The second season of The X Factor in the United States has been an exercise of mixing the forced lowering of expectations (Simon’s lofty season one ratings predictions were not achieved and may have been a set-up for inevitable letdown) with a self-aware-less internal hype machine that presents the stakes (a five million dollar prize and a ticket to super stardom) as industry affecting, monumental, and an assured successful career. This dichotomy between our collective understanding of the X Factor’s cultural footprint (a smaller one in a few too many reality singing competition world) and the footprint that the hype machine apparatus so overtly suggests often leaves the viewer feeling like it is all irritatingly inauthentic, and, most of the time, it is. Thankfully, talent, although subjectively adjudicated, is universally felt. When Khloe this week did one of her silly, crowd-surfing interviews with young female fans, she met a young tween who was there in support of Mr. Simon Cowell. When the tween was asked why she loved Simon, her response was “he’s always right…I love him.” Simon opinion infallibility is a bit hyperbolic, but he is musically insightful, has a verbal command that America recognized and fell in love with (albeit for some, for his meanness) over a decade ago, and knows what it takes to foster the growth of a budding recording artist. We tune in because he is talented (and one of the best in the industry).
This season on The X Factor, for all of its many demerits, missteps (more on this later) and overhyped buzz-less buzz, has managed to present some moments of genuine, authentic, and notable talent that have sent emotionally charged goosebumps throughout our bodies. When Carly Rose Sonenclar’s “star was born” several weeks ago, we felt the ripples of this movement. When Jason Brock, the over 25s first live show casualty, dramatically dominated his “New York State of Mind” rendition in initial auditions, we felt the ripples of this movement. When Diamond White channeled her inner Whitney and Mariah and when Jennel Garcia created such an impression at boot camp with just that look while she performed, we felt the ripples of this movement. Too often though, we are told by Mario, Khloe, and the X Factor publicity team that what is taking place is significant, but our hearts and our ears listening to the judges (Simon has been consistently on point, LA and Demi have been in recent weeks, Britney is not even in the oral communication continent) often tell us the opposite.
Fortunately, this penultimate week of The X Factor was both infused with a proper display of real talent (Wednesday night’s final four performances on the whole delivered) and genuine buzzworthy results (Emblem3’s shocking Thursday night departure, Britney’s reaction when Fifth Harmony was announced as one of the final three looked like she had just tasted liver for the first time) that justify all the hype. Last week we cared, but this week, The X Factor mattered, and, for a show whose momentum (Carly Rose brilliance excluded) has often been embodied in a typical Britney Spears sound bite (i.e. passionless and lost), it couldn’t have come at a better time. Although it was a suspect ride to get there, the final three of Carly Rose Sonenclar, Tate Stevens, and Fifth Harmony (the big shocker) will make for an interesting final week, an unclear outcome (the weekly leader board may have been one of the best things that the X Factor did this season), and the potential for a star (Carly Rose, Tate at least in the country world) to have their defining musical moment.
Before we recap the happenings of this week’s final four performances and look toward next week’s final, I wanted to begin by briefly assessing the performances of some of the lesser known people who contribute to the X Factor behind the scenes (next week I will adjudicate the season’s performances of judges and hosts – quick preview: Britney and Khloe need to go):
Lil’ Eddie, vocal coach – From his wikipedia page, I learned that Lil’ Eddie is an R&B/soul singer-songwriter (written for Usher and Pink) born in 1988. No offense to 24-year-olds (several are the nearest and dearest to my heart), but in a competition show where a judge is 20, is Lil’ Eddie really the best choice for vocal coach? He seems really chill, but his work with Emblem3 (particularly Drew and more recently Keaton) did not show much vocal coaching. I do appreciate his warm energy which is in sharp contrast to…
Autumn, vocal coach – …who seems really unhappy to be working on The X Factor and with artists like Paige Thomas and Fifth Harmony. I wish she could have a little more fun. At least she held Harmony, Fifth accountable for their namesake this week.
Whoever designed the title credits – The whole “outer space” motif has always worked poorly for me. It is yet another example of humblebraggery and overblown hype. As far as we know, the music (if you can call it that – too soon?) of artists like CeCe Frey should not be categorized as intergalactic.
