The X Factor Recap: Eighties Is Enough

THE X FACTOR Khaya CohenInformal poll time, X Factor watchers!

The most confounding portion of tonight’s Top 12 performance telecast was:

A. Paulina Rubio’s continued employment in the face of her enthusiastic incompetence
B. Paulina’s insistence on using the word “America” while introducing her acts (Gurrl, it’ll take more than that to win us over, I’m afraid)
C. The screaming of the lambs audience
D. Mario Lopez’s obscene attempt to recreate a classic Michael Jackson dance move
E. Writhing ladies leading into various ad breaks (I didn’t hallucinate that, did I?)
F. The inclusion of an interpretive dance to “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)”
G. The fact that a mentor and/or contestant thought “Against All Odds” would be viewed as anything other than an unwelcome assault on viewers’ ears

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OK, OK, before you answer the question down in the comments, let me come clean: I’m not trying to hate-watch The X Factor. That would be a disservice to the 12 hard-working acts attempting to overcome seizure-inducing lights, batallions of background singers, checked-out mentors and cruel stylists who interpret the term “theme night” as “second Halloween.”

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And in fact, four or five singers tonight left the impression that they could — maybe even should — be viewed as viable artists who belong on the charts alongside (or perhaps above) Season 2 standouts Fifth Harmony.

Which is why I keep watching and recapping and, yes, railing against Simon Cowell and his cronies, who seem hellbent on a Thelma & Louise trajectory — straight over the cliff, then a cut to final credits. Heck, if this show provides me with one more terrific Alex & Sierra download before Christmas, I could easily justify a Season 4.

Anyhow, because of last week’s voting snafu, the episode began with one contestant getting the boot based on last week’s Thursday voting tallies. The doomed singer: Carlos Guevara, who didn’t bother to remove the gum from his mouth when Mario called him to center stage for a hasty goodbye.

But enough about the voyage of the damned,  let’s cut to letter grades for tonight’s performances!

Lillie McCloud: Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” — Grade: B | I gotta be honest: I feel a little bad for Lillie. She pretty much nailed every note of Chaka’s dance-soul classic (even if she colored within the lines of the original). And yet I couldn’t escape the sense that some of her inner sparkle got buried beneath the tortured hair and the houndstooth-check blouse — tied at the waist to denote that she’s not old-fashioned, dammit! If she lives to fight another week, I think Kelly should instruct Lillie to stop being so polite and start channeling the raging diva that’s hissing silently behind her clench-toothed smile. It might not make her America’s sweetheart grandma, but it would at least make her real.

Carlito Olivero: Miami Sound Machine’s “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” — Grade: B | The judges really came down hard on Carlito this week, but to my eyes and ears, the Latin heartthrob actually looked pretty comfortable with the night’s most intricate choreography — and managed to stay on pitch for a good 85-90 percent of his notes. Give some credit where it’s due: It’s not easy to sound cool when you’re tackling Miami Sound Machine. And even though Paulina griped that he “struggled” with his face (!), I suspect any befuddlement she detected came as a result of her word-salad introduction: “Carlito, Carlito can sing, can dance, can give it all. Here is for America!”

Rion Paige: Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” — Grade: C- | The kid has got spunk, (or as Paulina’s producer-written script denoted, she’s a “firecracker”). This does not mean, however, that Rion has any business tackling Pat Benatar’s range-y beast about a woman fighting to hold onto a crumbling relationship. Not only did Rion’s delivery lack the otherworldly conviction of La Benatar, but she also was sharp and gaspy for at least two thirds of the number. As Simon blathered about Rion’s greatness — offering only mild criticism of Demi for failing to find the exact right song for Rion — the ghost of his Early Idol Honesty shook its chains in the dungeon where it’s being imprisoned alongside Khloe Kardashian’s hosting dreams and L.A. Reid’s credibility.

Sweet Suspense: Toni Basil’s “Mickey” — Grade: N/A (until I can clearly hear the three girls’ voices over the track, I refuse to grade them!) | The multiple shots of Sweet Suspense’s backup singers again this week leads me to believe there’s either a sly producer who’s trying to tell America to ignore the Screens of Fire and the convulsing teenage-boy dancers and recognize that the Emperor is wearing a loincloth. Or that Simon himself secretly wants Sweet Suspense to go the way of Steve Jones so he can spend all his production budget filming Restless Road playing touch football in the parking lot. Whatever the case may be, I’m hoping that next Wednesday’s performance show includes a call-in number where I can vote for the voice in the shadows. (Hmmm…Voices in the Shadows might be a good name for ’em, no?)

