You remember rock and roll? It’s supposed to be unpredictable, raw, hard and fast, like the act it’s named after…which, of course, is the antithesis of everything ‘The X Factor’ reputedly stands for — pre-packaged entertainment chosen on the populist model, the lowest common denominator.
That’s precisely why you’ll never a “battle of the bands”-style rock competition show succeed on television. But it doesn’t matter. A quick look at the charts will reveal that rock’s hegemony has long since faded, replaced by a form of post-hip-hop urban dance-pop now dominating the Top 40 airwaves.
Which is why you had such aberrations as Astro free-styling on The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” by way of Puff Daddy’s Biggie memorial, “I’ll Be Missing You,” Chris Rene doing a rap version of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry,” Rachel Crow taking “Satisfaction” to church, Melanie Amaro stretching out R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” and Drew wrapping her gauzy vocals around U2’s “With or Without You.”
The only two real rock performances of the night turned out to be the best and worst in the competition, the sublime being Josh Krajcik’s fiery cover of Foo Fighters’ “The Pretender” and, on the other end of the scale, Stacy Francis’ tortured take on Meat Loaf’s already tortured, unfortunately named “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.” Leroy Bell’s earnest, journeyman performance of Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight,” Lakoda Rayne’s crisp, country-rock mash-up of The Outfield’s “You Love” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” and “pimp position” closer Marcus Canty’s outsized soul man version of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” placed somewhere in between the extremes, never a good place to be in rock.
Given the rock theme, the judges were all in ornery moods. L.A. Reid called Leroy Bell “b-o-r-i-n-g” and said Drew “always sounds the same,” while Simon told Stacy Francis she was “going backward” and dubbed Lakoda Rayne “a complete mess.” Even normally sympathetic Nicole and Paula bared their fangs. Nicole kept waiting for the tempo to pick up on Drew, while Paula admitted to Francis, “That was my least favorite song. I just didn’t feel it.
There was nothing wrong with Leroy Bell’s version of Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight,” but it did little to improve his long-shot status in the competition. L.A. questioned his ability to “sell records and tickets,” while Simon sniffed, “In terms of originality, zero.” Paula said his voice was “beautiful,” but he needs to connect more with the audience. Nicole thought it was his best performance, given he’s 60 years old, while L.A. chimed in, “He’s not older than Mick Jagger.”
Little Rachel Crow is growing up before our eyes, looking more mature than ever by strutting her stuff with a gospel-heavy performance of “Satisfaction,” which wowed practically everyone. “Can you sell records and tickets?” asked L.A. again, before answering, “Yes.” Nicole praised her ability to make the performance “effortless and fun,” while Simon insisted he could see her winning, “And I like winners.”
Chris Rene’s hip-hop inflected version of “No Woman, No Cry” sparked a panel discussion on the definition of rock, with L.A. defending the choice by saying Bob Marley is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has been on the cover of Rolling Stone several times. Nicole, for one, was confused by Rene’s hybrid, taking the song and apparently adding his own lyrics, while Simon sniped, “It’s a reggae song and the theme is rock.” Without his trademark hat, and starting to build up his on-stage image, Rene kept himself in the race.
Stacy Francis continued to slip, as her overblown Meat Loaf cover in which she channeled her abusive past earned a virtually unanimous thumbs-down from the panel. Simon was particularly cruel. “The good news? Your hair looks better this week. I wanted rock and I got a pebble. It’s like your singing at a Hilton Hotel cocktail lounge while people are eating peanuts and ignoring you. You’re going backwards. It’s not working.” Nicole offered some sympathy. “You are a glam-rock diva. Through all the adversity, your star is rising.” Francis could be on the brink this week.
Melanie Amaro wrapped her exquisite pipes around R.E.M.’s plaintive “Everybody Hurts,” which has L.A. complaining, “That’s so not rock.” Nicole called it one of her favorite songs, “but I didn’t cry this time like I usually do.” Paula said, “You took us to rock and roll church,” urging her to “let go more,” while Simon compared her to Adele and Alicia Keys, to which L.A. responded, “You’re saying they’re rock?”
