‘The X Factor’: On the Road to the Sweet 16

It was that kind of night at “The X Factor” as it neared the cut-down to 16 finalists and live shows.

Where else could you see a failed Disney teen star-turned hairdresser movingly cover a Radiohead song, a 28-year-old rehabbed trash collector create a new rap for a classic song by a guy now living in a car in South Central, a 42-year-old down-on-his-luck DJ sing his heart out on Joe Cocker’s “Don’t Give Up On Me” or a cherubic 13-year-old who only wishes for a bathroom of her own take Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” and turn it into a smoldering plea?

Yes, we’re beginning to see the method behind Simon Cowell’s madness, who ups the intensity level by including both teenage youngsters, who want to help their families, and the over 30 crowd, looking for their final chance at a ring, hoping to justify to their families that all those sacrifices have been worth it, that lifelong commitments to their art were justified.

That was the set-up for the second 16 of final 32 auditions at the judges’ four luxurious homes, the show postponed by last week’s rain-delayed baseball game. The settings for these performers are exquisite, begging the question, does being an ex-member of the Pussycat Dolls really pay that well? Don’t believe anything you see on reality television.

Shy, unassuming 16-year-old Jazzlyn Little led off the show with a sultry, almost unrecognizable take on Gloria Gaynor’s disco anthem “I Will Survive,” but once again her nerves got the best of her. Simon insisted, “She put herself back in the frame,” though one of his confidantes sniffed, “a little too high school talent show.” She’s good, but maybe a little too green for this competition.

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Cocky Brennin Hunt was up next, in the Boys category, at 26, already a grizzled veteran who admits, “This is my time… I want to be bigger than Lady Gaga.” Someone get this smooth singer a pair of meat Levi’s, as Rihanna admited, “He is beautiful and his tone is correct, but it’s a little bit corny.”

Houston five-piece guy band The Stereo Hogzz came complete with a choreographed take on “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” that incorporated some arcane hand signals. Pharrell was impressed with the lead singer, “Motown mixed with Ginuwine,” he mused. “But they can’t just be one star. They have to be a constellation.” And that turns out to be the problem in judging groups like these.

Sentimental favorite, burrito slinging basso profundo Josh Krajcik proved, if cleaned up a little bit, could be the next Andrea Bocelli, if the Italian tenor was an auto mechanic, with a subtly powerful “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Nicole wondered, “Do you think he’s a star?” Enrique said, “He’s not your typical star with the glitz and glamour… He a little rough around the edges.”

Miami four-person girl band 2Squar’d tackled Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” in one of the show’s few unintentionally funny moments, as Paula, who suggested the pop-R&B group do it, lamented afterward, “That’s a hard song.” Indeed.

Tim Cifers is the “Factor’s” answer to what Scotty McCreery would be like if never entered “American Idol” and was now 30 and a single father of two, working as a sales manager in his native North Carolina. He took Luther Vandross’ “Dance With My Father,” memorably covered by Jacob Lusk on last year’s Idol, and wrenched the real-life emotion out of it. “He’s a real country singer,” marveled Rihanna, though L.A. was a little more circumspect. “I wanted so much more from him.”

Thirteen-year-old Rachel Crow, the Shirley Temple-meets-Billie Holiday charmer who has emerged as one of the front-runners, did nothing to ruin her standing by belting out “I Want It That Way” with characteristic aplomb. “That deep tone was unbelievable,” marveled Simon. “She takes risks, which I like. The real question is, can she deal with the pressure in this category?” So far, so good.

Leroy Bell, the 60-year-old grandfather who looks like Marvin Gaye and sings like Bill Withers is turning out to be a poignant story. He tenderly handled Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love,” which is suddenly turning into a late-period standard, with both Adele and Bryan Ferry doing recent covers. “I feel his nerves a little bit,” says Nicold. “But he’s the coolest.”

Illusion Confusion, a three-piece boy band from Miami, performed David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” in a version that had Pharrell praising them as “more ambitious than talented.”

Rotund 42-year-old Tiger Budbill remains one of the more intriguing story, an unlikely-looking guy who opens his mouth and out comes an incredible voice, much in the manner of, say, Susan Boyle. “It means everything to us to be able to support our families and validate what we’ve done all these years,” he tells Nicole and Enrique, then leands into an exquisitely moving take on Joe Cocker’s “Don’t Give Up on Me,” that, in the best “X Factor” moment tied life and art into one surging wallop of emotion. “If I fall short/If I don’t make the grade,” he sang, literally for his life. “Do you see a market for him?” Nicole asks Enrique. “Do you think people will buy his record?” Enrique pondered for a moment and answered, “I don’t think there should be any rules put on music. Anybody can get it with the right song.” Easy for him to say. He’s not putting up the five big ones.

