As thrilled as I was last week to see the judges on a singing competition actually judging, it seems to have all ended far too soon. Yes, the vote is now in the hands of the people, and the judges’ critiques are not supposed to matter anymore, but everyone knows that’s not really true. This is gonna sound a little crazy, guys, but not everyone who watches The X Factor necessarily has the best ear for talent and musicality. It’s the judges responsibility, if not exactly their job, to help the audience tell the wheat from the chaff. (There is also the Internet and stuff, if you’re into reading things) Now, all hype and hyperbole aside, there is quite a bit of talent in the Top 12, but shouldn’t that make the judges even more critical? It’s hard to imagine Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi tearfully telling every cheftestant on Top Chef that they’re all superstars; even on a great night someone didn’t let the pork cook long enough or chopped their root vegetables too coarsely. So join me as we pick up their slack, and let's try to figure out who’s truly a rising star here and whose brisket needs a little more time.
After we’re reminded of the prizes we get to the first performance, Stereo Hogggzzz! After finally jumping on the Hoggwaggon last week, I have to say, I was a little disappointed. The boys managed to bounce back from an incredible rocky opening of Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” (those spotlit semi-a capella openings aren’t doing anyone any favors on this show, are they?) but even then they weren’t at the top of their game. The parts of the choreography we could see (when the camera wasn’t flying around the auditorium trying to get as far away from the stage as possible as it did for much of the show) were kind of sloppy, at least compared to the precision that won me over last week. Still, as Simon says, they’re one of the best acts in the competition, and L.A. Reid, always the one-upper says there is “not a band in the world as good as you.” Take that, Arcade Fire!
Y’know, I really was intrigued and troubled by Chris Rene when we first met him, and I believe I even wrote that anyone who didn’t root for him was a bad person, but I was young and naïve then and I should have known that the producers would take his story and beat it past the point of recognition or pity. Seriously, I’ve heard that “I just got outta rehab” clip played back so many times that I’ve started to tune it out like a FreeCreditScore.com commercial. Chris finally took off his hat tonight and simultaneously made a great case for keeping it on; he also was dressed like that kid you went to church with that tried to sell you pot once in eighth grade. His singing still leaves much to be desired, but he just lights up when he starts rapping. I’ll agree with Simon that the whole hellfire stage production was pretty ridiculous (and undermined the best part of the performance) and I’m a little concerned that L.A. Reid is trying market Chris as “hot,” but he wasn’t the worst thing on stage tonight.
Okay, maybe I’ll get yelled at for this, but I just need to address something that I feel like most people are tiptoeing around: LeRoy Bell may not look 60 years old, but he sounds like it. Sometimes it works to his advantage; he can do world-weary better than any of the other contestants (followed closely by 30-year-old Josh Krajcik and um, 14-year-old Drew.) But “world-weary” isn’t necessarily the first quality one thinks of when trying to describe the oh-so-indescribable “X Factor,” and it can very easily just turn into “weary.” Give him a weepy ballad like Lonestar’s “I’m Already There,” dim the lights and throw in some falling stars in the background, and it feels like we’re watching LeRoy sing his final song before lying down and taking a very, very long nap. This is not to say that his performance was bad, but it wasn’t exciting either, and doesn’t feel suited to this format at all. I can totally imagine a LeRoy Bell CD next to Wilco and Feist and the hazelnut biscotti at your local Starbucks, but not winning The X Factor.
Are Rachel Crow’s parent’s forbidding her from dancing? That’s the only semi-logical excuse I can think of for why we’ve had two high-energy songs from her in two weeks that both found her curiously contained on stage, both on some precarious looking platforms. As aesthetics and song choice goes, they’re really pushing her toward mini-Janelle-Monae territory which is perfectly reasonable, but doesn’t really work if the girl isn’t able to get down a little. I’m not a Rachel Crow fan to begin with, but there were plenty of things about this performance that did her no favors that weren’t her fault. It seemed like L.A. might have been in the same camp, telling Rachel that “it’s tough to criticize you as a performer because you’re so lovable.” But? BUT??? Sigh. Worse, I found myself in the undesirable position of being on Nicole’s side in the whole lyric-change debate (I didn’t see the point in switching “I’m Walking On Sunshine” to “You Are My Sunshine”) which meant I wasn’t even able to wholeheartedly enjoy Simon’s little “the grown-ups are talking” snipe at her.
I guess it’s time to talk about Lakoda Rayne now. Those poor, poor women. Paula’s been so on point with the choreography and stage production for the groups so far; I guess at some point she had to falter. I would not have imagined that her faltering would involve four bad prom dresses, an uncomfortable use of wind machine, and a video background that was justly slightly subtler than a sledgehammer in its interpretation of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.” The Rayne’s harmonies were tight when they sang together, but anytime an individual voice came through it was at best unremarkable, at worst shaky and flat. Simon made fun of their outfits, as anybody with a sense of social responsibility ought to, but all in all they got by unscathed on the vocals side, L.A. Reid merely wishing they would decide whether they were country or pop, and Nicole saying they put her in a trance, which is like a narcoleptic saying that Xanax makes her sleepy.
