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The X Factor Recap: Wow. Phenomenal.

(L-R) Top 6 contestants CeCe Frey, Diamond White, Fifth Harmony, host Khloe Kardashian, contestant Carly Rose Sonenclar, host Mario Lopez and contestants Emblem 3 and Tate Stevens onstage at FOX's "The X Factor" Season 2 Top 8 to 6 Live Elimination Show on November 29, 2012 in Hollywood, California.

Between Mario Lopez, Khloe Kardashian, and Britney Spears, The X Factor is the world’s leading producer of fixed, joyless smiles. I am telling you: If something fun ever happens on this show, it’s an accident. A multi-billion-dollar accident that’s giving me epilepsy and making me resent songs.

Tonight, there’s another double elimination, and you have correctly guessed that it is going to be intense. As always, we begin with some stilted banter with the judges. Britney is wearing a hat low over her face, because if you had made “Scream & Shout” with Will.I.Am, you would too. (Incidentally, it is the No. 1 download on iTunes right now, so let’s all savor that fact.) Simon acknowledges that nobody knows who is going home and that the results will therefore be a surprise, so if you were wondering whether any of the judges were magic fortune-teller people, you can be assured that they are not. Let’s get on with this thing already.

Oh, no, first we have to recap what we spent two hours watching last night. In the recap package, everyone’s doing the thing where they ask a question and then answer it. Does Diamond think she’s better at ballads than at uptempo numbers? Sure. Is Vino worried that his last-minute song change has made him vulnerable? Of course. Is this the laziest way of talking, and is it the kind of thing we should make a special effort to phase out in 2013? Yes and yes.

One great thing does come out of this sequence, though. CeCe tells the camera: “I don’t know why I don’t get the same reviews as everyone else.” The idea that she might objectively be less skilled than some of — okay, at this point, all of — the other contestants has not even entered her mind. While I’m sure she has loads of wonderful qualities (attitude-projection and head-festooning, to name but two!), singing-wise, she is in over her head, and she lacks the ability to acknowledge it. This is what we get for placing a premium on children’s self-esteem. I’m starting to appreciate my bottomless well of good old-fashioned Catholic shame.

For truly, it is the belief that anyone can do anything that has saddled us with a host like Khloe Kardashian, who leads us out of the recap with an utterly deadpan “Wow. What a phenomenal night,” followed by a severe pursing of the lips and an attempt at a sultry look.

Listen: It’s a rare rainy day here in Los Angeles, and I’ve got a touch of the old 24-hour seasonal affective disorder.

Anyway, it’s immediately time to unceremoniously cut someone loose, unless wasting three whole minutes silently panning across the remaining eight contestants counts as a ceremony. And ... it’s PAIGE THOMAS going home? Just when she was starting to cut loose and display a little personality? I’m quite honestly shocked, but Paige takes it like a champ. Though there is a possible Freudian slip: “I’ve got bitter ... bigger things and better things to do.” More than anything, she seems relieved, as I’m beginning to think we all would be.

What Might Have Been: Wouldn’t Paige’s version of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” have been interesting?

Oh wow, I just realized: CeCe Frey is Demi’s last remaining act. America, America: This is you.

On the throw to commercial, Drew from Emblem3 throws his hands behind his head and repeatedly flexes his right bicep behind Mario’s head. Something ain’t right with that sexy clod, but he understands personal branding.

And there’s a performance from last year’s runner-up Josh Krajcik! I am amazed I know how to spell his name after all this time. They have not bothered to buy him any new clothes in the intervening months, and he still looks like he ate a Carl’s Jr. Six Dollar Burger off his own chest, but he is in fine voice. There’s a touch of seventies AM Gold to his song, which is pretty much my highest praise. Go ‘head, dirty Josh Krajcik. Have you seen Melanie Amaro?  

The Pepsi Challenge is back this year! You guys: You can interact with the contestants, by which I mean, you can choose which one of three very recognizable songs each one should sing next week! It is cutting-edge interactivity up in here. Hey, when does Party of Five come on? Do you think any of these singers will be as popular as All-4-One? Oh, sorry, I was stuck in 1994 with the Pepsi Challenge.

All right: time to reveal our bottom two. For the second time, Mario says “Good luck to everyone,” and Khloe repeats an emotionless “good luck.” It’s unsettling.

