On Wednesday night, "X Factor" hit Kansas City, Missouri without an ailing Simon Cowell, a development that was just fine with the aspiring singers. In his place was longtime Cowell pal and Boyzone manager, the amiable Louis Walsh.
Things got weird and wonderful with delusional fools who tried to steal their $3,000 stage microphones, a soulful barista named Panda, a deep-voiced cowboy dad with killer chops, country sister singers and a parade of teen girls who didn't have the X, or any other, factor. By the time we hopscotched back to San Francisco, then Austin, Texas, Cowell was back and so was his attitude, ripping down boy bands, dismissing tuneless wonders and handing out a few hard-earned golden tickets.
It's a rap: The world has rarely seen a rapper as positive, confident and bright-eyed as Kansas' freestyle rhymer Rizzloe Jones, 18. The judges were skeptical about his abilities to go off the dome, and well, he did work marshmallow, "X Factor" and Britney's name into the mix and they liked it. But a cute smile will only take you so far. Also, he kind of sounded like Stevie from "Eastbound and Down." Just sayin'.
Playing those mind games: "Factor" has established a theme this year of mean girls who try to rattle the competition. Wednesday night's Cady Heron was mail clerk CeCe Frey, 20, who stood out thanks to her off-putting fake leopard print forehead tattoo. The CeCefied "Unchained Melody," was terrible, but her take on Christina Aguilera's "Ain't No Other Man" had enough white girl soul to punch her ticket.
Boy, oh boy band: Five-man band Citizen had the hair, the look, the ethnic mix, the choreography, the five-o'clock shadows and, surprisingly, an En Vogue Cover that earned some stank face from L.A. Reid, who "really liked it." Cowell, though, didn't get it and said it was a decade out of date.
Believe that: Taking the traditionally tear-jerking final spot, unemployed San Antonian Jessica Espinoza, 22, got the waterworks going with her heartfelt take on Pink's "Nobody Knows." She got the bullseye quartet: the Britney "aw!" head tilt, the Demi Lovato grin, the Reid head shake and the Cowell blank stare as her teary performance telegraphed all the pain and hope in her heart.
Face tats are the new neck tats: With a skull full of ink, Vino Alan, 39, was like the even rougher Chris Rene. But like last year's third-place finisher, his soulful voice won the day on a cover of Ray LaMontagne's "Trouble."
Diamonds in the rough: Hoping to move out the "shoebox" apartment she shares with her mom, too-cute-for-words Diamond White, 13, tackled James Brown's "It's A Man's Man's Man's World" and made the soul classic a girl's plaything. Cowell completely got the irony in the title and called White "incredible." Power singer Ally Brooke, 19, did it any way you wanted it, with accompaniment, a cappella and to the rafters, which made Cowell smell a future star.
Britney's bon mots: She called Jones a "young Vanilla Ice Ice Baby," and she liked it. Trying to channel Marilyn Monroe, Britney warbled "Happy Birthday" to Reid in a segment that was awkwardly cute, or cutely awkward? She also confirmed that Citizen "totally rocked it" and loved their choreography. Brit told duo Jeremiah & Josh that their voices on the strummy original "Now Life Starts" were so "magical" and "soothing" that she wished they were her human alarm clock.
Lovato love notes: Demi admitted to having a "girl crush" on Frey, whose attitude she loved. She also had a bit of a thing for 37-year-old twangy road worker and dad Tate Stevens. "I am going to be listening to your record one day, over and over," she said. She was totally enamored with the "sparkle" in White's eye. "I honestly don't even know where to start ... you have a sparkle in your eye that you only see in people who have the 'X Factor,'" she told Espinoza, doubling down on sparkle.