Sometimes I wish I’d stuck with my late-’90s foray into yoga, the better to watch The X Factor while balanced on the top of my noggin. I mean, we’re all desperately seeking a different vantage point from which to make sense of this loud, brightly lit, oftentimes confounding affair, right?
Until I become the best-selling author of How Slezak Got His Namaste Back, however, I’m just going to have to rely on my old friends sauvignon blanc and incredulousness to help me endure the supercalifragilisticwhattheeffjusthappened-ness of it all.
Yes, Ameirca, recoil in terror as Britney Spears tells 13-year-old Carly Rose Sonenclar that her performance gave her chills all over her body. Wince as CeCe Frey reaches for another glory note that wriggles from her grasp and waves harsh finger-pistols of truth in her befuddled face. Jam with the band L.A. Reid is listening to in his mind while pretending he cares what’s going down on stage. Study with fascination the way words like “superstar” and “amazing” and “incredible” are ground into nothingness in the strobe-lit mortar and pestle of the X Factor machine. It’s not always good, but it’s certainly never… boring?
With that damning praise out in the open, let’s grade this week’s performances, the not entirely accurate “Divas Night”:
Paige Thomas: Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” | I knew trouble was in the wind when Demi told us to “give it up for Paige,” then sort of trailed off like she’d forgotten her protege’s last name. And things went from awkward to borderline unwatchable when — following a sad into package about how Paige lost her mom at age 6 — the singer emerged in a sparkling red mini-dress with Dynasty-era shoulder pads, atroshe lipstick in the same exact shade and finish, and black gloves that I can only imagine were worn so that she wouldn’t leave any fingerprints on the brutalized husk of the disco classic she’d was covering. As Paige meekly tried not to get upstaged by her dancers, her vocal became intermittently inaudible, and by the time she botched her lyrics on the second verse, her facial expression read anything but the “fun” Demi had requested. At least the whole mess gave Britney’s scriptwriter a chance to feed her this doozy: “It was like a disco ball exploded on stage.” Said explosion could lead to a casualty come results night. Grade: D+
CeCe Frey: Celine Dion’s version of “All By Myself” | If a ballad is the luminol that can be used to expose a singer’s weaknesses, then it’s safe to say that CeCe’s cover of “All By Myself” had enough ugly moments to make David Caruso readjust his CSI: Miami shades and utter something like, “She hit the notes, Callie…she hit them right in the head with a two-by-four.” To be fair, there were parts of the song where the postal clerk sounded great, especially the huge glory note on “anymorrrrrrrrrrrrre” that coincided with the activation of CeCe’s onstage wind machine. Seconds later, though, as she attempted to bring the number to a close, CeCe spun wildly off pitch, making a last impression that had Britney declaring she just didn’t get it, and that just might leave Demi’s hard-trying contestant in last place on the leaderboard. Grade: C-
Arin Ray: Madonna’s “Crazy for You” | Oh how I wish X Factor would focus on giving us insight into the song-selection and arrangement process, rather than trying to convince us Arin has embarked on a tender fauxmance/showmance with Fifth Harmony’s Normani Hamilton. And maybe Arin should’ve been more single-minded about his performance, too, seeing how he botched the lyrics his second time through the chorus, repeating the line “I never wanted anyone like this” in place of “touch me once and you’ll know it’s true.” That gaffe wouldn’t have been so bad if Arin’s pitch had been flawless, and if he hadn’t added an unfortunate gasping sound before every other line, but apparently last week’s terrific “American Boy” cover was a one-week-only experience. With Demi dropping non-actionable critiques like “you lack soul,” it seemed as though the judges have the handsome teenager marked for elimination. Grade: C
Jennel Garcia: Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” | Oh, hey, look: It’s Jennel in braided pigtails, talking via Skype to the adorable dance-class moppets she teaches back at home! See, she’s still the “rock star next door,” not the oversexed, leather-clad vamp Demi’s been portraying her as for the last few weeks. But again, what good is a carefully crafted pre-performance interview if the song choice and vocal amount to nothing more than middling karaoke. For the first time in the competition, Jennel showed some serious weaknesses in her lower register, and the white fringe top that shimmied all the way down to Jennel’s knees was so reminiscent of the getups Tina Turner herself has worn while performing the song through the years that it felt like copycatting more than homage. Nope, ending with a backdrop of a vanity license plate with the name “Jennel Garcia” is not making it your own. Grade: C
Diamond White: Beyonce’s “Halo” | If you’d already forgotten that Diamond was ousted on Top 16 results night, the kid reiterated how her “whole spirit was crushed” by the incident. What? You want to crush a beautiful young girl’s “whole spirit”? Is that why you didn’t vote for her after a rendition of “Halo” that was pitched so high, it pushed Diamond’s voice to the borderline of strained and unpleasant? Okay, okay…the opening verse sounded pretty good — despite the interruptions from a screaming teenager in the audience who may or may not have been in the process of being stabbed to death by Ghostface — but Diamond may have lost me forever by robotically declaring that, like Beyonce, she has an alter-ego who takes over for her when she hits the stage. If this show had at least one host who was capable of saying anything that’s not on the teleprompter, the obvious followup would’ve been, “Do you know what an alter-ego is, or did your stage mommy tell you to say that?” Grade: C+
