November 18, 2011 1:18pm PT by Tim Goodman
'X Factor': The Great Rock And Roll Swindle
FYI: This column contains spoilers. Also a pissy attitude about pretty singing.
"In a perfect world/We'd all sing in tune/But this is reality/So give me some room." - Billy Bragg.
You couldn’t call it unexpected, but when “rock week” came to The X Factor for two nights, it turns out only one of them actually knew what to do with a rock song. Rock weak was more like it.
“What’s the point of having a theme if you’re going to totally disregard it?” Simon Cowell snipped to L.A. Reid, who clearly dodged the rules by giving Chris Rene a reggae song, Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry,” to fit nicely in his comfort zone.
But then Simon let the singers he’s mentoring un-rock three classics. Rachel Crow’s sugary, edgeless “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” from The Rolling Stones was antithetical to the whole point of the song; Melanie Amaro’s version of R.E.M.’s painful “Everybody Hurts” was turned into a church song – proving once again that even if you have a fantastic voice, as she does, so much of rock music is about emotion, not precision or pretty vocal trills. Amaro, who I think can win X Factor, never came close to Michael Stipe’s aching perfection in the chorus (and at times seemed to be saying “Everybody Hurt” – singular). “That was so not rock,” L.A. Reid correctly observed. Later. Drew, one of Simon’s favorites, sucked all the passion out of U2’s “With Or Without You” and turned it, as she often does, into a Sarah McLachlan song.
Drew is someone who could also have a career after the show – and a good one, too, even if she doesn’t win. But sticking to her niche, which sounds increasingly limited each week, certainly didn’t help on “Rock Week.” Can she wail and not just ache? Would have been nice to find out even if, like the others, she opted for a softer song in a rock band/performer’s catalogue – maybe “Kid” from The Pretenders?
Now, anyone who has ever watched one of these televised singing contests should know by now that it’s all about mainstream pop and mainstream pop is all about the singing, not the lyrics and not at all about rawness, aggression or even off-kilter passion. The country music directive – “sing it like you mean it!” – rarely applies as well. The singers are going for vocal perfection only -- they can't be bothered to actually feel the lyrics.
You can make a good argument that hip-hop artists Astro, who can’t sing and Chris Rene, who can – but not nearly to the exalted status of these singing competitions – are bringing the most creativity and passion to the show. Couldn’t Reid have steered Rene, who said he played in a punk band in his early years, to hip-hopified version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? If that was deemed too hard for him, how about anything from Sublime? Wouldn't that be a slam-dunk?
But the person with the whole package seems to be Josh Krajcik, who not only has a distinctive and excellent voice, but he can use it in a variety of genres. Rock? He hit that Foo Fighters song out of the park. “You are the only person who has rocked this house tonight,” Reid noted.
The rest? They were as rock and roll as Pat Boone and not in some safe vanilla haven of cheesiness, but because they were incapable of embracing what rock is all about. They are mostly all rooted in pop glossiness with faux-soul trimmings. Marcus Canty took Janis Joplin’s “Piece Of My Heart” and turned it into a Vegas act that never dove into the growling well of pain and passion of the original. He didn't need a different song - he needed to nail that one. LeRoy Bell’s take on Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight” was just another example of taking a ballad from a rocker and still missing the emotional center, even though the performance was solid. Shouldn’t he have tackled U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name”? Seemed pretty obvious to me. And I mention U2 because none of the judges would reward the work of more obscure (to them) rock acts, so U2 is almost can’t-miss in the environment of “Rock Week.”
Lakoda Rayne meshed Fleetwood Mac’s “You Can Go Your Own Way” with The Outfield’s “For You” which was both misguided and uninspired (had they stuck with Fleetwood Mac solely and not bounced around the stage, it might have worked). I was certain they would have made the obvious choice -- Joan Jett's "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," and maybe they should have.
Astro’s mash-up of Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You” and “Every Breathe You Take” from The Police worked – though I was hoping for the Run-D.M.C.-Aerosmith “Walk This Way” collaboration that might have been perfect. Unfortunately, Astro’s petulance one night later was disturbing (but also predictable given his age and the tough front he puts up). Stacey Francis’ miscalculation of Meat Loaf’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” – really, that’s what you wanted to sing? -- was a combination of bad song choice and botched performance which, coupled with missteps last week and perhaps buying in too willingly to her early hype (calling her fans “Franatics” was vomit-inducing), sped up her exit.
Again, any rock fan knows that most of these singing competition shows are as far away from the essence of actual rock and roll than any brain can imagine, but I was hoping that better choices and the dropping of the R&B trills and inflections, even for one night, might have led to something emotional and moving, something from the gut – not manufactured.