The X Factor: “Top 5 Perform”
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The X Factor: “Top 5 Perform”

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The X Factor

“Top 5 Perform”

Season 1, Episode 20

 You're never going to hear this from me again in any other context whatsoever, so savor it while it lasts: Thank God for I Hate My Teenage Daughter. The debut of Fox's newest unwatchable sitcom last week signaled the end of the two-hour X Factor era (for now, at least – I'm sure the powers that be will find a way to turn the finale into a three-hour megaspectacular) and even if I have to finish up my notes over a bunch of limp, dated Facebook jokes, I can still look up at the clock and feel my heart warm as I realize it's only 9:30. If you own a Nielsen box, please do us X Factor chroniclers a huge solid and watch the shit out of I Hate My Teenage Daughter. I don't know what I'll do if it gets canceled before the finale and the network execs find themselves with an empty half hour to fill.

Speaking of the finale: we've got only two more weeks until what I'm assuming will be the Final Three battle it out for the title of Supreme X Factorer. And I know we've said it before, guys, but this week – this week – it's finally getting serious! “If they want a war, they're going to get a war,” Simon says ominously over shots of blog headlines detailing last week's elimination meltdown, when, in case you forgot, The X Factor sent home two of its acts that actually might've made good 5 million dollar investments. The gloves are off! The war is on! It's not just Fox-generated hype anymore, guys! Blogs said!

Each of the Top Five sang two songs tonight. The first was ostensibly a dance track, and the second was supposed to be the “Pepsi Challenge” track chosen by fans on LinkedIn or something, but Pepsi decided to keep with its track record of screwing things up royally for The X Factor (I'm still trying to wipe the image of Josh Krajcik in circus pants from my memory) and bungle their latest tie-in with some sort of “communication error” in the voting. At this rate that much-hyped Pepsi ad will probably just be a bus ad outside Century City mall. So the contestants had to throw together a number 24 hours before the show, which is a lot like on Project Runway when Tim Gunn comes in at midnight and tells everyone they have to make a hat or a bracelet or something, except somehow less thrilling. See, the song they end up having to do is the Save Me song that they already had prepared in the event they wound up in the bottom this week, and the Save Me song is a very specific genre: namely, whiny and overblown. I honestly would've preferred a 24 Hour Ke$ha Cover Challenge.

The top half of the show mercifully compiled all the intro packages into one, giving us a solid block of performances and critiques for the first 45 minutes. It felt pretty cushy, like the show was doing us the courtesy of skipping ahead on the DVR. Melanie is up first, with Adele's club banger “Someone Like You.” Yep, throw a house beat and a pack of robot dancers on that melancholy love ballad and you've got yourself a track that wouldn't sound out of place on Dance Dance Revolution circa 2001. And also, according to Simon, a “hit record” that was “not at all karaoke.” I feel like the judges only break out the “not karaoke” praise anymore when they are secretly panicking because the song sounded exactly like karaoke. To me, the song choice seemed like a massively missed opportunity – c'mon, Melanie, this was a night when both Josh and Chris embraced the challenge and took on friggin' Rihanna songs. You've got the voice for it, now just get the guts to sing something actually aggressive and rhythmic. Her second song did nothing to dissuade my disappointment: another Whitney Houston ballad that I could remember nothing about even seconds after it ended. "When I close my eyes I can hear Whitney and, I can hear Mariah, and I can hear the greats," says Paula, somewhat alarmingly. If Melanie is indeed on the fast track to win this thing, Simon better scramble to dissociate his mentee from those names if he wants to maintain The X Factor's purported mission to find new, edgy talent.

Marcus is another example of an artist who is clearly more comfortable with 80's and 90's chart-toppers, but who would excel at more current fare if he was pushed toward it a little more aggressively. I didn't need to hear Marcus do a Chaka Khan cover tonight for his dance track. I needed an Usher or a Ne-Yo (both of whom he was cosmetically channeling for the number, if not sonically.) For some reason, LA Reid is trying to hasten Marcus' demise with a noticeable lack of actual praise in the critiques (listen closely and you'll realize that all he actually does each week is confirm that Marcus sang the song, and then remind everybody that he has to get votes in order to stay in the competition,) and either choosing or letting Marcus choose all these old fashioned tracks. It's easy to miss since the judges, being of an older generation than the target demo, fall head over heels for the retro stuff, but both of Marcus' choices (his Save Me Song was Leon Russell's “A Song For You”) undoubtedly went over all the thirteen-year-old girls' heads. If he's not out tomorrow night, I will be genuinely shocked.

