You guys, it’s finally here! Can you even remember where you were when The Sing-Off began its epic fourth season, two whole weeks ago? Back then, Duck Dynasty was just another show you didn’t watch, Justine Sacco was gainfully employed, and none of us had any idea who’d been nominated for the Golden Globes. It was a more innocent time, and as our culture has evolved, I’m glad to have had the strong shoulders of Nick Lachey to lean on.
But tonight, we must part. Tonight, we reveal the winner of The Sing-Off. Tonight, we determine which vocal group will receive a recording contract with Sony and a cash prize of $100,000. (Actually, the contract will be with Madison Gate Records, a small Sony subsidiary with no promotional budget that mostly releases movie soundtracks, and also the recording industry is a shambles, and also two of the three remaining groups have ten or more members, so after taxes they’d each come away from this experience owing NBC $300. But still, it’s fun to win things.)
The season-four finale begins with our top three vocal groups — Ten, Vocal Rush, and Home Free — group-numbering the hell out of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.” It’s a gesture that is obligatory in shows of this kind, and sometimes I wonder whether Michael Jackson didn’t foresee a future full of singing-competition shows and write this song to keep his kids fed forever. (As Michael Jackson theories go, you have to admit that this one is difficult to dispute.) Performance-wise, there are notes all over the place, and basic choreography, and no clear idea of why it’s happening other than there is time to kill, so it’s competition-show standard. The big problem with “The Man in the Mirror” is that, at the end of it, someone will always have to stare right down the barrel of the camera and tell the audience, spoken-word-style, to “make that change.” But honestly, on December 23, I’m just relieved not to be hearing Dean Martin’s version of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Also, you should know that I am writing this from my parents’ house in St. Louis. I will hold back from reviewing their contributions to tonight’s telecast, as they are limited mostly to “Who is that?” “Is she good?” and “Why are they yelling?” (Just kidding. Five stars, Mom and Dad!)
Tonight’s episode is sort of occasionally Christmas-themed. I have a theory that the producers had no idea when this show was going to air; all season long, the host, judges, and groups have referred to episodes as “weeks,” even though they’ve been airing on subsequent days. So there are some Christmas-y moments, but they’re all tight, and when they cut back to the wide shot, somehow all the tinsel is gone and Jewel’s hair is longer. I’d bet my last dollar they brought everyone back and added the Christmas stuff later, and I don’t want to brag, but I called that “Diane in 7A” bullshit on sight, so I know holiday disingenuousness.
Okay, I know nineties-nostalgia week was last month here at Vulture, but this is important: The whole Sing-Off has been directed by one Ivan Dudynsky, whom you may remember from the cast of the important Nickelodeon Saturday night (SNICK!) musical-comedy variety show Roundhouse. I never missed an episode of Roundhouse. I was in college during its entire run. Moving along!
Nick sings “It Had to Be You” to Jewel, who is handed a microphone and expected to behave as though she didn’t know she was supposed to come up and sing the second verse with him. But guess what, you guys? She does and they sound lovely together (even though any of the ten groups from this season would blow them clean off the stage). It’s all very Branson, MO, and I don’t think I mean that negatively.
(During this, apropos of absolutely nothing, my mother interjects: “You know whom I don’t care for? That fella with the show.” Over the course of two commercial breaks, we determine that the fella in question is Arsenio Hall. Duly noted.)
To stretch the proceedings to a full two hours, each group will perform a duet with a judge, two thirds of whom really shouldn’t put themselves in that kind of vocal company. We start with the only one who should: Shawn Stockman sings “Joyful Joyful” with Ten, and he sounds great, but you already knew he sounds great, and it seems a little insulting to turn a group of former backup singers back into backup singers on their big night up front. But hey, they’re having fun, so what do I know?
Pentatonix are back! “Who are Pentatonix?” you may ask, if you’re me. Turns out they’re not just the people in the videos your high-school friends keep posting on Facebook. They’re the winners of The Sing-Off season three, and they actually have an album in the iTunes top ten right this second, which is especially impressive when you consider that the winners of much-higher-rated shows have straight-up vanished. (I don’t know what happened to X Factor season-one winner Melanie Amaro, but I’m starting to envision unpleasant Hostel-style scenarios.) Pentatonix are a genuine success story, and as much credit as The Sing-Off wants to take for it, the truth is that they kept flogging their own brand on YouTube, video by video by video — as a young group must these days. So it’s like: Good luck, everyone! If you win, you can maybe be Jenna Marbles.
And then, 40 minutes into the finale, we get the first real performance from one of the three remaining groups. Jewel introduces Home Free, because she loves country music. “It’s really where my heart is,” she says. (Yeah, after folk and then pop and then folk again and then pop again and then dance and then pop again.) The pre-performance package contains a quick shirtless shot of young Austin, which really shows you how much Home Free means business. It’s straight Bruce Weber, is what I’m saying. They do Hunter Hayes’s “I Want Crazy,” and it’s not over the top like Ten or Vocal Rush will give you, and maybe that’s the point. My parents sit up and take notice. “Oh, I like these guys,” my dad says. “They’re mellow.” I like them too. Good velvet smoking jackets, if nothing else.
