Wednesday was '80s Night on "The X Factor" — or a "fantastic '80s dreamscape," as host Mario Lopez declared in his best Doug Henning/Richard Simmons voice. So that meant the already garish "XF" soundstage became a veritable Lisa Frank rainbow of fingerless gloves, leg-warmers, wannabe Solid Gold Dancers, and all other sorts of neon-hued processed cheese. But you know what? I sort of liked the cheese. It was kind of rad, fer shur.
Let's face it, "The X Factor" seems cheesy and dated pretty much every week, no matter what the contestants are singing. This week, at least, everyone on the show embraced the cheese, and I was right there with 'em, embracing it with my own dolman-sleeved arms. I let the Chaka Khan rock me, I let the so-fine Mickey blow my mind, and I just died in "The X Factor's" arms.
One contestant who didn't get to embrace the '80s, however, was Carlos Guevara, who was eliminated at the top of the episode based on the votes from last Thursday's do-over show. I felt bad for the kid, but perhaps this was for the best; word was he'd been planning to cover Tears For Fears' "Mad World," and no reality show contestant other than Adam Lambert or the combined Season 1 cast of "The Glee Project" should ever touch that song.
Carlos won't be the only castoff this week: On this Thursday's results show, two more contestants from the top 12 will be voted off. Which two? Let's recap this week's '80s performances and figure out who was totally awesome and who was totally gnarly:
Lillie McCloud (Over 25's) – Of all the contestants, Lillie seemed to have the advantage this week. I mean, this woman was actually recording semi-hit records in the 1980s (under the stage name Nicole McCloud), so she knew this musical era a whole lot better than, say, Rion Paige. Lillie's mentor, Kelly Rowland, loosened up Lillie's curls and tried to loosen up her cabaret act with an uptempo song, Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody," and it mostly worked. Lillie seemed more youthful and current; it was refreshing to see her work the stage in a well-filled-out pair of jeans (like she'd wanted to last week), instead of belting a ballad in an Oscars gown. However, the song didn't really showcase Lillie's massive range, and the choreography she was assigned compromised her vocals in parts. (Simon Cowell couldn't resist pointing out how out-of-breath Lillie was by the song's end.) Paulina Rubio, a judge so ineffective she makes last season's Britney Spears look like a fount of wisdom, said something about Lillie being "multi-faceted." Simon called Lillie a "naughty little thing" and accused her of flirting with him. (Don't flatter yourself, Simon.) Demi Lovato told her, "I don't know why you didn't take off in the '80s. Maybe this is your time right now." Overall, I think this was a strong performance, but I'm still waiting for Lillie to pull off another "Alabaster Box" magic moment. I hope she has it in her.
Carlito Olivero (Boys) – Carlito had a rough time of it last Thursday — honestly, I thought it would be Carlito, not Carlos, going home tonight — so he was lucky to get another chance. I thought he handled his song assignment, Gloria Estefan's "Rhythm is Gonna Get You," pretty well. He showed off some fly moves without getting winded or losing his way vocally, and he seemed like a potential pop star to me. This was a massive improvement over last Thursday's Daniel Bedingfield debacle. Yet all of the judges — even Carilto's own coach, Paulina, the one who tells everyone they're "amaaaaaaazing" — came down very hard on Carlito. Kelly told him he wasn't getting lost in his performance. Then Demi said he was getting too lost in his performance. Paulina said he needed to "work on his face." And Simon said, "If you stay, which is doubtful, you've got to take more control. You [seemed like] a dancer that was singing. You didn't have that gravitas." Clearly it was the judging panel, not the rhythm, that was out to get Carlito this Wednesday.
Rion Paige (Girls) – As the youngest contestant in the competition, Rion of course wasn't familiar with the '80s. (The girl was literally born in the 2000s. Dear gawd.) She fared all right with Pat Benatar's emotive power ballad "We Belong," attacking the song with her usual can-do attitude and enthusiastic hairography, but this was not her best vocal. The middle was especially iffy. So she got an A for effort — Rion always puts in the effort — and maybe a B-minus or C-plus for the singing itself. The judges all loved this, however; Rion is the golden child of Season 3, and she's simply lovable. "You were singing like you were right from the '80s. The beginning was a little rough, but you took us right on home," said Kelly. "I love how you feel the music and bring us inside your story," said Paulina. "No matter what song you're given, you perform 110 percent," said Simon, though he complained that the song choice didn't really connect with Rion. Hey, the kid thought the Spice Girls were from the '80s. She was probably going to have trouble connecting with any actual song or artist from this decade.
