On Wednesday, the six remaining "X Factor" contestants sang two songs each: one unplugged performance with "no gimmicks, no silly costumes," and one "diva" performance with, of course, gimmicks and costumes galore. This allowed the contestants to showcase very different aspects of their talents, but not all of them were equally versatile…and a couple of them probably should've had the plug pulled on them entirely.
Here's how everyone did Wednesday:
Restless Road attempted to "take a diva song and put a man-band twist on it," which basically meant changing all of the pronouns in Taylor Swift's "Red." (Whether or not sweet Taylor actually qualifies as a "diva" is still up for debate.) Their harmonies sounded better than usual this week…although their backing track was cranked up so high, it was hard to tell where their vocals ended and the canned vocals began, what was live and what was Memorex. This was a pleasant performance, but I still would have liked a little more energy from them, not to mention a bit more pathos and connection to the wistful, lovelorn lyrics. This was a pale, pinkish shade of "Red," not a full-on, passionate crimson. Kelly Rowland enjoyed this, however, saying, "You worked it out like divas. Your vocals are so tight. I think you have finally found that thread that ties you together as a group." Demi Lovato told them they'd "come a long way." Paulina Rubio called middle singer Colton Pack a "little Elvis Presley" (not really, but OK). And their mentor Simon Cowell said, "You guys have to be in the final. You deserve to be in the final. No one has worked harder than you." But do other contestants sing better than them? That is the real issue…
For their acoustic song, the boys did "Wake Me Up" by Avicii, (or, more specifically, the Aloe Blacc version). This was one of my favorite Restless Road performances to date. This just worked. They sounded good together, they sounded good apart (even that one dude with the freakishly low voice), and the performance felt emotional yet unforced. "Each one of you left your heart on that stage. You meant every word," gushed Kelly. Colton was weepy at this point, which got Demi all verklempt as well. "You're making me cry right now. That was beautiful. You just earned your spot in the finals," Demi said. Added Simon, proudly: "This is what I always hoped you'd become." Simon was on to something here. Restless Road should go unplugged more often.
Little Rion took on a mighty big song with "See You Again" by Carrie Underwood, one of the biggest divas to ever come from Simon's old show, "American Idol." She certainly brought emotion to this performance; Rion always puts her entire heart and soul into every song she sings, and I've always appreciated that about her. But this song was a little too big for her — she's only 13, and she's just not at an Underwood level yet. The judges were impressed, however. "Every time I watch you perform, it's always genuine. It always comes from a real place," Kelly said admiringly. Paulina praised Rion's "uniqueness" while mispronouncing her name for the 87th time this season and advising her to wear her hair down. (Paulina's critiques are so useful. Not.) Demi declared, "Nobody in this competition has the fire behind their eyes like you do!" The lone dissenter was Simon, who disliked the song choice. However, he never explained what exactly he didn't like about it, and when pressed by host Mario Lopez to come up with an alternate song suggestion, he clammed up. Maybe Simon just isn't as big a Carrie fan as he used to be.
For her stripped-down song, Rion did Thompson Square's "Glass," another anthem about being proudly "flawed" that has sort of become Rion's stock-in-trade (think Lady Gaga's "Born This Way," Pink's "Perfect"). This was more solid vocally than "See You Again," though it was still a bit shrill; however, it was such an emotional performance (unlike some singers her age, Rion actually has some serious life stuff to draw from) that everyone was won over. By the end, Kelly and Demi were sobbing. "Every word of that song is what you're about. You show people it's OK not to be perfect. You deserve this," said Demi. "You are an inspiration! You empower us," Paulina exclaimed. "That was so much better than the first song. I felt every word. You could have just saved yourself," said Simon.
When I first learned that Jeff would be doing a Mariah Carey song for his diva number, I thought, "Oh, how David Cook of him!" Which, of course, is not a bad thing. But Jeff wasn't doing a Mariah song, despite what his mentor Kelly might have us believe. No, he was doing "Without You," a classic written and originally recorded by Badfinger and popularized by Harry Nilsson. I am so tired of people misattributing this song! Anyway, maybe because the song had a foundation in male-fronted classic rock, Jeff was able to find a footing in this performance that wouldn't have been possible if he'd been assigned, say, "Touch My Body" or "We Belong Together." Because Jeff was fantastic on this. Everything came together in such a rock 'n' roll way: what Simon called the "Close Encounters" lighting, Jeff's badass microphone-grabbing and stage-straddling, the Muse-like theatrically of it all. And his vocals were stellar. He kept singing that he couldn't "give any more," and then he gave more and more on that stage. Paulina compared Jeff to Axl Rose. Demi told Jeff, "My niece is obsessed with you, and I think that goes to show you have the X-factor." Simon said it was the best performance of the night so far. Then Paulina and Simon started talking about blood and cutting…and things just got weird…
Jeff stuck with classic rock for his second performance, of Elton John's "Daniel," strumming an acoustic guitar for the first time this season and going the tried-and-true WGWG route. The fact that he dedicated the tune to his own brother, a military man sitting teary-eyed in the audience, only made this more of a winning performance. This was a total 180 from the pomp-and-circumstance power-balladry of "Without You" — very mellow, very understated, very "Dust in the Wind." I liked seeing this softer, not-trying-too-hard side of rocker Jeff. So I really didn't understand why the judges didn't like this number. While they all appreciated the sentiment behind the brotherly-love performance, Demi called it "stale" and "anticlimactic," and Simon didn't like the vocal. They were wrong. Jeff had a good night. "Without You" + sad Elton ballad + great voice + crying armed services relative = a sure ticket to the semifinals.
