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The top 10 competed on "The X Factor" this Wednesday, knowing that the following evening--ON THANKSGIVING--two of them would be sent home, feeling like real turkeys. (Yep, a double-elimination on Thanksgiving. Happy holidays, everyone. Oh, Simon Cowell, you're such a Scrooge.)
But actually, rather than have the show be all about bad vibes and high drama, as "The X Factor" usually is, this week's "What I Am Thankful For"-themed episode was a more sweet and sentimental affair, filled with heartfelt dedications, tears, and sympathy stories that rivaled those of even "American Idol's" Danny Gokey, Angela Martin, and Chris Medina. Sure, maybe some of this was manipulative. Maybe it was calculated for votes and ratings. But hey, apparently it worked, because I admit it: I was moved. Come on, even the most jaded, hardened-hearted blogger would go through a box of Kleenex after an episode like this one. This one was tough.
Of course, some performances were tough in another way: i.e., on my very unthankful ears. While some singers channeled the evening's heightened emotions into powerful performances, one let her emotions get the better of her and faltered, and a couple had the opposite problem and just didn't resonate emotionally at all. On Thanksgiving, we'll find out if those contestants' backstories earned them enough sympathy votes to keep them safe, or if America still voted based on performances alone.
Here's how the top 10 did on a very special episode of "The X Factor"...
Tate Stevens - The leaderboard-topping cowboy, obviously already a fan favorite, got the "death spot," but he needn't worry; this week he gave another solid, professional, arena-ready performance, of Lonestar's sappy classic "I'm Already There," and the fact that he dedicated it to his dear old dad probably didn't hurt his chances any. This wasn't really anything different from what Tate's done all season, but hey, the guy's been number one in the rankings for two weeks in a row now, so clearly he knows what works for him and what pleases his fanbase. "Your performances are always so special and so touching," said Britney Spears. "I feel this wasn't your best performance, but it was still incredible," said Demi Lovato, as the Tate fans in the audience responded with a resounding chorus of boos. "I love the song, love the story about you and your dad...but your voice was breaking in parts; it wasn't as confident as before [more audience boos]. But, you're not going home," said Simon. Nope, he sure ain't. Tate may not stay in the top spot this week, but he's certainly not going to drop too many notches.
Diamond White - Thirteen-year-old Diamond dedicated Celine Dion's "Because You Loved Me" to her single mother--who almost died on the operating table a few years ago. Now her mom, recovered and very much alive, was cheering her on in the studio audience, beaming. Come on, how could anyone send this girl home after that? But apart from any sob story, Diamond delivered a performance that should definitely keep her in this game. This was a mature, accomplished, confident effort that belied her years; she kept it totally together under the emotional circumstances (something that at least one of the older contestants was unable to do this evening); and she received a standing ovation from the judges when she was done. She'd earned it. "You've had many amazing moments on that stage, but you've never had a moment like that. You are the truth," declared L.A. Reid. "I'm blown away," said a tearful Demi. "You are both fearless and incredible. You're 13, and singing better than 30-year-olds and 40-year-olds in this competition," said Simon. Diamond undeservedly fell three spots on the leaderboard last week, but she very well may move up again after this--and she should at least be safe.
Emblem3 - Emblem3 are not exactly the warm 'n' fuzzy, lovey-dovey types, even if their mentor Simon claims they spend their spare time rescuing drowning kittens, so I wondered if "The X Factor's" bad boys would have trouble showcasing their softer sides this week. Their beach-party, skater-boi shtick just wasn't going to work on an episode like this one. But by dedicating their performance to their "spiritual leaders" and telling a nice tale about building houses for Haitian refugees, they humanized themselves a bit. They also sang OneRepublic's "Secrets," a song I somewhat sheepishly admit I am a sucker for, even if it always makes me think of that overplayed Ralph Lauren cologne commercial. (Ryan Tedder can write a stellar ballad when he puts his mind to it.) This was good, even if it further debunked Emblem3's claim that they are not a boy band (UM, YES THEY ARE) and L.A. thought they "lacked emotion." Hey, by Emblem3's standards, it was emotional; did L.A. expect them to start sobbing onstage while warbling Harry Nilsson's "Without You" or something? Be realistic, now. That's just not what they're about.