Sweet Suspense (Groups) – The Sweet Suspense girls turned Toni Basil's one-hit-wonder "Mickey" into a sort of late-'80s/early-'90s, sticky-sweet Stock Aitken Waterman jam — very "Neighbours"-era Kylie Minogue, with just a dash of Samantha Fox. There was a slight Disney vibe to this, too, and not just because they were singing about someone named Mickey. I thought this performance really worked; it was fun, fresh, and adorable. But again, the judges went really hard on these girls, for no discernible reason. Kelly didn't think they were in sync. Demi grumbled, "My favorite part of the whole thing was the fire. It was low-energy. You need to work the stage more. You're not Fifth Harmony." (Ouch!) Simon, Sweet Suspense's mentor, was much nicer, of course. "Not only was it your best performance so far, it was the best performance of the night so far," he said. "You looked and sounded like a real group — commercial." We will see if America agreed with Kelly and Demi, or with Simon. I was with Simon on this one.
Tim Olstad (Boys) – There was so much WTF written all over this. First, in his pre-performance segment, Tim revealed that he'd somehow become BFFs with "Modern Family's" Sarah Hyland, and he and Sarah were shown dining together while she pep-talked him about his next performance. OK, then. Random. Then that next performance turned out to be…"Against All Odds" by Phil Collins, a song that has been the kiss of death for many a singing-show contestant and didn't exactly help Tim shake his "funeral director" image. Tim's vocal was good (Tim's vocals are always good), but the song choice was dreadful. And then, speaking of randomness…there was some weird pantsless interpretive dancer onstage, writhing on the floor while Tim sang to her. Huh? Why? I guess the producers wanted to do something with the staging that might make Tim seem more interesting, but this was just odd and distracting. The stacked-television-background also reminded me of the early-MTV music video for Asia's minor hit "Only Time Will Tell." I actually would have preferred that song for Tim, but hey, that's just me. Or maybe it wasn't just me, because none of the judges were into his Collins cover. "Tim, I adore you, but I have to be honest: That still fell flat for me. There was no presence," said Kelly. "It was a bit like a horror movie. [The dancer is] dying on the floor while you're singing the song," said Simon. "You do have a great voice, but there's no X-factor. That dancer stole the show. If it were up to me, you'd be going home this week," said Demi. I actually don't think Tim will go this week, because he has a fanbase (one that now probably includes a few "Modern Family" devotees), but if he keeps giving snoozy performances like this, it's against all odds that he will actually win this show.
Khaya Cohen (Girls) – I've warmed to Khaya over the past few weeks, and with her cover of Madonna's "Borderline" tonight, I crossed right over the borderline into Khaya fandom territory. This was great. I loved the modern arrangement, the rasp in her voice, the sassy way she got all up in Simon's face. (From looks of his Cheshire-cat grin, I think Simon liked the extra attention, too.) This performance was fun, vivacious, relevant, and vocally on point. It had the X-factor. "I'm getting to feeling like you're ready for this whole music thing," said Kelly. "You're singing better than ever," raved Paulina. "I took your shyness for being boring, but now you're showing personality and confidence. We shouldn't underestimate how good you really are," said Simon. Khaya really could be this season's dark horse. She was one of the best of the night.
Restless Road (Groups) – Doing the Blake Shelton version of "Footloose" (at least I assume it was the Blake version, because it was countrified), Restless Road kicked up their heels, boot-scooted with a bunch of Daisy Duke hotties, and climbed up on pinball machines, embracing the cheese so wholeheartedly that the Fox wardrobe department may as well have had them all wear foam Wisconsin Cheesehead hats. It was a fun performance, though a bit underwhelming vocally. However, the judges were going nuts like Kevin Bacon in an abandoned barn in Beaumont circa 1984. "You guys are loads of fun. I'll be right there in the front row at your concert," said Kelly. "Awesome! I love it!" howled Paulina. "I love the fact that you love being here, and that's infectious. I've got a real good feeling about you guys," asserted Simon.
