On a special Thanksgiving week night, ‘The X Factor’ hit its stride with a theme of thanks that ended up with Simon Cowell giving L.A. Reid a tongue-lashing over his prodigy Drew.
Yes folks, this show had it all – from tears to tussles.
It was a night that rivaled the old show ‘Queen for a Day’ for Kleenex-devouring sob stories, from crack babies (Rachel Crow) and drug addicts (Chris Rene) to mom-loving sons (Marcus Canty, Leroy Bell) and doting, guilty single dads (Josh Krajcik). As well as an apologetic young rapper (Astro) who proved every bit as capable as his heroes of making art out of personal turmoil as he proceeded to Kanye (thanks to J.J. Garcia for the use of this as a verb) his way out of his petulance of the week before.
And it was all topped off by the startling show-stopper in which the previously meek and unassuming Melanie Amaro, who dedicated her song to God, embraced her Virgin Islands roots by lapsing into a fevered patois about accepting her background that had the judges leaping to their feet in a disbelieving standing ovation.
The series of tear-jerkers upped the ante on the individual performances to where you couldn’t really judge anyone’s real abilities because the back stories added such emotional wallop to the individual performances. Of course, the rules seem to be made up on the fly, as this week, a breathless Steve Jones informed us that two contestants will be eliminated tomorrow night, the one who receives the lowest score is ousted automatically, while the two next lowest will face off in front of the judges. Let the games begin indeed.
Rachel Crow was first up, and her entire story was laid out, complete with abuse and a crack addiction. She leaned into a gospel take on Yolanda Adams’ “Believe” that was typically superb, if a little uneventful, though the soaring finale left little doubt she’s a front-runner. L.A. shrugged and grudgingly admitted, “I wanted to be critical. And you shut me down. I loved it.” Nicole Scherzinger testified “You’ve made a believer out of me. You’re such an inspiration, such a bright light.” Paula Abdul marveled, “If anyone ever questions the existence of angels on earth, you are proof. You are magnificent. And you look adorable.” The youngster seems headed for stardom, with or without a win. “I want to tell all the kids out there, ‘You really can, because I did.’” No arguing with that.
Marcus Canty chose his single parent mother to dedicate Boyz II Men’s “A Song for Mama” to, and despite its predictability, the combination of his mom kvelling in the front row and his truly world-class falsetto, it thrust him right into the front ranks. Nicole told him “you make all the other sons look bad tonight. It was so beautiful and so precious and honest. You didn’t overdo anything.” Paula said he sung “with passion and connection,” while even Simon acknowledged he put himself “back into the competition.” L.A. went even farther in assessing his contestant: “You are as good as any singer I’ve ever worked with. The kid remains a threat, with an intense mother-son relationship in the classic tradition of singers like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.
Melanie Amaro proved the evening’s shocker. After a typically pristine, but moving, take on R. Kelly’s “The World’s Greatest,” dedicated to God because “He was the only one who never let me down,” Amaro broke out of her shell with a vengeance, living out the lyrics, “I am mountain/I am a river down in the valley,” by suddenly shifting into her native Virgin Islands accent and proclaiming pride in her past, which involved her mother sending her there to live at one point. L.A. Reid was stunned at the transformation, and so was everybody else: “I’m so glad that person came here tonight,” marveled Reid, the song suddenly taking a back seat to this display of pure reality TV drama. “You are so courageous,” oozed Nicole, “Can I give you a hug?” Which she proceeded to do. Paula waited “for the vulnerability of who you are to come out. And it came out. The best advice is what we just saw is what makes people fall in love with you.” At the end, she was still on fire. “This is me. This is Melanie. I’ve dreamt of this moment all my life.” She also just put herself in the lead.
Chris Rene dedicated his reggae-hip-hop flavored “Let It Be” mash-up to his drug counselor, reminded us once more of the earnest musician who made such an impression back in the audition shows. He’s been trying to recapture that momentum since, and his cover of the well-worn Beatles classic only began to pick up momentum when he segued into his own lyrical flow. His shtick of combining well-known songs with hip-hop interpolations isn’t a bad gimmick, but he’s losing ground in this competition. Nicole was impressed. “Look at how powerful the music is with you. You’re a blessing to have in the competition.” Paula suggested he “got back to when we loved him in the first place.” Simon didn’t think “Let It Be” worked, but again found the interlude a reminder of what they liked about him. But most of all, he praised the message to those who suffered from drug addiction. “You m ay have helped thousands of people who are in the same place as you, with courage and guts, you can turn our life around.” Whether it’s enough to save him tomorrow night is another question.
Lakoda Rayne lacked the teary back story, but they continue to grow and surprise. This week, they hit the ball—even if it was right down the middle of the plate—out of the park with Taylor Swift’s “You Belong to Me,” proving they are ready to head to Nashville and become the next Dixie Chicks or The Band Perry or Lady Antebellum. Even L.A. admitted, “This week you managed to churn up some excitement. I was prepared to now like it, but you disarmed me.” Nicole said they sounded “amazing…and it felt like watching you in concert.” Maybe because she was watching them in concert. Simon called it “your best performance to date,” and lobbied the audience to let them stay on. Paula sobbed, “The sky is the limit.” And it may well be, because I think this unlikely quartet earned themselves another week.
Leroy Ball dedicated his cover of Sarah McLachlan’s “In the Arms of the Angels” to his mother, who passed away five years ago, and you could feel female voters voting as he sang. The judges were impressed, too. “That was really good, even if it wasn’t your very best,” said L.A. Reid, adding “heartfelt, for sure.” Nicole felt “compassion and connection,” while even Simon admitted, “for the first time, I felt like you m eant every word. You made your mark this week.” Nicole encouraged her charge: “this is your moment. You let go and didn’t hold back. Your mom is shining down on your right now.” A deadpan Bell responded to Jones’ breathless query as to what he felt about Simon’s approval, finally: “It was wonderful.” It’s been a great ride for this 60-year-old, but I have to guess he’s an endangered species over the next week or two.
Astro proved as adept as his idols in turning a very public incident into the fodder of rap in his reworked version of Jay-Z’s “Show Me What You Got,” which had the best verse of the night: “What do you want me to say?/I’m sorry/I’m from Brooklyn.” The savvy kid showed an impressive ability to turn his life into art. This is not the last we’ll hear of him—he’s a lock for a record deal, probably with his mentor L.A.—but he’s in danger of being voted off after his display. This is the first time voters can react to his stunts of a week ago, threatening to quit. Of course, leave it to Simon to put the event into perspective. “I admire you. I do. We all have tantrums now ande then. You know you did wrong. But the music industry needs unpredictability. I don’t like those who just toe the line. I like people who are passionate.”
Drew gave thanks to her best friend Shelby, dutifully seated in the front row, dedicating her version of Demi Lovato’s “Skyscraper” (“Our favorite song”) to her. While the 15-year-old Arizona youngster showed some nice range when the tune went a little uptempo, her performance was overshadowed by the tiff between L.A. Reid and Cowell. When Reid criticized her “mentor” for having the youngster sing a song that was for old people (“You don’t do age-appropriate music”), Simon went on the attack. “I am sick and tired of your pointless, stupid criticism. This is unfounded, inaccurate. It’s complete and utter rubbish. I am sick and tired of you not giving the girl the right criticism. You’re trying to make people feel she is worthless.” “You can give it, but you can’t take it,” muttered Reid, but Cowell was right. As Paula rightfully pointed out, “It’s a young artist who sings it.” Still, any intimations of anything untoward in the relationship between Drew and Shelby is the product of a dirty mind. Shame on you.
The pimp position went to Josh Krajcik, quickly establishing himself as the dark horse in this competition, with the aptly covered “Wild Horses,” by the Rolling Stones, sung to his 13-year-old daughter Rowan. Sitting alone at the spotlighted piano, Krajcik was the most emotionally connecting performer of the night, and proved he’s far from a one-trick—excuse the extended equine references—pony. He is the lone torch holder for that hoary genre known as classic rock. Long may he reign. “You know what, Josh,” said L.A. “You have the right amount of passion and authenticity it takes to win this.” Paula gushed he was “larger-than-life,” while Simon simply said, “That’s what it’s all about…a great song, a great voice. You meant everything you sang,” before offering a tip of the hat to Nicole’s mentoring. The ex-Pussycat Doll was sobbing, which perhaps forgives her the hyperbolic compliment: “Beyond this competition, I believe your music can change the world.”
It’s time to separate the wheat from the chaff, folks. Who goes home tomorrow? Who gets the lowest amount of votes? Who’s your favorite? Who will face off in the final?
POWER RANKINGS: THE NIFTY NINE
1. MELANIE AMARO: Who saw that coming, raise your hands. The Virgin Islands exile finally shows her personality, and what a personality it is.
2. RACHEL CROW: You couldn’t find a more worthy recipient of a $5 million check than this rapscallion, who I’d immediately cast in a remake of The Little Rascals.
3. JOSH KRAJCIK: Remains a dark horse, but “Wild Horses” might not be able to drag him from this competition. Is he the new $5 million man?
4. MARCUS CANTY: His mother love hit home pretty hard. L.A. Reid insists his voice is one of the best he’s heard. His multiple talents make him a real home run threat every time out.
5. DREW: There are too many girls next door to see her exit this early, but L.A.’s doing a good job of trying to get inside her head.
6. LAKODA RAYNE: Improbably, against all odds, they remain, and even pick up some momentum this week. They know who they are, and like Scotty McCreery, will continue to play that winning hand.
7. ASTRO: Will he be punished for last week’s temper tantrum? Hey, rappers are supposed to work on a short fuse. Win or lose, you know a recording career is awaiting him.
8. CHRIS RENE: His is an inspirational story, and we may not have heard the last of him, but I think he’s destined to go next week in the season’s first real shocker.
9. LEROY BELL: I dig him, the boomers worship him, and the ladies seem to relate, but is it enough to keep him in the game?
LOWEST VOTE TOTAL: LEROY BELL
FACE-OFF: ASTRO vs. CHRIS RENE
JUDGES SEND HOME: CHRIS RENE