This just in from The X Factor: Sponsored by Verizon Wireless: Stevie Wonder is calling Chris Rene! Hollywood is calling Rachel Crow! And wait, Steve Jones’ internal motherboard is transmitting some vaguely worded text message about an “error in communication” regarding this week’s Pepsi viewers’ choice performances. (Next week, by the bye, Steve will be replaced by an AOL Instant Messenger box and a series of cutting-edge emoticons.)
What’s that? You’re not buying Steve’s explanation for the last-minute theme switch? You think Simon Cowell simply wanted to whip up some dramatic backstage footage and test the mental and emotional resolve of the Top 5 contestants? How cynical you’ve become since the days when you choked back tears watching Kelly Clarkson sing “A Moment Like This” through a curtain of confetti. Just because The X Factor is as organic as a Hostess Twinkie doesn’t mean there’s something untoward going on (except maybe in Nicole Shankamaker’s wardrobe).
Anyhow, whether planned or contrived, let’s take a deep dive into the week’s performances — where each contestant tackled (or was tackled by) a dance track, then followed up with a rendition of his or her “save me” song — ¡with only 24 hours to prepare! (I know, I know, not really all that shocking or controversial.)
Melanie Amaro: Adele’s “Someone Like You”
If Nicole deserves to be put in the stocks for doing a dreadful job mentoring Josh, then maybe it’s time Simon was shamed in the public square for keeping Melanie trapped in Big Diva Ballad Prison. Let’s be honest, given Melanie’s perceived popularity, and given the fact that she had two performances this week to showcase her pipes, this would’ve been the perfect moment to choose some offbeat but cutting edge material. (Oh how I’d live to hear Melanie cover some Kristine W or Sophie Ellis-Bextor or Ultra Naté or latter-day Jody Watley.) But nope, instead we got Melanie covering Adele’s “Someone Like You” — the world’s most subtle two-by-four to the gut — hoisted aloft on a clumsy dance beat, hijacked by a team of black rubber Storm Troopers, then cut off at the knees after maybe 60 seconds. Melanie hit all her notes, as she always does, but if it’s possible to flawlessly cover a very recent No. 1 hit and still manage to not sound like a current recording artist, well, then mission accomplished.
Marcus Canty: Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody”
In the Book of L.A., he’s “Two-time champion and true survivor Marcus Canty,” and to the rest of the world (or maybe just me), he’s Bottom 2 dweller/dude who was generously gifted with Drew Ryniewicz’s spot in the Top 5. But like Simon said, you’ve got to judge Marcus on what he does, not on what Drew wasn’t allowed to do. And while “Ain’t Nobody” was not the most imaginative choice of material, I’d say Marcus — in his rubber-sequined suit and with his neon bolero backup dancers — nevertheless did the best job of bringing a genuine dance-music vibe to the stage. There’s a little part of me that always feels like Marcus is playing dressup — that he’s just a really good singer who’s nervously following L.A.’s “How to Be a Pop Star” manual — but there’s no denying he brought this groove to life and made me do a little bit of seated couch dancing. He also inspired yet another bit of Nicoleian Nonsense (TM): “God has a plan for you, honey!” Um, how exactly is that a critique, honey?
Rachel Crow: B.o.B. & Bruno Mars’ “Nothin’ on You”
This was one of Rachel’s stronger vocals over the past few weeks, but she struggled with the lightning quick cadences at the midpoint. That clunky delivery made me wonder whether Simon is bothering to help his little protege with her vocals, or if he’s too busy planning “fun” and “spontaneous” “banter” for Rachel that will further advance her quest to travel back to the late-1980s and play an adorably precocious moppet in an ABC Friday-night sitcom. Seriously, nothing will convince me that L.A.’s question — “who were you singing to on this record?” — wasn’t a plant that would allow Rachel to grin big and squeak, “I was singin’ to Paula and Nicole” followed by a maniacal laugh that continued for the rest of the telecast and well into my Wednesday evening nightmares. Fun fact brought to you by Mr. Cowell: Rachel used to do standup comedy! (Brace yourselves for the inevitable summer fil’m entitled From Rachel to Astro.)
Josh Krajcik: Rihanna’s “We Found Love”
Let’s be honest: Dance Music is to Josh as a New York City sidewalk is to a wild impala. In other words, it’s an uncomfortable and possibly deadly habitat. But I can’t help but feel like Nicole just zipped over to the iTunes store, looked for the first dance tune in the Top 10 singles, figured, “Eh, why not?” and then went off to get her false lashes applied. Josh, meanwhile, spent the performance adrift among a sea of backup dancers and a giant boa-constrictor collar, enduring his time on stage rather than fully owning it. Why couldn’t Sharbinger have assigned Josh a more rock-edged dance number, like Ultra Naté’s “Found a Cure” or New Order’s “Blue Monday”? #MissedOpportunity
Chris Rene: T.I.’s “Live Your Life”
Maybe it was the fact that he penned his own verses. Or maybe I got hypnotized by the hooded dancers of the apocalypse and the giant conveyor belt that propelled him across the stage. But if I had to spend an afternoon watching any of the evening’s “dance music” performances on repeat, it’d be Chris’ scratchy, joyous, imperfect, energetic number. Hey (ey-ey-ey-ey-ey-ey) it was fun to watch! Also, memo to Nicole: Dude’s name is not Josh.
