If you can measure a reality show's clout or buzz by the acts clamoring to be involved with its finale, FOX has to be absolutely terrified by how chilly "The X Factor" is. 

It was previously announced that Thursday's whopping two-hour finale would feature performances by One Direction, who have already performed two songs on "X Factor" this season and owe their entire career to Simon Cowell and the show, and Pitbull, an artist so desperate for exposure that he'd probably appear at a well-attended bar mitzvah.

That was a bad sign.

Then came Wednesday's (December 19) announcement that finalists Carly Rose Sonenclar, Tate Stevens and Fifth Harmony would duet on tonight's show with LeAnn Rimes, Little Big Town and Demi Lovato, respectively.

That's right. Tonight's big guests are an "X Factor" judge who didn't have anything else to do, a country singer more notorious for tabloid exploits than anything in her recent music output and a reasonably successful country act with only moderate crossover appeal. That's... weak.

Why is Carly Rose Sonenclar being asked to sing with a less vocally gifted singer in a genre she's never displayed any interest in? Is Demi singing with Fifth Harmony because they did one of her songs once? And are they keeping Tate from doing a duet with a female artist because they don't want to alienate voters who think Tate only has chemistry with his wife? 

I'm very confused. 

On to tonight's recap!

8:00 p.m. ET. The show begins with Simon Cowell paying tribute to the victims of the Newtown tragedy before kicking to a performance by the Top 13, led by Beatrice Miller, Arin Ray and Diamond White. It's a rendition of "You Are Not Alone" and all signs are that they're performing live. 

8:03 p.m. No snark for this portion of the show. The contestants, all clad in white, are joined in the end by a children's choice and the names of the victim are up on the screen behind them. No matter how many of these we get, I don't think I'm going to be able to avoid getting choked up.

8:06 p.m. Time to face... The Music. 

8:07 p.m. Wow. This is bombastic. There's a drum troop, followed by a cavalcade of dancers, with two giant Christmas trees in the back. This is how we introduce our Finalists and Judges. Poor Demi has to come out alone.

8:09 p.m. Enough already! I'm HYPED! 

8:09 p.m. Khloe and Mario arrive for what will likely be their penultimate episode as "X Factor" hosts. Knock wood. "It's a schoolgirl against a family man against five girls who have never given up," Khloe says meaninglessly.

8:10 p.m. We've got cameras in the hometowns of the Finalists, including West Chester, NY, Belton, Missouri and San Antonio, where one member of Fifth Harmony hails from.

8:14 p.m. Each act will sing three times tonight. First, it will be a song that they sang at an earlier point in the season. The performance order was determined by a random dream and up first we have...

 

Singer: CARLY ROSE SONENCLAR
Song: "Feeling Good"
My Take: This is an interesting choice for Carly Rose, since it's her audition song and she was terrific on it, but it isn't one that has been vetted for America. It gave a jazzier side of her, a side that she hasn't showcased frequently since. How will it play on the big stage? Carly starts her performance a cappella, though she's joined relatively quickly by a quiet piano and then by a blaring orchestra accompaniment. As the song says, y'all know how I feel about Carly Rose Sonenclar. She's miles better than the other contestants when it comes to the "singing" thing. If Tate or Fifth Harmony were dynamic performers, I'd say that Carly Rose's slightly robotic quality could be seen as a demerit, but they're not. She's superb on this performance. She's a tiny gal, but she never gets upstaged in all the lights and music. We've heard this dozens of times on singing reality shows, but this rendition is in the top tier.
The Judges Say: L.A. Reid says Carly Rose topped everything she's done. Demi thinks it's cool to watch her command the stage, calling her an inspiration. "You're here to try and win this tonight, aren't you, Carly?" Simon says, adding that she sang it better than in her audition. "I just feel like it's shocking how bright your star is and we're going to win this," Britney Spears says.

 

8:22 p.m. The mayor of West Chester calls Carly Rose's voice "a gift of the Gods." They also have cupcakes and they name it Carly Rose Sonenclar Day. I can't tell if the mayor has declared December 19 to be Carly Rose Sonenclar Day in perpetuity, or if he's just saying that the rest of the evening is Carly Rose Sonenclar Day. 

