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‘X Factor’ Top 4 Recap: Choose Or Lose

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks

With only four contestants left in the "X Factor" semifinal, and only one of them going home this Thursday, there will be no sing-off, no judges' deliberations, and no possibility of a deadlock this week. America will simply decide which three make it to next week's finale, and that's that. "But the judges are still here to do what they do best: judge!" the show's co-host Khloe Kardashian (Odom) announced brightly on Wednesday. Okay, whatever you say, Khloe. I never thought the judges on this show did a particularly bang-up job this season (although Britney Spears was surprisingly more lucid this week than usual). And after this Wednesday's episode, I realized...you know what else the judges don't do so well? Mentor.

This point was easily proven Wednesday when, for their first performances, all of the contestants sang songs of their own choosing. And all of these performances were superior to the second songs that their "mentors" had them do later in the evening--indicating that the contestants probably would've been better off making their own song selections all along. (Remember, some of "The X Factor's" producers' and mentors' horrible decisions had disastrous consequences for contestants like Vino Alan and Lyric 145 earlier this season.)

What was even odder was how co-host Mario Lopez described the second song that each contestant did: "the song that they really think can get them to the finale." Huh? Wouldn't the contestants (and their mentors) want them to do "a song that can get them to the finale" every week? And did that mean that the first songs the contestants did were just throwaways, just warm-ups for Wednesday's second act? Pretty strange wording there--especially since, as I've already stated, the first-act performances of the night were so much more finale-worthy anyway.

TATE STEVENS

Whether Tate got the "death spot" this week via some random rock/paper/scissors decision-making process, or whether this was orchestrated to knock him down a peg after he overtook golden child Carly Rose Sonenclar on the leaderboard last week, I do not know. Insert your own conspiracy theories here. But the death-spot placement certainly wasn't enough to knock him out of the game, and I do have to say that Tate knows how to open a show, so it's probably for the best that he sang first. Was his cover of Craig Morgan's good-ole-boy anthem "Bonfire" cheesy? Oh, you betcha it was. It was corny, Garthy, and it even delivered an environmentally incorrect message with its backdrop imagery of animated burning tires (though Tate's name in flaming red KISS font was a nice touch). But...it felt like a concert. It felt like Las Vegas, or Nashvegas. It looked like something that'd air on CMT instead of Fox. Clearly the guy knows his audience, and he chose his song accordingly--and wisely. Britney, who apparently got the memo that viewers are tired of hearing her declare everyone "amazing," was unexpectedly rough on Tate, saying, "At this point in the competition it has to be your best, and I don't think that was your best." Demi Lovato disagreed and actually called Tate (wait for it) "amazing." And Simon Cowell, a man who has imposed some pretty ridiculous song choices on "X Factor" contestants in the past and has often prevented contestants from showcasing what they do best, ironically praised Tate for being true to himself, saying: "You could have chosen something mushy and treacly, which you know is going to get the votes, but what you did is you brought the song that you want to record. That is why it was one of my favorite performances. This wasn't you being controlled by anyone, this was you saying, 'This is who I am.'"

For his second performance--you know, the one that could really get him to the finale--Tate did Clay Walker's "Fall," selected by his mentor, L.A. Reid, and dedicated to his loving wife for their 15th wedding anniversary. This is when Tate got all "mushy and treacly," as Simon might say. It was nice, but forgettable--I found his rowdy "Bonfire" performance much more entertaining. The judges loved this, however. Even Britney changed her mind, saying, "We've seen you be hit and miss, and that was a direct hit." Demi exclaimed, "You deserve this! You're so talented!" And Simon predicted, "There is as much chance of you going back to your old job as there is of me flying to the moon tomorrow."  Yep. It's true. I honestly don't think there is anything Tate could do right now to mess up his chances of making it to next week's finale.

CARLY ROSE SONENCLAR

Carly did Elton John's "Your Song" for her first performance--an interesting choice by such a young girl, but apparently it's one of the first songs she ever connected with when she was a baby. Yes, even back then, she knew good music. This was one of Carly's more restrained performances, of a mellow tune that didn't allow for a lot of belting, but that's precisely what I liked about it: Carly has already proven, many times, that she can hit all those big money-notes, so there's no need for her to show off just for showing-off's sake. I appreciated that she was willing to just let the song breathe. "For this point in the competition, you picked a very, very risky song, a very difficult song to perform, but you did things with that song I've never heard done before," marveled an impressed L.A. Then Demi gave a confusing critique that managed to make Britney sound articulate, as she babbled, "It's still very predictable...you walked out onstage and I was like, 'Okay, here we go again.' But that being said, I think this was my favorite song that you've performed. I don't care that it was predictable." Um, so I guess Demi liked it, then? Simon was a bit more succinct, but he too had mixed feelings and made contradictory statements, calling this "a beautiful version of a fantastic song," but then adding, "You're very lucky that you've got a second song, because I think you can do better than that." Whatever. Make up your minds, people.

