Finalists Carly Rose Sonenclar, Tate Stevens and Fifth Harmony compete… (Ray Mickshaw/ Fox )
OK, "X Factor" watchers, we're almost there.
The final performance show of the season began with an anxious-looking Simon Cowell introducing a tribute to the victims of Sandy Hook: Michael Jackson's "You Are Not Alone," featuring most of this season's top 13, dressed in white, and joined by what appeared to be a school choir. The names of the victims were projected on screens behind them.
Then it was back to the competition, where country-singing family man Tate Stevens, 13-year-old wunderkind Carly Rose Sonenclar and long-shot insta-group Fifth Harmony would battle it out for the win — and the $5-million prize.
"There is no second place. There is no third place. There is only the winner," L.A. Reid told us in the cursory stakes-raising opening montage.
Each of the three remaining acts sang three songs: a reprise of something they'd sung previously this season, a duet with a musical guest, and a final song they hoped would impress the voters enough to earn them the Season 2 crown. (The order in which the singers performed was determined by picking numbers out of a hat.)
Sonenclar, clad in an outfit involving leather pants and thigh-high boots (with mercifully low heels), reprised her audition song, Nina Simone's "Feeling Good," which left the judges feeling good. Demi Lovato said she hoped Sonenclar would inspire other young girls "to follow their dreams." And Britney Spears, Sonenclar's mentor, told the singer it was "shocking how bright your star is" and predicted victory.
After sweetly dueting with LeAnn Rimes on Rimes' "How Do I Live," Sonenclar stepped out for her final song. Dressed in a flowing white gown, on a platform amidst columns of fabric, she sang Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," a soaring anthem that has sadly become something of a musical cliché (signaling "big moment") thanks to these singing-competition shows. (On Monday, we heard it in an entirely different context on "The Voice.")
But leave it to Sonenclar to rescue the song and restore its originality. Her smooth, lush vocals eased into it and took it to places we're not used to hearing it go. That effortless ability to inhabit a song as if it were entirely her own is Sonenclar's true gift.
Both Reid and Lovato said Sonenclar looked like an angel — "a ridiculously talented angel," Lovato clarified.
"Looked great. Sounded great. Love that song. Beautiful version. You've had a good night," Cowell said.
Spears took it further: "I feel like that song alone was worth 5 million bucks so you should get out your checkbook, Simon."
Tate Stevens also reprised his audition song, Randy Houser's "Anything Goes," which came off just as genuinely heartfelt and rousing as it did the first time around. This time, though, it made visions of big venues dance in Lovato's head. She predicted that if Stevens continued to work hard, "One day, you will be putting on a stadium performance." Reid told his mentee that, while his circumstances may have changed, he hadn't. "You were lovable the day we met you, and you're lovable tonight."
Stevens allowed himself to kick back and have some fun dueting with Little Big Town on their "Pontoon," though the dedicated family man seemed a little uncomfortable when the women in the band got too close, and then he was back on his own with his final song: Chris Young's "Tomorrow." He gave as big-voiced and big-hearted a performance as ever, making Lovato weep at the thought of not watching him perform on the "X Factor" stage again.
Cowell reiterated his prediction that Stevens would never again have to return to his old road-construction job. "In a year's time, I think we're going to be hearing about your record sales," he said.
And then there was Fifth Harmony, the group of female singers formed by the show ahead of the judges' houses round. Not having a shared audition song, they reprised a song they'd gotten a good response with only last week and which had a message they, as long shots for the win, hoped would prove true: Ellie Goulding's "Anything Could Happen."
Reid had one of his over-the-top moments and gushed that the group was "magical" and no longer the underdog contender, but instead "the one to beat." Spears called it "spectacular … girly and just fun." Cowell, their mentor, expressed pride and said that, were the group to win, "something special" would happen.
In fact, Fifth Harmony's duet with Lovato on her hit "Give Your Heart a Break" might have been one of the group's more special moments of the season. Mario Lopez quipped that they sounded like Sixth Harmony, and Cowell called it "pop perfection."