"The X Factor" goes unplugged [photo: Ray Mickshaw/Fox]Last week on "The X Factor," Paige Thomas and Vino Alan got the boot, in what was supposedly this season's "most shocking elimination so far." (Um, no, Mr. Weird Boxing-Announcer-Voiced Guy, the most shocking elimination of the season was actually when Lyric 145 and Jennel Garcia went home on the same night. Just sayin'.) But anyway, with only six contestants left in the competition and at least three of them considered "frontrunners" to some degree, and with the finale only two weeks away, the possibilities for even more shocking eliminations exponentially increased this week. Especially since each of the contestants had to riskily sing two songs this Wednesday, one of which was totally unplugged.
Yes, in addition to each contestant performing a fan-picked second song via the show's "Pepsi Challenge" thingy, each gave a first performance with "no bells and whistles"--quite possibly a first for "The X Factor," since this show's director, Brian Friedman, never met a confetti cannon, pyro torch, fog machine, gospel choir, hoochie dancer, Mardi Gras headdress, circus clown, kitchen sink, bell, or whistle he didn't like. It was probably a good thing for Paige, the most gimmick-dependent contestant in this season's entire top 12, that she already went home earlier. She would've been in big trouble this week.
As for the second songs of the night, this was another interesting development, since after last week's Vino-busing, not to mention some of the other dubious song choices this season, the contestants surely must have been delighted to perform tunes that their often misguided mentors hadn't picked out for them. It was probably also a good thing that the Pepsi Challenge involved fans having a say in the contestants' hair and wardrobe, too--I mean, just imagine what a difference that could've made for poor Beatrice Miller, who was outfitted in unfortunate hobo rags and Emblem3 hand-me-downs every week before she sadly went home.
Anyhoo, without further ado, here's how each contestant fared...
So CeCe sang first, in the "death spot," this week. OF COURSE SHE DID. It's been obvious for a while now just how much the judges want her off this darn show. She's about as welcome on "The X Factor" these days as Steve Jones. Last week, Simon Cowell advised her to "pack a suitcase," and this week, he'd probably already dispatched one of his many minions to the "X Factor" mansion to go pack it for her. L.A. Reid certainly still had it out for her, barking, "I think CeCe should have gone home a long time ago, and I'm not the only one who thinks that"--before CeCe had sung a single note this week. I was worried for CeCe--she pointed out that on an unplugged song, "If you have a vocal mistake, everyone's gonna hear it," and let's face it, she's had her share of vocal mistakes on this show. But you know what? Her stripped-down cover of Lady Gaga's "Edge Of Glory," which she performed while sitting "Fabulous Baker Boys"-style on a grand piano, actually had some glorious moments. Even nasty old L.A. could not deny this, saying, "We've been proven that sometimes, we get it wrong. I'm starting to become a fan." Britney Spears and Simon, however, were not so easily convinced. "Right at this point in the competition, it should be great, and it was just good for me," Britney shrugged. "I think you've done incredibly well to get as far as you've gone, but I don't think you're worth a $5 million recording contract," said Simon, who used the dreaded C-word, "cabaret," to describe CeCe's performance. However, I think Britney and Simon should have given CeCe a little more credit here. This was not total glory, but CeCe did skirt the edge a little bit.
For her second number, CeCe brought back enough bells and whistles to restock an entire bicycle shop, but hey--that's what her fans wanted! Apparently not only did CeCe's Pepsi-Challenging "Warriors" want to see her do Katy Perry's "Part Of Me" (a song she actually made a viral video for back in her pre-"X Factor" days), but they wanted to see her dressed in tiny Daisy Dukes, rainbow-striped Dee Snider hair, enough animal print to make LMFAO balk, a bustier seemingly stolen from the set of "RuPaul's Drag Race," and more retina-scaldingly bright neon than featured in Wham!'s entire "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go" video. It was kind of awesome, actually. CeCe's vocals were NOT entirely awesome--she still seemed unable to master the multitasking art of singing and strutting at the same time--but she sounded pretty good when she stood still, and she clearly channeled all of her anger over her position as Season 2's token punching bag into her high-energy performance. L.A. went back to being a hater and called this "karaoke," but Britney actually appreciated the entertainment value, and Simon admitted, "I liked how you were so defiant throughout that performance. If you do go, I'm going to miss you." Then CeCe said something about "sticks and stones" and I realized...holy moly, CeCe is the CHER LLOYD of "The X Factor USA"! How did I never realize this until now?
