Flush with a renewal for a second season from Fox, which Simon Cowell gleefully announced about 45 minutes in, “The X Factor” rounded into its peak with a second live show, and the final one before the decisions are turned over to the American public via cell, text and Twitter.
And like the Republican primary, except with a lot more winners than losers, it’s impossible really to tell who’s in the lead, as the judges were almost universally complimentary to the Dandy Dozen, if not to themselves.
Stacy Francis grabbed the so-called “pimp” slot and slayed it with a soaring gospel version of Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain,” but strong performances were also registered by favorites like “saved” candidate Melanie Amaro, child-like Lolita Drew, burrito baritone Josh Grajcik, tyro hip-hopper Astro and triple-threat Marcus Canty. Even Stereo Hogzz and InTENsity did nothing to hurt their chances, and only early touts like blue-eyed hip-hop crooner Chris Rene and cheek-pinching cutie Rachel Crow lost some momentum this time around.
Who ultimately wins may well be a referendum on which style of popular music holds ascendance. And while every genre is represented here but country, it should be fascinating to see how the individual performances sway the public judgment in the weeks ahead.
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The Paula-mentored Stereo Hogzz led off strong with a choreographed to the hilt take on Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” that had all the judges aboard, making this Houston-based group an odds-on favorite in their category. L.A. Reid insisted, “You absolutely have what it takes to be stars.” Nicole Scherzinger claimed “You represent ‘The X Factor’ so well, while Simon enthused, “I don’t think there’s a band in the world as good as you.” Sheez, and they don’t even play their own instruments.
Chris Rene, hatless and cleaned up considerably, had the look down, but his arresting take on the Carpenters’ “Superstar,” complete with an interpolated rap, as good as it was, seemed to be overshadowed. Nicole has “so much mad love” for him, while Paula called him “transparent with his emotions.” Simon called it a “big improvement,” but critiqued the on-stage fire which made him “look like he was in hell.” Mentor L.A. responded: “That’s fire…because he’s hot.”
Sentimental favorite, grandpa Leroy Bell may be a little too mellow for the competitive nature of the contest, crooning quite acceptably the nevertheless bland Lonestar song, “I’m Already There,” a tune about a father missing his kids, and way too obvious by half. L.A. Reid called him “a special guy,” but didn’t love the song choice (L.A.’s is definitively not country), while Simon mentioned “a confidence issue,” but did mention his “fantastic voice.” “Sometimes less is more,” said his mentor Nicole.
The adorably Rachel Crow remains unstoppable, but I don’t feel this reworked version of Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine,” with different lyrics, “You’re my sunshine,” did her any favors. L.A. dubbed her “one of the most charismatic performers I’ve ever seen,” while Nicole said she’s “America’s sunshine,” comparing her to a young Michael Jackson. Paula wondered about changing the song’s words, to which Simon sniffed, “It’s called inventive,” then shut Nicole up with “Grown-ups are talking.” The dude’s incorrigible since the show was renewed.
Lakoda Rayne, dressed for different seasons in what Simon referred to as “prom gowns in purple, yellow green and red,” did a nice enough version of Fleetwood Mac’s competition show standby “Landslide,” that was probably the night’s weakest performance. “You look incredible tonight,” averred L.A., who nevertheless wanted the girls to stop being tweeners and choose between country and pop. Nicole praised their ability to “sound like one voice” and Simon called them “improved,” but commented, “Turning you into seasons was utterly insane,” and called their dresses “old-fashioned.”
A cleaned-up, shampooed, combed-out Josh Rajcik revealed he’s had a girlfriend of eight years who believes in his talent, which is even more remarkable than his burrito-slinging background. The burly baritone leaned in “Jar of Hearts” for all he was worth, and briefly took the lead. “That was really, really good,” marveled L.A. “You can sing anything and I’m a believer,” said Paula. “That was incredible,” gushed Simon. “It’s like you wrote the song. You took a risk and it paid off.” “I feel like a proud mom,” said tutor Nicole. “But we’re the same age, so that doesn’t work. When you sing, I feel it in my veins.”
Melanie Amaro has the best pure voice in the contest, and didn’t disappoint with a version of The Eagles’ “Desperado” that breathed life into that hoary chestnut. “The only thing Simon has ever done right is bring you back,” said L.A. “There is no limit to what you and your voice can do,” said Nicole. Paula compared her voice to “fine china,” while Simon admitted not realizing how good she was…You’re the one to beat.” She will be among the finalists, for sure.
