"The X Factor" Season 3's final three competed for the final time this Wednesday, each performing three numbers: one "Song to Win," one duet with a celebrity guest, and one "Song of the Season" encore performance. I'll get to the recapping in a moment, but first, some random observations:
—That Daft Punk-style opening group number was supercool. I wonder if I can get my hands on one of those glow-in-the-dark, X-emblazoned unitards for me to wear this New Year's Eve? Come on, Fox wardrobe department, hook me up.
—Simon looked like he was about to burst into giggles while watching judge Paulina Rubio's unintentionally hilarious, very Samantha Foxy performance of "Boys Will Be Boys." (At least I hope the hilarity was unintentional.) CeCe Frey, all is forgiven. This was in fact the most camp "X Factor USA" performance ever. And at least CeCe never used Auto-Tune.
—Nobody parties like the people in good ole Detroit Rock City. Each of the contestants' hometowns hosted live-via-satellite viewing parties this Wednesday, and while it seemed like Carlito Olivero's crew in Chicago was having a great time (X-shaped deep-dish pizza was served), and Alex & Sierra's party pals in Daytona Beach even clog-danced in the duo's honor, the rowdy Jeff Gutt fans in Michigan really turnt up. Security was hauling away one red-solo-cup-swilling lady who kept saluting the camera with the devil's horns, and all of the attending Motor City madmen were screaming at the top of their lungs, so much so that Jeff's party resembled a WWE convention or something. I know which of these three posses I'd want to hang with on Thursday night for Season 3's big finale. (Not the clogging posse.)
—Simon Cowell tells more lies than he owns black V-necks. "It's about launching a career; that's what winning this show is all about," he said early in the night, conveniently revising history as he failed to mention past winners Melanie Amaro and Tate Stevens. Then he said, "Winning is the most important thing," forgetting about past "X Factor" non-winner success stories like Cher Lloyd, Fifth Harmony, JLS, Olly Murs, and, um, a little third-place group called One Direction. Lies, Simon, lies!
All right. Glad I got all that out of my system. Amid Paulina's feathered frolicking, Simon's pathological fibbing, and Detroit's rampant reveling, there were quite a few good performances this evening, by all three contestants. Let's recap:
"SONGS TO WIN" PERFORMANCES
Carlito Olivero – Finally, we got to see some Judges' Houses this season! I'd missed seeing the judges hang out with wide-eyed finalists in their fake Hollywood homes. Carlito's first performance was introduced via a pre-taped vignette in what we were supposed to believe was Paulina's cheerful, Christmassy living room, with Carlito sobbing about his love for his family and the months he was homeless while pursuing his showbiz dream. Aw. It was hard not to root for him after all that. Luckily, he gave a Spanglish performance of Shontelle's "Impossible" worth rooting for. Belting the big ballad while standing on a glittering mid-air platform, he gave a solid vocal — one of his best of the season — and he seemed like a real star. Watching from afar, his Chicago pals predictably went nuts. So did the judges. "What I have grown to adore and love about you is your heart. You always leave your heart on the stage," said Kelly Rowland. "I am blown away by that performance and your story. It gave me the chills. I believe you can win this," said Demi Lovato. (Side note: Demi eventually told all three contestants that they could/should win this. I suppose since she'd already announced that she's leaving the show after Season 3, she didn't feel the need to be consistent with her critiques.) "This is the kind of contestant I love working with: someone who when you're at the bottom, you pick yourself up, no complaining. You're not the best singer, but you take hold of any song and make it your version. I think you're going to have a great night tonight," said Simon.
Alex & Sierra – The duo sang Ed Sheeran's "Give Me Love," a song they actually performed on that weird last-minute do-over show when all the votes got scrapped due to a glitch and everyone had to sing their "Save Me" songs. I can see why Alex & Sierra always wanted this song in their back pocket. Once again, they performed it beautifully, passionately, tenderly, sexily, everything-ly. The instant they started singing, the studio audience erupted into elated screams that practically drowned out Sierra's delicate voice. That's how excited everyone was to see these two onstage. But luckily, Alex & Sierra were heard above the din. And the judges loved what they heard. "Any label will take y'all right now. They'd be crazy not to," said Kelly. "The world needs this love that you have. You have that X-factor," said Paulina. "It has been genuinely an honor working with you. I always dreamt with this show that I could find an American star…I believe we've found that with you," said Alex & Sierra's mentor, Simon.
