Tag Archives: The X Factor

Now that it’s cancelled, ten takeaways from the US “X Factor” experience

In a decision that seemed to shock no one and barely popped in the the weekend television news cycle, the United States version of The X Factor will not be returning for a fourth season.  Such a cancellation would have been on the cover of Variety or Entertainment Weekly just a few years ago, but the American X Factor struggled off the gate with overhype, strange host and mentor performances, and, until this fall, winning acts who were not going to translate into viable recording artists1.  Here are ten takeaways from my three seasons of devoted DVR season pass viewing:

1) Steve Jones is not Ryan Seacrest2 and maybe I was “a bit naive” to ever think so.  Let’s just say that composure was not his forté.

2) Rachel Crow was a really special talent from season 1.  She is now doing some acting work in Hollywood, so good for her to parlay her obvious talent into a little career.

3) In three seasons, there were nine different judges (if you include the hot second Cheryl Cole was around) and three different hosts.  At least Simon and his producer cohort were trying to make the show work better!

4) It was a treat to watch Simon mold and mentor his artists, especially Fifth Harmony during season 2 and Alex and Sierra during season 3.  There is a reason why Simon has been so successful in the music business beyond the entertainment value of his snarky remarks as a judge.  He is a master identifier and cultivator of talent (as we heard too many times in reference to One Direction) and Fifth Harmony and Alex and Sierra show why.  I am still amazed that he managed to see something in Emblem3.

5) Carly Rose Sonenclar should have won season 2.  This girl is really special and it is unfortunate that her forum for this kind of broad audience exposure was not an early Idol season where she could have more easily broken out.

6) The US X Factor was my introduction to Demi Lovato, who, on her best days, was a pleasure to watch judge her contestants.  Her rapport with Simon over the past two seasons was one the reasons to still watch.

7) Britney Spears thought everything was “amazing” while mentoring contestants during season 2.  The producers thought that the nonsensical murmurings of Paulina Rubio would be a better direction to take for season 3.

8) Living up to Simon’s initial ratings predictions gave The X Factor an unrealistic charge.  Had it come out of the gate as an upcoming act rather than the self-declared one to beat, it might have had an easier time catching on.  Also, the MLB Baseball Playoffs were always the enemy to X Factor momentum.  Competition reality shows cannot just take weeks off and expect to continue to build an audience.

9) My final judge/mentor rankings in order of best to worst: Simon Cowell (season 3), Demi Lovato (season 2), Simon Cowell (season 1), Kelly Rowland (season 3), Simon Cowell (season 2), LA Reid (season 1), LA Reid (season 2), Demi Lovato (season 3), Paula Abdul (season 1), Nicole Scherzinger (season 1), Paulina Rubio (season 3), Britney Spears (season 2). Not enough information: Cheryl Cole (season 1)

10) Alex and Sierra, to quote Britney, were “amazing.”

  1. Yes, we do not know how Alex and Sierra will fair off on their own, but they have the potential to be something special. It is not a coincidence that we have not heard anything from season 1 winner Melanie Amaro in quite sometime and I admittedly had to look up Tate Stevens name (and I wrote a weekly column on season 2!). 
  2. I have never appreciated Ryan Seacrest more than during the Steve Jones host experiment. 

The X Factor Season Finale Part II Running Diary – The End is Here

Last night, the final three acts of The X Factor performed for the last time before America’s final vote.  Tonight’s season finale part II is supposed to be a celebration of the season and will feature the big reveal of the winner of the $5 million recording contract.  As has become my way in other Wednesday night show recap/columns, I thought a running diary was the way to go.  Unlike the first performance of tonight, this diary was written live


8:00 – It’s the X Factor red carpet and a “countdown” until the show begins.  This is ridiculous.

8:01 – It’s LA Reid!  He looks like a hobbit next to Khloe’s Gandalf.

8:02 – It’s Demi Lovato!  She looks incredible, is incredible, but does not seem to be enjoying this silly interview with Mario Lopez.  Can you blame her?

8:02 – It’s Simon Cowell!  Khloe’s interview goes nowhere (a constant theme of season 2).

