You guys, The X Factor is almost over! Or, for the overwhelming majority of you who never bothered to check it out: The X Factor started, managed to make thirteen weeks feel like an eternity while still somehow seeming rushed, and is now in its final week. And if you think you’re ambivalent about it, you should see the judges and hosts. Holy cow, are there some aloof-ass line readings tonight. America is in the throes of singing-competition fatigue, and the paid on-camera faces of this show are tied for the title of Patient Zero.
And it’s a shame, because they accidentally found a pretty interesting group of singers this season. All of them return for a show-opening tribute to the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting, and I’m honestly happy to see the ones that I can remember. Beatrice, wearing a simple white shirt and jeans, instead of a Pendleton outlet’s worth of flannel! Emblem3, dressed like Rebel fighters on the ice planet Hoth! Tattoo Face! Animal-Print Face! Others! It’s touching, because it can’t not be. But what does it mean? When they impose the words “You are not alone, we are here with you” on the JumboTron, what are they saying? Are they making some kind of huge donation to a charity, which is a thing they could do with ease? Or can anyone affected by the tragedy just, like, call up LA Reid and vent? I don’t mean to be flippant; I seriously want to know the one constructive thing that the tribute accomplished that saves it from being a crass, exploitative cash-in. I want to believe*.
(And honestly: In the face of such tragedy, in a time when we are searching our national soul, fundamentally rethinking what it is to be an American, and earnestly seeking a healthier road forward, has the word “Kardashian” ever felt more like a profanity?)
After a moment of silence for the victims, we get a huge, clanging package about how important this show is, and how crucial it is to win. “There is no second place, there is no third place, there is only a winner,” says LA. Mario and Khloe descend the glitterstairs and start the show, reminding us that tomorrow’s grand finale will include a performance by One Direction, the hottest thing in pop music at the moment, who finished third in The X Factor U.K. The irony is not addressed!
There simply is not time, because we have to welcome our judges and finalists, who are brought to stage by some kind of space gladiator drill team. And you know what? Though our path here was clunky, our top three is a pretty dynamic bunch. Carly Rose Sonenclar, the teenage middle-aged woman! Tate Stevens, the unlikely frontrunner! And Fifth Harmony, who Mario calls “the group who never gave up.” Did someone give up? Is it a heroic thing to continue singing songs for five million dollars?
To give you a picture of how edge-of-your-seat thrilling tonight’s show is, Round One is “Songs the Contestants Have Sung Before.” Yes: ROUND ONE. Of their FINALS. Is a RERUN. Amazing. Carly Rose Sonenclar kicks it off with “Feeling Good.” Though it’s popularly known as a Michael Bublé song these days, do you guys know where “Feeling Good” came from? “Feeling Good” is from the sixties Anthony Newley musical The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd, a music-hall allegory about the class system in England. The story takes place on a giant game board where Sir, who represents the upper class, faces off against a working-class striver named Cocky. Cocky keeps trying to make progress in the game, but Sir keeps changing the rules, and everybody says “cor blimey” a million times. Cocky laments his fate, loses his girlfriend and his faith in God, and then joins forces with someone even lower on the social ladder than him. That character’s name is literally the Negro, and despite his station in life, he makes his first appearance in the show singing “Feeling Good.” It is a song about the importance of one’s attitude when the deck is stacked against you, about how your soul can triumph when the rest of you literally cannot win, and here it is being sung flawlessly by a beautiful 13-year-old white girl from Westchester whose family, like, owns the patent on right angles.
We should stop singing this song until we learn how to do it right, is what I’m saying. The judges love it, alas.
Tate Stevens redoes his initial audition song “Anything Goes,” and I don’t have a story about where this song came from, but I assume it was made in the same lab where every other modern country song is cooked up. It sounds about the same as it did the first time, though his stage presence has improved by a mile. I think he’s going to win, and I wish they hadn’t told us the standings every week, because his continued success would have made much more of an impact as a surprise.
