From the images of planets colliding in the opening credits to the sheer number of times that Pepsi has been mentioned, glimpsed or guzzled on-air, The X Factor didn't hesitate to do it up big this season. Now here we are, at the top of the star-studded finale, so of course it feels as though we're at the edge of an enormous crossroads. Let's cross it!
I was there at the taping last night. The stage is impossibly smaller than you'd think – either it was designed by M.C. Escher or they film it with a wide angle lens. Before we go live, an MC hypes up the crowd: "Everybody stand up! Nobody sits down tonight – nobody!" It sounds like a threat. "You are going to be the loudest, rudest audience ever!" he continues. Later, Simon informs us that the rules are… there are no rules. I decide not to throw my chair at the criss-crossing laser strobes a few feet away from my face, though.
Steve introduces the opening ensemble production of "The Edge of Glory," featuring the reunited final 12. It's the first time we've seen InTENsity and Stereo Hogzz in some time now. (Fun rumor, overheard from a crew member: Melanie Amaro is supposedly dating a Stereo Hog.) Fittingly for a Gaga song, the dancers all wear golden tinfoil and S&M-ish masks that look like feed bags an anteater might wear. "You are all winners tonight," Nicole says, but the three finalists stand apart from everyone like royalty, and Drew and Rachel Crow look reluctant to leave the stage.
Since the votes have already been tallied, the contestants are not competing with each other, and the difference shows in how relaxed the performances are. In what is perhaps the best segue of all times, Simon moves away from his goofy banter with Steve about visiting penguins in the North Pole for Christmas to introduce Melanie as "someone who is not a penguin." Thank you for clarifying, sir! Melanie sings "All I Want for Christmas Is You" by Mariah Carey (natch!) from atop a stack of giant-sized presents. Amber light pours down with snow behind her, making it look like a holiday-themed beer commercial. "All I want for Christmas is a Melanie Amaro album," Nicole says.
After each performance, there are interview packages in which we meet everyone the contestants have ever known, see them cry, and learn that Melanie's dad has the awesome name Hipolito. These testimonials are a lot more affecting on a 40-foot high screen, apparently, because all around me, audience members are crying along with Melanie.
Chris Rene is up next, and I'm praying that his holiday song is Run-DMC's "Christmas in Hollis." Alas, it's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." All the sets tonight kind of look like Old Navy commercials, but none so much as this one, with clusters of couples in winter wear sitting on park benches with snowy cityscapes in the background. "No matter what happens tonight, you are a star from the inside out," says Paula, which is a nice way of telling him that he's not going to win.
Josh sings a perfectly Joe Cocker-style "Bells Will Be Ringing," but he's overshadowed by the set, which features a woman placed inside a giant snowglobe looking cautiously optimistic. (During the commercial break, the MC makes fun of her: "Good job, girl in the bubble!") An ill-positioned snowflake on the giant screen makes it look like Josh is wearing an eye patch. Apparently LA has been spacing out all night because he informs Josh, "You just made me realize it's Christmas." Open your eyes, LA, the signs are all around you!
Josh is the only contestant who isn't bawling after the interviews, although he does manage to squeeze out a single tear and comment on it. Note: in his teenage photos, Josh looks like a broody, goth-y Joey Lawrence, and it's fantastic.
Secrets of the finale revealed: Justin Bieber actually filmed his honestly good version of "The Christmas Song" last week. His pre-taped interplay with the judges is seamless, though; they are wearing the same outfits. Stevie Wonder makes a cameo, but the big reveal is when Justin says, "Wait one second, I gotta do something," and brings out Drew Ryniewicz, who looks like she is having open heart surgery to combat all the happiness as they dance, and he kisses her hand like a gentleman. This is her dream. This is his pimping of a Christmas album.
At the first elimination, Chris is sent home and he takes it in stride. Judging from the vocal audience reaction, this is kind of a surprise. Melanie and Josh look surprised, too. There's a lot of hugging going on, and Melanie wags her finger in Josh's face as if to say, "I thought it was going to be you!" That's probably not true, though. Paula's dress is so tight she can barely walk, but she hobbles over to hug Chris.
Next, the producers seem to test our endurance of recap material by rolling out so many clips packages from throughout the season. There are the five most shocking moments, which of course culminates in Rachel Crow's dismissal. When she is brought out afterward, she (adorably) threatens to steal Steve's hosting job next season. There's a Simon vs. LA smackdown, a Paula vs. Nicole cry-off, and a Best Moments montage that plays during Leona Lewis's Snow Patrol cover. It's nice to see all our old pals again, but at this point I wouldn't be surprised if there were a Top Five Best Moments From THIS Episode montage, too.
During his performance, 50 Cent's name is spelled out in gleaming, sparkly diamond bezels. After a new song, the rapper shifts into his greatest hit, "In Da Club," and a bunch of LA Lakers are brought out and led to various chaise longues by dancers because of course they are. Apparently 50 can't say the word "sex," and yet a bunch of the scantily-clad lady dancers can lean against the piano and stick their derrieres out in a way that is referred to in the wild kingdom as "presenting." Astro comes out at the end and I'm looking forward to a new verse, but he only serves as 50's hypeman, finishing sentences.
Are we seriously not done yet? Alright, fine. "Global superstar" Pitbull is onstage now, performing "International Love" with Chris Brown on the hook, but since The X Factor is firmly in Rihanna's camp, CB is not invited in person. There is another guest, however, in the form of Ne-Yo, who is dressed like a lavender-favoring 1970s hustler. Marcus Canty joins them onstage at the end, and damn if he doesn't look and sound like a famous person.
Before the big announcement, Josh and Melanie duet on "Heroes," and this is really the key moment of the night. There's a lot of speculation among the journos I'm seated with about how they prepared for this duet if they didn't know the outcome, but the slapdash aspect comes off as charming. Melanie and Josh seem very comfortable and happy with each other, as though $5 million were not on the line. They really might be the best two voices on the show. Well done, judges. Only one of them can win, though, and by now you already know… it's Melanie.
After all is said and done, and Josh gets the appropriate appraisal, Steve comically cannot seem to get a word in with Melanie. Her family bum-rushes the stage and he'd have a better chance getting through the Denver Broncos defense than penetrating this group hug. When he finally does get the ecstatically happy Melanie to say something, she says, "God is good!" Since Melanie Amaro turned out to be The X Factor's Tim Tebow, I can't think of more fitting final words.
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