For their first song, the boy-band-that-claims-they're-not-a-boy-but-yes-they-are took on Bruno Mars's "Just The Way You Are," aka the "amazing" song. The result was not amazing. I was actually looking forward to seeing them go acoustic, with no dopey boy band shtick, after hearing them repeatedly mention that they play instruments and stuff. And sure, that blonde guy whose name I forget played a guitar, or at least pretended to. But the lack of pomp and circumstance and backing tracks really put a glaring spotlight on these guys' vocal shortcomings--especially with that blonde dude, who clearly should just stick to playing guitar or pretending to play guitar. The audio mix seemed to amplify the girly audience screams even more than usual, but all that hormonal shrieking still could not hide the fact that Emblem3 just did not sound all that great. Of course, not a single judge pointed this out. "The thing I'm most impressed by is at least one of Simon's groups can sing harmony," said L.A., choosing to use his airtime to blast Fifth Harmony, rather than blast the boys he's already repeatedly said he wants to sign to Epic Records. Britney said this was "hands down, your best performance," indicating that her wig was on way too tight. Only Demi Lovato got critical, griping, "It wasn't the best. I used to really, really love you, but to me, I think it's a downgraded version of the Jonas Brothers years ago." Oh snap. And with that one critique, Demi earned her entire $1 million paycheck for the year.
For their second song, Emblem3 sang/attempted to sing Alphaville's perennial prom classic, "Forever Young." And once again, their vocal weaknesses were on full display, in a way I had never heard (or at least noticed) before. I really think this evening could be this trio's undoing, and they may find themselves in jeopardy this week; in no way were either of Emblem3's performances this Wednesday on par with their finest moments of the season, like "One Day," "No One," and "Secrets." But once again, the judges did not seem to be watching the same show that I was. L.A. claimed they'd "nailed it." Britney called it a "superstar performance." Even Demi was mostly kind, complaining that she wanted to see the boys "command the stage more" but in no way calling them out on their terrible vocals. Declared the group's mentor, Simon: "Emblem3 has landed!" Yes, I think he was right about that: Emblem3 are going to land in the bottom two or three, after this.
CARLY ROSE SONENCLAR
Covering Justin Bieber's "As Long As You Love Me" acoustically could have been a major misstep for Carly, but man oh man, this turned out to be my favorite Carly performance so far (yes, even more than "Somewhere Over The Rainbow"), and one of my favorite performances of the entire season. For the first time ever, I envisioned Carly as a modern pop star, not just a Broadway baby or Disney kid. She almost reminded me of a little mini-Lindsey Pavao from "The Voice"! After this, I was a full-on belieber in Carly Rose Sonenclar. "I love you so much! The one thing I've always been concerned about with you [until now] is how you can handle yourself as a recording artist...that was maybe your best, for my taste," raved L.A. Demi compared Carly to JoJo, and said Carly had done the song better than Justin himself (well, duh). Said Simon: "A lot of girls your age can actually be quite annoying when they're singers, but you're actually really cool." (So does that mean Simon thinks the also-13-year-old Diamond White is annoying? Who knows?)
For her second, fan-picked song, Carly did Beyonce's "If I Were A Boy," which was actually covered by the then-13-year-old Rachel Crow on "The X Factor" Season 1. But somehow, Carly's rendition seemed more contemporary and cool. This was a really strong night for Carly, and hopefully one that keeps her atop the leaderboard for a third week in a row. "As a [rival] mentor, every time you step on the stage I get nervous, because you are going to be good. But as a fan, you never let me down," said L.A. Demi praised Carly's "phenomenal" vocals but complained that she wanted to hear something more uptempo and less "predictable" from Carly. Then Simon countered with: "Here's some really good advice--don't listen to a word Demi says." And then Simon and Demi went at it again, bickering like an old married couple--as in, like Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner from War Of The Roses. Wow, these two really do hate each other, huh?
There's no doubt that the girls in Fifth Harmony possess five of the finest voices of this season, but they've struggled to blend their vocals and prove they are sum of their parts and not just five tossed-together solo singers passing a mic around and taking turns. Doing a stripped-down, unembellished, acoustic song certainly was a chance for them to prove just that--that the "Harmony" in their name actually means something. So, did they do that, during their cover of Adele's "Set Fire To The Rain"? Not really. Each girl sang brilliantly, but there was still this weird disconnect between them--although, to be fair, they have not been singing together very long, and that sort of chemistry often takes time to develop. L.A. made a valid point when he called them out on this, but he was still way, way too harsh. "I still didn't hear any harmony. I think you have the wrong name--they should have called you Fifth Unison," he barked. (Well, hey, at least "Fifth Unison" sounds catchier than "1432"!) "I am trying to figure out what separates you from the other girl groups," mused Britney, to which L.A retorted, "It's that they don't sing harmonies!" Demi added, "I think there's a couple of you that should just be solo artists." Simon then got all riled up and countered with: "It's pick-on-Fifth-Harmony-week again! That was really unfair criticism. There aren't any girl groups out there at the moment. There is a gap in the market." He had a point there. Fifth Harmony could still fill that gap--at least until recent "X Factor U.K." champs Little Mix come over here and try to replicate One Direction's success, that is--but they do need to work on their vocal blend some more.
