Chris Rene (Ray Mickshaw /Fox)

We’ve had a week to absorb the shocking ouster of Simon Cowell’s little mentoree Rachel Crow, who got the hook by viewer votes after “X Factor’s” most useless judge Nicole Scherzinger declined to toss serial Bottom 2-er Marcus Canty, incorrectly assuming viewer votes would do it for her. Oops.

“Simon, how is Rachel Crow?” show host Steve “Too Tall” Jones asks Simon, in the understandable belief that, as her mentor, Simon might have some ongoing interest in her as a human being.

“Uh, I haven’t seen her but I’ve seen the pictures,” says Simon, and he offers the guess that “she’s a fighter, she’s a survivor, she’ll be fine.”

Too Tall then puts on his Sad Face and asks Nicole “Are you okay?” after the strain of crushing the dream of a little girl last week.

Nicole assures him, as the audience boos her again, that crushing the dreams of a little girl has in fact been a growth experience. “I can handle the ‘boos’ a lot better, because they’ve actually made me stronger.” Nicole says generously that she has “nothing but love for Rachel,” nothing but love for everybody else, and that, by the way, “god is good” for throwing this growth experience her way.

That unhappy episode in the life of “X Factor” now neatly disposed of, it’s time for the X-testants to sing the tunes viewers have chosen for them, through the medium of Pepsi. Marcus Canty will sing the Boyz II Men tune, “I’ll Make Love to You.” Marcus is everybody’s favorite B student and he gives a solid B performance tonight. He is holding a white rose. Halfway through his number, he gives to a girl in the audience, though she seems hesitant to take it at first — awkward. Apparently mentor LA Reid didn’t think that one through. And then there’s the spinning girl in the red dress behind him who seems to serve no purpose whatsoever. Couldn’t she at least have taken the rose?

Chris Rene sings Sugar Ray’s “Fly.” It’s a jolly performance; Chris always rises to good timey tunes, pleasantly substituting a happy vibe for serious singing chops. He’s got some dance moves too — an advantage on this show as it keeps him visible in the surging crowd of X-dancers. Nicole loves that he makes her feel good and tells him he looks like a million bucks. “You don’t look like a million bucks — you look like five million bucks after taxes!” Paula says. But Simon warns, “There is $5 million at stake here; you got to come out next time and show a lot more conviction.” His mentor, LA, on the other hand, tells him, “Just keep doing what you’re doing — $5 million!” This may be a record for most mentions of the winner’s $5 million recording contract in one performance.

Melanie Amaro will sing Mariah Carey’s “There’s a Hero,” though Simon says he’s “put a little twist on this,” by which he means he’s put it in a minor key, so the lyrics inspire but the music depresses. Given the emotionally conflicted arrangement, she did the best she could, and Simon congratulates himself for creating an arrangement that was “not karaoke” but “bloody fantastic.”

America, you’ve chosen a tough song assignment for Josh Krajcik: the plodding Beatles number, “Come Together.” But he manages to give it some shape and interest. “You’ve come back and you’ve come back strong,” says Simon, who compliments Josh on keeping Cruella DeVille (a.k.a. Nicole) from putting weird dancers around him.

Nicole has finally thought up a searing response to Simon’s comment last week about Josh having an insane look in his eyes while singing last week’s tune. “That’s the look of steel, honey!” she tells Simon.

“What the hell are you talking about?” says Simon.

Pepsi Challenge tunes out of the way, we’ll now hear songs picked by the singers and their mentors.

Marcus Canty will sing Wham!’s mournful “Careless Whisper” as an uptempo disco number. We’ve seen some over-production on “X,” but this is New Year’s Rockin’ Eve excess — steam jets, falling confetti, masses of skimpily clad dancers surrounding Marcus like hot bodyguards — almost as if his mentor, LA Reid, is intentionally creating distractions! Marcus’s standard B performance is actually a bit of a B-minus — though is it his fault he can’t concentrate on his singing?

“That was horrific,” Simon says harshly but accurately, calling the song choice “absolutely wrong” and the performance “grotesque.” LA leaps to his own defense: “I don’t know what to make of that,” he says — of Simon’s comments, not Marcus’s performance.

“The good news: it’s all redundant!” Too Tall Steve says. That’s because the judges don’t get to vote someone out this week — it’s a straight viewer-vote game now.

Before Chris Rene performs, we’re treated to a taped bit in which he explains how he promised his musician dad, on his deathbed, that he would some day make him proud and how tonight is that moment. Then he breaks down and weeps. Clearly the producers are setting Chris up to win this thing. He sings Alicia Keys’s “No One” and he starts out Alicia-style, seated at the piano. And, just when we think the whole piano man thing is working for him, Chris is up and walking the stage with the backup singers. It’s another feel-good performance. How good was it? “Your spirit transcends across the universe,” Nicole says, confusing Chris with a maharishi. “It’s because you believe, I believe, and we believe in you,” she adds, uselessly. It’s up to Simon to give the quote he knows America — or at least the 11 million-ish Americans still watching this thing — has been waiting for: “Your dad would be incredibly proud.” Chris cries again.

Simon’s chosen a real old-school classic for Melanie Amaro — Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” It’s a breakthrough number for her, in which she does changeups and runs that give new interest to her usually strong though straight-ahead delivery. She even throws in some body language toward the end, instead of her usual planted-to-the-floor operatic stance. LA Reid drops his standard line that’s she predictable: “It was not predictable and you killed it, girl.” Simon pleads with “America” (he always addresses the show’s 11-million-ish audience as “America”) to call in and cast their votes for Melanie — for the good of the country, apparently.

At a time when The Singing Competition Show Tactical Manual says to amp it up, Josh Krajcik takes a risk, instead performing Leonard Cohen’s quiet song of tortured love, “Hallelujah,” as a soloist at the piano. The audience is at first itching for the amping-it-up part, making with a cacophony — one man actually bellows, “Hallelujah!” Finally, they tone it down, and we’re able to hear a very good rendition of a song that’s been better recorded by others. Still we admire Josh for putting it out there emotionally, as opposed to “putting it out there,” as Chris and Marcus did for their final numbers. LA complains that it lacked “excitement,” but LA’s rebuked by a weeping Paula: “This is a performer that opens up his heart.” And Simon agrees, saying, “I think that song has put you in the final next week.”

“Now it’s up to you, America,” Too Tall tells us, and we do our duty and reach for the remote.


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‘X Factor’: Top 9 give thanks, Simon snipes, Astro eats humble pie