You can’t believe everything you hear on television, or so our mothers told us. But tonight’s X Factor Season 2 performance finale drove home that message loudly, grinningly and cacophonously.
Lest you think I’m exaggerating, let me present a selection of the bald-faced lies that dropped during the course of a strange, though not entirely un-entertaining two-hour telecast:
* “That was one of the most fun moments I’ve had on this stage: It was just amazing. I had a blast.” –Carly Rose Sonencla to LeAnn Rimes, following their cataclysmic duet
* “I remember the first time I saw you on stage.” –Britney Spears to Carly Rose Sonenclar (Oh come on! Britney can’t remember what she had for lunch!)
* “There’s no second place. There’s no third place. There’s only the winner.” –L.A. Reid (Um, whether or not X Factor producers withhold that info or announce it come Thursday night, one act will, in fact, be the runner-up when the phone lines finally close.)
* “It’s a really, really big deal.” –Mario Lopez, mentioning that the Season 2 X Factor champ will have his/her/their debut video double as a Pepsi “pop-star commercial”
* “Guess what? The new love of my life is country music!” –L.A. Reid, who just doesn’t care and will say whatever it is they’re yelling into his earpiece, since he’s not coming back next season anyway
Clearly we need some truth to counterbalance the deceptions. I can assure you the following set list is 100% accurate to the best of my ability (to Google search country-music lyrics). My grades? Well, as much as I’d like to think they’re factual, too, they’re merely one humble blogger’s opinions. Read on!
Round 1: “Greatest Hits” (aka Save Money By Not Clearing Any New Songs Round)
Carly Rose Sonenclar: Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” | Carly Rose is obviously a powerful vocalist with prior acting experience (that X Factor producers have never acknowledged), but I’m not sure Meryl Streep could’ve pulled off the task of looking into Britney Spears’ half-interested eyes during their final mentoring session and convincingly delivering the line “I just wanna make you proud.” (Somehow, I suspect the kid has more important motivations than bringing glory to a woman who probably gives her no more than five lucid minutes per week.) Anyhow… Carly Rose kicked things off atop a flight of steps, just like every reality singing competition performance of “Feeling Good” ever — but in a departure from her Season 2 audition she delivered the lyrics with an oddly heightened pronunciation — “fish in the sea,” for example, became “fish in the say-ay” — while an odd squeak cropped up on the final repeat of phrases “new dawn” “new day” and “new life.” That latter hiccup served as a reminder that I was watching a middle-schooler gussied up in leather pants and knee-high boots and delivering lines like “freedom is mine!” Strange. On the plus side, Carly Rose commanded the stage in a way few contestants have all season, but when the show cut away to her hometown celebration and a random shot of a woman with tray of cupcakes, it reminded me how much more I enjoyed this song when Jennifer Hudson belted it in her legendary Weight Watchers commercial. And also when Adam Lambert did it on Idol. And even when Melanie Amaro did it on X Factor last season. And yeah, when Dez Duron did it on The Voice just a few weeks prior. (That’s a lot of people “Feeling Good” lately; maybe the song needs a time-out in 2013?) Grade: B
Tate Stevens: Randy Houser’s “Anything Goes” | I’m not sure if it was on the teleprompter or just an unfortunate ad-lib from Khloe, but I will admit I chuckled when she introduced Tate as “a simple street worker from Belton, MO.” Then, of course, we got Tate’s most overt/obnoxious get-out-the-vote speech of the season. “They want to win,” he said of his teenage female rivals. “I need to win.” Seriously, dude? Did you forget that Fifth Harmony’s Dinah Jane lives in a house with 32 of her relatives? Also, if quitting your day job actually put your family at risk of financial ruin, maybe you shouldn’t have spent the last three months burning bridges with comments like “I can’t go back to laying asphalt.” (A job, mind you, that tens of thousands of out-of-work Americans would be quite happy to have.) Okay, okay…end of rant. Tate delivered “Anything Goes” with a certain amount of schmaltz, but I suppose that sentiment is as vital to the song as a chemical patina of maple syrup “flavoring” is to the McGriddle. It wasn’t exactly exciting, but it was most certainly in tune — and it was maybe the sweetest moment of the season when Tate got choked up after his hometown mayor revealed that the Belton water tower had been painted with the message “Home of Tate Stevens: Live the Dream.” Tone-deaf Mario, of course, couldn’t leave a tender moment alone, barking that Tate was choked up “because he doesn’t have to go back to work. That’s what that’s about.” OMG, Mario, shut your carefully groomed pie-hole (even if you haven’t actually allowed yourself a slice of pie since 2003)!!! Grade: B