Next up, “With her own choice of song, no chair,” is Rachel. That goddamn chair is going to haunt Simon for the rest of his life, isn't it? Rachel is the first artist to actually do a song that's both upbeat and contemporary, and it's easily the brightest of the bunch in the first half. I commented last week that Rachel is best on midtempo tracks, when she has enough space to actually show off how refined her vocal skills are, and tonight's choice, Bruno Mars' “Nothing On You,” was perfect in that regard. I wouldn't go as far as Simon did and say that this performance was necessarily teenage material, but it was a big step out of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade territory. (Side note: Doesn't Rachel Crow seem almost scientifically engineered for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?) Her save me song, Michael Jackson's “The Music and Me,” was a bit more of a snoozer, but not an unforgiveable one. Paula can't stop heaping on the praise, and the two actually get into a “You're fantastic and magical.” “No you're fantastic and magical” exchange. As mature as Rachel's performances were tonight, all the positive praise seemed to turn her back into the giggling, cutesy child that I initially loathed at the start of this competition. Whether or not that cloying stage presence affects her fate tomorrow (or whether audiences actually found it cloying in the first place – it could very well be that I am a bitter, hateful cynic who hates to watch happy kids sing songs on television) remains to be seen.

You know, as much as I'd like to blame Nicole for Josh's weird, rather at-sea version of Rihanna's “We Found Love,” I can't really think of what track I'd rather hear him take on for this challenge. Maybe it would have been more fun to see him just kick back and go whole-hog weird for a challenge that clearly wasn't made for him anyway. But this track, as I said before when RiRi herself performed it on the show, is so meandering and ravey, and it didn't suit Josh's hyper-expressive delivery at all. None of the judges like Josh's first performance (save Nicole, who praises Josh's “versatility,” as if this is the kind of thing he is ever going to be asked to do again in his professional career,) but they all seem pretty understanding of his position. I am of the opinion, however, that he won the Save Me Song challenge hands down, with the Beatles' “Something.” Simon's only complaint is that Josh has an occasionally alarming habit of looking like he's having a heart attack when he gets really wrapped up in a song, to which Nicole says, “It's called, 'getting lost in the music,'” clearly something she has a lot of experience with. This is also not the first time Nicole has prefaced an “oh snap” moment with “It's called,” much like sixth-grader who's just figured out how to do Sassy. (i.e., “It's called, 'I went on tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers once.'”)

If I'm looking at tonight objectively, and once again making the futile attempt to predict tomorrow's outcome, then I'd say that Chris Rene was probably the “winner,” and is definitely safe. His take on T.I. and Rihanna's “Live Your Life,” could've done without him trying to sing the Rihanna parts, and his flow seemed to lag under the track, but if I've learned anything so far on this show it's that Chris Rene's supporters are legion, and don't really care about such technicalities. I thought he shone much better in the second half of the show with his original track “Where Do We Go From Here,” but even that song seemed to outstay its welcome and go on about 30 seconds too long. The judges all love it, however, and Simon broke the new world record in Agonizing Buildups to Reality Show Verdicts before declaring the decision to do an original song a “stroke of genius.”

By the time tonight's show drew to a close, I found myself wondering why the last ninety minutes, while not unbearable, seemed more predictable than normal. We lost two of the youngest performers last week, and the one minor still left on the show is the one who consistently had her emotions the most in check. Even aside from the kids, all the remaining contestants are among the chillest from the initial batch of 17, and while chill is a great asset to have for an actual career in the recording industry, it doesn't exactly make for riveting television. So, sorry, bloggers: this wasn't quite war after all. Will a slightly heated U.N. Summit suffice for now?

Best: Rachel Crow

Worst: Marcus Canty

Most Improved: Chris Rene

Going Home: Marcus Canty

Stray observations:

  • The particulars of the Pepsi “communication error” weren't clear, but didn't it seem like the Top Five already had songs prepared before being told they had to do their save me song? Wouldn't it not make much sense to stress the fact that tonight's song was last-minute if they hadn't already been given assignments?
  • As punishment for providing us with the weirdest, most interminable thirty seconds of tonight's show, LA Reid should probably be banished to at least 120 Womens Studies lecture hours for nitpicking on how Rachel Crow failed to gender-correct the Bruno Mars song.
  • Judging by his face during critiques these last couple weeks, I think Marcus is completely aware of his mentor's lack of praise, but even funnier is how troubled he looks by how much Nicole and Paula seem to love him. As well he should be.
  • NewMelanie tried to do a reprise of her “Imma let you finish” routine from a couple weeks back, but since she didn't debut any new accents, it didn't quite work as well.
  • Nicole addressed Chris as “Josh” during his first critique, which amazingly went by unchecked by any of her fellow judges (or Chris.) Help! Our Scherzinger is breaking down! Can we please rent a Kelly Rowland to get us through to the finale, Simon? Pleeease?

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