This week on "The X Factor," the theme was Movies Night, featuring iconic, Oscar-wining themes from such films as You Me & Dupree and Runaway Bride. Um, okay. Really, the real theme was Songs That Were Ever Featured In Any Movie Ever Even If Only For Six Seconds In The Background. Any song was fair game, really. I was a little bummed that the top 11 weren't assigned true cinematic classics, but I guess since I got to hear both "Flashdance (What A Feeling)" and "Footloose" on the top 17 show, I couldn't complain much...especially since some of the top 11's performances were pure theater. Here's how everyone did...
Stacy Francis - After getting the "pimp slot" last week, "The X Factor's" most polarizing and controversial contestant (who finally, albeit vaguely, acknowledged her professional past in a brief interview this evening, saying she'd had "a lot of opportunities") had to sing first this week. This did not bode well for her, since we all know that, statistically, contestants who go first are often the first to land in the bottom two. (Last week's first-spot contestant, R&B group the Stereo Hogzz, almost went home last Thursday.) Stacy's chances were further thwarted by her song and wardrobe choices--or, should I say, her mentor Nicole Scherzinger's choices. Nicole had Stacy sing a Whitney Houston song from The Bodyguard, but instead of "I Will Always Love You," a big diva ballad that would have suited Stacy's churchy voice well, it was the lesser-known glam-R&B stomper "Queen Of The Night." Stacy was also wearing a sparkly red minidress and climbing all over what appeared to be the leftover set from Paula Abdul's "Cold-Hearted" video. It just didn't work. Stacy's voice sounded fab as always, and I appreciated her attempt to do something different, but instead of fierce, it all just seemed forced. Even judge L.A. Reid, who co-wrote "Queen Of The Night," didn't like this (although he conceded that it wasn't as bad as he'd expected). "Why did you do the third most popular song from The Bodyguard? I like you better when you cry [than when you dance]," L.A. grumbled. Paula amusingly also said that she didn't like the song, which seem to tick off L.A., but she gave Stacy props for the effort, telling her, "You delivered in a big way." Simon, unsurprisingly, was the meanest. "I would have you wearing that outfit somewhere else," he said nastily of Stacy's tawdry getup (oh, snap), before saying, "It's like Nicole has combined you and Paula into one person!" Both Stacy and Paula seemed to take this as a compliment, though it was clearly not intended as such. I agreed with Simon here. Stacy suffered a little bit of an identity crisis this week, and on a night when she sang first, with the odds already against her, I'm not sure this was the week to take this sort of risk.
Marcus Canty - L.A. gave Marcus a slow-jam from Car Wash, Rose Royce's "I'm Goin' Down" (side note: this is the second Rose Royce song L.A. has assigned during the course of just three live episodes), although most younger viewers were probably more familiar with Mary J. Blige's hit version. This was a case of a risky song choice that totally worked. For the first time on the live show, Marcus had to strip away his bells and whistles--no wannabe-Bobby Brown dancing, and no backup dancers, either--and put his vocals front and center. Thankfully, his charisma wasn't lessened one bit in the process...and you know, I'd never realized how great a singer Marcus truly is until this performance. The man can SING. Raved Nicole, humorously if ungrammatically, "Two words: Ma. Gic!" Said Paula, "Everything about you, head to toe, resonates 'star.'" Simon, clearly a man who dislikes sparkly stagewear, criticized Marcus's "cabaret singer" gold jacket ("You should dress yourself," he advised), but he otherwise loved the performance, calling it "one thousand percent better than last week." I agreed with Simon on that point--but I thought the jacket was cool, too. A shining star needs some shiny clothes!
