The X Factor takes a fair amount of self-referential pride in being a trendsetter, a buzz machine that drives popular culture, and a weekly live event that supposes to be the centerpiece of the musical universe. In reality, little of this has been true in its first and now (nearing the end of) second United States season, but, in order for it to succeed, The X Factor and its most essential promoters (the hosts and the judges, the mad men from Pepsi-Cola, not always Fox) must believe it be true. Khloe and Mario (congrats on the marriage this past weekend), befuddled and overmatched as they may be, are paid to facilitate a consummate self (as in The X Factor’s self) promotional tour. They spend their weekly three hours of live airtime reminding the viewer just how important the many happenings on the stage are. They improvise questions (habitually disastrous and poorly timed) of fabricated significance, they react to playful banter between Demi and Simon as if they are observing moments of unheard of dramatic tension, and they introduce each judge entrance and contestant performance as if the fate of the universe (listen, the opening credits justify my hyperbolic metaphor) is in play. Unfortunately, we too often see through the work (a generous term) of Ms. Kardashian Odom, the artist formally known as AC Slater, and the publicity junket juggernaut to find all of the glitz and glamoured overproduction disingenuous. Does this competition and all the baggage that too often comes with it really justify a $5 million recording contract prize? Do any of these contestants even deserve it? Should the brain trust of the show be sent to the naughty corner?
With these questions and thoughts too frequently pervading the audience psyche during each weekly viewing, something made this week’s shows featuring an audience “choose your own adventure (at least in CeCe’s case) of a song” Pepsi-Challenge and an “unplugged” performance feel so different. On one level, the judges panel (excluding Ms. Spears who wears her passion on her sleeve, except she doesn’t seem to wear any sleeves) could not have been more committed to their mentees and the performers at large. Simon (always strives to reach the $5 million ceiling of the show), LA (finally grooving after faltering earlier in the season), and Demi (with newly sharpened edges and some refreshing honesty) went to bat for the contestants and the competition itself. They were passionate, clear, forward-thinking, enthusiastic, and largely accurate in their understanding of performance success or lack there of. They cheerleadered the answer to the big “so what?” question that the X Factor must continually face with a contagious energy. I cared because they cared.
Although judge positive activity (in its many manifestations) is an essential component to the success of this show, ultimately, it is about the contestants, and for the first time all season, this group of contestants left everything on that stage. Maybe this is a byproduct of the depreciating numbers and proximity to the finals, but something universally clicked and we, the audience at home, were finally faced with the music (stealing X Factor puns is my right). Riding the birth of a Carly Rose star nation wave (she is really in a different league), the momentum throughout the first night of performances was filled memorable musical moments and heightened clarity as to who these artists are right now and what they may become.
Two eliminations later, we are down to the top 4, and for the first time all season, the buzz (especially surrounding the privilege of experiencing a Carly Rose Sonenclar performance) is worthy.
Before we scout out the top 4 contestants and take a moment to honor the fallen two, here a few side notes that must be addressed:
- Drew Chadwick of Emblem3 wore sleeves all week. Apparently the memo was received.
- The Sony X headphones segment was vomit-inducing (in a Survivor private cinema showing of Jack and Jill kind of way). The product placement propensity is one thing, but to ask the contestants to discuss the origins of their love of music synonymously with their use of the Sony X headphones was unforgivable.
- The segments involving conversations over tea between Carly Rose and Diamond could be made into a very watchable television show (I so wanted to hear more of their analysis on last week’s Vino exit). It could be called “Teenage Tea Talk” or “An Afternoon with Carly Rose and Diamond” or “Britney said what?” (clearly my show titles need some work).