Fifth Harmony: Ellie Goulding’s “Anything Could Happen” | You can find more nuanced examples of villainy at the end of Scooby Doo episodes than what Simon did to his “other” group Fifth Harmony to kick off the Season 2 finale. I mean, I know the acts were all giving encores of their best performances, but 5H’s first attempt at “Anything Could Happen” occurred only seven days prior — during the Season 2 semifinals — and then Simon had them deliver it with the same exact pastel Mad Hatter tea party staging (save for the addition of a GIANT PEGASUS on the backdrop). Why not give them a new set? Or new costumes? Or a new arrangement? They could’ve done it a capella! Making matters worse, La Cowell shared that 5H’s semifinal showstopper “was the moment I saw something special in these girls” — essentially implying that he’d spent almost an entire season less-than-impressed by their body of work. (!!) My biggest problem with this rendition, though, was that the backing track was blasting so loud, it was hard to tell if the quintet even had their mics turned on. Yeah, you could hear Lauren, Camilla and Dinah Jane when each gal took her turn on lead vocals, but the final third of the performance might as well have been pre-recorded by five of the Kardashian sisters, filtered through 27 computers, and spat back out through the X Factor sound system. That tactic made no sense considering every memeber of 5H has a legitimately good singing voice, but I can’t in good conscience give the performance anything higher than… Grade: C+
Round 2: Duets With Established Artists
Carly Rose Sonenclar (with LeAnn Rimes): “How Do I Live?” | “Was Lindsay Lohan not available? What about Kanye West?” I thought, when I first heard Carly Rose had been paired with tabloid staple LeAnn Rimes for her finale duet. Even putting aside Rimes’ questionable current Q-rating, though, Carly Rose simply isn’t a country artist. But if the pairing made little to no sense on paper, it became even more baffling in practice. For starters, this particular arrangement of “How Do I Live” felt like it had been pruned down using a hacksaw — the opening line “How do I…get through a night without you?” was dropped wholesale, so when Carly Rose (in ghastly orchid leather pants!) began the song with the words, “if I had to live without you,” I wondered if somehow she’d missed her cue from the band and botched the intro. (In retrospect, though, that wasn’t really a lyric you’d want to hear from a 13-year-old.) Things got even crazier when Rimes took the stage for verse two — adopting a languid, behind-the-beat phrasing that was chock full of unnecessary runs and hinky enunciation. When Carly Rose joined LeAnn on the second chorus — singing the melody in a straightforward fashion — it sounded like the two women were singing two completely different songs in unison, the musical equivalent of a toddler hitting a wooden spoon against a toy xylophone. If Carly Rose loses out on her long-expected X Factor coronation, then this is the moment where the queen had the crown knocked out of her hands. Grade-A Mess
Tate Stevens (with Little Big Town): “Pontoon” | Last week Tate gave us “Bonfire,” a working-class party anthem about kickin’ it with pals low-fi style. “Pontoon” offered a variation on that theme, only with the sexy ladies of Little Big Town (Karen Fairchild’s gold pants were the single best piece of fashion on the X Factor stage all season) and a water theme instead of a fire one. I loved that Tate danced playfully during Fairchild’s verse, delivering the classic “come on over here” hand gesture with great gusto; dude looked and sounded like he’d managed to briefly escape the overarching awfulness of the X Factor experience and genuinely enjoy this collaboration — even if it’s one half of us might forget by this time next season. (“He was groovin’! I’ll tell you that much!” yapped Mario, who really should stick to the teleprompter.) Grade: B+
