It’s a dark and stormy night in Los Angeles. The palm trees are thrashing around violently and car alarms are going off up and down my block; a dark energy fills the air. There was a lot of talk on tonight’s X Factor about summoning inner Michael Jacksons and channeling his spirit—a dangerous game, to be sure—and I can’t help but feel like the vengeful ghost of the King of Pop has descended upon our fair city, summoned by the awful power of Marcus Canty’s backflips Nicole Scherzinger’s detachable bangs.
Yes, it’s MJ Week on The X Factor, another move lifted right out of the Idol playbook, and though tonight’s show was a mere and merciful 90 minutes (“I can’t believe you’re saying it’s ‘only’ an hour and a half,” my horrified, uninitiated friend said as I rushed back home to catch the show) there was a lot going on tonight. The whole Jackson brood was in the house, for one, including Michael’s three children, Prince, Paris and Blanket, who have all grown up significantly since appearing as little masked blurs on the 2003 ABC special Living With Michael Jackson. There’s also nothing better than hearing Steve Jones announce with his signature blind enthusiasm that somebody named Blanket is in the audience.
But lets get to the performances, which were easy to miss among all the ghoulishness and Cirque Du Soleil plugs. First up is Josh, covering “Dirty Diana.” What a fall from last week! In many ways tonight felt like the first time Nicole won whatever behind-the-scenes battle of wills that has been going on between those two. It was the first really big, cheesy production performance we’ve seen from Josh, sexy dancing girls and all, and it did him absolutely no favors. I was excited at first to see him get out the guitar, but then I remembered that these shows treat guitar ability like some sort of dark magic (Why is this recap turning out to be so witchy?) as evidenced by the backup dancers writhing and tossing their heads like a freaked-out harem as Josh plugged through his solo. It was all pretty embarrassing, and now that the field is so narrow, I hope it doesn’t cost him too badly.
Next up is Astro. Tonight we had a lot of performers who typically hold up the back half of the show switched to the front half, which leads me to conclude that Michael Jackson is the great equalizer of The X Factor. We get some cute intro material about Astro’s first song (“Party Arty,” which made me “aww” despite myself) and I couldn’t help but notice that he traded his controversial Beats by Dr. Dre for some anonymous-looking Sony headphones. I liked Astro’s take on “Black Or White” pretty well, and I think Simon was dead on when he observed that it looked like Brian was having the most fun that he had had in any performance thus far. Paula gushed about how Astro is the past, present, and future of music, whatever that means, but she also says, with much conviction, that she thinks he could win the whole thing, which felt like an important declaration amid the blathering.
(Side note: This is pretty obvious, but I feel like I need to address what a dick move it is of Simon to pick such worthless female judges to work alongside himself and L.A. Reid, who for the most part, have valid critiques every week. It’s impossible to not sound sexist in these recaps when I breeze over whatever bullshit comes out of Nicole and Paula’s mouths with “ladies be judgin’” dismissal, but hopefully you all understand. It’s Nicole Scherzinger and Paula Abdul, for chrissakes. There’s no way around their vapidity.)
“Arizona schoolgirl” Drew is up next with “Billie Jean,” and despite looking like she had suddenly been stricken with a nasty case of polio since we last saw her (Whose advice was it to sit knock-kneed like that?), I thought that this performance was a marked improvement from the last few weeks. She actually sang out with a full breath, which sounded quite lovely on the bridge and chorus, and highlighted the extreme melancholy of the song. I know, big surprise, Drew was melancholy—but I think it was actually appropriate tonight. It also helped to have that steady piano line rolling under her to keep things moving. L.A. warmed up to her tonight, which was a surprise, but Nicole poo-poo’d it in what seemed like a kind of arbitrary way to piss of Simon. (And don’t even get me started on how punchy I got when she did the whole fake “Oh, am I on?” thing before her critique. The joke of pretending to be out to lunch doesn’t work when you’re actually out to lunch all the time, Scherz.) Simon defends the sparse staging by saying they were trying to “put a twist” on the song by stripping it down, even though that’s all Drew ever does to songs, but whatever. I’ll let them have this one. You’re welcome, Drew and Simon.
