The top 8 contestants on "The X Factor" tackled No. 1 songs this week and spent a lot of time talking about making it to No. 1 in the competition and nabbing the win. Throughout the evening, we were often reminded of the stakes -- a $5-million recording contract, in case you'd somehow forgotten -- and the fact that only one contender would walk away with it.
(Never mind that several other contestants from last year have also scored record deals -- including runner-up Josh Krajcik, who will perform on Thursday's results show. That's outside the prescribed storyline.)
Amid the scramble for the top spot, two singers will be eliminated this week, leaving only six in contention.
Who's in danger? The performances offered hints:
Diamond White went up-tempo with a vocally confident take on Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," that incorporated a lot of movement, though, ultimately, not a lot of actual dancing on her part. That may have been a smart move, as she was able to hit her power notes spot-on throughout. The judges gave her mostly positive reviews, and her mentor, Britney Spears, said she was "proud," adding, "I'd dance with you any time."
Vino Alan stumbled with the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Loving Feeling," a song his mentor, L.A. Reid, had swapped in at the last minute. Alan looked angry, sang uninspiringly and -- strangest of all -- moved awkwardly, all hunched over like a mob henchmen. None of the judges, save Reid, had anything nice to say, and when Reid tried to pass off their comments as jealousy, Simon Cowell waved him off. "That was not a $5-million performance," he said.
We learned in the pre-performance video that Paige Thomas and her mentor, Demi Lovato, had a strategic clash about which song choices will help Thomas move up in the rankings, but they seem to have reached a perfect compromise with the staging of Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up," which had backup dancers (Thomas' choice) but still kept the focus on Thomas (Lovato's concern). Reid called it Thomas' best performance "by far," and Cowell said, "This is the first time you have looked and sounded like a legitimate pop star."
Fifth Harmony, struggling with the sad news that one of its members' grandfathers had died, stood still on a pedestal and sang Kelly Clarkson's "What Doesn't Kill You (Stronger)" as flaming images swirled around them. Reid expressed disappointment that the arrangement featured no harmony, while Lovato took issue with the static staging. Both of those gripes were legitimate, but mentor Cowell said group member Ally's late grandpa would be proud. Way to play the sympathy card, Simon.
If Carly Rose Sonenclar doesn't win this thing, there's no justice. Saddled with Adele's megahit "Rolling in the Deep," the preternaturally talented 13-year-old still managed to put her own spin on it and deliver a standout performance. It may not have been her best, Reid allowed, but "even your second best is better than everybody else's first best." Cowell said he was sure she could sell records, but saw a problem in that "you're not human." She could be "disqualified" from the competition, he said, because "aliens aren't allowed." I think he meant it as a compliment.
Sonenclar's closest competition, Tate Stevens, decided to go more upbeat this week, strapping on his guitar and singing Keith Urban's "Somebody Like You," as a banjo-pickin' band kicked in behind him. ("Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades," he said of his attempt to two-step back into the top spot.) I had a flash of him playing a big arena country-music show. Spears had a similar thought. "I'm sure we'll be seeing you accept a Country Music Award someday," she said. Lovato sweetly admired the way Stevens dedicated his performances to his wife. "One day, when I get married, I want someone to love me as much as you love your wife," she said, prompting a disturbingly catty retort -- "I think that might be a tall order" -- from Cowell.
Speaking of disturbingly catty, CeCe Frey re-embraced her inner fierceness and brought back her leopard spots (now in sparkly silver!) as she brought to the stage a sloppily over-the-top performance of Patti LaBelle's "Lady Marmalade." Reid said Frey was "going down fighting." Cowell said it made him feel as if he'd eaten way too much cake. "I don't think that is going to endear you to the public at home," he said. "My advice tonight is pack a suitcase."
Last up was surf-boy group Emblem3, who, after being chased by fans when they tried to go shopping, took on the Monkees' "I'm a Believer." The busty background dancers were a bit much, but Reid was apparently not distracted, telling the group that, were he a record exec in charge of a big company, which he is, and they were an up-and-coming act, which they are, he'd sign them in a heartbeat and put all his resources behind them. Lovato, though, felt that the group had lost its "spark."
The show's most remarkable moment, though, might not have come from the competition at all. It was the look on Spears' face when the new video she'd collaborated on with will.i.am was screened. Totally replay-worthy.
Frey, Alan and Fifth Harmony are strong possibilities for this week's bottom three, I'd say, with two of them heading home.
Who do you want to see stick around?