The "X Factor" stage is now bereft of children -- though we can't say the same for the judges' table -- and our final four contestants definitely had their game faces on for this week's semifinal sing-off. In Josh's case, his game face looked a little like he was being electrocuted, but it's hard to hold that against him when he sounds so darn good. We spent a good deal of time rehashing Rachel Crow's shocking elimination, which only served to remind us how inept Nicole is -- especially since her "judging" style seems to have devolved from spouting abstract and enthusiastic haikus to simply clutching her face and shaking her head in overwhelmed awe since last week.
As we near the finals, it seems as though every competitor is mining their deepest emotional reserves for a suitably heartbreaking video introduction, and if we're judging the competition based on pure tearjerking potential (since it often seems like the voters don't give a damn about vocal ability) Chris Rene would be a lock for
sectionals the five million dollar recording contract. Even Simon's carefully orchestrated plot to position Melanie as "the underdog" (when she's actually got the strongest voice in the competition) is no match for Chris' inspirational recovery from drug addiction and the crushing loss of his father. Sorry Josh and Marcus, your supportive family members just won't cut it here.
But let's discuss the performances, and not the blatant emotional manipulation that occurred beforehand. The first round of songs were chosen by America for the much-vaunted "Pepsi Challenge," while the second set were picked by the contestants themselves.
L.A. Reid's Boys
Marcus Canty: This must be Marcus' final week, right? We've suffered the absurdity of his near-eliminations for almost a month now, and I can't believe that America could continue to turn a deaf ear on Marcus' nasal tone and L.A.'s seizure-inducing production values. I've made peace with the fact that everyone is too afraid of making Chris relapse to offer him an honest critique, but I cannot abide another week of Paula calling Marcus a "true entertainer" or L.A. deeming him a "champion" just for being the second-worst performer of the competition three weeks in a row. I'll admit, his Save Me song last week was fairly strong, because for some reason he didn't sound like he was singing through his nose, but he was firmly back to his old habits this week.
His performance of "I'll Make Love To You" was mediocre at best, and the staging was utterly baffling, with a profusion of smoke and a random solo dancer in a red dress, who seemed to have wandered in from 'So You Think You Can Dance' and gotten confused, swaying in the background. Simon criticized L.A.'s choices more than Marcus', calling the production values "distracting and very corny," while Nicole blathered that Marcus was "bringing sexy back." His second song was a bizarre, up-tempo version of "Careless Whisper," which hid a little of his pitchiness amid the throbbing backing track, but mostly was just distracting and tacky, what with the scantily-clad dancers and inexplicable confetti (L.A. has clearly decided that he's already won the competition, I guess?). This time around, Simon didn't pull any punches, declaring, "that was horrific ... as bad as I've ever seen," while Paula gushed that she loved how Marcus took a classic song and made it contemporary.
Chris Rene: To be fair to the judges this week, both Simon and Nicole did admit that Chris has never been the strongest vocalist in the competition, so my earlier comment about no-one giving him an honest critique isn't quite fair. The tricky thing about judging a competition that focuses on the indefinable "X Factor" is that it's clearly not just about talent; connecting with an audience is also a big part of being a successful artist. Still, as inspiring as Chris' journey has been, and as much as we're all rooting for him to stay clean and be successful enough to support his kid, I think it would be a travesty to see him win over a truly talented performer like Melanie or Josh just because he's been packaged as a sympathy vote.
I thought his first performance, Sugar Ray's "Fly," was one of his weaker renditions, mostly because Chris mumbled his way through it and his enunciation was nonexistent. I kept turning up the volume to see if I was just going deaf, but it was truly incomprehensible. He sounded a little less off-key than he usually does, but that could've been the backing track drowning him out. Nicole said he looked like a million bucks, and Paula countered that he looked like "five million bucks -- after taxes," before enthusing that his heart resonates with the world. Simon liked the song choice (thanks, Pepsi Challenge voters!) but thought it was only a "seven out of 10" performance that wasn't worthy of a place in the final. Apparently, either I did go deaf for his next performance, or L.A. spiked the other judges' Pepsi cups during the break, because they all thought his version of Alicia Keys' "No One" was great, with Simon telling him that "he delivered big time" and Nicole imparting some nonsense about his spirit transcending the universe. I thought it was pitchy and wildly inconsistent, but it's not my $5 million, I suppose.
Simon Cowell's Girl
Melanie Amaro: If Melanie doesn't win this whole shebang, I'll eat my metaphorical hat. That's not to say that I'm not rooting for Josh too, but Nicole isn't half as savvy a mentor as Simon is, and she hasn't manipulated the audience half as well as the grumpy Brit has. Besides, Melanie hasn't really put a foot wrong all season, performance-wise. I didn't feel her first song, the overused Mariah Carey staple "Hero," (way to be predictable, America), since it seemed a little too by-the-numbers for her. We know that Melanie can sing diva ballads in her sleep, but despite Simon once again overstating that he'd thrown in an exciting "twist" to help Melanie make the song her own, it sounded like every other Melanie ballad ever -- pure and powerful, but far from her most compelling performance. And changing the key from major to minor (kudos to Paula for the relevant and lucid critique) wasn't nearly enough of a change to merit all of Simon's grandstanding.
L.A. pointed out that it was predictable -- though acknowledged that it was America's choice and not Simon's -- and said that he didn't feel her usual passion in the performance. Nicole called it "perfect and fitting" and declared that Melanie is liberating us all -- from what, I don't know. Her second song, on the other hand, was undoubtedly the performance of the night. "Feeling Good" was sassy, sultry and, unusually for Melanie, fun -- but still in a classy way. Her voice was utterly flawless and none of the judges could find anything wrong with it, with L.A. praising her as the greatest female to ever take the "X Factor" stage and telling her she "killed it."
Nicole Scherzinger's Over 30
Josh Krajcik: Poor burrito-peddling Josh has always managed to succeed in spite of Nicole, who has given him week after week of baffling song choices and terrible staging. Thankfully, the song choice was out of her hands this week, which led to the somewhat underwhelming "Come Together" and the risky but ultimately impressive "Hallelujah." The Beatles number was well within Josh's wheelhouse, rocky enough to allow him to unleash his more graveled, husky tone, but I didn't feel emotionally connected to the song and I don't think he did either. L.A. commented that it was the best he'd been for weeks, while Paula offered a terrifying mental image by observing that Josh attacks our souls when he sings (I guess she meant it as a compliment?). Simon was just relieved that Nicole (AKA Cruella de Vil) had removed his distracting backing dancers.
"Hallelujah," like "Hero," tends to be overused on these talent shows, but rarely to impressive effect. Josh bucked that trend this week with a raw and heartfelt performance that illustrated just how resonant he can be when he feels attached to the song. He could have gone over the top with runs, but it was controlled and nuanced instead of being showy, and I think that served him well. Paula was in tears by the end of the song and was absolutely horrified when L.A. said that it "lacked excitement," countering that she's never seen a contestant quite like Josh and that if this was the final, he'd be the one to beat. Simon agreed that the song was sincere and sung with great emotion, predicting that it had put him into the final next week. Then again, Simon has been predicting that Marcus would be the one going home for weeks now, so I don't put too much stock in his crystal ball. Still, if Josh isn't in the final, I'll be stunned.
"The X Factor" airs Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8PM ET on Fox.
There's no Save Me song this week, so do you think Marcus' luck will finally run out? What was your favorite performance of the night? Weigh in below.