-throwback way), not at all relevant to music today. Rihanna was incredibly astute when she told L.A., "I think he is beautiful and his tone is correct at times, especially when he gets raspy, but he is a little bit corny. He gives me ''90s boy band.'" Rihanna was so right. Maybe Brennin and some of this season's top 32 rejects can form a group and come back next year.

Tim Cifers - A country singer who at age 30 is L.A.'s oldest contestant, Tim has not gotten much screentime yet. But I think he could go very, very far. He is country through and through, and if the last season of "American Idol" and Scotty McCreery's recent record sales proved anything, it's that America's viewers and voters love their country music. Sitting on a stool in a regular-guy plaid shirt, Tim unassumingly crooned a convincingly countrified cover of Luther Vandross's "Dance With My Father," and I have to say, it was lovely. The family man really seemed to connect with the poignant lyrics, and he sang it from the heart. Rihanna looked truly moved. "He's a real country singer," she said. L.A. griped that he'd wanted more from Tim, but I have a feeling this isn't the last we've seen of this guy.

Marcus Canty - I still don't get this ultimatum Marcus's mom gave him, about how had he only had until he was 20 years old (which is, um, now) to make it in music. I mean, he's an adult. If he wants to do it on his own, and work at it till he's LeRoy Bell's age before he gets a break, isn't that his decision, for him to make? Anyway, this self-declared mama's boy began his audition with a bit of attempted flirting with hot mama Rihanna, but she was so not having it. "Don't be flirting with me!" she chided playfully. Undeterred, Marcus serenaded her with "All My Life" by K-C & JoJo. At first I was disappointed that Marcus didn't do his swagger-dance Bobby Brown thang (this performance was very tame compared to his first audition), but by the end of the song when he was belting it out, I was won over. And so was Rihanna, clearly. "Thank you sooooo much," she purred when he was done. "I'm freaking out! I cannot contain myself!" she gushed to L.A. once Marcus was out of earshot. "His confidence! He looked dead in my eyes. I couldn't even look at him anymore. I felt like a fan." Hmmmm. Rihanna's already a fan? Maybe this kid will be a star by age 20, after all.

Chris Rene - I was rooting for this recovering-addict trashman and hoping his amazing audition of the original song "Little Homie" wasn't just a fluke. Well, it was no fluke, people. This was proof. Sing-rapping a funky new-school version of Sly & The Family Stone's "Everyday People," Chris once again had L.A. doing that funny wobbly-head tic of his (someone really needs to make an animated GIF of that), and Chris performed like a natural. (L.A. actually said he thought Chris seemed uncomfortable, but I didn't see that at all.) "He has something very special, like I want to know more about him," mused Rihanna. "He is one of the special ones," L.A. agreed. I don't think this homie is going anywhere for a while.

OVER 30's - mentored by Nicole Scherzinger with Enrique Iglesias, in Malibu

Josh Krajcik - Krajcik is magic. Period. He is hairy-head-and-shoulders above almost everyone else in this competition vocally, and now that he's revealed that he's the devoted dad of a 13-year-old daughter, he's even more cougar-baity than ever before. Women will love this guy, and men will want to be bros and go get burritos with him; so he's a shoo-in to go far, maybe even all the way. Sunday night, tenderly crooning Roberta Flack's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," Josh sounded like he was already singing his finale song, or his coronation song--it was that good. Nicole and Enrique were visibly moved; Nicole closed her eyes as if to let the song sink deeper into her soul, and Enrique's jaw practically hit the patio. This was just gorgeous. "I've always loved performing and I've always had confidence that I could be something really big in this world. I'm so excited that in this competition I have that opportunity," Josh told them, somehow combining just the right amount of brash self-assurance and aw-shucks humility. After he left the patio, Nicole stupidly and wrongly mused, "He's relatable, he's personable, but do you think he's a star?" However, I think when the judges say stuff like this, acting like they harbor doubts, it's just to throw viewers off track and create suspense. Come on, now...there is NO way that Josh isn't getting through.

LeRoy Bell - "I've been pretending I'm in my forties for years now," LeRoy laughed before his audition. "The cat's out of the bag now!" No one could blame LeRoy for not wanting to confess that he's actually SIXTY years old. As Brennin Hunt pointed out, it's an ageist business, and hey, LeRoy can easily pass for a man 15 or 20 years his junior. However, when LeRoy sang Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love," I think his advanced age finally showed. I do usually love his sandpapery tone, but his voice sounded a little too creaky this time, almost like he has a cold. He also sounded very uneasy, which Nicole found odd. ("Even though he has the most experience, I felt that he's the most nervous," she pointed out.) Nicole also thought LeRoy held back way too much, a critique I didn't totally disagree with. LeRoy exudes so much cool-cat soul, and he infuses his words with meaning that a younger singer could likely never muster, but I don't think this was a $5 million performance.

Tiger Budbill - Okay. Other than his awesome and very marquee-worthy stage name, I do not get Tiger Budbill. At all. Yes, it is hard not to root for the guy, since this struggling 42-year-old wedding DJ and dad seems like an upstanding fellow, and it's obvious that he wants this very badly, maybe even more than some of the other, younger singers on the show. But unless Simon wants another Taylor Hicks on his hands, I don't understand why he let this guy get to the top 32 in the first place. Tiger is a nice guy, but he is not a star. He does not have the X factor. His performance of Solomon Burke's classic blues ballad "Don't Give Up On Me" was decent, but I forgot about it by the next commercial break. "Do you feel like there's a market for him? That people will buy his records?" questioned Nicole, semi-rhetorically. Enrique diplomatically shrugged yes, but I say no.

Christa Collins - I've been waiting to see more of this cool chick ever since I caught a glimpse of her in Boot Camp and cheered for her as mascara-tears of joy streamed down her heavily painted face. A former Disney child star who retired when she was teenager (and now calls that decision "the worst mistake of my life"), Christa is clearly all grown up now, as evidenced by her tough, very un-Disney-esque rocker look. But there's still a girlish fragility to her, showcased in her rendition of Radiohead's "No Surprises." She was weird, kooky, quirky, flawed, melodramatic...and fascinating. I loved the raw emotion she put into her performance. "This is my second chance, and I am definitely here for me because this is the only place that I feel whole--on the stage, performing," she sobbed. I was utterly perplexed when Nicole said she didn't get enough emotion from Christa's performance, but Enrique summed up my own assessment when he simply said, "I like her!" I like Christa too. A lot.

GROUPS - mentored by Paula Abdul with Pharrell Williams, in Santa Barbara

Stereo Hogzz - It's obvious by now that Paula got the short end of Simon's stick this season, stuck with a bunch of rag-tag groups that have zero chance of winning this show. Poor, poor Paula. But Stereo Hogzz may be her one hope. I was impressed with this performance in a way I never have been before with the Hogzz. Their modernized cover of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" was cool and fresh, and I know Paula would have a blast coming up with some choreography for these flyboys. All of the Hogzz really got down on Paula's backyard dance floor, and exuded oodles of energy, but really it was their frontman, Trace, who stole the show; this group actually seemed more like a solo act with backup dancers. Pharrell called Trace "an old Motown guy mixed with Ginuwine," which was pretty apt, but he pointed out, "They have to be a constellation; there can't be just one star." Can all of the Hogzz step up to their leader's level? If so, then maybe Paula still has a shot.

2Squar'd - Paula, because she is clearly as insane as ever, chose Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" for this pop-R&B group. Very, very frightening me, indeed. This was a mess. And not even a hot one. Obviously anything by Freddie Mercury is nearly impossible to sing, and a couple of the 2Squar'd ladies managed to pull it off the big notes, proving they're capable enough singers. But they made a major mistake by singing a straightahead rock version of "Rhapsody," not very far off from the original, instead of switching it up more; it seemed both Paula and Pharrell were hoping the girls would put an R&B spin on the song, and they were clearly disappointed by this group's lack of originality and vision. It wasn't 2Squar'd's fault that they got assigned this song, but they have to be held responsible for their uninspired remake of it.

Illusion Confusion - Confusion is right! Who? This group has gotten even less screentime than Christa Collins. I bet viewers were confused on Sunday, wondering who the heck were these random guys that just showed up in Santa Barbara. Illusion Confusion continued to get shafted, as only a portion of their performance was shown (the other contestants' Judges' Houses songs were aired in full), with their interview piece running over half of it. Clearly these guys are "The X Factor's" most fodder-ific contestants of the season. That's too bad, because I didn't think their cover of "Let's Dance," at least what I saw of it, was so bad--and I'm saying that as a David Bowie fan. But clearly someone in the "X Factor" production department is not an Illusion Confusion fan.

InTENsity - Another prefab ensemble of tossed-together "X Factor" solo rejects who didn't make it past Boot Camp (the other such group is the all-girl country act Lakoda Rayne), this is one group that will keep Paula's hands full. There are TEN of them--hence their too-cutesy name. Yes, 10 tweens and teens, ages 12 to 17, running all over the place. For those of you keeping track, which is not easy to do, InTENsity comprises Nick Dean, Francesca Duncan, John Lindahl, Emily Michalak, Arin Ray, Lauren Ashley, Ellona Santiago, Ma'at Bingham Shango, and Austin and Emily from AusEm. Maybe there will be strength in numbers, as there are clearly a few strong singers in this motley kid crew, they all seem to be getting along and Skyping like besties already, and their mashup of the Ting Tings' "That's Not My Name" and Hall & Oates's "You Make My Dreams Come True" was enjoyable in a Radio Disney sort of way. I could see my niece liking InTENsity. However, my niece is four years old and does not how to use the phone. So will InTENsity bring in the kiddy vote? I think there may too many of them to really connect with a fanbase on a more personal level, but the group does have a few Bieber-boy types in the mix, and as Pharrell said, they're "like a cookie--there were some really good star morsels in there." And that's a simile Paula can get behind, surely!

So there you go. In just two days, on Tuesday night, the top 32 will be slashed to the final 16, and it's going to be a bloodbath. While it's hard to accurately predict who will stay and who will go, since Simon hinted at the end of Sunday's episode that there will of course be some big shockers, my personal picks (NOT predictions) for the four categories would be Brian Bradley, Chris Rene, Marcus Canty, and Tim Cifers for the boys; Tora Woloshin, Caitlyn Koch, Drew Ryniewicz, and Tiah Tolliver for the girls (Melanie Amaro would also be acceptable); Christa Collins, Josh Krajcik, Stacy Francis, and James Kenney for the over-30's; and, with no small amount of apathy, Stereo Hogzz, InTENsity, Lakoda Rayne, and whoever-Paula-wants/I-don't-care for the groups.

And this is what ticks me off: these silly four-per-category quotas. I hate the fact that four slots are being automatically given to the groups just to give Paula something to do this season, thus taking away rightful spots from more worthy solo acts. Because even if I got my way, and all my picks made it through, I'd still be upset that Simone Battle, Elaine Gibbs, LeRoy Bell, Dexter Haygood, Jazzlyn Little, and others didn't make it. Why not just have the most talented prevail?

Well, I guess that's what the live rounds are for. That is when America will decide, and it will be interesting to see how the groups fare up against the solo singers. So watch this space Tuesday to find out just who will compete for the public's vote.

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