The X Factor Recap: Unplugging Away

cece frey part of meThis just in (my brain only): Simon Cowell was so happy with the results of The X Factor‘s Pepsi Challenge — during which viewers weighed in on contestants’ songs, hairstyles, wardrobe and staging — that he wants to extend the intiative for the rest of Season 2. The first of next week’s viewer polls will read as follows:

What change would you like to see behind the judges’ table?

A. Simon buttons his damn shirt already.
B. Britney without tranquilizers!
C. Demi Lovato eyebrow topiary.
D. Paula Abdul’s back…and this time, it’s personal!
E. L.A. Reid chair-dancing exhibition.
F. A seat for Mario Lopez, so he can offer insights like “America chose Diamond [White] in a diamond, which is very clever, by the way.”

That dude is Rated I…for I Cahhhhhhn’t! But hey, at least this week’s performances were — on the whole — significantly more enjoyable/tuneful than what we endured for Top 8 night. Let’s get to the grades, shall we?

Unplugged Set
CeCe Frey: Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory” | “She’s relevant, she’s beautiful, she’s a sweet girl,” said Demi, introducing her last remaining act in the competition. And while you could say it’s telling that Demi never actually commented on CeCe’s singing ability, I’d argue she was using “relevant” as code for, “half the people on the Billboard Hot 100 can’t sing in tune, so do you really give a crap if CeCe can’t either?” The good news for the leopard-faced postal worker is that she had a better grasp on pitch than she did the last five weeks — and actually nailed the big belty notes on “the edge, the edge, the edge.” The not so good news? CeCe is always a hair or ten under the note whenever she doesn’t have her personal volume cranked up to 10. “It was one of your best vocal performances,” said Demi, but, again, that’s not saying much. A yak getting its hooves trimmed would’ve sounded better than CeCe’s “Wind Beneath My Wings” from Top 10 night. Grade: B-

Emblem3: Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are” | Maybe instead of going skateboarding, Emblem3 shoud’ve stayed at home and worked on their vocals. Of course, that would’ve meant the blonde one wouldn’t have an excuse to rip off his shirt in front of the X Factor camera crew. Priorities, people! Anyway, we were promised instruments and originality, and instead we got Blondie limply holding his guitar for half the performance and singing in a vaguely British-esque accent that may have been an homage to Green Day but landed closer to Britney Spears’ new mess with Will.i.Am. (He really should stick to “rap” or “sing-speaking,” yes?) The other two kids were marginally better, but the bottom line is that given the choice, anyone with functioning ears would choose Bruno Mars’ original 100 times out of 100. Simon whined that Demi was being “incredibly dumb” with her critiques, but I thought her description of the boy band as “a downgraded version of the Jonas Brothers from five years ago” was one of the night’s most astute bits of feedback. Grade: C

Carly Rose Sonenclar: Justin Bieber’s “As Long as You Love Me” | I’ve been critical all season of Carly Rose’s ability to truly connect with material, to stir the soul as well as the brain, but maybe the real problem has been with the song choices, not the singer. Freed from the confines of Adult Diva Ballads, 13-year-old front-runner cooked up a brilliant rendition of Justin Bieber’s much whinier original, somehow managing to catch a genuine groove despite things being stripped back to a heartbeat-like drum and acoustic guitar. The refrain — “We could be starving, we could be homeless, we could be broke/ As long as you love me” — could just as easily be sung to a parent or a relative as it could a middle-school crush, but no matter where Carly Rose drew her inspiration, I actually Beliebed, er believed the kid. Grade: A

Fifth Harmony: Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain” | I’m not sure L.A.’s had a genuine moment on The X Factor since Season 1, but tonight he had me howling when he suggested Simon Cowell’s girl group change its name to Fifth Unison. Seriously, if these chicas want to take home the $5 million prize — and I actually think they’d be a viable, radio-ready choice — they have to do more than take turns singing the melody while the other four gals quietly provide backing “oooohs.” Maybe Sister C could come mentor them next week? Or maybe they could Google the definition of harmony: “The combination of simultaneously sounded musical notes to produce chords and chord progressions with a pleasing effect.” That kvetching aside, there’s no denying Fifth Harmony’s individual members have scads of talent, and when Demi remarked that a couple members of the group really should’ve been solo artists, I wondered if she was secretly daydreaming about swapping out CeCe for Lauren or Dinah Jane. Grade: B

Diamond White: James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” | I’m glad Simon called out Diamond for having already covered James Brown’s soul classic in her audition. The repetition especially seemed a peculiar choice given that Diamond’s No. 6 ranking going into the week should’ve prompted “Britney” (or the team of producers assigned to Britney’s acts) to make a bold, unexpected move. I also thought Diamond’s phrasing got a little wonky on the verses — as if she couldn’t figure out when and where the band would kick in — but in certain moments, there were hints of a young Michael Jackson in her upper register, which might be a good direction on the slim chance Britney’s “other” act cracks the semifinals. (Side note: How exactly was Diamond’s performance “unplugged,” what with the full string section and very obvious track? Grade: B-

Tate Stevens: Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” | I liked that Tate managed to make me take a second listen to a set of Bon Jovi lyrics I’ve heard a gajillion times since my high-school days. I didn’t so much like the way Tate awkwardly changed keys midway through every chorus, almost like he was dipping low just to make sure his voice didn’t crumble on the high notes that he actually never attempted. Was it accidental? Tate seems like too much of a pro for that kind of mistake, so it’s hard to say. Demi (not surprisingly) was the only one who made a small mention of the strange arrangement, with Britney and Simon instead harping on Tate’s song choice, as if “Living on a Prayer” is as far away from country music as Mario and Khloe are from Ryan Seacrest and Cat Deeley. Grade: B-