Fifth Harmony: Mariah Carey’s “Hero” | The girls of Fifth Hamony are so close, they even bake together! And next week, they’ll pass around a pair of magical jeans that will fit each of their various body types and lead them into all sorts of dramatic, fun-filled summer adventures! Hopefully, those travelling pants will also help them figure out how to consistently harmonize, rather than just go from gorgeous solo to gorgeous solo to gorgeous solo — the same crime they committed back in the Judges’ Houses round. But despite their lack of tight vocal blend — and a rather clichéd song choice that once again found the quintet standing stock still — there’s no denying the amount of talent on display. Plus, as Simon noted, they all love puppies. Which means they’re gonna be around at least till mid-December — and I don’t have a problem with it, either. Grade: B-
Tate Stevens: Shania Twain’s “From This Moment” | If you had any doubt that L.A. has ceased to speak from the heart, and is merely collecting a paycheck for spewing whatever the show’s producers whisper into his ear, try this intro to Tate’s performance on for size. “This guy represents every American that every gave up on their dreams!” Seriously, L.A.? Far more believable was Tate’s simple, sweet backstory about marrying his high-school sweetheart, which gave “From This Moment” a little extra emotional heft. There were a couple of minor vocal wobbles along the way — and the backdrop and heavy reliance on fog machine were kind of dated — but overall this performance should keep the Tate Wagon moving right long. Grade: B
Beatrice Miller: Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” |
And the award for this week’s most painfully literal staging goes to Britney Spears, for slapping a half-dozen watches on Beatrice’s arm, placing the kid atop a display of timepieces, and saddling her with a gigantic hourglass backdrop for her rendition of “Time After Time.” (Cut to Britney: “But, like, the song has the word ‘time’ in the title.”) I’m sorry to report the situation with Beatrice’s wardrobe wasn’t much better, unless you spend most of your time at the skate part and find nothing wrong with a “YOLO” hat and a flannel shirt with exposed shoulders. Unfortunately, those little details — plus a pre-performance package that made it look like Beatrice’s success or failure would determine if her two moms could put food on the dinner table — might distract viewers from voting for what turned out to be a morosely pretty vocal. Beatrice may not be Season 2’s most polished performer, but she’s got a terrific tone and an innate ability to cut to the emotional heart of whatever track she’s covering. Her mentor apparently agrees, since Simon’s critique of the song choice made Britney lash out: “She has more talent in her pinkie finger than all your contestants put together!” Whoa, maybe Ms. Spears is actually paying attention to the proceedings? Grade: B
Carly Rose Sonenclar: Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” | While Beatrice may be this year’s most emotionally connected contestant, Carly Rose is definitely staking her claim as its most technically proficient. I mean, if the 13-year-old has hit an off note in the last three weeks, it certainly hasn’t happened in front of the TV cameras. And yet, if I’m being honest, I felt like her rendition of “My Heart Will Go On” lacked a little bit of the drama that’s central to the success of such a big, schlocky ballad. Part of the problem is that the track itself just felt a little too grown up for a kid who’s still in middle school. But part of it was the slightly muted arrangement, which had Carly Rose doing double lutzes instead of quadruple axels. Normally, I’m a big advocate of vocal restraint on reality singing competitions, but if you’re going to climb aboard the Titanic, you’d best make sure you’re up on the mast, arms outstretched and wind in your hair, belting at the top of your lungs. (Side note: I know he meant it as a compliment, but Simon needs to be careful about feedback that could paint Carly Rose as robotic. I mean, out of context, isn’t that how one might interpret a zinger like “I don’t believe you’re a human being”?) Grade: B
Emblem3: Alicia Keys’ “No One” | They may not have the strongest voices in the competition — though who can be sure thanks to the 47 layers of background vocals behind them? — but I liked that Emblem3 put a little acoustic reggae stank on Alicia Keys’ romantic R&B hit. For the record, though, I think Chris Rene did the song better back in Season 1. Grade: B+
Lyric145: Katy Perry’s “E.T.”/Queen’s “We Will Rock You” | Yes, Britney had an excellent point that Lyric145 “should be doing hip-hop tracks.” And no, I didn’t disagree with Demi that “We Will Rock You” has nothing to do with Katy Perry’s absolute worst hit (“E.T.”). And yet somehow, I found myself enjoying the entire noisy mess of a performance –particularly the way Lyric Da Queen bobbed and weaved and swooped her way through both songs like a boxer looking for her opportunity to get the TKO. I’m not sure she ever quite landed that killer punch, but if L.A. is right that the hip-hop act is on its way out of the competition, two things will be certain: Arin, CeCe or Paige got very, very lucky. And X Factor will be far less unpredictably entertaining for the remainder of the season. Grade: B+
Vino Alan: Al Green’s (or Tina Turner’s?) “Let’s Stay Together” | Anyone else notice how some of Fifth Harmony’s flower petals continued to rain onto the stage at the start of Vino’s performance? It may have been accidental, but perhaps it was some crafty production assistant subtly signaling that the gruffest persona in the Season 2 pool was about to give the evening’s most delicately stirring performance. I liked how the first half of the song was stripped back to just a vibrating synth line and Vino’s distinctive, unembellished vocals, after which the drum machines kicked in for added urban relevance. Vino still makes me a little skittish in his interviews — what the heck was his spiel about Phil Collins, Huey Lewis, and Eminem? — but if Demi really found herself “a little bored” by the performance, maybe she’s missing the point of what singers are actually supposed to do when they get on stage? Grade: A-
And with that, let me turn things over to you:
Who were your favorites from The X Factor‘s Top 12 performance night? Who will and should go home? (I’m guessing it’ll be Arin and either Paige or CeCe). Hit the comments with your thoughts!Follow @MichaelSlezakTV