The X Factor: “Top 10 Perform”
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The X Factor: “Top 10 Perform”

Why see The X Factor live? This is the question I began asking myself as I sat alone in a holding area outside CBS Television City in the late afternoon L.A. haze, without a phone to tweet snide observations or even check the time with. I mean, there’s the obvious novelty of being in a big loud technicolor room that has Simon Cowell and Nicole Scherzinger in it, but then there’s also the sheer terror of being in a big loud technicolor room that has Simon Cowell and Nicole Scherzinger in it. I could have stayed home and watched this from the comfort of my couch and remained healthily detached from this televised spectacle that has steadily consumed more and more of my brainspace week after week. But no, it was clearly time to dive in and offer up the last remains of my sanity to SyCo Entertainment.

I guess the main reason I wanted to go was to see if I was missing anything. On a show that so heavily emphasizes moment-to-moment experience over history or mythology (there’s a reason they never put out DVDs of past Idol seasons,) a show where, week after week, the people in the studio so frequently seem to be experiencing something completely different from what I am, it seemed useful to try it their way. X Factor is filmed on the same sound stage as Idol, and even though this latest outing isn’t even coming close to matching the original’s status as a national obsession, it was sort of a trip to find myself at the source of a not-insignificant amount of watercooler conversations. It was like going on a field trip to the cereal factory in fifth grade and secretly hoping to find out just how much rat feces they put in the stuff that millions of people eat for breakfast every morning (while of course being equally open to the possibility that the cereal factory is a beautiful, wholesome place.)

I was actually caught off guard by how genuinely exciting it was to walk out into the X-Dome for the first time. Like so many other entertainment icons, it’s smaller than it looks on screen, but the stage is still every bit as impressive, IMAX-like in how completely it takes over the room. The DJ was spinning everyone’s favorite jams (“Firework,” “I Gotta Feeling,” “Firework” again,) and the air was positively buzzing with anticipation. Ear plugs were distributed for the considerable over-50 crowd. Then, after a surprisingly brief bit of audience warmup, the house lights lowered and the stage lit up; the crowd went bananas and it was TIME. TO FACE. THE MUSIC.

But first, it was time to face our beloved host. Is there anybody on this earth less rock ’n’ roll than Steve Jones? Who gets escorted onstage by a bevy of bootyshakin’ dancers in daisy dukes and reacts with “Well, that was pleasant!”? If you are wondering if SJ is any more charismatic in person than on TV, the answer is no, no, a thousand times no. I’ve never seen someone so tall and conventionally good-looking be so clueless as to how to inhabit a space and interact with a crowd. He looked like a little nervous choirboy at a middle-school holiday program, trembling before his solo in the middle of the big, empty stage. He introduces the judges, and what better way for my most favorite Nicole Scherzinger to greet me from the X Factor stage for the first time than with a ridiculous metal face and devil horns? That C-list-pop-star-on-autopilot act combined with her desperate but barely coherent effort to appear edgy and soulful (“Keep on rockin’ the free world!” she shouted apropos of nothing as Steve did the outro tonight) is the Scherzinger Way, and it was in full force tonight.

There were a couple of acts that, like Steve and Nicole, were even less impressive in person than their already iffy onscreen presence. Seeing Stacy Francis live did nothing to make me like her more, especially her downright scary ice-cold reaction to the judges’ unfavorable remarks. Up until her performance I had noted that I couldn’t hear the vocals well enough to judge the prior contestants’ pitch, but, well… I didn’t have any problems hearing Stacy tonight. A terrible song choice (I don’t know about you, but I associate “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” with Celine Dion more than Meat Loaf) and flailing vocals coupled with a stank attitude and a notable absence of pity material in the intro package made for one hard-to-watch performance. Stacy was the only contestant who didn’t interact with the audience before or after her performance (not even a wave or a smile) and as soon as she walked on stage the energy in the room vanished. If there is any justice, America will take a break from picking off Paula’s groups for just one week and just put this woman out of her misery.

Speaking of the groups, how did Paula’s Last White Hope/America’s premier all-female Fleetwood Mac cover group do tonight? Well, they should definitely be kissing Stacy’s feet for sucking so hard, that’s for sure. Lakoda Rayne had a lot of supporters in the house tonight, and I am very grateful to the good people at Fox for seating me far, far away from them so that they didn’t hear me involuntarily guffaw at the group’s ridiculous choreography (The sparkleboxes! The male dancers! It was a veritable cheese platter up there.) On the good side, somebody was smart enough to put the girls’ names up on the screen behind them. For my sake and Lakoda’s, keep doing that, whoever you are: they sorely need anything to make them memorable at this point and hopefully buy them a couple more weeks. Those four are obviously doomed and they know it—I love how cavalierly they just out and say that their dreams are over once they get voted off. None of this “you haven’t seen the last of us” crap for Lakoda Rayne, nosiree.