Marcus Canty, the 20-year-old lawn mower who was given a second chance to make it in show biz by his strict mom, remains a potent contender after a heartfelt performance of K-Ci & Jo Jo’s “All My Life.” Rihanna couldn’t contain herself, but admitted, “I’m not convinced he’s a star. But he did look me dead in the eyes.”

Simon’s fave, sultry Tiah Tolliver, the 20-year-old deli clerk from Seattle, put her Tina Turner-meets-Ronnie Spector allure to good use on a grinding rendition of Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” that had Cowell eating out of her hands. “She fits in this show,” he approved, while one of his guest judges purred, “She’s definitely moldable.” And that is a necessity in today’s no-risk, high reward record business, folks. Needless to say, she won’t be making too many sandwiches in the near future.

We find out Christa Collins, the 32-year-old hairdresser, was once a Disney teen star, the precursor to Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato, but even more surprising was her cover of Radiohead’s “No Surprises,” which was surprisingly moving. “This is the only place I feel whole,” she explains. “On the stage performing.” Enrique liked it. “It hit me.” Nicole noted, “There’s a lot of pain in that song. I would’ve liked to hear more emotion behind the lyrics.” Then get Thom Yorke in.

Intensity, the ten-person group from all over constructed of several of the 12-17-year-olds who didn’t make the grade, showed off some real talent, but it was obviously what it was…something thrown together to showcase what Enrique called, “some good star morsels.”

Favorite Chris Rene, the rehabbing trash collector with the smooth hip-hop beat, deconstructed Sly Stone’s ”Everyday People,” interpolating his own rap, which delighted both Rihanna and L.A. Reid, who has championed the kid’s cause from the start. “He is one of the special ones,” observed L.A. “His art means more to him than the $5 million. But I’ve never seen him so uncomfortable,” blaming Rihanna for distracting him.

Finally, 19-year-old Sunrise, FL, native Melanie Amaro, with perhaps the best pure voice in the field, torched a gospel version of Michael Jackson’s “Will You Be There” and left no doubt she’ll be moving on. Simon faked a collapse and ripped up a piece of paper, as if to say, the contest is all over.”

The show ended with various comments from the judges, as they prepared to pick their individual four finalists, to make up the Sweet 16.

Said Simon: “She’s not the best singer, but I’m positive glued to her.” Is he talking about Tiah? “I like taking risks sometime.” “She’s just too green”…


1. CHRIS RENE: Tremendous back story and a talent that could bring together any number of constituents.

2. MELANIE AMARO: Best pure voice in the competition, but is she too traditional to make everyone stand up and take notice?

3. RACHEL CROW: Hard to believe this tiny dynamo hasn’t been discovered before this. Isn’t she a natural for an all-black version of Annie?

4. TIAH TOLLIVER: She’s like a time capsule who keeps on growing week to week. Simon’s fave is a formidable contender.

5. MARCUS CANTY: He can sing, he can dance, he has a winning mama’s boy personality. Is he the next Usher, Bobby Brown, Steve Wonder… or Sammy Davis Jr.?

6. JOSH KRAJCIK: From burrito slinger to basso profundo, this deep-throated good old boy is the darkest of dark horses.

7. CHRISTA COLLINS: Disney spotted her talent early on. Her cover of Radiohead opened some eyes and ears.

8. LEROY BELL: The bommers in the “X Factor” audience could just respond to his inspirational story of giving his dreams one more shot.

9. JAZZLYN LITTLE: Just a little too many butterflies for this competition, but I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this talented teenager.

10. THE STEREO HOGZZ: Houston five-piece have the moves down pat, but groups seems to be at a disadvantage here.

11. TIM CIFERS: This lonesome country singer looks to duplicate Scotty McCreery’s feat, except 15 years later, when it’s almost too late.

12. TIGER BUDBILL: Sang his ass off this week, but his days appear numbered.

13. BRENNIN HUNT: You’ve gotta have more than good looks and a good voice going for you, don’t ya?

14. INTENSITY: Some individual talent, but nowhere near enough time to make a dent here.

15. 2’SQUAR’D: Would like to be the next Destiny’s Child. Unfortunately, without the Destiny part.

16. ILLUSION CONFUSION: Lou Pearlman would’ve known what to do with them. And it might not involve singing.


BOYS: Chris Rene, Marcus Canty, Brian Bradley, Phillip Lomax
GIRLS: Drew Ryniewicz, Melanie Amaro, Rachel Crow, Tiah Tolliver
OVER 30: Josh Krajcik, Leroy Bell, Stacey Francis, Elaine Gibbs
GROUPS: 4Shore, The Sterreo Hogzz, The Anser, The Brewer Brothers

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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