The X Factor Recap: The Pledge of 17

The X Factor stage, with its 973 flashing screens, 1,247 spotlights, and floor covered in twinkling, cascading strobes, is reminiscent of a big-budget sci-fi movie, and that can cause the strangest kinds of daydreams:

No one ever gets eliminated on The X Factor. Instead, they are assimilated into Intensity, a Borg-like collective that operates with a single consciousness and questionable pitch, and is fueled entirely by the power of Tweets with the hashtag #xfactor (as well as as Nicole Sherpazumba’s eyelash flutters). Its leader, a tall, menacing, personality-free being called “Steve Jones,” has one mission: To keep the telecast to its allotted 150-minute running time without displaying the slightest bit of charm or good humor. Oh, and in case you were trying to find them on YouTube, Simone Battle and her saucy/hilarious debut single no longer exist: She, too, has now been assimilated. Resistance is futile.

Okay, okay…you wanted a recap, not my half-baked attempts to channel Philip K. Dick. So let’s talk about Tuesday night’s Top 17 performance show, which kicked off with a blast of Enrique Iglesias’ Auto-Tuned musical gasp on his Jersey Shore-approved hit “I Like It.” The not-so-subtle message? “Sit back and enjoy! Nothing you hear from our finalists is going to sound this tragic!” And the good news is, almost nothing did!

So let’s review the performances by the 17 acts who put everything on the line for the chance to “star in their very own Pepsi commercial,” keeping in mind that only 12 of them would survive to next week’s viewer vote.

BOYS UNDER 30 (mentored by L.A. Reid)
Astro: L.A. Reid is an evil genius, pressing my nostalgia buttons by choosing Kris Kross’ infectious 1992 chart-topper “Jump” for the Obnoxious Little Rapper That Could (Exceed My Early Expectations). I won’t lie: I bopped my head right along as Astro turned the chorus into his own personal victory anthem. “Astro will make ya/ Jump, jump/ Da X Factor makes ya/ Jump jump/ Hip-hop will make ya/ Jump, jump.” Astro flowed along on his personalized verses — swag to the maximum/ ain’t nothin free so I hit the freestyle/ but I’m taxin ’em” — as steadily as the Hudson zips through New York, and in the process, he managed to be one of the few acts to never get upstaged by his background dancers. The kid’s biggest problem, though, is that while bravado and swagger are hallmarks of the hip-hop genre, they’re as unwelcome as a Randy Jackson critique in the world of reality TV competition. If L.A. wants this kid to make the finale, I suggest rehearsal footage where Astro gets denied his computer privileges, is forced to complete his household chores, and isn’t allowed to leave the table till he finishes his lima beans.

Chris Rene: After Chris’ wheezy rendition of Rose Royce’s “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” — complete with sputtering falsetto — Simon declared that he wasn’t the strongest singer in the competition, but was one of its best “recording artists.” Which, on one hand, is pure nonsense, seeing how Chris is an undiscovered talent with no track record of putting out recorded music. And yet, on the other hand, I kind of know what he means: There’s something compelling about this recovering addict that makes you want to hear what he’s singing, even as you wish there was a magical Auto-Tune button on your remote to make it all a little more tuneful.

Phillip Lomax: You knew this dude was doomed the minute L.A. introduced him as “The Sensational Phillip Lomax” (overcompensate much?) and his intro package showed him talking about how he lives in “a two-bedroom apartment in Seattle.” DUDE, THAT IS NOT SMALL ENOUGH OR DEPRESSING ENOUGH. Phillip should’ve said he lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Seattle — with 27 of his relatives whom he’s singlehandedly supporting down at the frozen-pizza factory. Sheesh, hasn’t reality TV taught him anything? But really, Phillip was doomed the minute L.A. saddled him with the Monkee’s “I’m a Believer” and a pack of choo-choo girl backup dancers in plaid pillbox hats. The staging, the arrangement, the lights, and the backing track swallowed the kid alive — in much the way those little creatures got gulped down by Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi  — and his vocal was reduced to a quavering background noise. How Nicole found it “amazing” is beyond me, unless she meant it was amazing that his mentor sabotaged him in such a cruel and blatant fashion.

Marcus Canty: It doesn’t hurt that Marcus is easily the best vocalist in his category, and even though “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” seemed like an odd choice for him on paper, I liked the fact that he was able to add a little bit of modern, club flair to Culture Club’s timeless melody. Going forward, though, L.A. needs to help Marcus with his dance moves, since the squat-bounce-and-pounce wasn’t really in perfect harmony with the soulful ballad Marcus was singing.

Results Reveal: Astro safe! Marcus safe! Chris safe! Any parting words from Phillip? “It’s such a shame that L.A. sent me home tonight, but I’m just so happy to be here in the first place.” Buh-bye!