Afterward Austin says: “I don’t know if that’s enough to win it, but it’s enough to let America know who we are.” It looks like a sentence of defeat now that I’m typing it out, but he says it triumphantly, like he knows they don’t need to win. They don’t. These guys are set. Country radio needs you, Home Free.
Sprinkled throughout the show are quick, tight shots of the eliminated groups singing holiday songs. VoicePlay still perform like there’s a log flume behind them. Element are still dressed like Monte Carlo hookers. Calle Sol are forced to sing “Feliz Navidad,” as every Hispanic act must at this time of year. The Princeton Footnotes do “Deck the Halls,” and as posh as they are in their little stageside box, one cannot help but be reminded of that Young Ones episode with Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, and Hugh Laurie.
Was Fame In 1998 week enough 1998 for you? Too bad: 98 Degrees returns, and they have remembered to take their doo-wop pills. Man alive, these guys will just conform to whatever you ask them to: Remember when they released “Give Me Just One Night (Una Noche)” in the wake of Ricky Martin? Tonight, their Sing-Off version of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” is so full of barbershop-quartet asides and riffs and tricky-tricks, I forget which song they’re singing four different times. Drew Lachey looks distractingly like the bass guy from Home Free, Jeff Timmons looks startlingly like someone I dreamed into existence, and bass singer Justin Jeffre suddenly has the bearing of someone who would run for local office. OH, WAIT.
Ben Folds sings the Bing Crosby/David Bowie “Little Drummer Boy” with Vocal Rush, and I’m not sure whether he’s supposed to be Bing or Bowie. Or was there also a timid mouse in that recording booth? Because he sounds like a timid mouse in this performance. The whole thing seems unfair to Ben, who (though he is in my top five music people of all time) is just not a singer of this caliber. Maybe don’t make Ben Folds sing with twelve amazing child singers. I have seen him live several times, and I have seen how he can conduct an audience of dummies and make them sound like a gospel choir; might this not have been a better use of his talents (and our time)?
The second real performance of the night is Ten, who blow the roof clear off with Beyoncé’s “Love on Top.” You know how that song has a million modulations at the end of it? Ten is in a great big hurry because this episode is only two hours long, so they do them all in one line. It’s a gas, and I love these guys’ spirit, but a big bunch of belters might be redundant with Vocal Rush still in the race. Nick asks the judges, “What do you think: Did they channel their inner Beyoncé?” I think they did. I also think they channeled their outer Beyonce, in that they’re all fabulous and wearing shiny clothes. Let’s maybe save “Did they channel their inner ___” for people who don’t already look like they should have bodyguards.
I ask my Dad what he thinks of Ten. Dad says: “Eh. Pretty good. Too many trills.” Dad knows what’s up. The Sing-Off is so polyphonous, it has become monotonous.
Home Free sings “Have Yourself a Merry Christmas” with Jewel, who cups her hands around her mouth like she’s calling you to supper. She also contorts her whole body and tries to do Christina Aguilera things with her voice. I do not approve. Don’t be Christina Aguilera, Jewel. We already have one and we have no idea where to put her.
Our final top-three performance is Vocal Rush doing Katy Perry’s “Roar.” Now, I like these kids, but Oh my God, this song. First of all, it doesn’t sound like Sara Bareilles’s “Brave” so much as it is Sara Bareilles’s “Brave,” and Sara was a judge on this show for the first three seasons so where is your loyalty, Ivan Dudynsky? More important, the lyrics are a walk past the Successories kiosk at your local mall, and nobody — not even peppy children — can make them sound inspired. Their performance is just fine, but my arms are crossed and my brow is furrowed.
Indeed, Vocal Rush comes in third. This is still an incredible accomplishment. And a relief, because children with money and recording contracts are terrifying.
Jewel talks to the remaining two groups, and says that she is proud of them — of all ten of this season’s groups — because “you are daring greatly, when it’s so much easier not to have tried at all, and to have just said you could have.” I’ll be damned if that isn’t the wisest, simplest, most inspiring thing I’ve heard in weeks. God knows there have been so many — SO MANY — people whose mouths I’ve wanted to stick corks into this last couple of weeks, but the challenge isn’t to turn their volume down, it’s to turn our own volume up. Don’t just rail against intolerance, open your mouth and sing for tolerance. Don’t just list your ten least favorite things from 2013, make your ten most favorite things from 2014. Dare greatly. Jewel says so.
Home Free wins and they’ll go far, and I hope Ten keeps going because they have something special happening there, and I hope you all have a safe and happy Christmas whether you celebrate it or not, and I hope we all bring our goddamn A-game to next year, because you know what? We deserve it.