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The X Factor Recap: From the Belly of the Beast

Hosts Khloe Kardashian and Mario Lopez (C) and contestants (L-R) Diamond White, Carly Rose Sonenclar, CeCe Frey, Fifth Harmony, Tate Stevens and Emblem3 onstage at FOX's "The X Factor" Season 2 Top 6 Live Performance Show on December 5, 2012 in Hollywood, California.

This recap is coming from the belly of the beast. I got to do a little punditry on the Pepsi X Factor Pre-Show, and afterwards the good folks at Fox invited me to watch the show from the VIP Tent (“invited” is defined here as “did not explicitly ask me to leave,” which is good enough for me). Allow me to set the scene: It is a sea of young media types, each one with an open laptop. Pictures of fallen heroes line the walls: Sister C. David With the Tattoos Who Was Looking for His Mom. Shouty Gay Guy. It is a veritable temple to this show, and I keep hoping I won’t accidentally run into someone I’ve clowned in one of these recaps. As in all places of worship, I feel mostly guilt.

Tonight, each contestant will sing twice: Round one will be UNPLUGGED, and round two will be the Pepsi Challenge, wherein We the Viewers helped choose the performances. I say “helped choose” instead of “chose,” because for each performer, we were given three pretty bland song choices, and no artist information; I voted for Emblem3 to do “Forever Young,” not knowing if it was Rod Stewart’s or Alphaville’s (but being reasonably certain it wasn’t Bob Dylan’s, because look at where we are). As for choosing performance styles and outfits, suggestions presumably came via Twitter and Facebook, but the examples they cite are things like “wear colors” and “have confetti,” which I’m pretty sure they were going to do anyway. But whatever: They used branded social media, so some suit in a corner office is going to get a raise out of it, and that person is tonight’s real winner.

That person probably also presided over the whole Pepsi X Factor flavor contest thing that happened earlier in the season, and I can reveal that the Pepsi X Factor VIP Tent bar does not stock the Pepsi X Factor flavor.

We begin our show with the revelation that Mario Lopez got married over the weekend! Khloe says: “Show me the ring!” Is this a thing we’re doing to men now? Isn’t it always going to be a simple band? Also: Do you think he delivered his vows the same way he delivers his lines on this show? If so, that’s going to be one peppy marriage, and that poor wife is just never going to know where she stands.

The judges do their traditional intro banter, and I cannot count as high as the number of buttons Simon has unbuttoned on his shirt. It is unbuttoned to, like, the Earth’s core.

Okay, I am going to take this performer-by-performer, just so I can keep it straight for myself:

CeCe starts the show with her unplugged take on “The Edge of Glory,” and you know what? It’s actually not a bad performance! She hits all the notes correctly! It seems odd to praise someone for performing the minimum requirements of their job, but there we are! LA, who in her intro package admits that she should have been sent packing weeks ago, says it’s her best yet. It’s heartwarming. There is a smattering of applause in the VIP Tent. Tough crowd.

Surprisingly, CeCe’s toughest critique comes from Britney, who tells her it wasn’t all that great. Yet the crowd applauds. If any other judge says “I gave it a 99.8 out of 100,” the audience boos and lights torches and runs at the judges’ table with rakes. It’s like even the live studio audience has been forced to sign a “don’t startle Britney” contract.

For CeCe’s PEPSI CHALLENGE, America has chosen Katy Perry’s “Part of Me,” and we’re back to the shouty, pitchy, just a little too defensive CeCe that evidently we love. It’s a great big glittery mess of a performance, but she seems to do well with those. Outfit-wise, apparently America said “Make her look like someone built a prostitute out of Skittles in 1981.”

Overall, it’s probably her best week yet, but the quality of her performances has never matched the voting results, so who the hell knows what’ll happen here, but I get the feeling she’ll be safe.

Emblem3 is up next, and as Simon attempts to introduce them, Demi snatches his mic and says, “Here to sing a predictable song and stand in place, Emblem3!” Okay, I’m glad someone is making the judges’ table interesting, and their choice of Bruno Mars’s “Just The Way You Are,” is indeed predictable, but they do it sitting in chairs, so Demi doesn’t even know what she’s talking about. And listen: Their vocals are not the best, it simply does not matter? They have turned this stage into the world’s biggest dormitory common area, and one cannot help but swoon. The judges get sassy with their evaluations — LA says “at least one of Simon’s groups can harmonize,” while Demi calls it “a downgraded version of the Jonas Brothers from five years ago” — and there is an OOOOOOH in the VIP Tent. These very important people want blood.

Also: The Jonas Brothers were five years ago?

Turns out Pepsi was talking about Alphaville’s version of “Forever Young,” and though that is a song I grew up with, tonight I am hearing it with fresh ears and I can finally confidently say this: These are some nonsense-ass lyrics. It’s just the words “forever” and “young” and then a salad of shitty English-as-a-second-language fridge-magnet poetry, and not even these guys can sell it. It’s your typical E3 — may I call you E3, gentlemen? — and though Demi wishes they’d move around the stage more, they are their typical charismatic selves and they should be safe.