Steve then introduces “Colorado schoolgirl” Rachel Crow. Steve really likes the word “schoolgirl,” apparently. I was actually in full agreement with L.A., Nicole and Paula in their observation that Rachel seemed totally disconnected from “Can You Feel It,” and I think we kind of have a pattern by now: despite Simon willing her to be a bubbly, bouncy family-friendly poppet, Rachel isn’t at her best with the upbeat numbers. She seems to get lost in the business of the stage, and doesn’t sell the song as well as she has on more bluesy, midtempo numbers like “I’d Rather Go Blind” a few weeks back. I think the show is taking its toll on Miss Crow; she looked exhausted and downtrodden as her number appeared on screen, flashing her sequin-gloved four fingers half-heartedly.
Also not rising to occasion of what should have been a showstopper was “high school graduate Marcus Canty,” who delivered a half-baked performance of “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” Not even an admittedly surprising backflip could gloss over this stinker. The synthed-up arrangement really felt like a squandered gift, a more assured performance would have made the number competitive with a lot of the kind of rave-y R&B/hip-hop anthems that, for better or for worse, are on the charts these days. It doesn’t help that “P.Y.T.”’s chorus isn’t directional enough to resist turning noodly very easily, and that those two red-jacketed lady backup dancers towered above Marcus. But y’know, it’s Marcus doing MJ, so of course we’re going to get tons of breathless praise from Nicole and Paula about how he’s a direct descendant, natural entertainer, blah blah blah. I was actually surprised at how reserved L.A. was in praising his mentee, however: “It was an inventive arrangement. And that flip you did… I hope it gets you some votes.” Brrr!
Chris Rene is up next, but more importantly, it’s the (brief) return of Gina Rene! Chris reveals a notable family secret: his grandfather wrote “Rockin’ Robin.” I was hoping that this meant he would be performing an homage to grandpa Rene, if only because it would be a massive feat for anyone other than Rachel Crow to deliver those “tweedly deedly deets” with a straight face. But no, Chris is taking on a different Jackson 5 song: “I’ll Be There.” Speaking of Rachel, this really should have been her song. But Chris doesn’t botch it too badly, making only two ill-advised attempts at money notes in the whole performance. Paula says that he “manifests with abundance in the heart department,” a line so ridiculous that Simon had to repeat it back to her to make sure she knew what the words she was saying sounded like outside of her head. Nicole starts talking about channeling Michael’s spirit again, and this weird thing happens these days where as soon as the word “spirit” leaves Nicole’s lips I black out, so I don’t remember how the rest of Chris’ critique went.
Finally we have NewMelanie, the suddenly fierce creature that has risen from the ashes of Boring American Melanie. Though her ecstatic outburst last week was a little wincey, I must say I really love her accent and her new cool ’tude. And what better way to showcase it with a striking, metal-ish (I know, right?) performance of “Earth Song.” I have to say, I heavily associate this song with Idol’s Haley Reinhart (go little pony!) and while Haley’s take was raw and scorching, Melanie’s was equally powerful in how self-assured and direct it was. There was a definite “No More Miss Nice Melanie” glint in her eyes tonight and I totally dug it. So did the judges, with L.A. bringing out the ol’ “I felt like I was at a [fill in contestant name here] concert” line, and Nicole declaring it the best performance on the show thus far. I had been ready to write off Melanie, as much as I had wanted to like her, but tonight was some pretty compelling evidence that she’s still a strong contender for the win.
After the clips are shown and the lines opened, Steve Jones asks the Jackson family what they thought of the show. “I never miss an episode,” Mama Jackson says, the gun that was up against her head apparently CGI’d-out. Steve moves on to the children, whose expressions have ranged from bored to slightly awake throughout the night. “Are you happy with the spectacle that is The X Factor?” he asks. “It’s a really well-put-together show,” comes Prince Jackson’s measured reply. Yep, that’s really about all there is to say, isn’t it?
- On that note, I may as well admit that the constant cuts during the performances back to Michael Jackson’s thoroughly unamused children are what kicked this show up from a B- to a B, in case you were wondering.
- Tomorrow night is another double elimination. We’re really whittling them down at this point, mostly because X Factor doesn’t have the luxury that American Idol has to outstay its welcome two and three times over. You won’t hear me complaining.
- Steve Jones had his best opening line yet tonight: “Thank you very much, sexy dancing people.” If I’m being honest, I really feel like we’re being punk’d at this point.
- Josh says he grew up listening to MJ “records,” which was a harsh, sudden reminder that he is the oldest person left in this competition.