We're in the home stretch: The X Factor crowns a winner tonight. "I think this is going to be one of the closest finals we've ever had, and we've seen a few upsets over the weeks," Simon Cowell said, as if warning viewers that something was amiss.
And indeed it was: After weeks of stellar performances, presumed frontrunners Alex and Sierra faltered ever so slightly at a time when it's crucial for them to be spot-on. Jeff Gutt had the spotlight on him all night. And Carlito Olivero didn't totally suck for once. Should we call shenanigans? Because it seemed like there were some behind-the-scenes strings being pulled in order to affect the outcome. Hopefully, though, they're just trying to build suspense going into the big finale because Alex and Sierra are so far ahead of the pack.
But they really made an effort to put the ball in Gutt's court – giving him the pimp spot, the most memorable staging and the best songs. (For the final performances, each remaining contestant sang three songs, including a duet with a "hero" and a repeat of their game-changing song.)
Jeff stayed true to his rocker roots, and stuck with the plan of dragging his kid out every chance he got in an effort to rack up votes. His best performance by far was his well-suited opening number, "Dream On" by Aerosmith – mostly because the amount of lasers they used was mind-numbing. There were so many, it bordered on comical – something Jeff has run into in previous performances. But Simon saw it a different way, saying, "Everything felt authentic."
They also smartly played up his redemption story, reminding us that this isn't his first shot on The X Factor, but it is his last. He closed out the show with a replay of the audition song that got him through on the second try, "Creep" by Radiohead. It wasn't the greatest fit for him at this point, but it certainly made a statement: "What the hell am I doing here? I don't belong here," he sang in a nasally voice.
One of his many coups of the night came with the celebrity pairing – because he actually got a recognizable name and song in John Rzeznik, lead singer of the Goo Goo Dolls, and "Iris." While they were singing together, sidelined mentor Demi Lovato looked like a crazed fan. "I'm so starstruck right now," she said with a Joker grin on her face. And surely the rest of America will be too.
But by far the biggest thing he had going for him was landing the pimp spot to end all pimp spots: the very last performance of the very last performance show of the season. If they're not trying to knock Alex and Sierra out for a "shocker," they're at least ensuring that Olivero will be relegated to third.
Speaking of Olivero, he wasn't terrible for once. He wasn't great, either. But at least earplugs weren't required while listening to him sing. Perhaps he's found his niche – all Spanglish, all the time. Yes, all three of his songs were Spanish-themed. He sang Shontelle's "Impossible," did a reprise of Santana's "Maria Maria" and paired with rising Latin star Prince Royce on "Stand By Me." The only thing is, mainstream America has probably never heard of Prince Royce, who Simon predicted will be "a breakout artist next year."
Also not helping his cause? They've never addressed the fact that he won an MTV reality show back in 2007 to become a member of iconic Latin boy band Menudo. So when he plays the "poor me" card and says stuff like, "Things like this never happen to kids where I'm from," he doesn't come off as credible – because, in fact, "things like this" have happened to him twice.
Chances are, a third-place finish is in Carlito's future, but Simon scared us a little by saying he was having "a great night." His effusive praise for Carlito coupled with the questionable choices he made for Alex and Sierra gave us pause: Could Simon be sacrificing the duo out of superstition?
So far, the most successful groups he's had come out of The X Factor (U.S. or otherwise) haven't won: One Direction, Fifth Harmony, Emblem3. (The lone exception being Little Mix.) Perhaps he thinks Alex and Sierra will be doomed if they come out on top, because both previous winners – Melanie Amaro and Tate Stevens – have pretty much fallen off the face of the planet.
Whatever was going on, he certainly didn't do them any favors by pairing them with X Factor U.K. winner Leona Lewis on "Bleeding Love." The three of them awkwardly stood around trying to harmonize – sometimes it worked between Leona and Sierra, but Alex was often the odd man out. "It wasn't your best performance, because Leona outshined you a little," Demi pointed out.
Then for their do-over song, they picked A Great Big World's "Say Something," an obvious choice but one that seemed like they were being set up for failure. The original performance was so perfect, so effortless, it was hard to beat. However, they pulled it off, making the song even simpler than their original version. According to Kelly Rowland, "I didn't think it could get any better but it did."
Their saving grace, though, came when they sang Ed Sheeran's "Give Me Love." It bordered on the perfection they've mined in past performances, and showed just how much they've grown, especially Sierra. The X Factor just might have found its first viable stars. "Any label would take you right now – I'd sign you right now," Kelly said.
But if anything sealed the deal for them, it was the fact that they come across as genuine and it seems clear they really care about each other. While all of the contestants shed tears over the course of the night, Alex and Sierra's were the most touching. At one point, there was even a moment where it seemed like Alex was going to propose. He didn't, but now there's a new expectation for the finale. (No pressure, guys!)
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