 

Singer: TATE STEVENS
Song: "Anything Goes"
My Take: Tate Stevens is good and we all like him, but has he had a specifically defining performance? In fact, can I tell any of his performances apart from any of his other performance? No. I cannot. And as for Tate's "If I don't win, my family will go hungry" argument, I'm rather uncomfortable with it. This was Tate's audition song as well, right? I'm a fan of this choice, because it's a slightly rangier choice than what he's been given in the live shows. It's not a wide range, but it's a convincing statement that Tate has a bigger, more arena-ready voice than anything he's done lately. If Tate wins, it's because of his genre and his story and his personal appeal and not because of his voice. There's no comparison between Carly Rose and this very likable guy, but he's good. No question.
The Judges Say: "When you do right-down-the-middle country, you are right on," Britney says. "I'm still obsessed with you," says Demi, who calls this "a stadium performance," which is kinda like what I said. Simon likes that Tate is authentic and "made in America," even praising L.A. Reid for his role in this unlikely pairing. L.A. Reid is proud that Tate hasn't changed.

 

8:36 p.m. Tate's boss is in Belton and says he doesn't expect him to return. The Mayor of Belton says that they're putting his name on the water tower. And a cheerleader from his old high school says that young people like him, too. "That's cool," Tate says, choking up.

8:38 p.m. When Mario Lopez says there are "major surprise guests" coming, he can't be referring to the not-so-major guests FOX already announced, can he?

 

Singer: FIFTH HARMONY
Song: "Anything Can Happen"
My Take: And, with that, Simon eliminated Fifth Harmony from the competition. Why on Earth would he give them the exact same song with the exact same staging and the exact same costuming as they did LAST WEEK? Granted that the "Alice in Wonderland"-style music video staging was absolutely their most concert-ready performance to date, but... they did it last week. Surely that takes away some of the fun and surprise from the performance, doesn't it? They're very comfortable in this song and rendition, but of course they are. It's what they did last week. I could be wrong, but I thing this kind of repetition is a bad idea. Then again, this pushed them ahead of Emblem 3 last week, so maybe people love it enough to vote for them again?
The Judges Say: "Now I'm looking at it and it's magical," L.A. Reid says. He goes so far as to say that they've gone from underdogs to the act to beat. Britney says that magic happens when they do this song. "I really hope that America pulls through and votes for you guys," Demi says. "I really believe that they're a group," L.A. Reid adds. "You've made me so proud tonight, girls," Simon says.

 

8:54 p.m. This round of performances will feature "surprises" and Britney Spears promises that it will be a HUGE surprise.

 

Singer: CARLY ROSE SONENCLAR and LeAnn Rimes
Song: "How Do I Live Without You"
My Take: This is a horrid arrangement of a song that's vastly too easy for Carly Rose. She's holding back and the blending with some pointless background singers is painful. And then, to make matters worse, LeAnn Rimes comes onto the stage and stumbles in her first verse. Yup. "The X Factor" decided Carly Rose wouldn't be a "good" [commercially] winner, so they decided to hamstring the presumptive favorite. The blending of Carly's voice with LeAnn's raspy, hoarse tones is brutal. I can't believe they did that to her.
The Judges Say: The judges don't get to critique, because with guest "stars" of this "level" cruel things might be said.

 

9:04 p.m. I'm a bit perturbed by that. They might as well have punched Carly Rose Sonenclar in the larynx. Awful song choice. Awful arrangement. Awful pairing. BOO.

 

Singer: TATE STEVENS and Little Big Town
Song: "Pontoon"
My Take: After what they did to Carly Rose, Tate should have been forced to duet with Lil Wayne on a Stephen Sondheim show tune. Nope. Instead, it's a perfectly suited Tate Stevens song. [Confession, I only know "Little Big Town" as a name that pops up on Billboard charts and award lists. I couldn't have told you that the group includes two attractive women.] I don't think this is a great blending of vocals, but at least the genre is right and the song is fitting. Tate isn't so great at complimenting the two Little Big Town Leads, but he did well enough on his own and this will make his core fanbase happy, as opposed to the utter confusion Carly Rose's fans must have felt watching her sing with Female Skeletor.
The Judges Say: L.A. Reid thought Tate looked "right at home." Again, as opposed to Carly Rose, who looked uncomfortable throughout.

