The X Factor Recap: No One Wants to Be Defeated

“Paula Abdul is no longer a mentor,” a practically giddy Steve Jones informed us at the top of this week’s X Factor Top 7 performance show. But Strong Chin With Devastating Cheekbones (clad in double-breasted gray pinstripes!?!?) didn’t realize that his nemesis at the judges’ table wasn’t destroyed by last week’s ouster of Lakoda Rayne, but rather freed up to launch a sold-out tour of Cirque du Abdul: ¡Gobbledygook!

Indeed, Michael Jackson Week found Paula trotting out some of her loopiest critiques of the season, telling wee rapper Astro that he didn’t just represent our future, but also our past and our present. (Someone needs to stop combining NyQuil with school-night viewings of A Diva’s Christmas Carol!) “You manifest abundance in the heart department,” Paula squeaked to Chris Rene, as she secretly envisioned hanging his vascular organ from her rear-view mirror, right next to David Archuleta’s head. And then there was Paula’s admonisment of Drew Ryniewicz for not bringing enough shiny objects to the stage to hold her attention for 120 seconds.

Of course, if you weren’t satisfied with the feedback from Paula, L.A., Simon, and that chick who tries too hard, this week’s X Factor also offered the opinions of Michael Jackson’s children — Prince, Paris, and Blanket, who, during the course of the telecast, respectively chewed gum, struck a tone of polite enthusiasm, and attempted to crawl under his chair and turn to dust.

“Your presence is going to make an amazing evening that much more incredible!” Steve read off his aggressively enthusiastic cue cards, but you know dude really wanted to ask, “Where’s Bubbles?” (He’s mentoring InTENsity now, silly!)

Anyhow, let’s move on to this week’s performances…

Josh Krajcik: “Dirty Diana”
Like I said during my X Factor live-blog: The sound mix was to Josh on this performance as an anaconda is to a gerbil. And that’s unfortunate, considering Josh took some interesting liberties with the tempo and tweaked the melody of the verse to better suit his gruff vocals — or at least that’s what I gleaned in the moments the guy wasn’t being swallowed whole by an aggressive wall of guitar and drums. But I can’t only blame the producers for a performance that never truly ignited. Surrounded by writhing women in red bathing suits and white dress shirts, and standing in what looked like a giant batting cage, Josh looked a little lost and bewildered right from the beginning of the performance, and appeared almost relieved when he was finished — not the kind of confidence or swagger you want in a $5 million act. If this affable dude wants to make it all the way to the finale, he’s going to have to stand up and make mentor realize his end goal isn’t sharing a target audience with the Pussycat Dolls.

Astro: Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” (with original lyrics)
You can’t really fault Astro when it comes to consistency: Every week, he spits his rhymes with a speed and clarity on par with the best emcees in the business, and unlike his X Factor competitors, he can’t rely on a half-dozen backup singers to spackle over the holes in his delivery. This week’s rendition of “Black or White,” however, may have been his least satisfying performance to date, mainly because the fastness and furiousness of his self-penned rhymes left little room for the hook of Michael Jackson’s original track. In fact, there were moments during the verses where it seemed like Astro was freestyling without any connection to the jangly guitars that propel the entire composition. That said, I’ve got to tip my hat to the fact that Astro never once got upstaged by the army of Cossack-esque backup dancers and also dropped fun phrases including “Crayola box” into a call for racial unity — “World is changin’ on an everyday basis/ So let’s not judge based on the color of our faces” — that fit very nicely into Fox’s family programming bloc. To quote the artist himself: “Dope!

Drew Ryniewicz: “Billie Jean”
There’s something perversely enjoyable about watching L.A., Paula, and Nicole stamp their feet every week and demand an uptempo track from Drew, and then seeing Simon respond by having his 14-year-old protege sit stock still in a chair at center stage, bathed in a single spotlight, and offering up a sombre, slowed-down cover of one of MJ’s funkiest midtempo ditties. I know, I know, Paula probably had a point that there should be an interesting visual element if you’re paying tribute to the King of Pop, and Nicole probably isn’t wrong that Simon is playing it safe with Drew by never forcing her to go uptempo, but does any of that matter? Against all logic, this teenage girl embodied a man denying paternity of a temptress’s child, and with music-box delicacy, staked her ownership claim over a fantastic global hit (one which was covered with equal originality and pitch perfection by David Cook back in Season 7 of Idol). Drew felt every single word she sang, from her lustrous hair down to her awkwardly positioned feet. I could bang L.A.’s drum that everything Drew does sounds the same, but why make noise and drown out the beautiful music?

