The X Factor Recap: Motown Operandi

The-X-Factor-Khaya-CohenLike that expensive cheese in your fridge that unexpectedly presents with a patch of furry blue mold, The X Factor is the reality competition that asks the eternal question: To toss the whole package into the trash compactor with a satisfying whirr — or to press the CTRL+SCRAPE+EAT button.

Tonight’s Season 3 Top 13 performance night spent two hours framing said debate: There was the awfulness we’ve come to expect from Fox’s “other” singing competition: Mario Lopez’s automatonic hosting style; the overblown production — including a premature Gospel chorus! — for selected “chosen” contestants; seizure-inducing lighting; Paulina Rubio’s comic ineptitude. And on top of it all, a new and utterly predictable pattern that any negative criticism from mentors Kelly Rowland and Demi Lovato must be followed up by some variation on Simon Cowell declaring, “I have to be honest…I lllloved it!”

But in the midst of the myriad, mind-numbing ridiculata, The X Factor still somehow manages — perhaps with an undercurrent of evil genius, but more likely by total accident — to expose us to a handful of acts who leave you thinking, “Y’know, I might actually enjoy hearing this in the real world!”

I know, I know…”the real world” isn’t necessarily a protective bubble reserved for the steadfast and the talented — oh, hi there, Ke$ha, how’d you get in here again?! — but nevertheless, The X Factor’s flirtation with commercial gold makes it an oddly intriguing exercise. (Be honest: Part of you is kinda hoping Fifth Harmony, the steely-eyed girl quintet from Season 2, conquers the world — as long as it doesn’t end in a Spice World-esque feature film.)

But enough of my internal monologue, let me assign letter grades for tonight’s performances:

Josh Levi: Jackson 5’s “Who’s Lovin’ You” — Grade: B- | Yeah, this was a vast improvement on whatever he sang last week that I’ve already forgotten about. Nevertheless, was there anything truly fresh or passionate about this performance to warrant Simon’s annual “zero to hero” critique? Which is my polite way of asking, why didn’t the show’s producers bring back James Kenney or Lyric 145 (whoops! wrong season!) instead of salvaging an act from what’s widely perceived as the weakest category in Season 3.

Rachel Potter: The Isley Brothers’ “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)” — Grade: B- | You’ve got to give points to Rachel (and mentor Kelly) for attempting to countrify a boppy soul-pop jam that wears its ’60s origins as proudly as Simon displays his chest hair. Despite Rachel’s solid pitch and easy stage presence, though, there was something not entirely authentic about the number, like it came from Country: The Musical! instead of country: the genre. Next week — provided she’s still around — Rachel won’t be able to afford another at-arm’s-length performance; a deeper emotional connection is her only hope.

Carlos Guevara: Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” — Grade: D | Maybe Carlos got thrown by mentor Paulina announcing he was from “Lexinton, South California,” when, in fact, he’s from South Carolina. Whatever the case, the likable teen was barely audible in certain parts of the opening verse, then proceeded to make me wish he’d keep backing off the mic by going flat for most of the chorus. Worst of all, as Simon pointed out, was a lazy arrangement that sounded like Paulina ordered it up off a discount karaoke machine. And just like that, the most promising member of the Boys Team started looking like a potential early evictee.

Restless Road: The Commodores’ “Easy” — Grade: C | When Paulina Rubio pauses from her standard-operating positivespeak to call out “peachiness,” then you know that some bunk notes have waddled across the stage like a line of penguins on the open tundra. And that’s exactly what happened to lead singer Colton in the latter half of “Easy,” which would’ve been more apt had he beeing singing, “That’s why it’s painful…painful like a Monday mornin’…” Look, if I was a soulless label exec, I’d probably sign these boys on the spot, order them a limitless supply of tight Wranglers, henleys and plaid flannel, and watch the money come rolling in. But while we’re all in this X Factor thing together, I’ve got to believe vocal talent — as opposed to obvious marketability — is the trump card. And I’m not sure mentor Simon has a big enough deck of tricks to deal these fellas a winning hand.