Drew Ryniewicz - Simon seems to determined to make America forget that Drew has a last name, but I refuse to drop the "Ryniewicz." An unusual girl like this deserves an unusual surname. Miss Ryniewicz really is one of a kind. Singing Coldplay's "Fix You," a five-hanky tearjerker recently popularized by "The Voice's" Javier Colon and--according to Simon--You Me & Dupree (reeeeally? that dumb rom-com used a song as sad as this?), Drew sprinkled her usual pixie-dust Ma. Gic all over the stage. She looked a bit like one of Jem's Holograms had come to life and put on Cyndi Lauper's old prom dress, like this otherworldly,Ryniewiczian creature, and her voice seemed from another world as well. A couple of the judges were less impressed than I was, oddly. L.A. complained that her performances were becoming too samey, saying, "I need to see you do something different." (Don't listen to him, Drew! That's what the judges told Pia Toscano on "Idol," and you see how that panned out.) Paula, usually a fan of wacky fashions, didn't dig Drew's outfit, saying it took the seriousness away from the song. "Don't take fashion advice from Simon," she said. (Paula later totally facepalmed when Simon informed her that Drew had designed the dress herself. Oops.) Nicole was kindest, gushing, "You are simply brilliant beyond your years." So true. Even when dressed like Rainbow Brite on acid, Drew always comes across a mature, sophisticated, nuanced performer.
LeRoy Bell - Apparently U2's "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" was in Runaway Bride. Who knew? Well, it was as good excuse as any for Nicole to finally give LeRoy a song that showcased his soulful talents. The chorus's theme was an interesting and poignant one for a 60-year-old still trying to make it in this business, and while LeRoy didn't exactly reach Bono-like levels of greatness during his performance--it took him way too long to get going--about midway through the song his passion kicked in and he proved he belongs in this competition alongside all the young and hungry kid contestants. "I was getting bored before, I'm not gonna lie--but this time I think you got it right," said a proud L.A. Said Paula, "I've been waiting for this performance! You are so in your element. America has found what they're looking for, and it's you." Simon was equally impressed, saying, "You were dignified, you were in control, it was classy--this was your best performance by a mile." Nicole just quoted Randy Jackson by saying she felt like she was "at a LeRoy concert!" But basically, everyone loved it. I still find it hard to imagine soft-spoken LeRoy winning this whole competition over more dynamic, vivacious performers like Astro or Rachel Crow, but if he can keep delivering like he did this week, he may stick around for a while.
Lakoda Rayne - Over the past couple weeks, the Lakodas have been at a country crossroads. As in, they, or Paula, needed to decide if they were going to go country or pop. This week, it seems their decision was solidified, by their cover of Keith Urban's "I Wanna Love Somebody Like You" (which apparently was on the soundtrack to How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days). It was a smart decision. With Lakoda Rayne really being the only contestant in this game representing the country genre in any way--and country music is HUGELY popular in America, as evidenced by this year's "American Idol" finale--going more distinctively down that lane may be the only thing that will save them when Paula's other groups inevitably fall by the wayside. (Paula's Stereo Hogzz and InTENsity were in the bottom two last week.) I still found this performance a little dull, but I am sure many voters in America will disagree with me on this. The judges would probably disagree too. L.A. congratulated the girls for overcoming their "identity crisis," then quipped, "You've become my favorite girl group in the competition," a joke that neither Paula nor the Lakodas seemed to process right away. (Ha.) Simon was also pleased, telling them, "After the absolute horror show last week when you were the musical version of the Stepford Wives, you are now the group I always hoped and prayed you'd become." Now let's just hope all the country fans in America weren't watching the CMAs while Lakoda Rayne were performing.