Josh Krajcik turned in the evening’s top performance, and why not? He’s the only legitimate heartland rocker in the bunch. L.A. said his version of the Foo Fighters’ “The Pretender” had authenticity, Paula called it “the best of the evening,” while Simon resorted to his all-purpose “bloody fantastic.” Mentor Nicole claimed he took her back to her past as a member of Days of the New, calling him “the ultimate rock star.” Would you give him a $5 million recording contract? That will be the question if the burrito man keeps on moving forward.
Astro continued to astonish with his amazing rendition of the Police/Puff Daddy rap classic, with his own words to boot. This kid has L.A. going ga-ga, as he tells his young charge, “Rock represents freedom, irreverence…” Nicole said he was ready to cash his first prize check, Simon insisted his “maturity and intelligence” bested the older contestants, while Paula called him “phenomenal… You are ready right now to sell millions of albums.” The kid remains in the picture.
Lakoda Rayne would appear to be hanging on by a thread, but they may have leap-frogged someone with this week’s Outfield/Fleetwood Mac country-rock mash-up, which was right in their wheelhouse. L.A. thought it was “the first time I’ve seen you have fun,” but Simon blasted it as a “complete mess… with stupid choreography,” which prompted Reid to say, “You’re being mean.” Of course that’s the way the public likes their Simon, given the in-show 53% Twitter approval rating after L.A. was in the lead last week. Paula defended her final group in the competition by saying they could easily fit the niche that the Dixie Chicks once held. And I agree.
Drew’s lovely version of U2’s “With or Without You” was very reminiscent of last week’s performance of Coldplay’s “Fix You,” a point that L.A. has been riding home for a while now, but the youngster from Arizona is still a strong contender, if not as flashy as some of her competitors. L.A. called her voice “one of the most original of anyone in the competition” and insisted she “has what it takes to go the distance,” but you sense his misgivings. Paula wanted to hear something more uptempo, at the same time marveling at her rabid fan base. Nicole was “frustrated” with the song’s pacing, “That must be the slowest rock song ever.” Simon told her “to take no notice of the three witches to my side. This is about being unique, appealing to your fan base and doing something no one has heard before.”
Marcus Canty continues to be the top all-around multi-talented threat, and his game version of Janis Joplin’s searing “Piece of my Heart” wasn’t a complete embarrassment, but it was obviously out of his area of expertise. The one-time church choir singer wants to “maintain my moral values,” while his mentor L.A. urges him to be “sexy, dirty, bad…” There’s a genuine disconnect there, but Canty showed off a very important aspect of this competition—he connects with the audience, and puts on a show. “You took on the Queen of roots rock,” said Nicole. “And you lit that stage on fire.” “You are the entertainer of this competition,” added Paula. “You said you were going to be a good boy and I saw you looking up the skirts of 10 girls,” teased Simon, before adding, “I don’t think the song suited you.”
What did everyone else think? Any favorites emerging? Anyone dropping out? Discuss amongst yourselves.
POWER RANKINGS TOP TEN
1. JOSH KRAJCIK: He was the night’s top performer by far, but can he maintain that momentum with the kids at his heels?
2. RACHEL CROW: Still America’s sweetheart, and she did nothing to dispel that title with her cheeky take on a Rolling Stones classic.
3. ASTRO: The kid continues to come off like a preternaturally mature pro with a good head on his shoulders. And remember, he’s writing a lot of his own stuff.
4. DREW: She’s got an incredible voice, and another one mature beyond her years, but can she somehow get around L.A.’s complaint that all her performances sound the same?
5. MELANIE AMARO: Another distinctive set of pipes, but a tendency to stay within a single tempo could hurt her.
6. MARCUS CANTY: A true triple-threat entertainer, but can his old-school style connect in a competition with some real originals?
7. CHRIS RENE: His blue-eyed hip-hop soul has some real appeal, but can he achieve some separation?
8. LEROY BELL: The favorite of the gray-haired populace, he doesn’t seem to inspire the judges, but can he galvanize his fan base?
9. LAKODA RAYNE: Can they avoid the “group” curse? They keep on hanging on, and could benefit from Stacy Francis’ Meat Loaf misstep this week.
10. STACY FRANCIS: Her back story is great, but she’s lost some momentum since her “Natural Woman” audition blockbuster, and Simon’s wrath may well influence vote