Also, they’re going to every finalist’s hometown, where huge groups are gathered to watch en masse and cheer their heroes on. Tate’s is my favorite, because there is one very loud person just saying “YAY. YAY. YAY.” It’s the greatest. Tate @tatestevenscries, as usual, and as usual Khloe asks him, in a slightly accusatory tone: “Why are you so emotional?” Glorious.
Fifth Harmony do their version of Ellie Goulding’s “Anything Could Happen” from last week. How much have they grown since last Wednesday? Hard to say, because everything is exactly the same: the massive hair-bow, the pastel Shirley Temple dresses, the set design that looks like the Care Bears all did mushrooms. I liked it last week. I lost interest this week. But I perk back up when they check in at a gathering in Ally’s hometown of San Antonio, Texas, and Mayor Julian Castro wishes the girls luck, becoming the first person in history to have a speaking slot on The X Factor and the Democratic National Convention in the same year.
Round Two is Duets! Carly Rose kicks it off, singing “How Do I Live” with a precarious stack of Jenga tiles whom she identifies as “LeAnn Rimes.” Man, LeAnn is serving some serious Ghost of Teen Fame Future in this thing. It’s distracting me from this song that I permanently tuned out fifteen years ago. Carly is straight getting hosed in the finals. LeAnn puts her arms around Carly and says: “Oh, I just wanna hold her,” and Mario spits back, “Well, you’re doing it.” Excuse me!
Tate is paired up with Little Big Town for their recent hit “Pontoon,” which has a single entendre in its chorus about motorboating. Is motorboating a thing people actually do for pleasure? Would one consenting adult put his/her face between the breasts of another consenting adult and then turn it back and forth making a terrible barnyard noise? Is this a real thing? Or is this something a horny teenager does with the first pair of breasts he meets, because he saw it on Tosh.0? Either way, is it a thing to be encouraged? Anyway, the performance is pretty decent, and they cut back to Benton, Missouri, where Tate’s boss is in the crowd, wearing a reflective vest, lest you forget Tate was a road worker. Everyone calls Tate “Tater,” because of course they do. I’m into it.
5H, which is what I’m calling Fifth Harmony now, duets with Demi on her song “Give Your Heart a Break,” and I spend the whole thing trying to calculate the odds of Britney Spears doing something like this. I can’t count that high. But I have to say, 5H is making a strong showing tonight. They are gelling. The judges don’t judge any of the round two performances for some reason, so they’re just like the other performances, except without four billionaires wasting three minutes of your life after each one, telling you they were ameezeen.
Round Three is THE FIVE MILLION DOLLAR SONG, or WE PUT AS MUCH EFFORT INTO THESE THEMES AS WE DID OUR HOST-CASTING PROCESS. Carly goes for “Hallelujah,” which I wish she’d done in the duets round, because Carly and Leonard Cohen is a pairing I would pay actual money to witness. Its success or failure depends entirely on how you feel about a child singing “It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah” in a showy and triumphant way.
Tate’s $5 million song is called “Tomorrow,” and it’s right up Tate’s alley, which is to say that it is hyper-earnest and corny and he’s on the verge of @tatestevenstears throughout. Britney says “I love it but then again I love everything you do” with a level of passion and vocal variety that borders on Siri-esque. I stand by my contention that he’ll win.
But it would be great television if 5H took this thing home, and Simon does what he can to stack it in their favor by giving them “Let It Be” as the show-closing song. It could easily be sacrilege, but it actually works, because these girls have developed some chemistry and stage presence over the last few weeks. Carly and Tate have served up the same thing from the beginning, as they’ve had no incentive not to, but Fifth Harmony has actually turned into a thing before our eyes. They’ll still probably split the teen girls with Carly and leave the massive and powerful Gayle From Accounts Payable voting bloc for Tate, but I’d like to think there’s a place in the market for them. Anything could happen!
* For real: If you want to donate to a charity that can benefit the victims’ families, this list is a good place to start.