Brian Friedman, supervising choreographer and creative director – You may have seen Mr. Friedman’s work in music videos (“Toxic” and “I’m a Slave 4 U” to name a few) and over the years on The X Factor and America’s Got Talent. I think he is an insanely talented man and his stage ideas continue to impress. Unfortunately, he is a choreographer who intrinsically puts more (movement is inherently more) into a medium that often calls for less (Carly Rose’s “Imagine” this week is a perfect case in point). I wonder if his creative director role is in contention with his choreographer role.
The video production designer – Although the images are often seriously misguided (the Fifth Harmony fire montage during “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” a few weeks ago comes to mind), I give this individual credit for coming up with so much content week after week.
Whoever choreographs Mario and Khloe to walk across the stage while announcing – This is always so silly. Also, since it is so silly, you may want to rehearse this at least once before trying each week. For unintentional comedy purposes, thank you. For quality work purposes, this is a disgrace.
The backup vocalists – Or, as I like to say when Emblem3 and Fifth Harmony perform, the co-lead vocalists. One of the most challenging aspects of this season’s musical failings has been the overuse of backup vocalists (who are legitimately killing it) to mask some of the potential issues that may arise from the vocal dynamics of the groups. I want Fifth Harmony to be five or Emblem3 (moot point now) to be three. Their issues can be masked, a luxury the Tates and Carly Roses are not afforded.
The faceless X Factor announcer voice – He is really annoying.
Now, on to a breakdown of this week’s performances from the final three and the now departed Emblem3. Because we are on a “leaderboard blackout” this week, I have ranked the artists in the order of “who should win season 2 of The X Factor.” Also, note that Britney Spears, Khloe Kardashian Odom, and Mario Lopez are not ranked and although not officially competing, should lose season 2 of The X Factor. I am just saying…
1. CARLY ROSE SONENCLAR
Compared to her normal, otherworldly self, Carly Rose had a tough week. Did Britney’s initial introduction of her as “my little thirteen-year-old didav” or “diav” (I certainly couldn’t tell) throw her off? Did the loss of her competition best friend, Diamond (they showed their beautiful departing moments), affect her confidence? Was she just due for an off week and it just happened at an unfortunate time? Either way, I was nervous for her to go home and was relieved when she was announced as the final of the final three (Even worse, after her two performances, Khloe asked Carly Rose, “What are you going to do to make sure you are in the finals?” Carly Rose, after having already sung her two songs: “Well, there is nothing else I can do.” C’mon, Khloe).
Her first song, a uniquely arranged rendition of Elton John’s “Your Song,” was mostly classic Carly Rose (a good thing), but for the first time in the competition, she seemed her actual age of thirteen while performing (this was bound to happen). Still, the early judge comments validated her song choice. LA thought she “did things with that song that [he] never heard done before” and Demi, despite thinking it was “still very predictable,” thought it was her “favorite song” that Carly has ever performed. Simon and I agreed that it was a “beautiful version of a fantastic song,” but that she “can do better than that.” Britney, in predictably incoherent form, told Carly that she was “right before my eyes.” Yep.
Simon’s analysis of her second song, “Imagine” by John Lennon, hit all the right notes. Britney suggested (rightfully so) that Carly show her piano playing as part of her performance (after Tate and Drew of Emblem3’s guitar “playing” earlier this season, a low bar for instrument usage had been set), but instead of riding the piano the entire song, she stood up, walked around, belted (at times unsuccessfully) some unnecessary high notes before finally returning to the piano at the end. Simon said this “made a beautiful song fussy,” wasn’t sure “that song needs those big notes,” and thought it was “overcomplicated” (preach Simon, preach). The outcome of this movement happy mentor direction (either Britney, Autumn, or Brian) made a potential game-winning move into a sloppy mess and one of Carly Rose’s least outstanding performances. In contrast, a balladic, simple, piano performance of one of the greatest songs of all-time (and on that note, I credit Carly Rose for tackling Mr. John and Mr. John Lennon in the same week, gutsy) could have been an opportunity for Carly Rose to seal her victory. Instead, she was on the brink of going home. Mentor/judge/enigma Spears majorly dropped the ball and could have cost this legitimate star an opportunity to compete in the finals.