Tim Olstad: Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)” — Grade: D | Hey, Paulina, so you (or more likely a team of mid-level producers) chose the most overdone song in the history of singing competitions: Now what do you do? I know! I know! Fill the stage with a chain link fence, some old TV sets (projecting flickering candles) and a solitary female dancer in a white dress shirt (sans pants) writhing and stretching to no avail. Tim’s listless vocal was like the Lunesta butterfly carrying me away to sleepytimes, or as Paulina so concisely put it, “You sang like Tim!”

Khaya Cohen: Madonna’s “Borderline” — Grade: A- | I loved the way Khaya took “Borderline” — an ’80s classic with a flawless little melody — and put it into her retro-soul, Winehouse-ian wheelhouse. The kid may have lost control of a note or two near the end of the performance, but she was also one of the few performers to really engage the audience in a way that didn’t feel automatonic or, even worse, mandatory. As Simon noted in his raving critique, in Khaya, The X Factor’s third season may have discovered “somebody really special.”

Restless Road: Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose” — Grade: B- | I found it amusing how the really stiff dude from the group argued that his pole-vaulting past would help the pre-fab boy band with their stage movement, only to turn out a performance where nary a hip got swayed (aside from those chicas in ridiculously short cutoffs writhing atop pinball machines. That criticism aside, however, I’d be lying if I didn’t give Colton credit for improving his accuracy tenfold since last week. Is there still a long way to travel before the trio’s vocals are ready for an actual concert venue? Sure. But maybe that’s why Simon didn’t call them Rested and Ready Road.

Rachel Potter: Heart’s “Alone” — Grade: B+ | The juxtaposition of Rachel’s twangy delivery and the “ripped from a karaoke machine arrangement” was a tad peculiar, but on the flip side, the girl hit some big, dangerous notes with all the force and audacity of David bringing down Goliath. Still, my fave part of the performance was Rachel’s mentor Kelly shouting “lies and deception!” — like a particularly fierce Good Wife lawyer making a courtroom objection — when La Cowell tried to say Rachel’s pitch had veered off a couple times. “I don’t think anybody in [Simon’s] category hits those notes, so he wouldn’t know what those sound like.” OOOH, Kelly, that’s one to add to the burn book!

Ellona Santiago: Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” — Grade: B- | Demi seems to have it stuck in her head that Ellona is X Factor‘s answer to Rihanna or Katy Perry, but something’s not quite working. Granted, the biggest problem this week may have been choosing the absolute cheesiest number in the Whitney Houston songbook, but Ellona never looked entirely comfortable in the pop-chanteuse role she was playing. Every week, in fact, she approaches these budget-conscious production numbers (hey, it’s a burnt-out car with a license plate that reads “DANCE”!) with the kind of grim determination that ought to be reserved for her SATs, and this time around, the exertion took a toll on her vocals. Ellona was under the melody at least half the performance — even if none of the judges were allowed to say it. I’m not saying the kid doesn’t have potential, but I also have my doubts that X Factor or Demi cares enough to fully unlock it.

Josh Levi: Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” — Grade: A- | I’ve wondered about Josh’s charisma levels prior to this week, but “Straight Up” was proof positive that he could actually exist in the real world right this second (and outsing the Biebers and Browns of the world in the process). Josh’s “Straight Up” was slick and modern and very well-sung, and the kid threw in enough cool dance moves to prove himself a double-threat. Kelly was right that if Josh is going to make it post-X Factor, he has to believe a little of his hype and stop looking so surprised by his own success. (Just as long as it doesn’t lead to him being carried up the Great Wall of China by his future bodyguards.)

Jeff Gutt: Cutting Crew’s “(I Just) Died In Your Arms Tonight” — Grade: B- | Maybe it was the whole intro package about Jeff’s insomnia, but I thought his voice sounded ragged and slightly off form tonight. Perhaps even more vexing, though, was his failure to take any kind of risk with the arrangement, a poor choice that left him looking like just a good karaoke singer compared to the more daring likes of Khaya, Josh and Alex & Sierra.

Alex & Sierra: Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” — Grade: A | What kind of games were the judges playing, hurling their verbal tomatoes at the night’s most intriguing performance? I know, I know…Alex and Sierra have such crazy chemistry that it may have seemed odd on paper to separate them with a wall — but that distance proved to be a great source of dramatic tension, almost as if the duo were locked away and separated in an effort to overcome their addictions to one another. Sierra’s a capella intro was glorious (and a high degree of difficulty, I might add) while the hypnotic arrangement allowed Alex to ooze even more sex appeal than usual. By the time Sierra banged on the wall in time with the music, my mind was made up: This was the performance of the week — and no amount of Demi Lovato griping can convince me otherwise.

Should go home: Tim Olstad, Rion Paige
Will go home: Carlito Olivero, Lillie McCloud

And with that, I turn it over to you. Who did you like on this week’s X Factor? Who deserves to be in jeopardy? Who are you worried about? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments!