Last night, I cheated on my longtime love. I actually found myself saying OUT LOUD, "Here's why I love X-Factor more than American Idol..." and I immediately went white in the face and felt as if I had commited a tremendous sin. After all, what in the world could I possibly love more than Idol? Okay, I actually love LOTS of things more than Idol, but in terms of reality singing competitions, no one has ever stolen my heart the way Idol did back in the old days, before we settled into a routine, broke up once or twice, and got to a place where we could live together in a sometimes passionless co-existence. And yet last night, I found myself more engaged with X-Factor than I have since maybe season three of Idol. The judging (outside of just about any of the nonsense erupting from Baby Nicole's mouth) was relatively spot on and largely constructive (at times). The performances were pretty incredible in most cases. They actually sing relevant, CONTEMPORARY music. (And don't get me started on how much I love the mashups!) The production value of this show is out of control. Before Baby Nicole said it about 100 times to Marcus (I think it was), I commented to my sis that it felt like a legit concert with choreography, effects, and really good vocals.
It's going to be interesting to see who goes home tonight (and I'll offer some thoughts on that in a bit) because the performances last night were largely insanely good. Think of Top 12 week of Idol. By this point on Idol, there's already a clear frontrunner (and usually, you're able to spot who will come in second), there's a handful of decent, promising performances, and there are usually four or five absolute wrecks. You know by week 12 who is not going to last long on Idol. Can you really say that after last night's X-Factor? There may be a couple artists that may not have a shot at the $5million and the "iconic" Pepsi ad, but the fact that there are at least half of them that have a really clear shot at victory is completely stunning to me. I'm not sure how X-Factor has been able to assemble such an amazing lineup of "undiscovered" talent while Idol has been able to only muster up a couple every year (and left us with piles of discarded wannabes like Michael Sarver and Haley Scarnato). While I'm not necessarily a fan of all twelve finalists here, I can see merit in each and every one of them and can understand WHY people may vote for them -- something that's not always true of many Idols at this point in the season.
With that being said, someone has to go home tonight. It's in the rules, and X-Factor wisely eschews the judge's save that could keep an eliminated contestant in the game for at least one more week. Someone's heart will be broken tonight.
Like I do with Idol, here are my rankings of last night's performances as well as some thoughts on who will be ending their Ido-, er X-Factor journey tonight.
1. Drew ("Just a Dream") I'm torn right now between Josh and Drew for my favorites. They're the two artists here that I can imagine downloading their cd's. Ultimately, I liked Drew's performance just a touch better last night if only because I had never heard this Nelly song that she covered and was impressed with the fact that she stepped just a touch out of her usual comfort zone but still managed to deliver an upbeat song with that fragility I love in her voice. This kid is incredible. The competition here is tough, but I'm rooting for Drew to go all the way.
2. Josh Krajcik ("Jar of Hearts") Like Simon, "Jar of Hearts" is one of my favorite songs of the past year or so. I was a little uncertain when Josh started off, but the song was a good match for that soulful gravel that inhabits his voice. Josh will likely never be a "pop" star, but he will reside in the iPod playlists of many over 30 music fans -- and there are a ton of us out there! We made Ray LaMontagne a star; we can do it for you, too, Burrito Man!
3. Stereo Hogzz ("Rhythm Nation") Stereo Hogzz was saddled with the dreaded first spot on the show last night, a spot that is okay as the numbers dwindle, but when you're followed by eleven pretty hot performances...YIKES! To be honest, I'd kind of forgotten they'd even performed until the recap at the end when I thought, "Wow. Yeah. Stereo Hogzz killed tonight!" I hope America has a better memory than I do and this group sticks around longer because they really were one of the top performances last night.
4. Melanie Amaro ("Desperado") I think Melanie is going to be the divisive contestant this year Chez Mel. My sis is not a fan, calling her dated and overblown. I like her (and not just because Simon called her "Mel" once. Really!) I loved her performance of "Desperado," a song that gains a whole new and more powerful meaning in the hands of a woman. America isn't necessarily fans, it seems, of the soul divas, especially old-school ones like Melanie seems to be striving for. She may fall prey to the same thing Pia Toscano fell victim to last year -- relying too heavily on ballads and being just too note perfect in those performances. Melanie, though, seems to have at least a little more character than Pia, so maybe she'll be the soul diva left standing as the season progresses.