- I know I mentioned this a little bit above, but Demi is doing great work on this show. For a few weeks there she was struggling to find her mentor wings (and maybe never did), but her seat at the judge’s table continues to bring insight and perspective (whether I agree or disagree). Her ability to frame her own opinion, challenge contestants with largely tangible constructive criticism, and articulate her ideas in a compassionate way have all impressed. We sometimes forget how young she is to be doing this very high-profile gig so well. Whether she is back next year or not, I am proud to have become a fan of Demi Lovato (now off to the naughty chair with you).
Now to the top 4 and some goodbyes to Diamond, CeCe, and Demi’s mentor role…
The Top 4 (as ranked by America)
1 (2) Tate Stevens (should be 2)
Is this the right ranking? This displacement at the top is not the right ranking (Carly Rose should be a definitive number 1 – more on that in a bit), and despite a mini-comeback with his Pepsi-Challenge Garth Brooks tune that fit in the best part of his wheelhouse, the acoustic “Living on a Prayer” is not soon annulled from the record. For many weeks now, I have been asking for Team LA/Tate to explore the “countrification” of a song outside of Tate’s comfort zone genre, so I do applaud the attempt. Simply put, this attempt failed. As high note limitations were illuminated by not attempting the iconic chorus lead vocal, so too were artist limitations. This is no offense to country music, the sanctity of its industry, and an acknowledgment of its continual instances of crossover appeal, but its niche audience (albeit a huge one that can from time to time dominate the billboard popular music charts) has a certain American cultural ceiling (the metropolitan cities on the coasts are not central audience hubs). Tate is the same way. He can be a successful and even a very good country singer (or so I am told by Demi), but he not of the caliber of singer/performer to deserve a $5 million recording contract.
What needs to happen going forward to win? At this point, Tate needs to stay country. I think that he may not be capable of the crossover artistry that I have craved and his best chance at winning is to keep doing what his fans love him for.
2 (1) Carly Rose Sonenclar (should be 1)
Is this the right ranking? No. Carly Rose should be number 1 and should win The X Factor. I agree with LA that Carly Rose’s performance of Justin Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me” was record ready. She, probably in ways that she has not before, showed such incredible and nuanced musical restraint that allowed some of the less travelled components of her artistry to shine (in contrast to her impressive big note belts that have highlighted previous week performances). I have heard the song once or twice before Wednesday night, and, through this lack of familiarity, heard it almost fresh as a real Carly Rose track. As mentioned last week, like Adam Lambert on AI before her, her vocal and performance capabilities are so awe-inspiring that I eagerly await each new performance in a middle school crush kind of way (the butterflies and goosebumps begin with the anticipation). Although “If I Were a Boy” had some moments slightly below the pitch on some of the high belted notes (see Simon and Demi – she is human after all!), the idea that she continues to attack some of the best female vocal performers in history (and this week, she didn’t even have a choice) and so competently perform them, is simply remarkable. With four acts left in the competition, it is not too late to jump onboard the Carly Rose Sonenclar train to tune-in to witness the birth of this star.
What needs to happen going forward to win? She nailed the nuanced artistry this week on her Bieber track. Now, I am with Demi that combatting an uptempo number should be part of Carly Rose’s next challenge. With the finals just a few weeks away, she must work to find new ways to increase her voting block and overtake Tate once again.
3 (3) Emblem3 (should be 4)
Is this the right ranking? No, they should be fourth, and the difference between Emblem3 and Fifth Harmony is widening. Last week, Demi called for a change-up from the physically clumping reggae/ska/pop performances that Emblem3 seem to have stalled at. Wesley responded with talk about “playing their own instruments” and “writing their own songs.” This comment was curious because from the start of my Emblem3 journey, I have questioned their musical abilities (certainly as singers) and have struggled to consistently understand their dynamism, but coming out of the acoustic “Just the Way You Are,” a no-frills attached performance was not a friend of changing my opinion. Unlike Carly Rose, who, when singing Celine or Beyoncé, benefits by living up to the comparison to the original, Bruno Mars is an amazing vocalist and the boys of Emblem3 did not come close, thereby hurt by the comparison. Even more disappointing was the performance of Drew “sleeved this week” Chadwick who finally got the opportunity to sing outside of his faux-rapping style that we have grown accustomed to in earlier performances. Sadly, he really shouldn’t be singing (let alone in a $5 million competition) at all (he has the most bizarre vowel usage) and his guitar seemed to only add background filler to the track. I am happy that these boys love music and skateboarding and I think they have found a way to fuel some of their more negative energies or tendencies, but this is the big leagues and they should not be a part of that.