2. TATE STEVENS
Tate’s week exemplified what he has been the entire competition: consistently good. I am no active listener or frequent enjoyer of the genre of music called “country,” but I get why Tate is a viable and potentially successful country artist. Despite Britney’s out of nowhere “I don’t think it was your best” comment, Tate elevated his uptempo “Bonfire” as far “out in the sticks” as one could possibly imagine. What was so remarkable about this first performance was the passionate energy emanating from this midwestern road worker (who may or may not have lost his job). Simon said it best when he noted that Tate looks “like a man right now who believes he can win this competition.” His age, often used as an asset, showed a poise that that his younger competition do not have the years to embody. His “Bonfire” performance was the most fun LA has had since he has done this show.
His second song, “Fall” by Clay Walker, a big country love ballad, was Tate Stevens doing his best Tate Stevens. He was so at home, rocking the rousing choruses, connecting on the key change (with a nice little falsetto line), and making his wife of fifteen years (Happy Anniversary!) oh so proud. Even Britney, who has somehow seen Tate “hit and miss a lot” (WHAT?), thought it was a “direct hit.” Tate is maybe not a transcendent performer, but is really good and if he wins next week, he will be deserving.
3. FIFTH HARMONY
Fifth Harmony, Simon’s “second group, because Demi hasn’t got any,” had their best performance in this competition with their contestant’s choice song, “Anything Can Happen” by Ellie Goulding. The performance, arrangement, costumes, and concept were all incredibly dynamic. The harmonies were tight and clear (despite the backing vocalists who continue to do too much). No, the male waiters with butterfly wings serving food to the ladies at the table made little sense, but I was more distracted by the undeniable energy coming out of the five young woman (especially Normani who was on fire this week!). The judges (and the voting public, apparently) saw what I saw. LA called it “the very best performance” Fifth Harmony has ever done and Simon thought that now “anything could happen” for this clear underdog. (Britney found it to be “inspiring girl power.” Of course she did.)
Although their second performance (and second time in the competition – the first at Simon’s house back when they were called Lylas) of “Impossible” did not connect with all the judges (Britney: “I would be surprised if you were here next week.”), this reminder of why Simon “fell in love in the first place” was enough to compel the American vote. For many weeks, I have placed their ceiling as top three and, after their “Anything Can Happen” success story, here they are. They may be a wee bit annoying in their over the top “we love everything and each other” pre-performance video each week, but when the music of Fifth Harmony connects (“Anything Can Happen” and “Impossible” that first time), we feel something special. Although Emblem3 earned a spot in the finals after their awesome week (more on that in a bit), I am happy that Fifth Harmony made it. They will make for a compelling finals.
Yes, Fifth Harmony over Emblem3 in the finals is serious surprise and unfortunate because Emblem3 were likely the best act of the week. Both of their performances (an unexpectedly effective “Baby, I Love Your Way” and a surprisingly good “Hey Jude”) were electric and moving. Simon contended after their first song that “if this doesn’t get you into the finals, nothing will.” They did everything they could have done – command the stage, connect with many audiences, appear humble, show great musicality – yet America’s vote was the only arbiter this week (no judge controlled sing off) and their eventual demise. My Emblem3 enjoyment journey this season has been a bit of a roller coaster, but I found myself this week, particularly during the Beatles sacred “Hey Jude,” surprised and becoming a legitimate fan. If Simon’s kind work ethic and passion compliments are true about Wes (absolutely killing it this week with his vocals), Keaton, and Drew “we will miss your sleeveless self” Chadwick, their one direction to One Direction stardom has only just begun. As Drew said when sound board operators failed to mute his mic, “we are going to do something great in this world…we need your help.” I would not be floored if he were right.
My prediction for next week: Fifth Harmony will finish in third place (last year they announced this result at the top of Thursday night’s result show, poor Chris Rene) and Carly Rose will beat out Tate for first place (or at least that is what I hope will happen). Honestly, it is anyone’s game and, for the first time all season, The X Factor matters.
Tune in Wednesday night at 8:00 PM on Fox!
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.