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'The X Factor': On the scene of top 3 performance night

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X Factor
Fox

I have no way of knowing this for certain, but I think The X Factor audiences are getting louder. For one, the tinny ringing in my ears after I emerge from the Xanadome have progressed from a dull roar best associated with visiting Niagara Falls to a dull howl best associated with standing in close proximity to single-propeller aircraft while trying to carry on a conversation with Mary Murphy. For another, every single time I visit The X Factor‘s migraine starship at CBS Television City, at the end of the show, Simon Cowell takes to the mic and tells the crowd that it was the best, loudest, rowdiest audience they’ve ever had. And Simon never exaggerates or embellishes anything, ever.

It can’t be pointed out enough that the raucous, unruly volume inside the Xanadome is entirely at the constant urging of the show itself. Bill, the show’s Warm-Up Guy, works himself into a bouncing, sweaty lather telling us “you cannot be too loud tonight,” that our success as an audience will be measured by how much the judges are unable to hear themselves talking. All season, Bill has promised two tickets to the finale to the loudest pair of people in the audience, which means (if I have my math right) there could be as many as 32 people at tonight’s show who are certifiably deafening. My poor eardrums are already shuddering at the thought. 

Even when the crowd was at two-thirds capacity, they were still plenty thunderous when the show pretaped the top 3’s performance of Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us,” roughly 30 minutes before the show started. Here are my observations of the behind-the-scenery from that production, as well as the other highlights from what you may not have seen on TV:

Here come the judges! There go the judges! Initially, the judges were meant to be present during the pretape. Bill worked the crowd into a frenzy to welcome Paula, Nicole, and L.A., and the ladies happily danced along to the super dance-mix blasting from the show’s speakers. Nicole and L.A. shared a three-hand-slap-and-then-a-salute greeting as Bill chummed the waters by tossing free X Factor T-shirts to the crowd. L.A. even joined in, sending a T-shirt all the way into the third row with a big, showy windup beforehand. But at some point, someone either realized Simon wasn’t coming, or Simon realized he couldn’t make it, because in a matter of seconds, the other judges were scurried back off stage, their chairs were hauled off, and the desk was covered with a giant black sheet. Or maybe Simon just didn’t want his dreams haunted by a platoon of silver space robots flashing question marks and dollar signs at him.

Josh may not be able to dance, but… It was painfully obvious that Josh had the barest grasp on almost everything about the Michael Jackson number. He kept looking at his fellow finalists as if to ask what they were supposed to do next; at one point, while Chris and Melanie did their cursory steps, Josh just stood singing with a grin that was half panicked, half resigned to his fate. But after the number was over, Josh was also the only finalist to linger and congratulate the Cirque du Soleil dancers with a few hearty high-fives and hugs. And after the show began in earnest, he was the one to initiate hugs with Melanie and Chris when the show entered its first ad break.

About those celebrity duets… Simon told reporters backstage after the show that they didn’t even decide to do the celeb duets until five or six days previous, and then they turned to Alanis Morissette and R. Kelly because, Simon said, they had both already contacted the show with an interest in performing with the contestants. As for Avril Lavigne, Simon said she “obviously had a connection” with L.A. Reid.

While Josh sang with Morissette, I noticed Paula supportively rubbing Nicole’s back, as if to say, “I know you want to be up there SO BAD, sweetie, I do.” After Chris introduced Avril as “the moment you’ve all been waiting for,” there was an obvious pause for the wild cheering that greeted Morissette. But, alas, the audience greeted Avril instead with The X Factor equivalent of pity applause — i.e., cheering that would only cause nosebleeds in sickly TB survivors, and not the general populace as per usual. Point of fact, I’m just going to have to presume that R. Kelly received a more full-throated welcome, because the subwoofer system was so out of control on the opening measures of “I Believe I Can Fly” that it caused my brain stem to temporarily shut down. I came to, thankfully, in time to see Melanie picking gold confetti out of her mouth.

About those final songs… According to both Simon and L.A. backstage after the show, the fact that the contestants all sang their initial audition songs was a total coincidence. Apparently, Josh first chose “At Last” (you can read his thoughts on the choice here). Later, L.A. told reporters he changed his mind on his original song for Chris and decided he should perform “Young Homie” instead — but he made that decision without discussing it with the other judge-mentors first. And on Sunday, Simon decided his first choice for Melanie’s final song — the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” — was maaaaybe not the best last impression to leave on American voters. With Josh and Chris already doing their audition songs, it was a no-brainer to have Melanie sing “Listen” once more.

She’s feelin’ good As Melanie stood at her mic waiting for her final song to begin, she flexed both her arms during her “journey” video package — specifically, right after Simon talked about a weight being lifted from her shoulders after she revealed her Virgin Islands accent. With the press, Melanie still seems to have her guard up, giving brief, generalized answers that keep her personality at arm’s length. But with that quick gesture before she ripped into “Listen,” it was encouraging to see her open a window into who she really is, even if by just a crack.

Read more:

‘The X Factor’ performance finale recap: You Oughta Show

‘The X Factor’: Are the judges returning next season? ‘Maybe I won’t be here,’ jokes Simon (we think)

‘The X Factor’: Josh, Chris, and Melanie on their superstar duets, and their friends back home