What needs to happen going forward to win? I don’t think they can win. With fewer acts, they are more exposed as teenage boys who crashed a party that they should never have been invited to.
4 (4) Fifth Harmony (should be 3)
Is this the right ranking? I would have them ranked ahead of Emblem3, but well below Tate and Carly. Fifth Harmony (or Fifth Unison as LA would like to think, brilliant) were solid to good on both of their performances (they set fire to the rain, but it blew out quickly), but, in LA’s request for more substantive representation of the their name in their song arrangements comes a challenge they have yet to overcome. What is their musical identity? I do appreciate that recent weeks have had fewer “pass the solo” to all performer moments and have focused more on one or two leads (Lauren has been the primary beneficiary, more Camila please), but I still don’t get what I am hearing beyond five pretty good to awesome solo artists. Demi was sweet to applaud their version of her “Give Your Heart a Break,” but I can objectively disagree with her assessment that they did it better than the original. They still have too much Fifth Unison going on and not enough time to right the ship to victory.
What needs to happen going forward to win? Last week I wrote: I want to connect more them as a musical artist and less as a sweet, “so happy to be here” teenybopper story. This remains true and as Carly Rose and Tate have started to define who they are (or not in the case of Tate’s Bon Jovi fail) in musical terms, Fifth Harmony is still finding that footing. Material that provides a more dynamic harmonic background (think a female version of Mumford and Sons, in cases like this I yearn for a group like Sister C) could propel them closer to the final.
CeCe Frey (should be 6)
On Wednesday night, CeCe Frey tried to take on Lady Gaga and Katy Perry (the audience’s choice) and did a solid showing, but her fate was sealed a long time ago. Simon keeps applauding her for being a fighter and for “making this competition interesting.” I agree, but it has been for all the wrong reasons. CeCe has spent Season 2 of The X Factor as a competitor on this edge of glory who has provided the editors a through storyline of futility, overconfidence, and unhealthy competition. The Paige and CeCe bootcamp sing-offs and all access initial audition behind the scenes footage never gave the audience a chance with CeCe. She was polarizing from the start (some of it is just the way we react to her), but, if they really believed in her talent (albeit closer to false than true), why not cultivate it instead of making her into a pawn in a contrived narrative? Notwithstanding, CeCe’s time had come and she took it all in stride. She is a woman who grew so much during the X Factor process and whose production team did not let the audience always in on these changes.
Diamond White (should be 5)
One of my favorite moments of Thursday night was Diamond’s comment to Mario and Khloe after having been eliminated about how Cher Lloyd (a successful recording artist that had not reached my purview until her performance on The X Factor several weeks ago) also finished fifth on The X Factor (in the UK) and that this could bode well for Diamond in the future. This optimism, this sparkle in her eye, and her exceptional vocal talent will be missed.
- Carly Rose Sonenclar
- Tate Stevens
- Fifth Harmony
- Emblem 3
What do you think? Did you forget about Melanie Amaro too? Can Carly Rose retake number 1 before the finals? Why did Drew start firing an air machine gun after his second performance? Is Drew the new Vino (a live tv director’s nightmare) when it comes to unscripted microphone chatter?
David J. Bloom can be reached on twitter @davidbloom7 and writes about pop culture and the NBA for Bishop and Company. His weekly THE CHALLENGE: BATTLE OF THE SEASON Power Rankings appears weekly on Derrick Kosinski’s ultimatechallengeradio.com.