Fifth Harmony is safe! CECE FREY IS SAFE! Britney is golf-clapping and we can’t see her eyes. Are we certain she is not an international jewel thief? Emblem3 is safe! We will be seeing them play instruments next week! Carly Rose is safe, because of course she is! Which leaves Tate, Vino, and Diamond as our remaining three. Tate is safe, because this is America, so our bottom two is Vino and Diamond.

So, okay. This is kind of a big deal. Both of these contestants are well-liked, both are interesting characters with compelling backstories. This would be a great time for the host of a show like this to react in real time and have a genuine human moment with these people that we now love (owing to Stockholm Syndrome). But this show is either way too heavily scripted or Mario and Khloe are incapable of independent thought. (Both can be true.) The two of them ask Diamond and Vino canned questions that they are being fed through their earpieces, and then not letting them answer because we have to shuffle off to a commercial.

In what world are Mario Lopez and Khloe Kardashian superior to Steve Jones?

But there’s no time to ponder that question, because it is time for Alicia Keys to earnest us to death with “Girl on Fire.” If you can hear this song without thinking of the boring guy from the Citibank ads, you are leading a more refined life than I am. Everything is Asian about her performance except her and any of her backup dancers.

And then she just kind of has to wander off the stage, because neither Mario nor Khloe can think of anything to say to her. Really, guys? You don’t want to maybe ask her a question? Converse with her briefly? No? You just want to remind us that things are about to get intense, even though there is a literal racing heartbeat playing through the sound system? You’re sure? Okay. You’re the millionaires.

Sing-off time. Diamond does Beyoncé’s “I Was Here,” and I like her on these Beyoncé ballads, if only because they’re by far the least played out of the world’s ballads. Mario does manage to get off an ad-lib: “Diamond, you were here.” Remember what I said about reacting in the moment, Mario? Forget I said it. I must have been on drugs five minutes ago. 

Vino’s jacket comes off, the international symbol for getting down to business. He does Ray LaMontagne’s “Trouble,” which is officially in grave danger of becoming the next “Hallelujah.” The first note is a full-on croak, but he actually reaches some nice, clear high notes that he’s been reluctant to show up to this point. I’m pretty sure he’s doomed, but still — lovely.

Votin’ time. Even a casual viewer knows that it will all rest on Simon, as L.A. must choose Vino, Britney will go Diamond, and Demi has said again and again that she finds Vino boring. And indeed, with all the stalling, it goes just this way. Simon is left to cast the deciding vote, which causes him to moan a family-unfriendly “Oh, CHRIST.” But eventually, he pulls another Beatrice (I call it “pulling a Beatrice”) and sends Vino packing.

He reacts well, I think, but there is a simmering rage that underlies his every word, and there’s a chance he will stab a judge. Good thing Britney’s already in disguise. Oh, and the producers have taken to simply cutting Khloe’s mike during these moments, which is a decision we can all support.

I really honestly do wish Vino the best. Sometimes a little exposure is all you need, and though I’d certainly love 5 million extra dollars, a victory is no guarantee of success. Name one winner of The Voice. (Don’t. But you get my point.)

What Might Have Been: I don’t know why, but I would love to have seen him try Go West’s “King of Wishful Thinking.” (And yes, I know I didn’t do this last week, but the thoughts of what Beatrice could have gone on to perform were too painful, and also I forgot.)

Rankin’ time.

6. Diamond White.

5.  CeCe Frey. She’s up four spots! She’s still kind of doomed! She is not so much performing on a singing-competition show as she is slowly rotating on a spit for our amusement, and the producers of this show could not be happier about it.

4.  Fifth Harmony

3.  Emblem3. As they wait for the news, Drew furiously drums on his pecs and abs. For real, you guys, the boy ain’t right. Is it meth? Is it ADHD? Is he on some special kind of beach-community gay-porn autism spectrum?

2.  Tate Stevens.

... which means Carly Rose is at No. 1 again this week, which means for all their desire to shake things up, the top two is pretty much set and we can just skip ahead to the final, but of course we won’t, because Fox has so many more things to sell us. 

I’m going to go play in the rain. In silence.

Photo: FOX/Getty Images