Really, there were a lot of people who would have looked a lot worse if it weren’t for Stacy. Even though Melanie didn’t fare nearly as poorly as the elder diva, her performance of “Everybody Hurts” was not her best. I told her after the show what I’ve told you guys week after week: she needs to do a “Single Ladies” or some other equally danceable song to get everyone as excited about her flawless voice as they ought to be. She seemed surprised to hear that, or maybe she’s just gotten used to humoring nerds like me who think they know what’s best for her X Factor run. But seriously, her voice is powerful in person—it has this razor-sharp edge that just cuts through the air. It’s a shame it’s taking her this long to figure out how to be as engaging as a performer.

There may have been a lot of blah performances tonight, but that made the critiques all the more exciting. Thank God everyone seemed to be in a foul mood from the start, with even Paula piling onto Leroy after he opened the show with a predictably flatlining rendition of Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight.” The fact that a contestant who usually gets the more benevolent side of the judges was ripped to shreds created an uncertainty that carried throughout the episode. Would the judges give Chris Rene’s reimagining of “No Woman No Cry” a pass even though it wasn’t really a rock track? (No.) Would they eat up another perkalicious, Muppetastic Rachel Crow number? (Yes.) And damn, who would’ve thought we’d see Nicole, of all people, tear into Drew tonight? (Not me.)

That said, of all the contestants to be on the receiving end of the judges’ crankiness, Drew handled it the best. While I definitely didn’t love her Drewification of “With Or Without You” (this time with shoes!) she held it together when the criticism came on, especially in light of the fact that last week’s critique had apparently been the first time she had ever gotten any negative feedback in her life (if that’s true, I’m not sure if I envy or pity her.) She even managed to defend herself against L.A. Reid without seeming cocky or delusional, a rare and impressive feat in this genre of reality. I can think of some other contestants tonight with probably way more experience with rejection who did not handle themselves nearly as professionally.

Astro and Marcus both held steady doing what they do best—being the most dynamic entertainers on the show, and just fun to watch in general. Though I’m not sure how much I was laughing with or at Marcus when he slid under those girls’ legs, it was still a good, if not very silly performance—but you have to give him credit for risking eternal hellfire and throwing himself so fully into this week’s theme. I was really expecting to be put off by Astro’s attitude without the benefit of editing, but on the contrary, the consummate professional Astro came through much stronger than the cocky teenager Brian on stage. After we went to the commercial break, he adorably checked with Steve to see if it was okay for him to go and give a cluster of his screaming fans (yes, the Astronauts are legion) hugs. I asked him after the show if there was any genre he’d ever be nervous about taking on, and he answered calmly, yet firmly in the negative. I believed him—that kid is terrifyingly confident.

And, hmm… who am I missing here? Who have I left out of OH RIGHT, JOSH KRAJCIK. Listen, I know I had to talk about all the acts tonight and reflect on the whole live experience and blah blah blah but fuck it, Josh buried everyone else from the moment he stepped on stage. And I don’t even like the Foo Fighters! Josh was on such a completely different level from everyone else tonight; his performance was so jarringly real compared to everything else on that stage, that it kind of made me wish we’d gotten to see this side of him earlier. Talking to him tonight only confirmed my suspicions that he is indeed the chillest, coolest dude in this competition (I even tried to get him to say bad things about his mentor and it didn’t work—that is the kind of superior chillness that we all can aspire to.) The only thing diminishing Josh’s performance at all tonight was Nicole’s absurd headbanging, other than that our boy was responsible for the best five minutes of tonight’s show.

And with that...

Best: Josh Krajcik

Worst: Stacy Francis

Most Improved: N/A

Going Home: Stacy Francis

Stray observations:

  • “What did you think of those horrible comments?”—Steve Jones has fabulously nonexistent tact.
  • “So, rock ’n’ roll actually originated from rhythm and blues music… ”—History of Music with Professor Nicole “Eden’s Crush” Scherzinger is now in session.
  • “Call up R.E.M. and tell them they’re not a rock band.” Actually, Simon, as of September 21, 2011, R.E.M. are technically not a rock band anymore.
  • There’s something incredibly endearing about Leroy getting a sleeve tattoo just so that he couldn’t get a regular job.
  • Boy, the use of the fog machine tonight sure made for a hilarious visual during judging tonight. I felt like we were watching That ’70s Show or something.
  • I also asked Astro how he honed his craft in Brooklyn before X Factor. Imagine this answer being delivered in the most even, measured, matter-of-fact tone: “I did a few competitions, it was weird sometimes, because it’d be a lot of grown people in the competition and I was the only kid there, I won all of them.” Okay then.
  • Because there’s a cash prize involved, it’s apparently in the “rules” that the press has to interview every contestant if they want to interview any at all, much like the equal time rule for election coverage. I mostly just wanted to talk with the contestants rather than formally interview them, but I did speak to everyone except Stacy and Lakoda Rayne. The Rayne had to leave before I had a chance to talk to them because two of them are minors and they couldn’t legally work past a certain number of hours. In related news, Lakoda Rayne are children.
  • I may pay another visit to the XBox before the end of the season; at the very least I hope to attend the finale. I don’t know how much my small, faithful band of commenters gets out of these live reports, so do share your feelings, readers. I value your input.

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