It’s easy to make fun of The X Factor, what with Demi Lovato’s crocodile tears (and atrocious, “more prouder” grammar), Simon Cowell’s bloated sense of self-importance and especially future Emmy nominee for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series Paulina Rubio’s patented brand of “does this chica have a concussion?” English. (Tonight’s “oily nose”/”you are you!” critique of Carlito Olivero was beautifully absurd, but still couldn’t top last week’s inability to tell her hot Latino contestant apart from wide-eyed 15-year-old Josh Levi.)
But then, an act like Alex & Sierra comes along, with a brand of vocal aptitude and brazen creativity that makes you think: “Hey, I might actually buy this duo’s music in the real world!” And just like that, the whole notion of watching La Cowell’s sputtering import for the sole purpose of aggressively snarky Tweeting feels a little bit hollow.
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Where there’s true talent, after all, there’s a show. And if I’m being honest — something the X Factor judges have forgotten how to do, at least based on their feedback for the sweet-but-sinking Rion Paige — I’m still invested in who wins this thing, whether they turn out to be the next One Direction or the successor to that nice road-construction dude in the cowboy hat who took home the Season 2 crown.
With that in mind, let’s get to letter grades for tonight’s performances:
Restless Road: Taylor Swift’s “Red” — Grade: C- | No, no, no. You’re not supposed to let the one with the deep voice (AKA the one who can’t stay on pitch) have a solo verse — no matter much Simon tries to convince us it’s a formula that should help you sail to the finals.
Rion Paige: Carrie Underwood’s “See You Again” — Grade: D+ | Oh, Rion, it breaks my heart a little hearing you say you fought back tears during last week’s results show because “I didn’t know if I’d stop [crying].” But maybe that just means you need to step away from the world of nationally televised singing competitions, take a little more time to grow up (you’re only 13, kiddo!) and learn to control that big instrument of yours. This performance, alas, had more sharps than a big-city needle-exchange program. (Yes, I know, I already regret that metaphor.)
Jeff Gutt: Badfinger/Mariah Carey’s “Without You” — Grade: B+ | Memo to Mario Lopez: Mariah Carey did not make “Without You” a classic; it was originally recorded by Badfinger, and was also a massive No. 1 hit for Harry Nilsson in 1972. And memo to Jeff, I know that you already knew the aforementioned info, so don’t try to pretend you meant it when you fretted that, “I’m a rock guy. I just need to find a way to do it and make it mine.” Le sigh. The bad news for Jeff is that his version ranks somewhere in the upper midpack of the dozens of versions of this song that I’ve heard. The good news is he hit just about every note, brought palpable passion and a nifty Ryan Tedder thunder-y arrangement. Plus, the “Beam Me Up, Scotty!” lighting was a nice touch. In other words, I kinda dug it.
Ellona Santiago: Lady Gaga’s “Applause” — Grade: C+ | Either my ears are designed at just the wrong angle to appreciate Ellona’s tone, or the judges were selling me Kool-Aid and pretending it was Dom Perignon. To me, Ellona not only lost control of her powerful vocals at both ends of her register, but she sounded utterly vacuous attempting to deliver lyrics like, “I’ve overheard your theory/Nostalgia is for geeks.” Plus, the black leather bustier and tiny fabric-sample skirt were way too sexpot for a cute 17-year-old kid. Come on, Demi, you should know better. (Oh, who am I kidding? Demi hasn’t got the slightest clue what’s happening with her acts nowadays!)
Alex & Sierra: Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” — Grade: A+ | It’s not easy upgrading Beyoncé, Kelly and those other two, but damn — Alex and Sierra’s sweet harmonies, verbal dexterity and playful humor made me feel like DC’s R&B warning to a cheating lover was born to be a duet! Sienna’s mini-scat breakdown, Alex’s gruff counterplay (and adorbs eyebrows) and the sparse arrangement (which put their vocals front and center) made this one of the best X Factor performances, well, ever! Is there any way these cats don’t win the whole bag of Friskies?
Carlito Olivero: Jennifer Lopez’s “Let’s Get Loud” — Grade: B | Carlito was clearly aiming for “La Copa de la Vida” Part Dos, but — having been assigned the track by POW-POW only 24 hours earlier — he never quite reached such lofty territory. To his credit, the Season 3 recipient of Simon’s annual “You’re a Hard Worker” plaque hit the bulk of his notes — and in certain moments, displayed hints of real charisma — but ultimately this was more competent than it was compelling.
Restless Road: Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” — Grade: B | Yeah, I still spied four (maybe six) background singers in the shadows, but the RR boys didn’t sound bad at all here, one of the few instances this season where they resembled a real life musical act. Sure, I couldn’t understand a word out of the deep-voiced one’s mouth, but improvement’s improvement, and I’m not gonna ding these fellas just because Demi fake-cried with joy.
Rion Paige: Thompson Square’s “Glass” — Grade: C+ | Ouch, Rion’s glory note missed the mark like me swinging the bat during my one season of Little League. The judges were super encouraging with their feedback, but methinks it was a parting gift before Thursday night’s inevitable ouster.
Jeff Gutt: Elton John’s “Daniel” — Grade: B | Jeff’s acoustic take on this plaintive ballad was made a little more emotional by the presence of his Nacy officer brother Daniel’s presence in the audience. Dude definitely has talent, but I couldn’t disagree with Demi’s complaint that the end product was like a bag of chips left open a few hours too long. Which is to say, a wee bit stale.
Ellona Santiago: Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy” — Grade: B- | I liked seeing Ellona dial back on the busy production-number stuff and focus purely on her vocals. I just wish she’d picked a slightly less ambitious ballad with which to showcase her skills. The opening verses were pitched a little too low for Ellona’s range, causing several hiccups in pitch, and that final melismatic run flopped harder than an elephant being pushed into a swimming pool. There were some pretty moments in the middle, though, even if I have to point out that Rachel Crow’s Season 1 rendition was superior.
Alex & Sierra: A Great Big World (feat. Christina Aguilera)’s “Say Something” — Grade: A | OK, so maybe this cover wasn’t didn’t deviate all that much from the original — which got trotted out to gorgeous effect last month on The Voice and the AMAs (read about the latter here). Nevertheless, the Florida duo completely captured the emotional drama of the lyrics, the plaintive flow of the melody — and pulled it off with a noticably trembling Sierra at the piano and the slightly more self-assured Alex on guitar, without a single botched note. Finally, a Standing O from the judges that seemed completely authentic.
Carlito Olivero: Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” — Grade: C- I’ve liked some of Carlito’s prior bilingual efforts, but he flip-flopped so rapidly here between Spanish and English that I could practically feel my head bobbing back and forth like I was at a tennis match. In other words, there was never enough space for the dude to relax into the performance and really bring home the message. His awful leather-sleeved blazer and the cheesy, mariachi-via-a-dentist’s-office instrumentation didn’t help much, nor will Paulina’s insane babblings, which included her screeching about Simon — “Every time I talk, he opens his nose!” Alrighty, then!
Should Go Home: Rion Paige, Restless Road
Will Go Home: Rion Paige, Jeff Gutt
And with that, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of Top 6 performance night? Who were your faves? Who surprised you? Who will and should be at risk? Take our poll below, then expand on your thoughts in the comments!