Rachel Potter (Over 25's) – Rachel had some nerve doing "Alone," since Heart songs are always incredibly tough and this song is associated in many people's minds with the breakout performance by one of the most successful singing-show contestants of all time, "Idol's" Carrie Underwood. But Rachel mostly pulled it off. I dug the whole budget-'80s-music video vibe of the production (the wind machine, the chain-link fence straight out of Toto's "Rosanna" clip, the leather-shorted vixen persona), and I was totally digging her vocal…until the end, when she screamed. Rachel should never scream. For a minute, I even got a shuddering Four-Chair Challenge flashback when did that. Thankfully, she recovered nicely. "I really enjoyed that. I wanted to see that from you: a little bit sassy, strong, screaming," said Paulina. Demi called Rachel "phenomenal" and "a mix of Shania Twain and Martina McBride." Simon called Rachel out on the bad note, but for the most part liked the performance. However, he did say, "The only thing I'm struggling with is what kind of artist you want to be." Rachel said she considered herself country and pointed out, "Carrie Underwood would do this." Ha. I guess Simon forgot all about Carrie's performance from "American Idol" Season 4.
Ellona Santiago (Girls) – Just as I'd been worried when I'd learned that Rachel would be singing Heart, I feared for Ellona, who'd be tackling the almighty Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody." But she pretty much rocked this. Even when she tripped and fell onstage, she pulled a Haley Reinhart and got right back up without missing a beat. Her vocals did suffer a bit from all the choreography she was doing (she regularly dances onstage more than any other contestant), but considering how most professional pop stars choose to lip-synch rather than dance and sing live at the same time, this was impressive. "This voice is just bigger than your tiny, tiny body!" raved Kelly, though she admitted the first part of the song was a bit rough. Said Simon: "The first two-thirds of the song were literally mad. I just didn't get it. Too erratic, too crazy. The last 30 seconds was great. I'd like to see something with less choreography, because you have a great voice and I want you to show that off." How much you wanna bet they'll have Ellona sitting on a stool doing a ballad next week?
Josh Levi (Boys) – Covering ex-"X Factor" judge Paula Abdul's "Straight Up" turned out to be a straight-up good idea. With this, Josh continued to prove that he deserved to be brought back to this competition (or at least hadn't deserved to be cut from the top 16 in the first place). He handled the combination of singing and dancing even better than Ellona did, and he seemed like a real, relevant, ready pop star. "I think you, young man, have just arrived," said Kelly. "I have no idea how you were ever let go, but it was the smartest thing Paulina ever did to bring you back," said Demi. "This is proving the point: One minute, we're watching karaoke singers, and the next, we're watching a future star," said Simon. Simon was right. This was one of the best performances of the night.
Jeff Gutt (Over 25's) – Every night is '80s Night (or at least '90s Night) for Jeff, so I expected him to kill it this week. Therefore, I was a little disappointed by his song choice, Cutting Crew's "(I Just) Died In Your Arms"; since he's such a self-declared rocker, I would have expected him to do some metal. He rocked this song in his own Guttian way, but I wish he'd performed something rangier and less repetitive that would've allowed him to show off his pipes more. "I'm just so happy that you're representing the rock; we need someone like you in this competition," said Demi. However, Simon complained about Jeff staying in his comfort zone and told him, "It's all a tiny bit Spinal Tap." Jeff singing some Spinal Tap would have been awesome, actually. Jeff could have slayed "Big Bottom"!
Alex & Sierra (Groups) – "Addicted to Love" was an interesting choice for these real-life lovebirds who are clearly addicted to each other. I do think the staging — Alex and Sierra performing on opposite sides of a wall, separated from each other until the song's end — caused some of their trademark sexy chemistry to be lost. But it did allow the leggy Sierra, a former competitive dancer (who knew?), to work the stage more, and she did a great job of that, even in impossibly teetering-high heels that Lady Gaga would probably find daunting. As for the song's arrangement, it was another A&S classic; I just love how these two always put their stamp on everything they do, whether it's Robert Palmer or Britney Spears or the Grease soundtrack. So I really, really did not understand why the judge tore into the couple. "I feel you could have worked the setup better, and you looked a little uncomfortable in those shoes…It was a miss this week," shrugged Demi. Said their own coach, Simon: "The only problem I had with you was you lost the melody…This wasn't as good as it should have been. I'm frustrated." I was just frustrated with Demi and Simon. They were wrong about this performance.
So now, it is prediction time. I think the two contestants going home Thursday will be…Carlito and Rion. Carlito had a bad week last week, and although he survived that setback and improved this week, I think the judges' harsh critiques will hurt him now. As for Rion, she never was popular on social media, and I don't think her "We Belong" was on par with her best performances from this season, "Blown Away" and "Born This Way."
Tune in Thursday, when it's time to face the music, to see if I'm right!