8:04 – It’s Britney!  It’s Pitbull!  It’s One Direction!  Honestly, this red carpet routine feels uber-staged and insincere.  This is embarrassing.

8:06 – The montage from last night reminds me of just how bad LeAnn Rimes performed last night in her duet with Carly Rose.  If Carly Rose loses this, I am holding the “I am worried about you” version of Miss Rimes accountable.

8:08 – Did Pitbull get his nickname because he kind of looks like a pitbull?  Can someone explain this to me?

8:10 – The packaged descriptions of the top three finalists (“the family man”) are too packaged (another unfortunate theme of this season).

8:10 – Hmm, what just happened? (I went back and watched.  Here is what happened: Mario says, “Right now America, here are the X Factor top 3!”  Then there is an excruciating six-second pause in which Mario and Khloe are frozen.  Next, in silence, Mario and Khloe cross stage left and begin to talk, but the mics are turned off so you don’t hear their attempts to save the moment.  Flash to a picture from outside of the red carpet of an SUV limo that may have been taken earlier in the evening.  Mario’s mic comes back on and he makes some joke about how the contestants are so nervous that they are “making a deal” if one of them wins.  Good try, Mario.  Khloe laughs nervously and says, “I think we are ready.”  Mario then again announces the top three and crosses stage right with a smile that says he wants to strangle whomever screwed this moment up so badly.  All of this epitomizes so much of what has been wrong this season)  That was unprofessional and inexcusable.  Wow.

8:11 – Lip-synching opening performances should not be happening on a season finale of a Simon Cowell produced reality competition program.  This is a complete mess so far.

8:12 – The walkthrough, SNL-like opening montage (“Look at all the performers that have come before you!”) is meant to be fun.  Only Camila from Fifth Harmony seems to be having any.  CeCe is getting her makeup done in the chair!  Look, there’s Diamond White!  Give her a hug Carly Rose!  This is just embarrassing.

8:18 – The LA Reid “animated at the judges desk” montage set to the Nutcracker suite is the best produced segment on The X Factor in many weeks.

8:21 – I have written this many times before: if I were a fan of country music, I would really dig Tate Stevens.  His voice shines on this slow-tempo Christmas jam.  This is the highlight of the night so far.

8:25 – This video montage from Tate’s family and friends from back home in Belton, MO is a genuinely beautiful moment.  His reaction to his mom and his son is what this show can be all about.

8:26 – Khloe, please be quiet with your “how did it make you feel” questions.  They are unnecessary and silly.

8:32 – The whole Simon “is the Grinch” montage feels very 2003.  Are they going to bring out Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard next?

8:34 – I am a sucker for “Baby, Please Come Home” and I am (admittedly) a sucker for Fifth Harmony performances.  Win or lose tonight, there is definitely something “X” as a factor with these five young women.

8:37 – Director of the X Factor: please show Dinah’s reaction to Dinah’s family and Normani’s reaction to Normani’s family.  Thank you.

8:38 – Quick update: Camila’s little sister Sofia is now the highlight of the episode.

8:39 – Fifth Harmony members all have seemingly amazing families.  This was a beautiful segment.

8:44 – Mario tells us that it is about to “get really intense in here.”  Is he describing the meeting he is about to have with Simon when Simon lets him know that he will not be returning next season?

8:45 – The Britney reaction shots video may highlight an underlying truth: is Britney’s body language communication more effective than her verbal communication?  Answer: Without question.

8:46 – Yeah, it was probably time for Carly Rose to tackle Mariah.

8:48 – These “funky toy soldier” dancers backing up Carly Rose are doing great work.  It is unclear whether they are young people or not.

8:50 – Doris, Carly’s piano teacher, is a special woman.  “Go Carly!”

8:52 – No, Mario.  It is hard to explain how montages like that make one feel (although Carly Rose manages an eloquent answer because she is just that good).  Stop asking, please.

8:53 – This Khloe interview with a fan is unintentional comedy in its ultimate form.  Steve Jones would be proud.

