It's been a long and winding road, but after countless tears, tantrums and dramatic eliminations, we've reached the final performance show of The X Factor. Our top three contestants sang for a 5 million-dollar recording contract and the hearts of the American public -- or approximately 12 million of them, anyway.
Best of all, midway through the episode, I realized that I don't actually care who wins; not because the performers are mundane or because everyone I was rooting for has already been eliminated, but because all three finalists seem to be genuinely gracious, humble and -- most importantly -- talented individuals. They each deserve the life-changing opportunity one of them is about to receive. If winning were based on technical ability and vocal range alone, Melanie Amaro would have been crowned the champion weeks ago; but Chris Rene's presence in the top three is proof that carrying a tune isn't everything.
On The X Factor, success seems based on a contestant's story as much as on the ability to belt out a ballad or get a crowd on its feet, which makes tomorrow night's finale impossible to call. Each remaining artist has a relatable journey: Chris' battle with drug addiction; Melanie's tumultuous home life and struggle with bullying; and Josh's years spent slinging burritos and couch-surfing as he pursued his dreams. It's likely that whoever walks away with The X Factor crown tomorrow will be the contestant whose story connected with audiences the most -- something that may irk purists who believe it's all about the voice (which is probably why NBC created "The Voice").
If we're basing success on the inexact science of Twitter followers, Melanie will sneak ahead of Chris by a slim margin, while Josh will place a distant third -- but that all depends on whether a contestant's fans are social media savants or simply masters of telephone voting.
But how did the top three stack up in their final performances, and will the judges' gushing comments help or hinder their chances with voters?
As Simon succinctly pointed out during judging, Josh seemed totally intimidated during his duet of "Uninvited" with Alanis Morissette. Plus, his solo portion of the song was weak, lacking the usual power and conviction he tends to imbue his performances with. I get that singing with legendary artists (or Avril Lavigne) must be daunting for any newbie, but after weeks of working the stage -- and a chance to practice with said artists earlier in the day -- it seems a little too easy to let the contestants off the hook for their nervousness. As we're constantly being reminded, this is a 5 million-dollar recording contract, so it shouldn't be too much to ask for everyone to bring their A-game at this point of the competition. Luckily for Josh, all three finalists were guilty of nerves this week, and he held his own in the harmonies far better than Chris did with Avril. Josh sounded a little too much like he was auditioning to be the new frontman for Lifehouse for me to be blown away by the performance, especially because his individuality has always been his best asset. But it wasn't terrible.
His second song, "At Last," was more of a return to form. The bluesy and husky rendition of the classic was a stripped-down arrangement that was complemented by his acoustic guitar. I could totally picture Josh strolling around the stage of a sold-out theater (maybe not an arena) with a song like this, and I do think that, in terms of recording a consistently satisfying album that would be polished enough to drop tomorrow, Josh is probably the most "ready" of the finalists. L.A. told him that he looked at home on the stage and called him a rock star, while Paula called him "authentic" and "kind-hearted."
What Chris lacks in vocal range (and I hope we can all agree that he is sorely lacking in that department), he makes up for with charisma, heart and an undeniable talent for songwriting. Given that the "Glee" kids have made Billboard chart history with the help of autotune, it's obvious that inconsistent singing isn't a hindrance in the music industry these days. But I still feel that a victory for Chris would be more of a sympathy vote than a reflection of true musical talent. That being said, his original songs are catchy and heartfelt, and if he's allowed to release an album full of his own compositions -- since he doesn't seem to be able to emotionally connect to lyrics he doesn't write -- I would count on it being a hit. He wouldn't be able to sell out an arena based on his live performances on The X Factor, but in a recording studio? I'm sure Simon is already seeing dollar signs.
Chris' duet with Avril Lavigne on "Complicated" was fairly terrible, both because Avril Lavigne has barely maintained musical relevancy for a while now, and because Chris seemed content to let her drown him out during their harmonies. He was barely audible for much of the song, and their voices didn't seem to complement each other at all. Regardless of anyone's hearing, the judges all gave him a pass. Nicole did admit that it was shaky at the start but said that Chris "came out on top," while Paula pointed out "this isn't about note-for-note being perfect, it's about connecting with the audience." She also used the word "antithesis," which seemed to baffle Simon completely.
Chris' second song was his default, "Young Homie," which must've marked the third or fourth occasion we've heard it on the show. That definitely lessened its impact, but Chris' high energy level and passion was such a stark contrast to his duet that it was a joy to behold. He switched up the lyrics a little to reflect his eight months of sobriety, and the crowd was undoubtedly engaged with the performance. "Young Homie" has certainly become The X Factor anthem and probably a ready-made number one hit waiting to happen. Paula was practically hysterical as she gave her critique, shouting that Chris was magic and made everyone fall in love with him, while Simon called him "a brilliant performer and a true gentleman."
While I often connect with Melanie when she sings, I find that I rarely feel that same resonance in her video introductions -- probably because her trials and tribulations haven't been as dramatic as Chris' or Josh's. I would worry that her lack of a journey could cost her the competition, but Simon has done such an admirable job of painting her as "the underdog," thanks to her early "elimination," that perhaps she doesn't need the sob story to pull out a victory.
It also doesn't hurt that her performances were probably the most electrifying of the night, either. She took on the iconic "I Believe I Can Fly" with R. Kelly, and though L.A. noted that the key was too low for her, she seemed to be the only one of the finalists who actually held her own opposite her partner, making it feel like a true duet instead of a nervous karaoke singer standing next to his or her idol. Their voices blended well, there seemed to be a genuine rapport between the two, and Melanie's high note was enough to give me chills. Paula told her that she wanted "more emotion" from the song, but loved her conviction and Nicole enthused (and punned) that Melanie "soared" with the performance.
I half-expected Melanie to continue the R. Kelly theme with "The World's Greatest," since I thought that song was the moment in the competition when she really turned a corner and embraced her identity. But "Listen" was also a smart decision, allowing her to show off her range with the impressive runs she's become known for. I wasn't feeling the song during the first verse, but by the end, Melanie had opened up and the emotion was clear on her face. She really has the makings of a true diva (without the Stacy Francis showboating). It seems obvious that Simon thinks he's found his American Leona Lewis in Melanie -- she'll be a star regardless of whether or not she wins The X Factor Thursday night. You've got to wonder whether the judges' unanimous praise will handicap her in the race, though. With L.A. declaring that it "wasn't a 5 million-dollar performance, it was a 50 million-dollar performance," and Simon proclaiming that she should win based on "Listen" alone, will anyone feel compelled to vote, or will they assume that she's got it in the bag already?
Who do you think is most deserving of a 5 million-dollar recording contract, and who do you think will actually win it? Will talent be the deciding factor, or will the "total package" win out?
The X Factor finale airs Thurs., Dec. 22 at 8 p.m. EST on Fox.