Ellona Santiago: The Supremes’ “Baby Love” — Grade: B- | Oh em gee, guys, Ellona had to take her SATs this week and get ready for her Motown Week. Her life is pure pain in a purple sequined halter top and fringe skirt! All kidding aside, though, the girl has some serious chops — and clearly has a vision of herself as the kind of all-purpose pop star who can bust some sweet moves and still have enough air in her lungs to belt out a massive glory note. There were moments where Ellona looked just a tad desperate to convince us (and probably herself) that she can have her cake and bare her midriff, too, but aside from a couple of gaspy notes and an outfit that looked like it’d been dug up at the Dancing With the Stars Factory Outlet, she almost pulled it off.

Jeff Gutt: Lionel Richie’s “Say You, Say Me” — Grade: B+ | It’s not easy to sing a lyric like “I had a dream/I had an awesome dream” without it staining your rock cred like pizza sauce on a silk tie. Which made me all the more impressed by Jeff’s growly-passionate take on the White Nights soundtrack cut — yes, I’m old enough to remember that flick. There were a few times Jeff looked a bit mystified by the staging — did he actually begin out of the audience’s view? — but after only two weeks of live performances, he’s already looking like an easy Top 5 contender. (Well, as long as he loses the soul patch.)

Alex & Sierra: Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” — Grade: A- | I’m going to pretend I didn’t see the whole “unscripted” “let’s jump in an off-limits pool!” intro package and focus on one of the night’s two best performances. This boyfriend-girlfriend duo trade verses with the ease of Olympic sprinters passing the baton, and their simple, straightforward arrangements seem to breathe new energy into even the most overdone ditties. Plus, they can sing in tune! If I had to write a blurb for their post-X Factor biography, it’d be something like, “Alex & Sierra — they’re like a long blast of Febreeze in a mudroom filled with hot garbage!”

Khaya Cohen: The Temptations’ “My Girl” — Grade: A- | Can’t deny Simon’s critique that this kid sounds a lot like Amy Winehouse — which in my book is majorly high praise. Yeah, I coulda done without the slits in Khaya’s shorts (!) — and I worry Mr. Cowell’s early efforts to paint her as not likable will probably haunt her all season — but this was a fantastic vocal, and sounded shockingly current given that “My Girl” is one of the most dated tracks in the Motown repertoire. If Khaya can train herself to look more enthused when words start bubbling like rabies foam from Paulina’s mouth, she could win the whole enchilada!

OK, X Factor fans…it’s getting late-late here, and because brevity is the close cousin of exhaustion, I’m gonna finish off these reviews in a Twitter-esque 140 characters or less.

Carlito Olivero: The Supremes’ “Stop! In the Name of Love” — Grade: B | The gaggle of writhing chicas was comically awful, but the acoustic ballad rearrangement showed a tender (and reasonably tuneful) side of the Latin hottie’s voice. He should be safe.

Lillie McCloud: Stevie Wonder’s “All Is Fair in Love” — Grade: B | Girl look at that 54-year-old body…she works out! Still, the whole Diana Ross-in-Mahogany staging, and Lillie’s excessive runs, was a little fusty for a sexy grandma trying to prove that cool doesn’t have an expiration date.

Sweet Suspense & 27 Backup Singers: The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” — Grade: N/A | I’ve watched this performance three times now, and I’m still not sure if the producers had these girls mics turned all the way on. Or maybe they just mixed the sound through a tin can and then added 49 backup singers to the mix. I guess we should just be glad none of the silver lamé went up in flames during the sparkler explosion.

Rion Paige: Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” — Grade: C+ | I’m with Kelly Rowland in that not every Motown song benefits from an infusion of twang. And while Rion’s got some talent, there’s a tentativeness in her delivery and an inconsistency to her pitch that makes me think she should’ve waited another three or four years before trying to break on through to the A-list side.

Tim Olstad: Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” — Grade: D+ | This just in: Tim is not a funeral director. Problem is, I’m not sure he’s a viable recording artist, either, as evidenced by a lackluster Michael Jackson cover that really didn’t need a Gospel chorus and 1,000 points of audience glowsticks, either.

Should Be Bottom 3
Restless Road
(Carlos going home)

Will Be Bottom 3
(Rachel going home)

And with that, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of tonight’s Top 13 performances? What did you think of the judges’ feedback? Who were your faves? Who are you worried about? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments!