Michael Jackson isn’t any easy act to follow, in life or in death, and this latest edition of “The X Factor,” with two more contestants about to bite the dust tomorrow, illustrated that fact all too clearly.
Choosing mostly lesser-known material by the King of Pop, the seven remaining finalists had some difficulty translating their talents to Jackson’s distinctive songbook, leaving several of them in danger of exiting the show tomorrow night.
With mom Katherine, brothers Tito, Jackie and Marlon and Michael’s kids Prince, Blanket and Paris sitting front and center like members of the Addams Family, it was a pretty unnerving experience for the contestants, and the judges were similarly unimpressed by the results for the most part.
In fact, the evening was pretty much a disappointment until Chris Rene, who revealed his grandfather Leon Rene (under the name of Jimmie Thomas) wrote “Rockin’ Robin,” famously covered by the Jackson 5, nailed a Fugees-flavored version of “I’ll Be There.” That was followed by Melanie Amaro, newly liberated and with the island lilt in her voice revealed last week, killing “Earth Song” in the pimp position, doing nothing to chip away at her front-runner status.
So, it’s on to tomorrow night, where, like last week, the lowest vote-getter will get eliminated, and then the next two with the least votes will sing off for the right to move on.
Josh Krajcik, fresh from his surprising rise to favorite, chose to play guitar to counteract his admission, “it’s a bit of a departure for me,” then tackling “Dirty Diana.” It got off to a very shaky start, but when the 30-year-old fast food worker got cooking on his axe, he saved the day. “That was cool man,” admired L.A. “I know it was a struggle, but you landed on your feet.” Paula called it “a show-stopping performance… You keep on raising the bar,” while Simon dubbed the spectacle “great… but overproduced, and you got lost in the choreography. This is what Nicole wants you to be, and it was your weakest performance so far.”
Astro was another one whose hip-hop style made an uneasy combination with Michael’s music, with even the young rapper admitting, “I’m stepping out of my element.” He chose to do “Black or White” and gave it a spirited ride, complete with his own self-penned lyrical flow: “I look at the world like a Crayola box/Forget about colors, yo, let’s rock,” he rhymed cleverly, though his performances have taken on a sameness that plagues even the best rap. Nicole said, “That was bad, as in b—double a—d, but I don’t know if it was my favorite. But I liked the lyrics.” Paula called him “extraordinary, influential and inspirational. You are not just the future, but our past and present.” Simon praised the youngster for making the song sound “younger, to fit a new generation. You deserve to be here.” L.A. expressed his pride in his prodigy. “I’m convinced this kid has the goods. I’m always proud of him. I’d like to think the Jackson family is just as proud.” Added Steve Jones for the evening’s douche chill moment: “That was dope.”
Controversial teen Drew, who sparked a heated confrontation between her mentor Simon and L.A. last week about the age group she was appealing to, chose to sit in a chair under a single spotlight for a slowed-down version of “Billie Jean,” not that far off the one roots Americana group The Civil Wars have been doing in their live shows. And while her voice is impeccable, poor Drew looked like she was ready to jump up. L.A. said he was in a “naughty, naughty” mood, but “as much as it pains me to say, I liked it.” Nicole wanted her to get up out of the chair, while Paula questioned why, on Michael Jackson week, Simon chose to have “no visuals.” Sniffed Simon to Abdulk: “Because of too much dancing, your acts are out of the competition.” Of course, the prop was Cowell’s homage to the misreading of “Billie Jean” lyrics as “The chair is not my son.”
Teenpop phenom Rachel Crow seemed like a natural to do something like the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” but her performance of the Jacksons’ “Can You Feel It?” was curiously anti-climactic. Maybe it was the fact she set the bar so high, but this left the panel pretty unmoved. “I didn’t feel like you were having a good time,” observed L.A. “I didn’t feel the connection,” kvetched Nicole, before adding, “I thought you did a really good job.” Paula suggested, “I don’t think the song did you justice,” which had Cowell complaining, “This must be Anti-Simon night,” before adding, “We’re just lucky Squiddly and Diddley don’t vote and the public does.”
Song-and-dance man Marcus Canty similarly was disappointing with a tepid “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” that climaxed with a back flip. L.A. called him, “one of the hardest working contestants,” but he didn’t step up his game. Nicole loved him and “hopes America recognizes you for the amazing talent you are,” while Paula praised his performance, “You left it all out there. You are the one true entertainer on the show.” Simon declared “the vocals weren’t very good,” while L.A. hoped the ending stunt would “flip you some votes.”
It was left to Chris Rene to get things back on track with a soaring “I’ll Be There,” that paid tribute to his own tunefulness and versatility with one of his patented rap interludes. When he sang, “Let me fill your heart with joy and laughter,” it truly was a cathartic moment for the recovering drug addict and trash hauler. Nicole recognized he captured the spirit in Michael’s music and she felt his. “It was the best you ever sang.” Paula declared, “You manifest an abundance in the heart department,” praising his ability as a writer of his own songs. Simon gave credit to L.A. for re-conceptualizing the song to suit Rene’s strengths, though adding, “You’re going to need a lot of support from your hometown to survive.” L.A.. said, “Your performance speaks for itself. You are the truth,” echoing the first comment he ever made to him at his audition.
Melanie Amaro took full advantage of her placement to leave a lasting impression with “Earth Song.” Even L.A. was in awe: “I felt like we were at a Melanie Amaro concert. That was maybe the best performance of the night.” Nicole called it “one of the best performances on the show… If that doesn’t save a small country out there, I don’t know what will.” Paula said, simply, “You nailed it.” And Simon had that smug smile pasted on his face which said, “I know I’ve got the winner.” We’ll soon see.
What did everyone else think? What were the outstanding performances of the night? Who gained ground? Who lost? Who do you think is going to win now?
POWER RANKINGS: THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN
1. MELANIE AMARO: She did nothing to upset her front-runner status. The embrace of her roots has loosened her up considerably.
2. CHRIS RENE: “I’ll Be There” puts him in the race, but there’s not much room between him and the rest of the pack.
3. RACHEL CROW: Didn’t help her cause this week, but she’s still got plenty in the tank for a late run.
4. JOSH KRAJCIK: He dropped a little this week, but remains a sentimental favorite and a dark horse.
5. RENE: She’s got the chops, but does she have the versatility to avoid the critique about the sameness of her ballads?
6. MARCUS CANTY: After finishing in the bottom two last week, he’s down to back flips. This could be the end of the road for the Chris Brown/Usher wannabe.
7. ASTRO: We’ll hear from him in the future, but as for the present, he’s on thin ice.