“Pepsi Challenge” Set
CeCe Frey: Katy Perry’s “Part of Me” | CeCe is like your friend who gets a little tipsy when you go out for mojitos and suddenly decides that she’ll die — actually die! — if you don’t all go to a karaoke bar. There, of course, she’ll belt song after song as if she’s got a dozen backup dancers and an imaginary archway over her head decorated with her name spelled out in bright, shiny bulbs. In other words, she’s genuinely having a great time — and, as Britney (!) astutely noted, that’s an important attribute in a pop star. Whether or not your friend has any real vocal ability, however, depends on how many drinks you’ve consumed yourself. Alas, as I write this (stone cold sober), I can vouch that CeCe hit that one big glory note she went for, but was pretty much sharp for 90 percent of the song. I won’t even mention those guttural yelps between verses — or the shredded daisy dukes and craft-shop bustier America decided she should wear. Sure, CeCe herself would brush off those critiques as “sticks and stones and all that,” but it doesn’t mean they’re not true. Grade: C- (for vocals)/A- (for ridiculata)

Emblem3: Alphaville’s “Forever Young” | I seriously don’t understand the X Factor judges. When L.A. excitedly declared that Emblem3 “nailed it,” did he mean, like, they nailed the song to a tree? When Britney insisted it was “a superstar performance,” was she being facetious? I mean, “Forever Young” was certainly easier on the ears than “Just the Way You Are” — although Blondie confirmed his gurgling singing voice should be forever silenced (just let him rap and flex, Simon!) — but it still was chock full of flat notes and dropped phrases. Plus, Demi had a good point that for $5 million, it’s not too much to ask the guys to work the stage a little. Nice followup message from Khloe Kardashian, though, that a female judge can’t make tough comments without having a crush on the object of her critique. Ugh! Grade: B-

Carly Rose Sonenclar: Beyonce’s “If I Were a Boy” | It’s looking less and less likely that Carly Rose is ever going to hit a questionable note in this competition, and if I was being fair, I’d just join the audience chants of “Car-ly! Car-ly!” and leave it at that. After all, compared to so many of the people with whom she’s shared the stage this season, the kid is sweet relief, a life raft of tunefulness in a sea of blood spilled by so many violently assaulted songs. But note-perfect as Carly Rose was on “If I Were a Boy,” I felt like she lacked some of Beyoncé’s broken-down resignation — the tired sigh with which she tosses off “but you’re just a boy,” the ferocity of “I swear I’d be a better man.” Simon was right that the lyric was “slightly old” for a girl who’s barely into her teens, and given that she did nothing more than a straightforward cover, those emotional shortcomings were harder to miss. Grade: B+

Fifth Harmony: Demi Lovato’s “Give Your Heart a Break” | In the words of Etta James (and my Reality Check cohost Melinda Doolittle)…at laaaaaaaast, Fifth Harmony did actual harmonies! And they were fan-flipping-tastic. Okay, in the interest of full disclosure, the quintet was inexplicably flanked by four backup singers (should we call them Ninth Harmony?) but the sound mix was good enough this week to individually hear Normani, Dinah Jane, Lauren, Ally and Camila shine bright on their solos as well as their supporting parts. I loved that Lauren was physically feeling the music and expressing it with her occasional shimmying, and I loved the way Dinah Jane just roared with her standard operating passion when it came time for her to bring the song to a close. Simon is right that X Factor wouldn’t be the same without this girl group; now here’s hoping we don’t have evidence of that statement next week. Grade: A-

Diamond White: Rihanna’s “Diamonds” | Diamond may have been a little wobbly on the opening verse, but let’s not forget she began the performance barely strapped into a diamond-shaped cage suspended from the rafters. That’s a high (and frightening) degree of difficulty that those Emblem3 foolios would never be asked to pull off. Plus, “Diamonds” is a very strange choice for a reality-competition setting: It plays like a chant more than a traditional song. And yet once Miss White escaped the confines of her sparkly prison, her voice opened up and she tore the lid off the number in a way that Rihanna could never do without the help of a qualified producer and a host of electronic gizmos. If Diamond is destined to fall on the tracks of the Carly Rose Express, this was a pretty admirable last impression. Grade: B+

Tate Stevens: Garth Brooks’ “If Tomorrow Never Comes” | Tate’s rendition of Garth Brooks’ sentimental ballad was the “buttered toast” portion of the evening’s 12-course meal. Nothing wrong with it, per se, but is anyone going to remember it by the weekend? If I’m going to fault Fifth Harmony on their harmonies or Carly Rose on her emotional connection, I think it’s only fair to ask why Tate never really seems to take any risks — with his vocals, with his song choices, with his staging, with his arrangements — despite being one of the more experienced acts in the competition. Dude shouldn’t be resting on his front-runner status, but rather using it to experiment with bold choices that stamp him as an artist to watch, not just a competent vocalist who’ll eventually hit No. 32 on the country charts. Side note: Was it just me, or did Simon’s critique sound more like a “thanks for playing, old man” farewell speech than genuine praise? Grade: B

And finally…predictions!

Should go home: Emblem3, CeCe

Will go home: Emblem3, Diamond (with, perhaps, Tate in the singoff)

With that, let me turn things over to you:

Who were your favorites from The X Factor‘s Top 6 performance telecast? Who’s most likely to get booted come Thursday night? Hit the comments with your thoughts!