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'The X Factor' recap: Summoning the spirit of Michael Jackson

December 1, 2011 | 10:02 am

It was Michael Jackson week on "The X Factor" on Wednesday night, and while host Steve Jones insisted that the evening was all about "the preshah!" it was really all about the fact that Jackson's kids (and mom and some of his brothers) were in the house. Yep, Prince, Paris and Blanket, kept essentially hidden by their father before his death, were in the audience, front and center and looking as if they'd rather be any place else.

Could they have looked any more bored by the onstage goings-on if they had tried?

Jackson's mom, Katherine, declared -– audibly only after she was finally handed a mic -– that "The X Factor" was her favorite show. But the kids looked as if they had been beamed in from another planet and had no idea precisely where they were and what they were doing here. Unfortunately for them -– and for the poor contestants onstage struggling to curry favor with their father's songs -– the camera kept cutting to the unsmiling, clearly unimpressed Jackson kids, deflating whatever other enthusiasm the contestants had worked up in the crowd.

Pressed to do so by Jones, the kids did their best to make the appropriate appreciative noises, but honestly, it was a little painful. It's hard to imagine that the fiercely protective and private (with his children) Jackson would ever have put his kids in that spot. Remember how he used to keep their faces covered when they went out with him in public?

As far as performances, the night did have its highlights. It also had its head-scratchers. And sometimes it was hard to decide which was which.

Josh Krajcik chose an odd song (Jackson's "Dirty Diana") and performed it in a cage, with scantily clad dancers writhing around him, but still ended up looking and sounding like a gritty champ.

Astro took Jackson's "Black or White" and made it his own with a heartfelt rap about racial tolerance. (I'd really love to read through the lyrics of all of Astro's songs, but this one in particular. The kid's a true poet with important things to convey. It's unfortunate that it can be hard to catch all the words.) 

Drew, meanwhile, was bizarrely confined to a chair by Simon Cowell as she sang "Billie Jean." The vocals were possibly Drew's best yet, but it seemed like yet another missed opportunity for Cowell and Drew to show that the singer can move around at all -– even a little bit -– onstage. It's starting to feel as if Drew's voice comes from a singer in a straitjacket. It's certainly possible that Drew could win this competition by relying on her voice alone, but that sort of undercuts what Cowell has said the show is. It's not supposed to be only a singing competition, right? But rather about being, to use one of the judges' favorite phrases, the "whole package" –- isn’t that what they keep telling us?

Rachel Crow tackled "Can You Feel It," and although you might have expected Crow, with her bubbly energy, to really shine on Michael Jackson night, it was the most checked out we've ever seen her onstage. Perhaps Cowell is overmanaging the talented contestants he's mentoring -- because the most comfortable we've ever seen Crow onstage was when she was allowed to channel her mature energy on the Etta James song she picked. That's the Crow I'd like to see more of, not this high-top, bubblegum version.

Marcus Canty, on the other hand, appeared to be in his element with the King of Pop's "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)." He sang, he danced, he even did a flip onstage. (Risky move, that -– what if he hadn't pulled it off?) Despite the dancing mudflap girls projected on the video wall behind him, Canty came out looking like a class act. If his fans don't rally after seeing him just avoid elimination last week, and he doesn't make it past this week, you can't say he didn't give it everything he had.

Before he took the stage to sing "I'll Be There," Chris Rene revealed that he has a family connection to Michael Jackson: His grandfather wrote the song "Rockin' Robin," which the Jackson 5 made very, very famous. Rene's version of "I'll Be There" showed off the sweet tone that has kept him in this competition (his rap-inspired "uh, uh's" may be among the loveliest I have heard) but also displayed his lack of range, though some notes were hard to decipher over the background singers. I think it's unlikely that Rene will have another moment in this competition that's as transcendent as his "Young Homie" audition. We'll see if the voters are still holding out hope.

Melanie Amaro again made the biggest impact onstage, looking gorgeous and passionate and singing an absolutely triumphant version of Jackson's "Earth Song." Now that she's come out of her shell and showed us who she really is, where she's come from, and what's at stake for her, it's as if she's been released from a cage. She could go far.

At this point, I'm thinking Amaro and Krajcik are the ones to beat here. As for who will go home in Thursday night's double elimination, well, it's probably anyone's guess, but I'm saying Canty, Rene and Crow are in danger. On the other hand, Astro's fans will still need to stay vigilant to keep him in the competition. And Drew's restrained stage style may not sit well with voters.

What do you think? Who would like (and hate) to see sent home?


'The X Factor' results: Lucky seven remain as two head home

'The X Factor' recap: The top 9 give us a lot to be thankful for

'The X Factor' results: Twists, turns and now the top 9

'The X Factor' recap: The top 10 fail to rock us

-- Amy Reiter

Photo: Michael Jackson's children, from left, Prince, Paris and Blanket watch contestants in "The X Factor" with Jackson's mother, Katherine, on Wednesday. Credit: Michael Becker / Fox