For their Pepsi Challenge song, the girls took on Demi's hit "Give Your Heart A Break," and this time I thought they fared a lot better and blended nicely. Their performance felt professional and legit. Even L.A. was impressed, proclaiming, "Unbelievable! I actually heard harmony, and it was really good!" Joked Demi (or maybe she wasn't joking), "I think this should have been your song; I think you sang it better than the original!" Then Simon declared, "This is what we were trying to show: that you are a legitimate girl group. It's all about GIRL POWER!" Hey, I bet Simon's arch nemesis, "American Idol" creator and former Spice Girls manager Simon Fuller, would have loved that bit of retro-'90s sloganeering.
Doing "It's A Man's, Man's, Man's World" for her first song was a risky move for Diamond, not only because she stood the chance of being unfavorably compared to recent stellar singing-show performances of the James Brown classic by "Idol's" Joshua Ledet and "The Voice's" Juliet Simms, but of also being unfavorably compared to her own performance of the song earlier this "X Factor" season. Well, Diamond wasn't quite at a Joshua/Juliet level of greatness with this, but she definitely achieved her own personal best--this was an improvement on the version she sang at her first "X Factor" audition. The girl had swag! The judges gave her a bit of a hard time for going back to her old standby song, but L.A. said, "That was really different for you, because this week you brought attitude--and I love attitude! You brought showbiz, and you also sang your butt off." Said Demi: "That little tiny thing you did at the end, when you threw the microphone down, is what did it for me." Simon called Diamond "a little screechy," but I thought she sounded great.
Diamond didn't sound as great, however, on her second effort, "Diamonds." Sure, she sounded better than Rihanna ever did, but that's not saying much. It was a good opportunity for her to seem current and relevant (like Carly with the 2012 Bieber hit), and she made quite a grand entrance descending from the ceiling sitting in a giant, diamond-prism-shaped cage. (Was that prop left over from whatever performance Paige Thomas would have done this week?) But this was far from Diamond's best vocal. She sounded nasal at the beginning, and yes, she did sound a bit screechy later on. "I really like you, and I really like that song, but unfortunately, I didn't love your rendition of it," said L.A. "I thought the second half was better than the first half. It's just your luck that you're in a very, very, very competitive top six--or maybe top five, actually," said Simon. Wow, even when critiquing Diamond, Simon could not resist squeezing in a little jab against CeCe.
Tate got the pimp spot this week, even though, as someone who's been at either number one or number two on the leaderboard all season, he clearly did not need it. Or...maybe he did. Because this was arguably Tate's weakest week so far, and really the first week when he received a lot of negative feedback from the judges. His first cover, of Bon Jovi's "Livin' On A Prayer" (his second Bon Jovi song of the season, actually), hardly matched the greatness of, say, Bon Jovi going unplugged at the 1989 VMAs. He just totally backed away from those soaring glory notes in the chorus, and the result was anticlimactic and disappointing. Demi, who'd already somewhat justifiably complained that Tate is "not evolving" and is "plateauing," said: "I'm a fan of you, but this performance was a little boring--and you skipped out on the high note, which is the best part of the song!" Said Britney: "I feel like you're getting away from what you do best, which is down-the-middle country." (Or did she say "down-the-meadow"? If it was the former, it was really not a compliment to say that Tate is best at doing straight-and-narrow, middle-of-the-road, cookie-cutter country music.) And Simon griped, "Doing that song unplugged was like taking a goldfish for a walk. In other words, you can't." I disagreed with that point--I do think this song can be done acoustically. Just not the way Tate did it.
The Garth Brooks staple "If Tomorrow Never Comes," picked by fans, was definitely a much better fit for Tate. It was "down-the-middle country," but hey, I guess that's what the people want from this likable everyman. "Welcome back to the competition! This is what you should be singing," said Simon. "Now that's a Tate Stevens performance!" exclaimed Britney. I couldn't fault the singing itself--vocally, Tate really nailed this. But, to quote Demi Lovato, I was bored. However, I know he will be safe this week. But that is exactly my issue with Tate. He is too safe.
So now it is prediction time, and in another double-elimination week, it seems unlikely that CeCe can completely escape danger--she'd literally have to be in the top three in order to do that. But will she be dead last--i.e., the contestant who goes home automatically this week, without getting a chance to sing a "save me" song? I actually don't think so. For some reason, I think it'll be Fifth Harmony or Diamond White, despite their obvious talent, who place sixth--and then I think it'll come down to a sing-off between CeCe and (wait for it) EMBLEM3. Or maybe Fifth Harmony and Emblem3 will have to sing for survival against each other, and we can all pass the popcorn and watch Simon's flat-topped head explode. I bet Demi would love that.
Tune in Thursday night to see if I'm right!
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