Rap phenom Astro continued his roll, interspersing Naughty by Natures’ “Hip Hop Hooray” with his own raps, and only the lack of experience prevents him from completely dominating this competition. As it is, he’ll be a strong contender, though, as he himself admits, wondering if America will vote for a hip hop kid. “You know how to get the party started,” laughed Nicole. Paula said he marched to the beat of his own drummer, make that DJ, calling him “bold and unique.” Simon called him “a real little star,” complimenting L.A. Reid for channeling his own ego through the kid, “which is good because you need that swagger.” The kid will be a tough out.
InTENsity, which is “Up with People” meets Glee, are a Disney Channel series waiting to happen, even if rapper Arin Ray insists, “We don’t want to be labeled Disney kids.” They did a sparkling version of Kim Wilde’s ‘80s chestnut “Kids In America” that had the judges searching for different ways to say fun-tastic, fun-omenal, etc. “That was terrific,” said Simon. “I like the fact that there is a rebellion about what kind of music you should sing. I shouldn’t like you, but I do.” Still, they are longshots to advance much further, unless they pool their voting bases virally.
Drew remains a potent favorite, soaring through Nelly’s “Just a Dream,” while my companion noticed, “But she’s got no rhythm.” Starting off lying down in a bed of roses, a la American Beauty, the teenager appears to be maturing from girl to woman in front of our eyes, and it’s pretty remarkable. “You have the spirit of a superstar,” noted L.A. “I totally live for that last note you sing,” echoed Paula. Simon was all puffed up for his protégé, “I’ve seen a star emerge in front of me. She’s my mentor now. I shouldn’t be telling her what to do.”
The multi-talented Marcus Canty, one of L.A.’s charges, had Simon turning his nose at the song selection—Bobby Brown’s “Every Little Step,” which just happened to be written by L.A. Reid. “Why do we need another Bobby Brown?” asks Cowell. “Isn’t one enough? And isn’t a little narcissistic?” L.A. was quick with a comeback. “We could’ve done one of your songs… Oh, yeah.” Meanwhile, Canty proved up to the task, a consummate showman, who pretty much won the panel over. “I felt like I was at a concert,” cooed Nicole. Paula called him “the total package.” Even Simon was ultimately impressed. “You have come alive.” L.A. promised him “America loves you.” He’s good, no question.
Final contestant was the 42-year-old Stacy Francis, subject of much controversy with blogger Perez Hilton claiming she’s downplaying her former career in show business. Now that’s no surprise, because it’s hard to believe nobody has discovered Francis’ pipes before now. After Simon insisted she was a “church singer,” she took that to heart with a gospel-belting version of the Griffin song, a fitting climax for the audience to hear before heading to their smart phones to vote. “You stir those souls when you sing,” said L.A. “That was tonight’s shining moment,” claimed Paula. Simon smirked like a Cheshire cat and claimed she owned him a kiss for following his suggestion. Nicole praised her “pose, grace and beauty.”
And with that, let the games begin. Who did you think had the best performance tonight? Who will be the ultimate winner? Let us know.
POWER RANKINGS: THE DANDY DOZEN
1. MELANIE AMARO: She’s Simon’s favorite, but is she yours. Powerful performance of Eagles song puts her in the lead. Reminiscent of previous ‘X Factor’ winner Leona Lewis.
2. DREW: The next Taylor Swift or the new Debbie Gibson? The vocal prodigy has girl-next-door appeal, but can she write?
3. JOSH RAJCIK: This season’s Susan Boyle moment came when this greasy-haired trucker type opened his mouth and came out with a soulful Ray Charles croon. The darkest of dark horses, but don’t count him out.
4. STACY FRANCIS: The combination of “pimp” position and heavenly vocals gives her a step up the stairway to heaven.
5. MARCUS CANTY: A true triple-threat, he’s got the goods, but is he a little too retro for the room?
6. ASTRO: He’s a star, and Jay-Z will certainly be hearing about him, but can he carry the vote for hip-hip?
7. RACHEL CROW: Another one who’s hard to deny, but will her age relegate her to the novelty category?
8. CHRIS RENE: Falling a little, but he has the talent to make a late run.
9. STEREO HOGZZ: Top group, but will numbers help or hurt them?
10. INTENSITY: They might not want to be Disney, but they could well become a major theme park attraction if they’re not careful.
11. LEROY BELL: Sentimental favorite losing a little steam. Is it true you’re not as hungry at 60 as you are at 20? We’ll see.
12. LAKODA RAYNE: Get ‘em to Nashville and sharpen up their twangs. They may yet have a shot.
Pick to be voted off: Lakoda Rayne