Fifth Harmony (with Demi Lovato): “Give Your Heart a Break” | Speaking of fun collaborations, 5H and Demi looked so joyous and sounded so on-point here that I briefly forgot that Simon had saddled his last remaining act with yet another repeat performance from earlier in the season (they first tackled “GYHAB” on Dec. 5). Combined with their semifinal rendition of “Impossible” and their double-encore this week, that made for three consecutive repeats from the underdog girl group. (Is Simon punishing them for coming into the X Factor cafeteria and eating the lunches of teacher’s pet Emblem3? Perhaps. And perhaps even just subliminally.) There wasn’t a moment of this simple, straightforward arrangement that I didn’t enjoy, and Dinah Jane’s solos were particularly awesome. If the ability to exist and thrive in the real world is a requirement for an X Factor winner, 5H did a pretty stellar job of making their case on this performance. Grade: A-
Round 3: “Emotions”
Carly Rose Sonenclar: Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” | This was a prime example of the whole being less than the sum of its parts: We had a classic tugs-the-heartstrings ballad, a 187-person (approximately) Gospel choir, a heavenly setting of billowing white fabrics and chandeliers, and an angelic teenage vocalist — but it simply didn’t resonate with me. Maybe it’s because “Hallelujah” has been sung by so many reality competition contestants and been used in so many “dramatic montages” on scripted TV that I’ve become numb to it. Maybe it’s because at the tender age of 13, Carly Rose doesn’t really have the depth of experience to bring to life the song’s esoteric lyrics. Or maybe it’s because all the trappings of Carly Rose’s performance came together to spell out cynical, test-marketed message — in all caps — yelling “YOU ARE WITNESSING A MOMENT! THIS IS WHERE SHE WINS!” Alas, though, when something’s been processed so absolutely, it’s hard to appreciate that it might have been produced from anything real or organic. I don’t mean to rain on a little girl’s dreams, but “Hallelujah” confirmed my nagging suspicions that Carly Rose could use another five, or maybe 10 or even 15 years of seasoning before I’m going to be really interested in buying any of her post-X Factor musical output. Right now she’s an actor on a stage, reciting lines about love and loss and life, rather than an actual human being whose shared experiences are so vivid and true that it knocks me for a loop, awakens memories and emotions from my own life as I’m listening to her delivery a melody and a lyric. That’s what great music is supposed to be about — and that’s exactly what this rendition of “Hallelujah” was not. Grade: B-
Tate Stevens: Chris Young’s “Tomorrow” | “I always enjoy what you do,” said Britney, and while maybe that wasn’t the most insightful critique, there was an unfussy honesty to it. Tate once again chose a “man rocks woman in his strong arms” ballad — albeit this time with a twist of regret and turmoil adding some bitterness to the cocktail — and sang it on pitch, in a cowboy hat, without any backup dancers or crazy set pieces. The guy is good at what he does. Like windshield wipers and forks and sweaters, there’ll always be a market for him. Is there a $5 million market for him? I’m not sure. Will I be upset if he wins the whole enchilada? Absolutely not. Is he ever going to turn me into that fanatical woman from his hometown party who’s got a dog named “Tater” and a look of crazy adulation in her eyes? Not as long as I have the number to a good therapist. Grade: B-
Fifth Harmony: The Beatles’ “Let It Be” | It was strange hearing Simon call out his last remaining act as not really being a group so much as they are five talented young singers. I mean, hasn’t he been beating the “sisterhood of the traveling microphone” drum for the last two months? Nevertheless, though, the comment/criticism made sense after watching Lauren, Ally, Normani, Dinah Jane and Camilla pass the melody from one to the next without really doing any kind of harmonizing or vocal blending whatsoever. Still, vocal cohesion is a slow broil kind of thing; you can’t just pop five gals in the X Factor pressure cooker and expect a fully completed dish 15 minutes later. So while “Let It Be” wasn’t 100 percent cohesive, all five portions of it were beautifully sung. I even liked Dinah Jane’s doubled-up “Mother Mary” and Camilla’s rapid-fire scat on “let it be, let it be, let it be.” I mean, I’d have flipped my lid if Emblem3 had added a rap to “Hey Jude” last week, but I’m not such a purist that I don’t think you can play a little bit with a Beatles’ melody. Grade: A-
And with that, let me turn things over to you! Who should win Season 2 of The X Factor? Who actually will take the crown? Sound off in the comments, and for all my reality TV recaps, commentary and interviews, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!