5. Marcus Canty ("Nothin' on You"/"Every Little Step") I've been a Marcus fan since day one, and I think that he is likely LA's best chance at claiming victory this season over Simon or Baby Nicole (who lucked out getting the Over 30's and Josh!). Chris seems to be flaming out a little, and I just don't know how America is going to handle a hip hop artist like Astro. (More on those two in a bit.) Marcus, though, seems like the kind of guy who might attract a healthy following. He's crazy talented, cute, and seems like a genuinely nice kid -- sure to appeal to tweens and moms alike!
6. Rachel Crow ("Walking on Sunshine") Rachel is America's Sweetheart. She is sassy and spunky and full of fire. I wasn't super crazy about this particular performance (and agree with Baby Nicole -- GASP! -- that the lyrics really didn't need to be changed), but this kid has a definite following (I suspect) that will keep her going for much longer than maybe she should. Her voice isn't as interesting as Drew's or as strong as Melanie's but her character is the more memorable of those three. I do applaud Simon for not pushing her to sing songs that are way too adult for her (like, I'm sorry, "If I Were a Boy"), but that soulful quality to her voice is wasted on kitschy pop like "Walking on Sunshine." If Simon can find that middle ground, Rachel could have longer legs than I think.
7. Stacy Francis ("Up to the Mountain") It is almost staggering how quickly sentiment turned against Stacy at my house. Both my sis and I wept openly during Stacy's moving audition and fell (in the moment) for that whole "I don't wanna die with the music inside me" thing. Within a week or two, though, we were both SO over Stacy and her messy mascara tears. I do think Baby Nicole was wise to listen to Simon and give Stacy a more soulful (or "church") song over the pop stuff she saddled her with last week. (I love me some George Michael, but "One More Try" was a bad choice for Stacy!) Unfortunately, for me, this song kind of belongs to Crystal Bowersox and Stacy's take last night just seemed overwrought and overworked. Sometimes, less is more.
8. Chris Rene ("Superstar") Chris is approaching that flame out territory, or maybe I'm just being influenced by LA's choice to surround the kid in fire last night (which was a really cool effect and was the moment that prompted me to declare my love for X-Factor over Idol). "Superstar" worked better for him than "Love Don't Live Here Anymore" did last week, but there's still something that's just not quite clicking here. Yes, I know Chris would prefer to do his own stuff (and why does Astro get to write whole rap verses but Chris has to be a cover artist?), but if he can't find a way to make these songs more than just nicely song tunes, he's in trouble.
9. Intensity ("Kids in America"/"Party Rock Anthem") They're cute. They're talented. They're starting to grate on my nerves just the tiniest bit. My sis calls them InTWEENsity (she's so clever!), and maybe that's part of it -- that youthful energy of theirs seems so forced but it just might be my cynical old age at play. It's only a matter of time before Fox parades these kids onto Glee to be a rival show choir for New Directions, but with ten of them, there's also no chance for them to establish enough of an identity to make us invest in them. I can't imagine them making it too much longer.
10. Astro ("Hip Hop Hooray"/"Get Ur Freak On") Astro is the big test case here. How will middle America respond to a full-on hip hop artist surrounded by pop wannabes? Is there a big portion of the X-Factor audience that's really into hip hop? Is there a big portion of the hip hop fanbase tuning into X-Factor? Who knows? I've seen numerous critics online railing against Astro's arrogance, but that's part of the hip hop culture. You don't get to be Kanye or Jay-Z without a little ego. You never see an MC called "shy" or "self-effacing." Astro is playing the part pretty perfectly, but will the audience GET that? Tonight is the test. If Astro is the name called to go home, I won't be surprised, but I kind of hope the kid sticks around if only to allow X-Factor to continue diversifying the music it offers each week.
11. LeRoy Bell ("I'm Already There") I worry for LeRoy. I honestly kind of forgot about him this morning as I was running through the performances from last night. I love the guy (and I'm not ashamed to say I think he's totally hot, whether he's 60 or not!). I wasn't a huge fan of the song choice for him, and while I thought the emotional connection he had to the lyrics was fine, I think he needs a stronger blues tune to really show off what he's packing.
12. Lakoda Rayne ("Landslide") This won't surprise you -- Simon was right. Lakoda Rayne's styling last night was horrible. How do you hand a Stevie Nicks song to these girls and then dress them like Miss America contestants circa 1978? (I seriously think I remember at least one of those dresses appearing in the dining room on The Love Boat once.) Yes, their voices have come together to blend more successfully than they did originally, but the pain and grit of that song was completely lost and sanitized. Do they GET what that song is even about? It sure didn't sound like it. (Confession: "Landslide" is one of my all-time favorite songs. I'm a little protective of it!) Add to it that the girls still seem kind of bitchy to me, and I would not be at all surprised if the four are sent packing tonight.