GROUPS (mentored by Paula Abdul)
Stereo Hogzz: Did anyone think the group’s lead singer, with his black vest, sleeveless white dress shirt, and black tie, was dressed like the head waiter at the world’s gayest restaurant? No? Just me? Okay then. Paula may have herself a contending act in this quintet of guys who were smart enough to cede the spotlight to their most talented member on “Try a Little Tenderness,” but not if she doesn’t put the kibosh on ridiculous choreography like that bit where four of the guys circled the band’s tepid rapper, bent forward at the waist, and zipped around him like he was a maypole. Also, note to aforementioned lead singer: Never end a performance with the Full Caruso (aka whipping off your shades as if you’ve just discovered a crucial clue on the dead girl’s body).

The Brewer Boys: Wait, how did the most promising entry in the “Groups” category get booted in Week 1? Maybe because their mentor marooned them on a stack of trunks, surrounded them with nonsensical “dancers,” then saddled them with a “Rich Girl”/”Faith” mashup that turned into a car crash between Mumford and Sons and Hee-Haw. I’m not sure why Paula didn’t add a rap interlude, or have a fork-lift operator crash through their set mid-performance, just to complete the sabotage.

Intensity: Welcome to the modern-day answer to those Japanese cartoons that triggered seizures in hundreds of kids back in the ’90s! Or maybe this is simply a prelude to a Broadway production of Children of the Corn: The Musical! Either way, this 10-member act’s mashup of Cupid’s “369” and Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose” was atrocious: That poor blonde girl’s lead vocal was the musical equivalent of striking out at whiffle ball, and that Ellona chick’s howling was like smashing said whiffle ball with a titanium bat. Nicole declared the group was a “pumpkin patch of yummy pumpkins” (she’s got a way with words), and Simon said he had the “new young Glee in front of me” (he wishes), but I say Intensity too much of everything all at once.

Lakoda Rayne: Maybe they’re just the beneficiary of extremely low expectations, but this manufactured quartet sounded pretty solid covering Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ “Come on Eileen” — a song I’m not sure Paula understands is about a guy trying to get in a girl’s pants. Then again, maybe Paula understands it perfectly. (It’s disconcerting either way, no?) I just don’t understand what awful backstage offense the brunette chick committed to wind up in those ridiculous spangled genie pants.

Results Reveal: Stereo Hogzz safe! Lakoda Rayne safe! Intensity safe! “I’m sorry we didn’t live up to your expectations,” said the crafty/cherubic Brewer, and I’m certain it was a passive-aggressive attempt to activate Paula’s guilt sensors. Mission accomplished!

OVER 30s (mentored by Nicole Regnizrehcs)
“Dexter Haygood, Y’all!”: Sometimes I think Nicole is brilliantly channeling Maya Rudolph’s Up All Night character, and sometimes I think she’s simply intolerable, but that’s a story for another day. Right now we have to talk about Dexter’s deranged mashup of Britney Spears’ “Womanizer” and Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl.” Actually, on second thought, we don’t. You’re welcome.

Leroy Bell Is 60 and Still Jogging: “He represents that dreams never die,” Nicole explained in Leroy’s intro package, so you knew there was no way she would send him home. I mean, Pussycat Dolls are dream makers, not dream takers. Weirdly, though, as much as I think Leroy is one of the competition’s most promising vocalists, and as much as he hit the bulk of his notes in his first live performance, I agreed with L.A. that the dude deserved a better song than Pink’s “Nobody Knows,” and I understood what Simon meant about Leroy seeming a little nervous and disconnected. I had no clue, on the other hand, what Paula meant with that comment about knowing Michael Bolton since he was seven. (Maybe one of her teacup chihuahuas is named Michael Bolton?)

Stacy Francis: Yes, Stacy even cries in rehearsals (as long as there’s a camera crew at rehearsals, anyhow), and she also refers to her doubting inner voice in the third person. But that ridiculata aside, there’s no denying the woman’s talent. There were moments of her cover of George Michael’s “One More Try” that threatened to go off the rails — where her delivery swooped into a squeak, where her bellow dove into dangerous territory — but somehow all of it worked for me. Stacy seemed to really connect with the message of the song she was singing, and she wasn’t afraid to get a little ugly in her delivery, so on those counts, I think her mentor served her well. But Simon was right, the feather-sleeved jacket and sequined pants did not suit this particular diva. And L.A. made the comment of the night when he instructed Stacy, “you’re not crying, so don’t start.” Correct! The woman is actually really gorgeous when she smiles.

Josh Krajcik: Amidst all of the lighting effects and backup dancing and general white noise of American Idol: Roid Rage Edition, it was the quiet moments that resonated most. (Kind of like that old perfume ad goes: “If you want to get someone’s attention, whisper.”) That certainly held true for Josh’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” the arrangement of which was so sparse it almost felt like he was singing a capella. There’s an honesty to Josh’s voice, and a world-weariness in his delivery, that’s completely magical, although I think it’s a little early for Paula to be pulling out critiques like “you have my favorite voice of the last decade.” Then again, she’s known Michael Bolton since she was seven, so maybe she’s got her own Tardis and knows everything?

