Fifth Harmony performs on 'The X Factor.' (Ray Mickshaw/ FOX )
Britney Spears – with her oft-repeated "amazings" and "sweeties" and ultra-brief critiques – might not be the most articulate judge on "The X Factor," but at the top of Wednesday night's show, on which the final 12 contestants performed songs by "divas," she said something startlingly revealing: "I think it's gonna boil down, in this competition, to true talent."
Now, on any other singing-competition show, that would be the blandest of platitudes, but on "The X Factor," where the intangible charisma for which the show has been named is supposed to outweigh vocal chops, Spears' statement, especially arriving as other judges bragged emptily about their contestants' star power, seemed downright refreshing. And I think Spears is right. At the end of the day, talent – not flashy lighting and dancers – will likely win voters' hearts and determine the winner.
That was also the takeaway from last week's results-show rankings reveal – where arguably the best singers (Vino Alan, Carly Rose Soneneclar, Tate Stevens) landed at the top of the leaderboard and the most emptily flashy (CeCe Frey) at the bottom. And on Wednesday night, as we waded through 12 vocalists trying – with varying success – to tap into their inner divas, dead-eyed Spears' matter-of-fact prediction offered some comfort.
True talent this week showed itself in the form of Sonenclar, who sang an astoundingly rich, full-bodied "My Heart Will Go On" that would have been incredible even if she weren't only 13. Demi Lovato said it made her wonder if Celine Dion wasn't actually there, hiding (and singing). L.A. Reid thought he could be looking at this season's winner. (I agree.)
Alan also stood out with his soulful take on Al Green's "Let's Stay Together," which got diva cred thanks to Tina Turner's cover. How could Lovato have found Alan's intense rendition "boring"?
And country guy Stevens again came across as heartfelt, down-to-earth and clear-voiced, mistily dedicating Shania Twain's "From This Moment On" to his wife, the mother of his kids, with whom he fell in love in high school. (Awww.) Simon Cowell said that writing Stevens a $5 million winner's check would make him "happy."
Other solid performances included Jennel Garcia, who returned to softer-looking form with Tina Turner's "Proud Mary"; Paige Thomas, who lighted up the stage with Donna Summer's "Last Dance," and not only because of her matchy-matchy glitter-red lipstick and dress; insta-girl-group Fifth Harmony, rising to the occasion with Mariah Carey's "Hero"; and surfer-dude boy band Emblem3, who blended admirably on Alicia Keys "No One."
Diamond White, the teen who came back from elimination to rank fourth last week, started off shaky but ultimately conquered Beyonce's "Halo." Beatrice Miller showed off her sultry vocal tone with Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time," though failed to command much attention.
Faring worse were rap group Lyric 145, which performed a shouty, confusing mash-up of Katy Perry's "E.T." and Queen's "We Will Rock You"; Arin Ray, who managed to make Madonna's "Crazy for You" both dull and schmaltzy; and CeCe Frey, who in addition to being an irritating person, hit some real clunkers on Eric Carmen's "All By Myself," which was, of course, a hit for Celine Dion. The best thing I can say about Frey's performance is that it prompted Cowell to crack that it would have been better if she had, in fact, performed the song all by herself – as in with no one around to hear it.
Or maybe the best thing was that it may prompt voters to finally give Frey the boot.
Two singers will go home Thursday night. Who do you think they will be?