8:58 – Hello unexpected Khloe costume change.

8:59 – Fifth Harmony is in third place!  (This is not entirely unexpected).  Khloe’s first comment is unintelligible. (“Fifth Harmony, you guys are out of the competition, but you guys fought a crazy fight to stay where you guys have.”) Has Khloe been taking Britney’s speech classes?

9:03 – Quick final take on Fifth Harmony – I give Simon much credit here.  He recognized that there was something special with this combination of voices and personalities and mentored them to an improbable third place finish.  They were always engaging and enjoyable to watch (the anti-Sister C) and certainly fill a gap in the marketplace.  I wish them the best of luck in the future.

9:10 – Khloe continues to ask awful questions of the Stevens and Sonenclar families.  Simon and X Factor brain trust: let’s find some new host talent for season 3.

9:14 – Watching this video montage of the entire season inspires this lingering thought: Jennel Garcia deserved to go further in this competition.

9:17 – When asked what her favorite moment of the season was, Britney’s reponse: “The whole season has been pretty amazing to me.”  Classic.

9:18 – What is Drew Chadwick talking about?  Renting a cabin and going snowboarding?  Thankfully, one thing Khloe did learn this year: take away the mic from Drew Chadwick before he finished a sentence.  We will all be better for it.

9:23 – My wife’s comment: “Pitbull looks like an old, creepy guy.  He is not even that good and this song is stupid.”

9:25 – She continues, “He has a little ghost goatee.  That is disgusting.”  Speak the truth.

9:32 – The chemistry between Demi and Simon is undeniable.  Of all the things that need to continue in season 3, this is it.

9:36 – One Direction came and went.  Honestly, it was too easy to tune them out.  I want the “biggest boy band in the world” to more effectively hold my attention.

9:42 – Carly Rose and Tate on the stage one last time and together singing a duet is a potential treat.  Unfortunately, “The Climb” is stuck in no-man’s land for their two diametrically different voices.

9:46 – The Tate and Carly Rose hug at the end is an unexpected moment.  These two finalists really care for one another.

9:48 – Simon has now unbuttoned three additional shirt buttons.  He is trendsetting a new form of shirt called the “Helm’s Deep V-Neck.” (And no, I am not sure what this spontaneous pun means either.)

9:52 – Khloe’s costume change no. 3 does not work.  This bedazzled pink and gold get-up is off-putting.

9:54 – This is it….the winner of The X Factor and the $5 Million dollar recording contract is…

9:55 – …Tate Stevens!

9:55 – Tate and then LA’s hug with Carly Rose is complete class.  Credit to both of these men for understanding what it must feel like for a thirteen-year-old girl to come this far and then fall short.

9:56 – Carly Rose is visibly disappointed.  Don’t you fret, girl.  We will be hearing more from you soon.

9:58 – Demi and Simon have a sweet moment next to one another when they watch Tate sing through his “I am the winner” song.  If anyone was going to beat Carly Rose, I am happy that it is this talented and kind man.

9:59 – Emblem3 are making fools of themselves on stage.  Tough lasting impression, lads.

10:00 – The final image of the season? Camila giving Tate a congratulatory hug from behind as we fade to black.  The X Factor season 2 season is now in the books and I think we all need a little break…

Stay tuned for a reflection on the whole season and an assessment of the current state of X Factor affairs in the coming days (or weeks).  Until then, happy holidays to all!

David Bloom can be reached on twitter at @davidbloom7.  His THE CHALLENGE POWER RANKINGS appear weekly on Derek Kosinski’s UltimateChallengeRadio.com. 

The X Factor Final 3 – Why Talent is All That Matters

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).

Khloe and Mario

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…


Carly Rose SonenclarThis week:

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.

Carly Rose on the pianoSimon’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.


Tate Stevens

This week:

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.

Tate to the final 3


This week:

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.)

Fifth Harmony

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.



This week:

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.

The X Factor Top 4 – It’s Finally Time to Tune In

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.

My rankings:

  1. Carly Rose Sonenclar
  2. Tate Stevens
  3. Fifth Harmony
  4. 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.