Thursday, December 22, 2011

Merry X-Mas

And so we've reached the end of the X-Factor season. I've been a bit lax in my pithy commentary on the show. Part of it stems from being a bit overbooked at work. Part of it stems from a slip in passion after the eliminations of Drew and Rachel Crow. With the season just an hour away from being over, though, I feel the need to weigh in a little on the show and how this first season has progressed.

For the most part, yes, I do find X-Factor entertaining. The added production value, the mentor-performer relationship, and the seeming realization that this show is supposed to produce viable, contemporary artists has kept me pretty engaged. It's no American Idol, but what show could ever really assume the mantle of that behemoth beauty? It's a good place filler while we wait for Idol to launch in the winter, and it's nice to get a weekly visitation with Simon who is as acidic and prescient as ever. The show has been populated by seemingly likable personalities on the stage and has kept the drama high with the rules that seem to change every week and the elimination of acts that seemed destined for greatness.

And that brings me to some areas where I've found X-Factor lacking. Yes, I know that part of the bread and butter of shows like this is the shocking elimination. It's how they manipulate us to vote and keep us watching, keep us invested. I also, though, think that the way that X-Factor has set up its elimination process is part of the problem. It's hard to have the incentive to vote, for example, when you feel like your voice is muted a little by the ability of the judges to overrule your vote...or when the judges are so stupid in how they decide who to send home. Initially, I did like the idea of the judges ultimately deciding who stays and goes. It seemed like a good safeguard against American stupidity. After all, such a set-up may have given us Melinda Doolittle: American Idol instead of Melinda Doolittle: Who's That Again? Midway through the season, though, the rules seemed to change and double eliminations were foisted upon us. (I suspect it came about the time that Fox executives realized that, if the show eliminated acts one week at a time, they would extend past Christmas and veer dangerously close to the launch of Idol, and no one at Fox wants to piss off Simon Fuller.) All of a sudden, our votes DID count, and artists were picked off heartlessly with little to no fanfare because they garnered the smallest number of votes. And then we had the other two in the bottom three sing for their proverbial lives -- which led to a couple of the more memorable moments in the show's history, but moments that seem more mired in shame than triumph.

First, we had the vote to eliminate Drew over Marcus Canty. I will admit that the judges were right in wanting Drew to mix things up a bit. While I loved her Sarah McLachlan/Kate Bush/Tori Amos sort of vibe, yes, in retrospect, it would have been interesting to see her try something a little more upbeat. And if she had been allowed to stay one more week, we would have seen just that since the next week found the acts have "Dance Week" foisted upon them. The decision to eliminate Drew fell on Paula and Nicole, and the decision they made to keep Marcus just sort of left me flummoxed and made me question the decision to give such power to the judges.

And then came Rachel's ouster. Once again, we had a face off against Marcus. Rachel sang her guts out on her elimination song. She had "star potential" written all over her. And then Nicole made the decision to essentially NOT make a decision, prompting a deadlock which ended with a 14 year old girl collapsing to the floor and sobbing. It was one of the most uncomfortable things I think I've ever witnessed on live television. What made it even more frustrating were the post-show interviews where basically Nicole admitted that her "decision" to go to deadlock was a way to allow Marcus Canty to be eliminated "gracefully." She, like all of us, assumed Marcus was the lowest vote-getter. She, like all of us, assumed wrong. Had Nicole "done the right thing" and voted with her conscience the way every other judge did, Rachel MIGHT have been performing last night alongside those creepy Michael Jackson robots.

And yeah, let's talk now about last night...

Somehow, having a threesome in the finale (tee hee) cuts down on the drama a bit, or is that just me? There's something just more exciting about the big head-to-heads -- Kelly vs. Justin, Clay vs. Ruben, Carrie vs. Bo, Adam vs. Kris. When there are three involved, it just feels muted. Add to it the odd choice to make their first songs duets with actual singers, famous ones, and it felt like X-Factor just had kind of given up a little. While it was exciting to see Alanis, Avril, and R. Kelly singing alongside the X-ers (I really miss calling them Idols, man), it also proved to point out all of the shortcomings in Josh, Chris, and Melanie. Josh is not a rock star, no matter how much Nicole wants to position him to be. He's a bluesman, and a bluesman's voice is not a good match for Alanis's music. (Am I the only one who thinks that they lined up Alanis early in the season when Drew seemed like a lock for the finale??) Chris is an entertaining kid, but again, "Complicated" was really out of his range (and seemingly out of Avril's, too. There's a big difference between what you can sing at 17 and what you can sing at almost 30, isn't there, kiddo?). I liked the insertion of the rap mid-song, but the first verse where he was straining to reach notes was just painful. (What do you think -- was Avril lined up to be Rachel's duet buddy?) Melanie probably held it together the best, but it was on a song that has always made my teeth ache with hatred, so..... there's that.