Astro - Doing one of the few movie songs actually readily associated in viewers' minds with a movie, the Astronomical Kid took on Eminem's Oscar-winning 8 Mile anthem "Lose Yourself," had the gall to slap an ENTIRE new rap over it...and he totally pulled it off. It takes a fearsome and fearless performer to do that, and Astro, despite his young age, is just that. He's a force to be reckoned with, and almost all of his fellow contestants could take a confidence lesson or two from this kid. (Simon even called him a "great role model" this week.) Astro certainly did not miss his chance to blow. He slipped in some shoutouts to Joe Frazier, Heavy D, and his "Astro-nauts," somehow made a rhyme about his pancreas sound cool, and he basically owned the stage. The only thing actually more fun than watching Astro was watching L.A. watch Astro; the man's head wobble, which comes out whenever he's particularly excited about a contestant, is the reason animated GIFs were invented, and L.A. wobbled his head a LOT when Astro was onstage this week. The other judges loved this performance too. "That was so heavy! That is what separates the good from the great, the amateurs from the contenders. You are a champion tonight," proclaimed Nicole. "That level of focus that you have is what creates superstars. You're in a league all of your own," said Paula. "You're like the cat that's got the cream--you cleared an Eminem song!" laughed Simon. "You wrote your own lyrics over his and actually did a great job with it--that's bravery." Yes, I bet even Marshall Mathers would be impressed.
Melanie Amaro - Simon slyly figured out a way to give his girl-next-door diva a Michael Jackson song, when he realized Michael made a movie called This Is It that basically featured every great Michael Jackson song ever. Clever clever, that Simon. Anyway, Melanie sang "Man In The Mirror"--an interesting song choice for a woman, but a great song no matter who sings it--and I thought it was a really solid performance. She exhibited a lot of youth and energy that I don't always see from her, I'd never seen her look cooler or prettier (hair extensions are her friend), and her performance was especially impressive considering that she'd been on vocal rest due to illness earlier this week. But I still sort of understood why L.A. was underwhelmed. "I didn't find that inventive. It was really strong, but it was predictably strong," he said. (Again, I have to caution the judges: This was the sort of "mix it up" advice Pia Toscano received on "Idol," advice that got her voted off the minute she heeded it.) Nicole and Paula were nicer, in a total new-agey way, with Nicole telling her she was a "vessel of light" (or something like that) and Paula extolling Melanie's "healing" powers. I guess Melanie has a calming effect on some people. Simon just called her "bloody fantastic." I do think Melanie should switch it up a little, but maybe not too much. I think Simon knows what he's doing here, and maybe Melanie should establish herself a little bit more as a big powerhouse singer before she pulls a Stacy Francis and starts climbing an industrial jungle-gym in a queen-of-the-night minidress.
Stereo Hogzz - After nearly going home last week (they would have if it had been Simon's decision alone), the Hogzz returned with a gender-altered soul-revue rendition of Christina Aguilera's "Ain't No Other Man" (from, um, Get Smart?). I liked it; I've always liked the Hogzz in retro/Motown mode. But apparently, I was in the minority here. L.A. wasn't into it because he didn't know the song. Really? That was a little bit shocking; I mean, if the Hogzz had done a song off Xtina's flop Bionic, I would have understood L.A.'s cluelessness, but "Ain't No Other Man" was a massive hit. But regardless of whether or not L.A. knew the song, he should have realized that this was a strong performance. Simon did know the song--Simon knows everything, or he'd at least like us to think he does--but he thought the performance was too "cabaret" (there's that word again) and not representative of the type of music the group should record if they won the show's $5 million mega-contract. Nicole liked them most and called them "bananas." Said Simon, "It's got nothing to do with bananas!" This was one yes-we-have-no-bananas debate I would have loved to see continue, but I'm sure Steve Jones would have just cut them off. Oh well.
Josh Krajcik - I love me some Josh Krajcik, and he's still one of my favorites--he'd probably have to club baby seals onstage for me to change my mind about that--but this was not my favorite Josh performance. I think Nicole choosing a Joe Cocker song for him (well, it was the Beatles' "With A Little Help From My Friends," from Across The Universe, but the gospel-tinged Cocker version) made him seem old and uncool and almost a little Taylor Hicks-ish. (Really, of ALL the Across The Universe Beatles song, Nicole chose this?) Occasional glimmers of Eddie Vedder-esque greatness still came shining through, but the dinosaur-rock vibe and the backup dancers' Jesus Christ Superstar-like pageantry and pomp just didn't really work. I preferred Josh covering Christina Perri last week; that was cooler and edgier and way more unique. Paula found Josh's voice "comforting, like chicken soup for soul" (I think his voice is more like a burrito for the soul, personally), and L.A. called the performance "strong," but Simon was pretty critical. "You were like Dracula and the brides up there," he said. "Next week, lose all the gimmicks, have it be just you on a stage, singing a song." I agreed with Simon. Josh is just PLAIN GOOD. He doesn't need all this musical-theater mumbo-jumbo.