I have to applaud Josh for not only for being an utter sport about Nicole’s vicious attempt to sabotage him, but nailing a lame song with far more conviction than it merited. “Jar Of Hearts” is basically every song they’d play on The Hills while Audrina looked on longingly as JustinBobby drove off on his motorcyle and left her to pick up the tab at Joan’s on Third. If it was any other mentor at the wheel I’d think they might be so wrong that they were on to something, but it’s pretty clear by now that Nicole Scherzinger just doesn’t know any songs that were written before the first season of Pop Idol. Simon says “I take back everything I said.” Wait, what did Simon ever say about Josh? Or is he just starting to lose track of all the “I hated you, but now I love you!” redemption stories he’s busy manufacturing this season?
Melanie time. Oh, she’s great, you guys, what more can we say? We still didn’t get an upbeat number like I had hoped for after last week, but I thought she did a solid job of diva-izing “Desperado” without going into Stacy Francis histrionics. But I’m never really worried about that kind of heavy-handedness with Melanie; her number-one asset is how self-assured and down to earth she comes off, even as her voice reaches stratospheric heights. However. This whole “Oh my gosh guys, Melanie was almost eliminated, can you believe it?” narrative continues to be absolutely absurd. Melanie’s been great since day one. Simon’s trying to put her in an underdog position for dramatic effect, but I can’t believe there was ever a point where the producers didn’t see her as a serious contender for the win. It could be he’s trying to steer clear of a Pia Toscano situation, but there are subtler ways of handling it.
A brief pause as we visit “The X Factor control room,” a dismal little dugout filled with lots of wires and cables and schlubby engineers that I did not expect to have to deal with on Fox on a Wednesday night. Some girl who is not Alison Haislip tells us about phones and iPads and how we can watch InTENsity practice from behind a two-way mirror (creepy!) and gosh, I feel like I don’t care about what is happening right now at all! Give us more songs, show! Some of us have recaps to write later!
So why does Astro get an original track when Chris Rene still has to squeeze his own original verses into covers? I’m invested in both of them about equally, which is to say not much, but the original songs sure do more to shed light on what each of their recording careers could potentially sound like. Astro’s apparently sounds like “Hip Hop Hooray,” a refrain so cringe-inducing that if I was forced to sing it on national television, I’d probably act like a little shit as well. The whole track is about how The X Factor should give hip-hop a chance, or something. Simon says Astro is “a real little star,” and that he needs to up the obnoxious attitude if he wants to win votes, which certainly an interesting way of seeing things.
There’s a lot of talk in InTENsity’s opening package about how this is their big chance to break out of the Disney-demographic mold and show that they can appeal to more than just kids, so naturally they dig into a song that has the word “Kids” in the title. I mean, they’re 10 children, what are you going to do? Is Paula even giving them harmonies? Ellona was also talked up quite a bit in their opening, so naturally she starts off the number and gets so excited about being the golden child that she hits an extremely flat note about 10 seconds in. Simon says he likes that they’re rebelling, which I guess is in reference to the obviously staged “No more Journey, Mr. Schue!” scene in their behind-the-scenes intro. Simon, Paula, America—let’s just stop pretending InTENsity is a thing, okay? I know everyone has the best intentions (cashing in on the Glee phenomenon counts as a good intention, right?) but it’s all coming off a bit strained.
Drew is the last of the girls to perform, and she starts off her rendition of “Just A Dream” on the ground, surrounded by rose petals à la American Beauty, a cool effect if not totally pervy on someone’s part. And hey, she might not have found any shoes yet, but she got a drum track, and a band, and even some backup vocals! Of course, this performance holds up just as strongly as her more understated numbers; there’s no question that Drew is a natural at this point. Nicole says she could hear Drew doing guest vocals on hip-hop tracks, and goddammit, Sherzyshore, stop being kind of correct about things tonight. I’m not comfortable in this place.
By the time it’s Marcus’ turn we’ve fallen into a comfortable pattern: Simon gets in a dig at the contestant in the intro package, the contestant performs, and Simon says he takes everything back and that they’re truly stars. Like Melanie Amaro, I don’t see how Simon could ever pretend that Marcus wasn’t a legitimate contender. He’s a little less ready for the stage than Melanie, but I actually am glad that he didn’t dump his silly dance moves; they make for some pretty fun television, and I look forward to every Marcus performance, even if it has its wobbly moments. L.A. warns Marcus not to get too “lost in entertaining,” which is a solid piece of advice, but at the same time it’s nice to have a contestant whose enthusiasm and talent are pretty much in even balance.
After a brief detour to something called a Twitter wall (with zero mention of anything “trending”—c’mon X Factor, even the ladies on The Today Show know that Trending Topics are the gold standard of cultural relevancy) it’s time for Stacy, who has been given the pimp spot. I wish I could remember what I thought about this turn of events, but all that’s written in my notes is “WUT. EVER.” If you all recall, last week Simon said Stacy was a church singer, which got Stacy all in a huff, so she and Nicole retreated back to their secret clubhouse and Nicole popped Sister Act 2 in the Blu-ray player and leaned back and was all “You know what you should sing, girl?” And Stacy was like “What, girl?” And Nicole was like “A GOSPEL song.” and Stacy was like “Yeah! What?” And Nicole was like “Think about it! Simon’ll never see it coming!” Wisely, Stacy refrained from thinking about it, and she got up there and sure sang the daylights out of that gospel song. Oh boy, did she sing those notes! The judges liked it, and Simon may have kissed her, but honestly, I was kind of checked out at that point. This show is really long, if you hadn’t noticed.
And that’s it! Who did you vote for? How did you vote for them? How tall is Steve Jones? The lines are open America. Tell me errrything.