 

9:15 p.m. Audition for "X Factor" please. If you're really lucky, someday you might get to duet with LeAnn Rimes.

 

Singer: FIFTH HARMONY and Demi Lovato
Song: "Give Your Heart a Break"
My Take: Yes, but you already did this song, too, Fifth Harmony. I know how you sound on it and I know you can't do harmony on it. But anyway... Go Demi. I'll say that Demi probably sings her song better than the Fifth Harmony ladies, but once she joins them in a row, she blends in rather perfectly. She's even Fifth Harmony-sized. And Demi coming down to the judges' platform to sing to Simon and company is kinda cute. This definitely won't hurt Fifth Harmony, meaning that the only act penalized by the guest performances was Carly Rose. Sigh. "It was so much fun. These girls are so easy to work with," Demi gushes. "You sounded like Sixth Harmony," Mario Lopez says stupidly.
The Judges Say: "That is what I call pop perfection," Simon says.

 

9:25 p.m. Time for our final performances of the night. I'm not sure on the theme... 

 

Singer: CARLY ROSE SONENCLAR
Song: "Hallelujah"
My Take: OK. At least they're going to let Carly Rose sing for her last performance rather coming out and knee-capping her. Yes, she's singing the biggest musical cliche of our era, but she's also singing a song that rewards people with pipes. And Carly has pipes. The first half of the song is set mostly in Carly's low register and the backing singers are overwhelming her again. It's not that Carly can't out-sing a small chorus, but she can't outsing an over-mic-ed army. But when she gets to the middle and she finally takes the song to her own specific place, the performance gets much, much better and she finally soars. I'd say this is a tough song to stand out on these days, but Carly did it as well as one can do it, given the arrangement. And, again, nobody else in the competition could have done that.
The Judges Say: "That was a really angelic moment," L.A. Reid says, praising her for not over-singing. "You not only looked like an angel, but you sang like a ridiculously talented angel," Demi says. "You look great, sounded great," Simon says. "I feel like that song alone is worth five million bucks," Britney says.

Singer: TATE STEVENS
Song: "Tomorrow"
My Take: I don't get why Tate is on a stairway to heaven. Or why he's surrounded by fog. Otherwise, this is a familiar, easy-going Tate performance. It's a little sharp on a few notes, but there isn't enough variation to discuss. Tate can do this in his sleep and he can do it reasonably well.
The Judges Say: "That was great, Tate," Britney rhymes. Demi's going to miss hearing Tate perform. "This has been a fantastic night for talent," Simon says. Again, Tate's voice cracks when discussing what this would mean to him.

 

9:43 p.m. That strange woman in the Christmas hat who calls herself Tate's No.1 fan is scary and if Tate ever goes missing, I hope somebody saves this video so we can find her.

 

Singer: FIFTH HARMONY
Song: "Let It Be"
My Take: This is one of Simon's favorite songs and it has been arranged so that it's only solos from Fifth Harmony. There's a gospel choir to the side doing the harmony that Fifth Harmony can't do. Dinah is, once again, the star. But there is absolutely nothing "group"-y about that performance. Nothing. That was a total failure for me, no matter how good they are as solo artists.
The Judges Say: L.A. Reid is happy for them and says they did the song "a lot of justice." Britney says they've come a long way. Demi's pleased with how they've evolved. "You're not a group, you're five great singers," Simon says, properly articulating exactly why that wasn't a good group performance.

 

9:53 p.m. So... Tate Stevens just won because "X Factor" wanted Tate Stevens to win, right? Oh well. 

9:54 p.m. Carly Rose Sonenclar has my vote... Except that I don't vote. So I'm part of the problem...

 

Thoughts?