Scooter Braun, left, Justin Bieber and L.A. Reid talk things over on "The… (Ray Mickshaw / Fox )
"The X Factor" returned to the judges' lavish homes Thursday night for poolside performances by six finalists in each of two categories: the Over 25s, begrudgingly mentored by L.A. Reid, and the Teens, supervised by Britney Spears, who seemed to want to pinch each and every one of her team members' cheeks. "Sweetie," Spears kept calling them, sweetly.
Reid, on the other hand, couldn't have been more sour about the category he'd been assigned. Yes, still.
"I really didn't want this category. I'm known for developing young artists," he said, adding that even though he was "not happy," he was "still planning on winning."
To his team he was hardly more chipper. "You're already underdogs," he told them, and challenged each to prove to him he or she could possibly be a star.
Reid's extended hissy fit was starting to seem cruel. Even Justin Bieber and his manager Scooter Braun, brought in as guest mentors, seemed a little mystified by Reid's disdain for his own team. You know it's bad when it takes a boy star and his former wunderkind manager to defend the old and decrepit who, having entered the latter part of their 20s, might just as well reconcile themselves to meaningless lives leading … nowhere. Talent be damned.
In fact, their talent was consistently damned by Reid's faint praise.
The veteran record exec deemed Jason Brock's heartfelt rendition of "Big Girls Don't Cry" a "really strong vocal performance," but he said it as if that really might not be quite enough.
After David Correy poured everything he had into "Domino," Reid acknowledged that some notes had given him "chill bumps," but then undercut his own praise, sniffing, "Talent isn't the question. Viability in the marketplace is the question." Braun offered, "I saw pure passion. I think that's the hardest thing to find, someone with pure passion," but who knows if Reid could hear him through his fog of misery.
Braun was similarly impressed with Daryl Black's performance, saying, "He's got a special voice. With a band behind him it could work." Bieber called it "powerful" and "strong." But Reid demurred, saying he didn't find Black's vocal tone "to be unique.... I thought it was just singing."
Braun thought cowboy Tate Stevens had "something about him you want to root for," and Bieber said he was "charismatic" and had a "great voice." Reid countered, "If you had to go in that bank account and write a check for $5 million, would you give it to that guy?" In the face of so much doubt, Bieber's confidence began to crumble. "I'm not sure," he said.
Vino Alan's singing was gritty, soulful and riveting, and he was so turned-around afterward he accidentally stepped on Reid's shoes when he went over to shake hands. "You can tell that the dude is petrified. He's nervous, he's scuffing up your shoes, but he stepped up," Braun said. Bieber, emboldened, said, "Yeah, that was a great performance. I felt it emotionally." Reid allowed that, sure, Alan's voice had "soul" and all, "But then I'm looking and I'm like, OK, the package, the package."
"The package," Bieber repeated solemnly.
Only Tara Simon seemed entirely unaffected by Reid's withholding of mentorly love, absorbing none of his doubts about her chances. "I feel like I will win the whole thing. I'm just gonna say it," she said, contending that she'd always been a star and was ready for the world to catch on. "I want to be America's darling," she declared.
Simon seemed to believe she'd nailed her shot with her performance. "Thank you, Jesus. That was super fun," she exclaimed upon completing her song, and then ran off to do a "happy dance."
For once, Braun and Bieber seemed less than entirely enthusiastic. Simon had a "big voice," they agreed, but Bieber observed that she could do with a few "more sweet moments," vocally speaking.
At which point Reid declared himself to be a changed man. He'd entered the judges' homes segment "thinking I knew which contestants were my favorites," he said. In fact, he now realized, "I didn't know nothing." He was finally ready to stop sulking. "After hearing the contestants," he said. "I'm having a change of heart."
Can I get a "hallelujah" out there?
Trading the sweeping city view from Reid's Beverly Hills home for the sweeping ocean view from Spears' Malibu manse, we then settled in with the former teen pop star and will.i.am to hear from contestants less than half the age of most of Reid's singers: the Teens.
Spears seemed genuinely interested to hear what her guest mentor had to say.
Diamond White was "amazing" but a little too invested in "her moves," will.i.am said. Spears agreed White could work on her performance technique and confidence.
Spears detected some nerves at play in Reed Deming's performance, and will.i.am suggested she coach him to perform like he talks because he's "like a little emperor."
James Tanner's rapping was "very entertaining," but perhaps "not strong enough," Spears said.