Arin Ray - When I found out that Arin was singing "Hero," I was bummed--and that was before I knew whether it was the Mariah Carey or Enrique Iglesias song by that title. (It was Enrique's. Oh well, at least it wasn't Nickelback's "Hero." We don't need to hear Nickelback on this show again. EVER.) Arin's ballad performance last week was an epic fail, and I was hoping he'd get something more uptempo and Usher-y this week, but his mentor Britney epically failed him again by giving him yet another slow number. To be fair, this performance (dedicated to Arin's older brother, which made zero sense) was way better than last week's "Crazy For You"; Arin didn't struggle much, and he hit most of the notes like he was supposed to. But it was dull. Why does Britney keep preventing Arin from getting his swag on? He's a good-looking, 17-year-old kid with a love for R&B. He shouldn't be doing songs like "Hero." L.A. griped that the song was "too big" for Arin and said, "It was a tough one for you. It required you to give a gut-wrenching performance, and it was just a good performance." Said Demi: "You really have to step it up to bring your A-game. If I worked at a record label, I wouldn't sign you, because I was bored." Poor Arin. Simon was the only judge who called out Britney, flat-out saying, "Arin, you're being trapped in a cage with these songs, and you're not being who you should be in the real world. I don't blame you, funny enough." Arin then insisted, "I wanna dance for you all, because that's what I do." Will he get a chance to finally dance for America's votes next week? Probably not. He may be having a very unhappy Thanksgiving this year.
CeCe Frey - Okay, I don't know how CeCe made it through this performance without falling apart. I may not make it through typing this paragraph without falling apart myself. Normally I would start ranting about how "Wind Beneath My Wings" is the worst song choice EVER and that anyone who performs it on any singing show should be immediately disqualified. But CeCe dedicated it this week to her "guardian angel," her older sister Kelsey...who died at age 7 from cerebral palsy. On Christmas Eve. CeCe's parents were in the audience, sobbing. CeCe was almost sobbing herself. But she powered through the song (until the end, when she kind of lost it), and she gave a raw, real, vulnerable, staring-heavenward performance that I think will make viewers finally connect with her and realize that she's not the two-dimensional villainess she was painted out to be earlier this season. And most importantly, CeCe's vocal was good--not perfect, but definitely better than her messy "All By Myself" performance last week. "When you choose a song like that, you hope for real emotion, and I have to praise you, because your emotion was so genuine and so real. I'm really proud of you. You're a champion," proclaimed L.A. "I don't know how you managed to sing that song. I really like you and I hope that the public keeps you in the competition," said Simon. I hope so too. It would be really hard to see CeCe go home on Thanksgiving after this.
Fifth Harmony - Jointly dedicating their performance to God was a little bit of a copout--but I suppose, with five of them, it would have taken too long for them to each mention a specific dedication. We did see them bonding with their families, however, and we did get a sob story from the group's Ally Brooke: She was a preemie and barely weighed more than one pound at birth. The girls covered the Pretenders' "I'll Stand By You," complete with a choir (which suited their Godly dedication, I guess); they sounded great; and they group-hugged like BFFs in a way that actually seemed sincere. They seemed like a real group. Hey, they really do like each other! And the judges liked them, too. Said Demi: "I love watching you girls together, because it's genuine. I wasn't too crazy about the song choice, but you made it beautiful.'' L.A. commented, "It's always tough to critique after so much emotion, but I kind of have to. And my critique is...that was great!" Britney called the performance "touching and beautiful." I am not sure if this performance will help Fifth Harmony move up in the rankings--they've placed smack dab in the middle the past two weeks--but they did nothing tonight to jeopardize their standing.
Beatrice Miller - My beloved Beatrice has been in trouble the past couple weeks, landing near the bottom of the leaderboard after being forced by her mentor Britney to sing one dreary, unsuitable-for-a-13-year-old ballad after another. This week, she got another ballad, but I am hoping she'll be safe, because somehow she connected with Snow Patrol's "Chasing Cars" in a way she never did with her previous Goo Goo Dolls, Jason Mraz, and Cyndi Lauper songs. Dedicating her performance to her younger sisters, who were adopted from Vietnam when they were 3 months old and have struggled with multiple health issues, Beatrice belted the emotional Britpop tune with a Haley Reinhart wind-fan blowing back her rainbow-striped tresses and a bit of a Reinhart rasp in her voice. It worked. I liked it. I like Beatrice, in general. "You're so cute. You're an inspiration to every little girl like you in this country. You're really special," gushed L.A. The easily bored Demi wasn't nearly as effusive, saying, "I feel it's not progressing; it's kind of the same song every week, and I'd like to hear something different and fun." Normally I would agree with Demi's point--Beatrice has never had a chance to sing anything bubbly or uptempo--but not this time. Thankfully, Simon countered with: "I slightly disagree [with Demi]. I could tell this song meant something to you. I preferred this week. You came over as younger and cooler." We'll soon see if America agreed with Demi...or with L.A. and Simon. I hope it's the latter.