Of all the contestants in the top six, Ellona was clearly the one most suited for a "diva" theme. And she sure was divalicious this evening, prancing out in an edgy, skimpy outfit and Madonna-circa-"Blonde Ambition" genie ponytail to belt a dramatically slowed-down version of Lady Gaga's "Applause." The outfit was a little much for a 17-year-old, and the staging was all over the place (was that why Simon was rolling his eyes?), but her vocal was great and the confidence she displayed during last week's "Mamma Knows Best" tour de force was on full display here. "That was one of your best performances. You were commanding! So much presence!" said Kelly. "You've gone from a mouse to a tiger," said Simon. Clearly Ellona isn't a "singing puppet" anymore. Applause, applause, applause!
For her second song, Ellona stripped off the warpaint and circus-wear and stripped down the arrangement to do a seated, near-a cappella performance of her idol Beyoncé's "If I Were a Boy." It was nice to see Ellona just being Ellona for a change, not trying to be a triple-threat pop sensation. Kelly wanted to hear more soft, nuanced notes from Ellona, but was otherwise impressed. Paulina told Ellona, "You have everything to win 'The X Factor.'" Simon said, "This is what I've been waiting for — incredible!" I think Ellona showed enough range and versatility tonight to prove she deserves a spot in the finale, or at least in the top four.
Alex & Sierra
Covering Destiny's Child in front of an actual Child of Destiny (Kelly Rowland, duh) could have been daunting, but shy Sierra seemed more confident than ever doing "Say My Name." She and Alex turned it into a he-said/she-said, call-and-response, Gotye-and-Kimbra-style duet, and it was very sexy, very dramatic, and even kind of voyeuristic, like watching a lovers' quarrel. Yep, yet another amazing, original, anti-karaoke cover from the most interesting contenders of this entire "X Factor" season. Kelly loved it, saying, "I must admit, I was not ready for that. You guys actually pulled that off. Sierra, you had all of this sass!" Demi praised Sierra for "coming out of her shell." Simon declared, "I'm looking at the winners." Well, he would say that, being Alex & Sierra's mentor and all…but I think he may have been right. I hope he was right, at least.
I expected this folksy duo to excel on their unplugged song, since their whole shtick is taking pop songs and acoustic-i-fying them. But I didn't expect them to be this amazing. With Sierra on the piano and Alex on the six-string, they did a heart-stoppingly gorgeous cover of A Great Big World's "Say Something" that was truly special. It was even better than the version that A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera recently did on rival show "The Voice" — for real. (Side note: How weird was it that both of Alex & Sierra's numbers this week were breakup songs? I hope that's not a bad omen. Alex & Sierra need to stay together forever and ever so they can make lots of platinum records and babies.) "I felt like I was watching a performance on an awards show," said Kelly. "The two of you playing instruments is so magical. It shows how talented you really are," said Demi. Said Simon, "That was not just the best performance of the night, but my favorite performance of the season. That wasn't a performance, that was a record. And I will be on iTunes downloading that." As of this writing, Alex & Sierra's "Say Something" is actually at number four on the iTunes chart. I think it's time for Simon stop counting on Restless Road to get him to the finale and become the Country One Direction (or at least the Country Emblem3), and to realize that Alex & Sierra are his best bet.
Carlito got a Vino Alan/Lyric 145-style busing when his song was changed on him less than 24 hours before Wednesday's show, and it was pretty obvious when he got onstage that he wasn't connected at all to his last-minute song assignment, Jennifer Lopez's "Let's Get Loud." (It didn't help matters that the house band took the title way too literally, and all but drowned out Carlito's unenthusiastic singing with their annoyingly over-amplified noise.) I know Carlito got a bad break with his song switch, but his whining about it and using it as an excuse for a performance that Kelly said "fell flat" probably didn't ingratiate him to viewers, especially any viewers who were still holding a grudge that he stayed last week over Lillie McCloud and Josh Levi. But I felt sorry for him, because last Wednesday, he'd had a really strong comeback with "Cup of Life," and it was a shame that he wasn't able to sustain that. "Last week was really hard to top, and I don't think you topped it," Demi shrugged. Simon defended Carlito, however, saying, "I would hate to lose you in this competition." I'm still trying to figure out why Simon, who used to be overly hard on Carlito, has now swung the other way and has become so blindly forgiving.
Simon must really want Carlito in the finale — maybe Carlito wasn't bused after all — because somehow, Carlito got the pimp spot at the end of this episode. He warbled a half-English, half-Spanish version of Ben E. King's "Stand By Me," and while it was a little boring, it was an improvement over "Let's Get Loud," and Kelly even said it was "the best vocal I've heard you do this whole competition." Again, Simon declared his bizarre allegiance to Carlito, saying, "It really would be upsetting if we lost you." But then he added, ominously, "I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow" — implying that Carlito's time may finally be up.
So what will happen? My prediction is the bottom three will be Carlito, Rion, and Restless Road, with Carlito going home automatically with the fewest votes and Restless Road winning the sing-off against Rion. Tune in Thursday to see if I'm right! See you then.