The three remaining acts on Wednesday night's (December 19) season two "X Factor" performance finale could not have been more different: a 13-year-old Broadway baby with a soulful wail, a girl group put together on the fly and a hard-working dad with a throwback country sound.
The show opened with a moving tribute to the victims of last week's Sandy Hook Elementary killings, with this year's finalists singing Michael Jackson's "You Are Not Alone" while dressed in angelic white outfits. And then, with a $5 million recording contract at stake, the pressure was on during a triple-performance evening that saw Carly Rose Sonenclar, Tate Stevens and Fifth Harmony bring their best in an effort to emerge victorious on Thursday's finale.
Sonenclar, a 13-year-old "Les Miz" Broadway veteran, took another swing at Nina Simone's "Feeling Good," making it as sultry as a tween in a black leather pants, knee-high boots and a white fedora really can. It was strong and her voice rang clear, but the whole thing felt a little, well, Broadway.
Departing mentor L.A. Reid said she topped her previous performances and Demi Lovato was colored impressed by another young star's powers. "You are here to try and win this tonight," Simon Cowell smiled, dubbing the second go-round even better than the first. Mentor Britney Spears called Sonenclar's talent "shocking," predicting that her charge would take the crown.
Sonenclar's second song was went country, with a duet featuring LeAnn Rimes on the one-time teen prodigy's hit, "How Do I Live," on which the veteran's ragged voice helped Carly Rose sound clear and powerful by comparison.
For woman of few words Spears it was, "shockingly amazing."
The final song from Carly was, ugh, the "Freebird" of reality singing show chestnuts, Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." With a gospel choir backing her, Sonenclar reached for gravitas and nailed the notes, but still came off like a high school talent show ringer whose dad splashed out for a pricey set.
Reid called it "angelic" and liked how the teen didn't oversing, but asked the audience if it was worth $5 million. "You not only looked like an angel but you sang like a ridiculously talented angel," Lovato added. "I feel like that song alone is worth $5 million, so you should get out your checkbook Simon," Spears sassed.
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Humble street paving family guy Stevens took another swelling amble through Randy Houser's "Anything Goes," again pulling heartstrings, but hardly coming off like the next pop sensation in his generic cowpoke outfit and by-the-numbers sad-eyed croon.
"When you do right-down-the-middle country you are right on," Spears said, with Lovato adding that she's still in love with his voice, which she believes will fill stadiums some day.
Stevens tried get boots scooting with the Little Big Town beer coozie homage "Pontoon." The mixed gender country glam quartet brought some sexy to Stevens' aw-c'mon-dad! hip-swiveling, leaving him with not much to do but nod awkwardly along for most of the tune.
Reid, though, was happy enough, calling it fun and "natural" and claiming that country is the new love of his life.
Going for the win, Tate got into yearning mode for Chris Young's "Tomorrow." Like all his performances, it was solid, but failed to distinguish him from any other country softie out there and hardly made him sound like a radio sensation.
Lovato got a bit weepy about Stevens' final "Factor" performance, Spears gushed and Cowell reiterated that Tate needn't worry about his day job anymore, whether he wins or not. "You've had a really, really, really good night," he said.
Fifth Harmony have gotten grief all season for their lack of, well, harmony, so their second shot at Ellie Goulding's "Anything Could Happen" needed to prove that these five former soloists had gelled into a group. Seated at a trippy, "Alice in Wonderland"-like tea party set, the girls were more Wilson-Phillips than Destiny's Child, turning Goulding's creamy pop tune into a somewhat generic bundt cake.
After weeks of disses, Reid said they'd transformed into something "magical," calling them the ones to beat. Britney labeled it "spectacular, girlie and fun" and Lovato also marveled at how they've come together. "The reason this has worked is because these girls have made it happen," Cowell crowed, luxuriating in the role of underdog.
Talk about a score, 5H matched throats with none other than Lovato on her smash "Give Your Heart a Break," deferring to the diva, but not holding back on their seamless harmonies and finally sounding like an act you might actually hear on the radio.
It merited a standing O from Lovato's frequent sparring partner, Cowell, who called her "sensational" and the whole thing "pop perfection."
Rounding out the night with a funky gospel take on the Beatles' "Let It Be," 5H served up their best effort of the season, spotlighting their individual talents while finding a way to mesh their disparate voices.
"You know Fifth Harmony, you guys are really like magic happening before our eyes," Reid said, with the entire panel nodding to their improvement over the competition. "You're not a group, you're five great singers and it's really important to remember that," Cowell offered, saying he really thought they deserved to win.
Thursday night's finale will feature performances from Pitbull and One Direction.
Who was your favorite on Wednesday's night's show? Let us know in comments below!