Vino Alan - Performing Lee Greenwood's "God Bless The USA" as a dedication to our nation's troops, while holding an American-flag-patterned handkerchief in one hand, during Thanksgiving week, could have been perceived as pandering. And maybe it was, a bit. I mean, he might as well have been holding a giant slice of pumpkin pie in his other hand. (But considering all the flaily hand gestures Vino makes when he sings, that would have resulted in the entire front row getting sprayed with pumpkin pulp, so perhaps it's better he didn't.) However, Vino did seem sincere, if corny. I really do wish Vino would be little more edgy and sing material with a bit more grit like his first audition of Ray LaMontagne's "Trouble"--but this was one of his better vocals, he was 100 percent committed to the performance, and he was definitely rallying the troops to vote for him with a song choice like this. (Audience members were even saluting him!) Britney called this "the first performance that's been spot-on." Demi, Vino's biggest detractor on the judging panel until now, admitted, "I've been really hard on you, and I feel obviously there's something I haven't gotten. I've been wrong. There is something special about you." Simon even predicted that Vino would be number one this week. He'll at least stay in the top three. America will eat this up.
Paige Thomas - "This is another one that's gonna make you cry," Demi warned. And man, she wasn't kidding. Paige then told her story about her mother dying in a car accident (ALSO on Christmas Eve)--when Paige was only 6 years old--and she dedicated her performance of Britney Spears's "Everytime" to a woman named Colleen who later adopted her and gave her a stable home. After all that, I was really rooting for Paige, and I figured that, at the very least, she wouldn't sing the song any worse than Britney herself. But while there were moments, especially in the beginning, when Paige's voice--arguably already one of the weaker ones in the competition--held steady and sounded pretty, much of the time she let her emotions derail her. By the end, her vocals were really compromised, as she half-sobbed the song. It was actually a little uncomfortable to watch, seeing Paige in so much pain; it almost felt icky and invasive. Britney appeared unimpressed but was kind, blankly and redundantly stating, "I think you performed it beautifully; it was really beautiful." But the other judges didn't let any sympathy for Paige keep them from delivering harsh critiques. "Last week, you ranked number 10, and I don't think this was good enough to get you out of the 10th spot," said L.A. "I thought there were moments where you sang it really well, but there's no doubt that emotions took over you, and your voice was muffled at parts," said Simon. Even Paige's own mentor, Demi, was a little rough, saying, "I understand how hard it was to sing this song. But I have to admit it was pitchy, and I think we did better in rehearsal. I think emotions did take over you." Uh-oh. Now it looks like Paige will have bad memories associated with Christmas Eve and Thanksgiving, as it seems likely that she will go home this week. Honestly, I think she should have gone home a few weeks ago...but I still feel bad for her that it has to be this week.
Carly Rose Sonenclar - Carly definitely didn't need the pimp spot, with her unwavering number two ranking and her seeming inability to give a less-than-flawless performance. She didn't even need the sob story about her mother suffering a severe stroke and her older brother being her "rock." Why? Because her part-a cappella performance of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" featured perhaps her best vocal yet. "Wow, girl. You are a force of nature. I don't know where it comes from," marveled L.A. "I need to see a school I.D., because I don't believe you when you say you're 13. You're an alien or something. But that's okay, because I love aliens," said the alien-eyebrowed Demi. "You are the best alien I've ever heard sing in my life!" raved Simon, who added that this was one of the finest renditions of "Rainbow" he'd ever heard. (Sorry, Katharine McPhee.) I am still having trouble figuring out exactly what sort of records Carly would make in what Simon calls "the real world," but that's all right, because I'll have plenty of time to contemplate that matter: Carly's not going anywhere for a good long while, and she'll probably make it all the way to the finale.
So now, it is prediction time. Once again, I must ask, HOW CAN THE SHOW SEND HOME TWO PEOPLE AFTER ALL THIS? ON THANKSGIVING? Not cool. But apparently, two contestants' dreams must be crushed like so many turkey-stuffing breadcrumbs this week, and it'll probably be the dreams of Paige Thomas and Arin Ray. Tune in Thursday night after your Thanksgiving feast to see if I'm right...if you can stomach it.