Melanie Amaro: Mariah Carey & Whitney Houston’s “When You Believe”
Of all the monster diva ballads in the world, Melanie goes and settles on a turgid piece of 1998 animated soundtrack dreck from Whitney and Mariah? Could there have been any less successful way to signal she’s an exciting and relevant artist ready to conquer modern radio? UGH! Look, I realize this is, at least in part, a singing competition. And I realize Melanie has a borderline miraculous vocal talent that should be automatically rewarded by a place in the finale. And sure, she sounded flawless on “When You Believe.” But ultimately, if this is what Melanie plans to so with her gift, I fear she could be on her way to an early exit. “When You Believe” was kind of like the equivalent of Bobby Flay using his culinary skills to make a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios and 1% milk. L.A. was absolutely right that it was “safe but amazing,” right down to the backdrop opening up on the final refrain to reveal the standard operating Gospel chorus. If Melanie really is a child of the Caribbean, then let her talent loose with an a capella rendition of “Redemption Song,” or let her lift us up with Dawn Penn’s reggae-downer “No No No (You Don’t Love Me).” Because not even Mariah Carey is doing Mariah Carey ballads anymore. Oh, and one more thing, Melanie needs to take her post-performance inspirational rambling and put it on a one-way flight to the Bermuda Triangle, where it shall never be heard from again. Jah? Jah!
Marcus Canty: Leon Russell’s “A Song for You”
Was it Elliott Yamin level? Not quite. But damn, Marcus came close with a vocal that mixed beautiful restraint with unrestricted power. And most important of all, the Season 1 underdog completely nailed the emotional essence of the material — never letting vocal showboating trump the lyrical content. As Marcus reiterated his point — “And when my time is over/ Remember when we were together/ We were alone and I was singing this song for you” — the outlook for his four X Factor rivals got just a bit murkier. Like Chumbawamba, this guy gets knocked down, but I think he’s gonna get up again — for at least one more week, y’know?
Rachel Crow: Michael Jackson’s “Music & Me”
Let’s set aside, for a moment, that Rachel took to the stage in a black sequined frock from the Susan Boyle Juniors Collection. Let us forget that she momentarily transformed into a ghastly amalgamation of the Miss Teen USA pageant, Little Miss Sunshine, and Toddlers & Tiaras, cheerfully barking “My mission is to inspire the kids. That’s all I wanna do.” (SRSLY?) Let’s ignore the fact that Nicole was so needy for Simon’s approval that she screeched “That was me! I said that!” after Simon attributed her “old-soul” critique to Paula. Because ultimately, Rachel’s vocal on the verses of “Music & Me” was as flat as a Kansas cornfield, and hollow as an autumn gourd. L.A. may be right that “Hollywood is circling the wagons” for Rachel, but I can’t help but feel like this is the week where her X Factor dreams will be circling the drain.
Josh Krajcik: The Beatles’ “Something”
Am I the only one who wonders how Josh might’ve fared had he been assigned Paula or Simon or L.A. as his mentor? Because Simon, ultimately, was correct when he implored Josh to “not allow” Nicole to ever again weigh him down with crazy choreography or wrong-minded song choices. “Something” wasn’t entirely perfect — there were a few moments where I felt my attention drift, hoping Josh might zig where I expected a zag, focusing a little too much on his maniacal facial expressions — but there’s also no denying he’s got a gorgeous and distinctive voice and an authentic musical point of view. What are the chances that the Pepsi audience-choice performance is going to allow Josh to sing an original track next week? (Yeah, it’s nill…but I can still dream, right?)
Chris Rene: “Where Do We Go From Here?” (original track)
Speaking of allowing contestants to perform original material…let’s hear it for Chris Rene’s soulful acoustic ditty “Where Do We Go From Here?” — a number that highlighted everything good and unique about the smallest voice in the Season 1 Top 5. Compared to Melanie’s tidal wave vocals, or Josh’s deep and moody pond, Chris is more of a plinking spring shower. But I found myself completely riveted this week as HE sat there on his stool with his acoustic guitar, asking “Where do we go from here? God only knows.” Sure, after all the bright lights and booming backup singers and writhing dancers, a stripped-down performance (with Chris in a simple black t-shirt and slicked back hair) was like soothing salve for my tortured retinas and eardrums, but judged solely on its own merits, this was still one of the highlights of the entire X Factor season. The guy means every single word he sings, and even if he doesn’t sing it as powerfully or as steadily as his competition, there’s value in the unflinching honesty of it all. This week, Chris absolutely earned his spot in the Final 4 — and while that may be upsetting news for fans of Rachel, Marcus, Josh, and Melanie — I’d be lying if I said otherwise.
Bottom 2 Prediction: Rachel and Josh — with Rachel going home.
What did you think of this week’s X Factor? Who got your votes, and who’s headed home? Sound off in the comments. And for all my X Factor news, reviews, and interviews, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!