Mid-show, we got perhaps one of the most bizarre displays and yet one of the most unintentionally metaphoric performances that has ever been on one of these shows. We get these faceless Robotos with money signs dancing while the finalists sang Michael Jackson's "They Don't Care." Faceless robots only concerned with money singing, "All I really know is that they don't really care about us." On a reality talent show. It was kind of spooky in its perfection, and yet I would suspect that not a single person involved with putting that spectacle together ever stopped for a second to say, "Hey, guys, does anyone else find this sort of have a bunch of previously unknown kids singing about how we don't care about them with the dancing implication being that all we DO care about is money? No? Just me? Okay, cool."

I did find it rather brilliant to have the finalists, for their "$5 million song", sing their initial audition songs. Once it dawned on me, though, that this was happening, I knew that Josh and Chris were screwed. Josh's performance of "At Last" was okay, but it lacked that shock and awe of his audition performance. "Young Homey" was charming as always, but I kind of feel like we've seen that song enough times over the course of the past couple months, that there was nothing particularly revelatory about it. It's a great song, but is it the kind of song you win a $5 million talent show contest with? Probably not. And then came Melanie. We were assured by Stevecrest that the performance order had been drawn at random, but come on! You don't waste "Listen" on first or second. It can only go in the pimp spot, and we all knew Melanie was going to tear that joint down. She's grown as a performer over these weeks, with assurance and poise that she didn't have seven months ago. "Listen" is a barnburner, and I'll frankly be kind of stunned if Melanie doesn't win based on the sheer perfection of that performance being our last performance of the night.

Of course, I've been wrong before. I will say that I think the final two comes down to Melanie and Chris. While I love Josh, I don't think he's been given a chance to really establish his personality and story the way that Mel and Chris have these past several weeks. I also think that he has been held back significantly by his mentor. Baby Nicole's insistence on turning him into a rock star has put Josh in repeated situations where he's seemed downright miserable. The guy has gotten some exposure, will probably land a record deal, and will have a nice career playing larger clubs and opening for Ray LaMontagne for the next couple years. There's no shame in that. Melanie and Chris, however, have been given far better treatment. They were with mentors who seemed to understand the niche that their artists were filling, who understand how to actually make kids into stars, and have hustled on behalf of their artists. They've given us character and backstory galore. They've grown as artists. Chris is probably the more viable contemporary artist, truth be told, but since when did the more viable contemporary artist win one of these things? Melanie is the kind of artist who wins these things. (Is it a coincidence that every time I look at her, I have to squint to make sure I'm not looking at Jordin Sparks or Leona Lewis?) The people who vote for these things are not sitting on the cutting edge of music...or even on the blade of the cutting edge....or the handle....or even in the same drawer. They like their winners filled with big voices and who cares if they can't make it work on the charts. We're stuck in 1992 as voters, and there is nothing 1992 about Chris Rene. Here's hoping LA Reid sticks with Chris after tonight and ushers him to a recording contract that will allow him to build a career. Melanie will be able to coast off her win, perhaps, for a good-selling single or two, maybe even a top ten album debut, and then fade into the same obscurity that awaits Javier Colon (from The Voice) and that has already welcomed Kris Allen and Lee Dewyze.

Again, let me say that I have enjoyed the show as a great filler for Idol. I look forward to next season, a season that I do hope does NOT include Nicole Scherzinger, who has to be the worst judge since Ellen Degeneres. I hope the show examines its formula just a bit and addresses some of those issues that have proved so frustrating -- primarily the inconsistency in terms of voting and elimination. Okay, yeah, a host with slightly more personality might be nice, too, although Stevecrest did kind of grow on me in his awkward sort of way. But I'm not going to lie when I say that I will let out a huge sigh of relief when Ryan, Randy, JLo, and Steve are making their weekly visits to my living room and I can complain about something I have known and loved for so many years rather than the new formula who just isn't quite the same.

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