Rachel Crow: “Can You Feel It”
It’s a little bit telling that in her own words, Rachel “had to come to L.A. to be a star,” and I think in some way, her choice of “star” over “singer” tells us where her heart — and her destiny — lie. At this point in her life, Rachel would make a better Nickelodeon headliner than pop singer (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and her listless showing on “Can You Feel It” really drove home that point. From the perfunctory “Michael, we love you!” at the start of the performance to her “first day of middle school, can’t find my locker” facial expression, to the fact that Rachel was just slightly under the melody throughout, nothing really worked. And while the judges tiptoed around the problems with the performance, the message seemed pretty clear: “Pumpkin…you’re probably going home this week.” But don’t cry for Rachel; she’ll probably be earning three times your salary by the time she turns 15.

Marcus Canty: “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)”
Hey, look, Marcus borrowed a white sleeveless military vest from the lead singer of Stereo Hogzz! In all seriousness, though, there wasn’t a performance all night that came close to Marcus’ in capturing the Big, Shiny Entertainment Vibe that Michael Jackson championed. I loved  the call and response intro on the “na na nas,” the “hey look what I can do, ma!” backflip, and the joy emanating off Marcus from start to finish. I just wish, as Simon noted, that the vocals (which L.A. didn’t bother defending, either) had been a wee bit stronger. Oh, and maybe that the red, animated ladyfigures — which reminded me of trucker flaps designed by Lady Gaga –had been stricken from the backdrop.

Chris Rene: “I’ll Be There”
I’m with Paula on the fact that I can’t wait for Chris to release an album so I can be among the first to buy it. But that doesn’t mean his cover of “I’ll Be There” should make the cut when he heads into the studio. I mean, seriously, what was L.A. thinking with this song choice? Why not a modified version of “State of Shock” or “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” or even “You Rock My World”? “I’ll Be There” is the kind of track Mariah Carey is supposed to cover, not someone with a small, craggy, but very interesting voice like Chris’s. In fact, the conspiracy theorist in me wondered if this wrong-minded selection was L.A.’s way of backing Astro and Marcus as his primary horses in the Season 1 race, and sending Chris out to pasture for a premature retirement. Which isn’t to say “I’ll Be There” was a disaster; it was just kind of pedestrian. And pedestrian is exactly the kind of performance that doesn’t activate speed-dialers on a week where two of the seven remaining acts on the chopping block.

Melanie Amaro: ‘Earth Song”
I know Simon would rather spend a season sitting between Kara Dio Guardi and Ellen Degeneres than admit he still carefully watches American Idol, but I can’t help but think his introduction of “Earth Song” as “one of Michael Jackson’s biggest hits” was a winking indictment of Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson acting as if the monster ballad was an obscure b-side when Haley Reinhart covered it during Idol‘s tenth season. (Good to know Simon is #TeamHaley, too!) But sorry, I know, we’re talking about Melanie, and Melanie’s rendition was, as Steve Jones noted, “epic” in its own right. I’ve played Melanie and Haley’s versions back-to-back and back again, and it’s interesting to me that Melanie’s rendition has a soaring quality — almost as if she’s witnessing the planet’s destruction from above, her voice gaining strength, her riffs on the melody becoming more daring, the more passionately she pleads for humanity to take action. (Ugh, sorry, I think Nicole Cirqueduwhatzit is rubbing off on me.) Haley’s rendition is more grounded, angrier even, as if she’s knee-deep in the pollution and war and poverty, and trying to wake up her brothers and sisters with the furious shake of her voice. But one thing the covers have in common is an uncommon beauty, the sense that an undeniable pop-Gospel hook is being deftly handled by a vocalist who’s not even breaking a sweat as she’s lifting up her audience and lifting the melody to the rafters. Sure, Nicole was trying too hard with her critique — “if that doesn’t save a small country somewhere, I don’t know what will” — but I can forgive a little hyperbole from a reality show judge when even I’m throwing a Gospel hand and swaying from my living-room couch.

Either way, you can be sure that on a night where the eliminations will be hard to predict, it won’t be Melanie getting the boot. My best guesses for who will go home: Rachel and Astro. And as for who should go home: Rachel and Chris.

Your turn: Who’d you love? Who do you think is headed home? And why don’t you also answer the question Steve Jones foisted on an unsuspecting Paris Jackson: “ARE YOU HAPPY WITH THE SPECTACLE THAT IS THE X FACTOR?” Answer him now, people, Steve is trying to keep the show to a pithy 90-minute schedule, thank you very much.

Slezak on Twitter: @MichaelSlezakTV!