Chris Rene - This former frontrunner has had a tough couple of weeks, with two borderline cringe-inducing covers of schmaltzy '70s ballads (which had the conspiracy theorist in me wondering if L.A. was giving him such terrible songs so he'd get voted off prematurely and clear the way for Astro). This week, doing "Gangsta's Paradise" from Dangerous Minds, Chris was way more in his element, thankfully. But compared to Astro's tour de force, his performance was still kind of weak; it seems to me that hip-hop fans would be much more likely to cast their vote for the Astronomical Kid, so I don't know if it made total sense for L.A. to have Chris do a straight-up rap song like this. Also, although I realized later that Chris had deliberately changed the chorus back to "Pastime Paradise," the Stevie Wonder classic on which "Gangsta's Paradise" was based (yes, I admit that not recognizing this right away was about as shameful as L.A. not recognizing the Xtina song), the lyrical switchup still took me out of the song, and out of the moment, too much. I imagine a lot of younger viewers unfamiliar with the Stevie original felt the same way. Still, this was a big step in the right direction for Chris. "It's glorious seeing you in your element tonight," said Paula. "Welcome back, Chris Rene. This is what we loved about you. I think you are potentially a real star," said Simon. I don't disagree, but I think L.A. needs to fine-tune his song choices for Chris--not too old-school balladeering, not too similar to what Astro does--if he really wants to tap into Chris's star potential.
Rachel Crow - Okay, talk about star potential! Simon said Rachel's performance this week would be a "game-changer," and he was right. Belting out a song she chose herself, Etta James's "I'd Rather Go Blind" (as performed by Beyonce in Cadillac Records), Rachel managed to look like a child but sound like a woman, and I have no idea how someone so young and happy-go-lucky could seem so believably pained and world-weary and tough and experienced. (Yes, Rachel had a rough start in life, born into a crack den, but she was thankfully adopted at 6 months old, so her wellspring of emotion can't entirely come from that.) This was a deep, dark song for a tween, worlds away from the Radio Disney pap that most 13-year-olds would choose to sing, and she pulled it off better than singers two or three times her age. "Up until now if I wasn't sure if you were a true contender. Tonight you proved you have your eye on the target!" raved L.A. "I don't know where you got that soul--only God knows," marveled Nicole. And Simon, smiling smugly ear to ear at his prized protégé, called her a "mini-Beyonce." You know, this wasn't a game-changer...it was more like a game-WINNER. Rachel ran away with the competition this week, and just like L.A., until now I had no idea she had it in her. I knew she was good...but THIS good? Wow. I don't even understand why Simon tried to milk votes for Rachel by telling viewers at the end of the show that his mother is ill and America's mass votes would cheer up Mama Cowell. Rachel doesn't need sympathy votes to get ahead--and, come to think of it, neither do Melanie or Drew.
So now, it is prediction time. I have no reason to worry that my favorite performers of the week--Astro, Rachel, Drew, Marcus--will be in any danger. But I do predict that Stacy, in a bit of a shocking twist, will end up in the bottom two. Her song was off-putting, and her first-slot placement set her at a disadvantage. However, I don't think she will be the one to go home Thursday. That dishonor, I predict, will go to last week's bottom-two survivors Stereo Hogzz. It's hard for groups to connect with voters in general, and if the Hogzz landed in the bottom two after their high-energy Janet Jackson number last week, I can't imagine they'll make it this week after receiving such harsh critiques from the judges.
Tune in Thursday to find out if I'm right! It'll be time to face the music once again.