Incidentally, in the VIP Tent, there are tons of guys in hoodies and flat-brim baseball caps, and initially I think it’s some committed Emblem3 cosplay, but then I remember that I’m in Los Angeles and this is how grown men dress here.

Britney teases Carly Rose’s performance of Justin Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me” thusly: “Here’s something for all you Belieber fans out there,” which, you know, okay fine, we get what you’re trying to say there, Britney. Maybe I just haven’t put my wishes out into the universe forcefully enough: Would anyone like to give me $15 million a year to nap my way through a job? Anyway, it’s an interesting choice, as it’s current, it sounds utterly fresh in a stripped-down rendition, and one doesn’t have to work that hard to out-sing Justin Bieber. So it feels like a brand-new song, Carly is of course flawless, she’s showing that she can work in a poppier context, it’s a total win. The judges agree.

For her Pepsi Challenge, We the People have chosen Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy,” and it’s great and everyone loves it and she’ll probably win this whole thing and I’m so glad we’re moving into a new era of ballads because I can’t take any more Whitney.

Oh, also, Demi says Carly reminds her of JoJo, who she “looked up to as a kid.” I think I can confidently say we are all feeling much older than we were at the beginning of that sentence.

Khloe is wearing some kind of tiara/head-necklace kind of thing that answers the question: “What if Arwen from Lord of the Rings worked at Claire’s?”

Fifth Harmony takes on “Set Fire to the Rain,” and Ally had to miss rehearsals for her grandfather’s funeral, so she spends the whole performance wandering the stage muttering to herself. Not really. If you walked past a radio in the last year and a half, you know every word to that song, and as LA points out, these girls don’t exactly fifth-harmonize. “Fifth Unison” he calls them. Hoots of joy in the VIP Tent! Britney is underwhelmed as well, asking what sounds like “what suppurates you from the other girl groups?” Disgusting mispronunciation aside, who are the other girl groups?

They do much better in round two, with Demi’s “Give Your Heart a Break.” There are some actual harmonies, it’s upbeat without being frantic, it actually sounds like what these girls would do in a studio if someone gave them a chance. I still think they’re in trouble tomorrow night, but this performance might cause 19 Entertainment to keep them in indentured servitude for a bit longer than they might otherwise. Congratulations, ladies!

Midway through hour two of this show, I am very close to finding out what would happen if a person fell asleep in the VIP Tent. To keep myself awake, I try to check in here on Foursquare. Is this how Mario and Khloe got the hosting gig? Are they just the mayors of The X Factor?

Mario teases that Diamond White will take on a James Brown classic in round one, and I begin to pray that “Living in America” will finally get the thoughtful, elegaic interpretation it has always deserved. But alas, it’s “It’s a Man’s World,” which she’s done before, and though she really rips it a new one, it’s still too old a song for her. The judges love it.

YOU, AMERICA, have chosen Rihanna’s “Diamonds” for her Pepsi Challenge, presumably because you were dying to hear what kind of Diamond/Diamonds puns the hosts would come up with. Well, they don’t even try. They’re a little like Rihanna’s songwriters in that regard. Honestly, I’ve heard this song on the radio a dozen or so times, I saw her do it on SNL, and I am hearing Diamond White’s version right now, but if someone put a gun to my head and asked me to hum the hook, you’d be reading my obituary tomorrow. Though it is musically right up Diamond’s alley — current and youthful, but still kind of down-tempo — even she can’t make a song out of this song. The judges agree that it wasn’t a great choice, but Mario protests: “America can’t be wrong!” Really, Mario? Slavery? Japanese internment camps? Lee DeWyze?

Tate Stevens brings up the rear. His unplugged selection is Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” in which he goes low on the chorus’s big high note, which has the effect of (a) making it sound much more country, and (b) reminding you that he probably can’t hit the chorus’s big high note. The judges are lukewarm; Simon says “doing an acoustic version of that song is like taking a goldfish for a walk; in other words, you can’t.” Oh! So it’s not like taking a goldfish for a walk in that you would need a very small leash, or in that it would be unsatisfying for all parties? It is like taking a goldfish for a walk in that you can’t. Noted.

LA says something wonderful in his praise of Tate: “You have given so much of yourself in your life. You have paved roads. You have done drywall.” So much of this show is so painfully derivative, but I must admit, this is the first time those words have been said in that order on television.

America has picked Garth Brooks’s “If Tomorrow Never Comes” for his second round, and he’s excited because Garth Brooks is his hero, and that’s a good thing because all three choices were Garth Brooks songs. It’s perfect for him, and he does everything a country guy should do, which is be super-earnest and scoop all the low notes. Because the show is running long, the song is truncated a bit, so it doesn’t really build, but if you like Tate — and it seems like you do — you’re in Heaven.

And with that, it is closing time in the VIP Tent. Saran Wrap is applied to trays of crudités and young writers place calls to their editors to say things like “I am confirming that tomorrow will be a double elimination.” Also tomorrow, performances by Ke$ha, and fresh from her cage in a forgotten corner of LA Reid’s office, Melanie Amaro! I’m going to go see if I can’t crash the Dancing With the Stars tent.

Photo: FOX/Getty Images