Jeff Gutt – Back over at Kelly's fake TV mansion, she and her contestant Jeff shared a tender moment that actually seemed real, as he gave her a framed photo of the two of them looking like BFFs. "We can win this thing," Kelly told him through tears. And she may have been right. Yes, Alex & Sierra have surged ahead as the frontrunners in the past couple weeks, but don't count Jeff out. His cover of Aerosmith's "Dream On" was pretty frickin' awesome (no Gokey-style banshee screaming here), and the long-struggling 37-year-old rocker really seemed to connect with the lyrics about aging and time slipping away. It may not be too late for him after all: He looked right at home and very much the rock star standing on that KISS-style hydraulic platform, as a Laserium's worth of neon special FX lit up behind him. Demi said Jeff "took it to a whole new level." Simon, who'd accused Jeff of being a rock 'n' roll poser in the past, said, "For the very first time, I believe that you believe that you could win the show. Everything felt authentic. You are the real thing."
Carlito Olivero with Prince Royce – Latin star Prince Royce was apparently a last-minute duet partner for Carlito, but these two worked well together; it was a natural fit as they performed Royce's hit Spanglish version of Ben E. King's "Stand By Me." It wasn't a mind-blowingly amazing performance, but it was pleasant, and Carlito held his own. This was also the kind of performance that really helped define Carlito as a budding Latin-crossover act, so it was a smart pairing. Kelly declared, "Hand-craps all around!" (Let's just assume she meant hand-claps.) "You've shown what it takes to be a Latin pop star," said Demi. "A perfect collaboration," said Simon.
Alex & Sierra with Leona Lewis – This was an unexpected disappointment for me. I think Alex & Sierra could have done a magnificent job remaking Leona's mega-hit "Bleeding Love" on their own, but as a trio, it just didn't work. The arrangement was way, way too slow and sluggish, and Leona herself actually didn't sound all that impressive. What's up with that? This wasn't a disaster a la Carly Rose Sonenclar/LeAnn Rimes, but all three of these singers are capable of better than how this turned out. Demi was honest, saying it wasn't Alex & Sierra's best, but quickly added, "I still think you have what it takes to win this competition." Simon declared, "Leona Lewis changed this show forever, and I believe you can change this show forever as well." We shall see.
Jeff Gutt with John Rzeznik – You have to give Jeff credit for knowing who he is and what works for him. He basically parties like it's somewhere between 1996 and 1999, so of course he teamed up with '90s Goo Goo Dolls heartthrob Johnny Rzeznik (I refuse to call him just "John") to duet on the Goos' massive '90s power ballad, "Iris." An inspired combination. Jeff seemed like a little bit of a fanboy, mouthing along to the lyrics when Johnny was singing, but he definitely seemed like a pro when it was his turn to rock the mic, and overall, the two rockers' voices blended nicely. This just rocked, '90s-style. "I'm so star-struck! You held your own and it was so awesome. I'm so happy right now," gushed Demi. "I'm so proud. You just killed that," raved Kelly.
"SONGS OF THE SERIES" PERFORMANCES
Carlito Olivero – I never like these reprise performances (I didn't like it when they did encores on "The Voice" this week, either). It seems lazy to just pad the episode with songs we've already heard this season. But anyway. Carlito reprised Santana's "Maria, Maria," and he was probably very happy he got to do this one again. This was his best performance on what had already been a strong night for him: marketable, with lots of sizzle, and a good vocal. I don't know if this was enough to get him to the winner's circle, but he did seem to be peaking at the right time. Kelly praised Carlito for "coming such a long way." Said Demi, "I know how badly you want this. You've been the underdog in this competition, and I think America should vote for you." And Simon added, "You have earned my respect, and America's respect. You've been a pleasure to work with, and I wish you the best of luck tonight."
Alex & Sierra – Of course Alex & Sierra had to reprise A Great Big World's "Say Something," the game-changing song that took them to the top of the iTunes chart. I sure didn't mind hearing this one a second time. It was as exquisite as I recalled. Kelly said it was "even better than the first time I heard it, and I didn't think it could get better. But it did!" Paulina called them "perfect artists." Simon called them "exactly what a talent show in America needs." Then Demi told them, "You never cease to not blow me away." Ugh. I won't miss double-negative critiques like that from Demi in Season 4.
Jeff Gutt – Jeff "I Heart the '90s" Gutt dipped back into the classic alt-rock catalog for an encore performance of his Season 3 audition song, Radiohead's "Creep." It was, to quote Thom Yorke, so very special. It was like a really excellent performance from "Rock Star: Supernova." (Remember that show? It was rad.) Jeff's vocal was near-perfect, and when those fire cannons blasted behind him, it felt like he'd truly arrived, like he was finally a real rock star. "I'm really happy that millions of people got to see and hear you. You've had a great night," said Simon. "That was amazing. I actually had a moment where I felt like I was at a stadium performance. I think you have what it takes. I don't know how America is going to vote," Demi mused.
So, how is America is going to vote? Simon said this could be "one of the closest finals we've ever had," and while I do think that could be the case, I believe it will come down to Alex & Sierra vs. Jeff — with Alex & Sierra ultimately coming out on top, as long predicted. Tune in Thursday to see if I'm right! See you then.
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