Results Reveal: Stacy safe! (Watch her point violently at Nicole!) Josh safe! Leroy safe! “I’m kinda confused,” says Dexter. That’s okay, Steve Jones already has your desk packed up into a cardboard box and will have you escorted out of the building before the commercial break is over.

GIRLS UNDER 30 (Mentored by Simon Cowell)
Simone Battle: I got so excited when I heard the sounds of Beats International’s “Dub Be Good to Me” that it took me a good 30 seconds before I realized Simone was taking a jagged hunting knife to its stomach and violently yanking out its intestines. The whole promise of a dance-pop diva covering an underrated classic was like getting the world’s most spectacular party invite and then finding out the big event is merely some dude microwaving a Mama Celeste and serving it on paper plates. I guess I should’ve known trouble was on the way when Simone’s rehearsal package found her fretting, “I have to sing and dance, and I have to sound good.” (Yep, that’s the object of the game.) Nevertheless, I’m not mad at Simone, and I’m not ashamed to say her debut single, “He Likes Boys” is already stuck in my head, and headed for my iPod. I just don’t necessarily want to hear her singing it live is all.

Rachel Crow: So many questions raced through my head during and after Rachel’s mashup of Justin Bieber’s “Baby” and the Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go” (a pretty genius combo, if you ask me): Why is Rachel wearing that weird white blouse with a bow at the neck under a Scottish foxhunter’s plaid blazer? Why is she stuck on a platform that she’s terrified to climb down from? Why is L.A. lying and saying she’d make a terrific actress? (The era of the sitcom moppet is more than 20 years past its prime, dude!) Why is Paula telling Rachel she could run for president? (Okay, actually, given some of the jokers in the race…) But ultimately, the biggest question I have is this: While it’s clear Rachel has a really good singing voice, is she simply too young to be more than a Ghost of American Juniors Past? More and more, I’m thinking the answer is “quite probably.”

Drew (Just Drew. No need for the Ryniewicz): The arrangement of Drew’s downtempo cover of Irene Cara’s “What a Feeling” was as delicate as a music box, and her delivery was, in a word, sublime. How a 14-year-old girl can make me believe that “being’s believing” and that I can really have it all is a total mystery to me, though that black-and-white shot of Drew in the floppy hat has me convinced that she could be channeling ’70s-era Carly Simon by way of Dolores O’Riordan. It’s too early for me to say I want Drew to win it all — let’s see how she fares when Simon inevitably weighs her down with a dance beat and 100 backup dancers — but I’ll agree with Nicole that I’d totally go see this kid in concert.

Side note: This conversation with my husband took place when the image of doves flying appeared on the screen behind Drew during her performance:
Hubby: What the hell is that?
Me: Doves.
Hubby: You’re joking. What have doves got to do with it?

(Oh how I wish I’d said, “What are doves but a second-hand emotion?”)

Tiah Tolliver: Everyone on the Internet assures me Tiah’s rendition of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” was a hot, honeyed wreck, but I was mesmerized by the enchanted forest fire, Tiah’s epaulettes-laden bathing suit thingie, the operatic backup dancers, and even Tiah’s scary-committed vocal delivery. I didn’t mind it a bit, and it was certainly more in tune than any live performance I’ve ever seen by Katy Perry or Ke$ha. Which is why I’m kind of bummed we’ve got a Tiah-free top 12. I mean, if we’re going to be inundated with insane production values, shouldn’t we have at least one diva wacky/charismatic enough to handle ’em?

Melanie Amaro: Let’s start the countdown clock till the world starts griping that Melanie Amaro isn’t “current” enough to hang on a pop chart where Enrique Iglesias still has his membership card. Because of all the hare-brained song choices from The X Factor‘s first live performance show, none was more appalling than Simon’s selection for Melanie of Whitney Houston’s dated, done-to-death-on-reality-shows “I Have Nothing.” Still, as L.A. pointed out, it may have been the wrong song, but it hardly matters. Melanie makes her astonishing talent look so effortless that all I can do is raise a gospel hand and get ready to send some votes her way next week. Who’s with me?

Final Verdict: Drew safe! Rachel safe! (Because Simon thinks that’s what America wants?) Melanie safe! Tiah is out! Simone is out — but not without a shoutout to her “He Likes Boys” music video (embedded below)!

What did you think of The X Factor‘s first live show? What did you think of the judges’ decisions? Did you disagree with any of the eliminations? And who do you think will be the first act booted when America gets control of the outcome? Sound off below, and for all my X Factor news, views, and interviews, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!

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