Carly's "get-to-the-finale" song, chosen by her mentor Britney, was John Lennon's "Imagine." Britney wasn't messing around here--not only did she want Carly to take on the much-loved classic, but she asked Carly to play piano on the song, too. I started to think maybe Britney is smarter than I'd thought, because getting to see this 13-year-old prodigy sit at a white piano really took things to a whole new level. I was loving the Sarah McLachlan vibe. But then Carly only played for a few bars, before getting up from her piano bench...and since the piano seemed to keep playing uninterrupted even when she was way over on the other side of the stage, I started to wonder if she'd really been playing it in the first place. (Maybe it was one of those old-timey, penny-arcade player pianos all along?) Once Carly started roaming the stage, she did get into some oversinging, unnecessarily shouting the chorus--this was the exact opposite of "Your Song's" restraint. I'm not saying Carly didn't sing those big, loud notes well--she did--but she didn't need to do that, and it didn't work with the song. For the first time ever, I sensed a little bit of desperation from this normally cool and collected girl. While L.A. and Demi were very positive (L.A. said, "You always know how to go in and find that note," and Demi raved, "The only thing predictable about that performance was I knew it was gonna be amazing"), Simon came down pretty hard on Carly, and I could see the panic and hurt on her face; it didn't seem like she was used to be criticized, at least not on this show.  Suddenly, Carly "the alien" actually seemed like a vulnerable 13-year-old human. "I would have kept you at the piano," Simon said. "It was like five things went on during that song. It made a beautiful song fussy. I'm not sure that song needs those big notes. I didn't like the arrangement, and I thought it was over-complicated." Though I felt bad for Carly, I agreed with all of Simon's points. Still, she needn't get too upset. There's still no way she's going home this week. With momentum and pipes like hers, Carly is not going to be the Rachel Crow of Season 2.

EMBLEM3

For their first number, E3 unexpectedly went with Peter Frampton's "Baby, I Love Your Way." And while they really did the reggae-lite version by '90s one-hit wonder Big Mountain (something none of the judges of course mentioned at all, instead praising their "creative" arrangement), that blonde dude still needed one of those "Framptone" talkbox thingies to disguise his voice. I am sorry, it's great that he plays guitar and all, but that guy is, vocally, the group's weakest link; Emblem3 really should consider becoming Emblem2. That being said, "Baby, I Love Your Way" was a smart song choice for them, very much in that Sugar Ray/Sublime/311 vein that L.A. Reid thinks is so current and fresh for some reason. It worked, I guess, even if their whole sunny beach-bum image was sort of undone when they admitted that they spent much of their formative years growing up in sunless, rainy Washington. (Scandal!) Britney  \praised E3, saying, "That performance felt really special. It would be unfair to call you a boy band, because you're way more than that." L.A. called the boys "so charismatic and so charming" (um, no) and said, "I was wondering if your $5 million moment was ever gonna happen, until now. This was first time I saw you as stars." Really? L.A. has been saying he wants to sign them for weeks, and this is the first time he's seen them as stars? Weird. Besides, we all know Emblem3's true "$5 million moment" came early, when they did "One Day" in top 16 week. Just sayin'.

Simon then had his boys do the Beatles' "Hey Jude," seemingly setting them up for failure by designating Stromberg brother Keaton "the Paul McCartney" of group. There was no way this could end well, I thought. But it wasn't a total disaster. Keaton was no Macca, but he stayed in tune, and the blonde dude rapped instead of sang, which was a plus. By the time they got to the big finish and an army of backup singers emerged to drown out their vocal imperfections, it all came together, for the most part. I wasn't wowed, but I wasn't horrified like I'd expected to be, either. The judges were way too kind, though. "An A-level performance; you guys should take a bow," said Britney. "I'm not gonna kid you, I was prepared to rip you to shreds, but you actually are teen heartthrobs like the Beatles," said completely deluded L.A. Whaaaaaaaa? Emblem3 are like the Beatles? How did L.A. ever get and keep any job in the record business, seriously? He isn't qualified to work in Epic Records' mailroom if he really thinks that.

FIFTH HARMONY

These underdogs, who came in fourth last week and had to sing for survival, got the pimp spot this week, and hopefully that will help them (they'll need all the help they can get). Because based on this performance--and many other performances of theirs from this season--they do deserve to be in the finale. Their first performance, of "Anything Could Happen" by Ellie Goulding, was actually my favorite of the night. Sitting at a banquet table seemingly borrowed from Lyric 145's "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" performance and wearing frothy, fluffy party dresses seemingly borrowed from the backup dancers in CeCe Frey's "Lady Marmalade" number, for the first time ever these girls appeared fun, fresh, and funky, not so serious and somber and earnest like they usually do. They seemed cool. And their harmonies were fantastic! Even L.A., who'd often griped about their lack of harmony and once joked that they should change their name to "Fifth Unison," was impressed, declaring, "That was very best vocal performance you've ever done--a really inventive vocal. I was really proud of you." Britney said, "I loved everything about it. It was like magic." Said Demi: "It was so cute, and you pulled out the little sparkle that I think you guys need sometimes." And their mentor Simon declared, "To get into the finale is going to take a miracle, but after that performance, like the song lyric just said, anything could happen."

I so wish that "Anything Could Happen" had been Fifth Harmony's final performance, the one that would stay uppermost in voters' minds. If that had been the case, then I think they might've had a real chance to knock Emblem3 out of the running. But instead, I think they got knocked under the bus. It wasn't exactly a Vino Alan-style busing, but it was still bad. Just one week after Simon had criticized Diamond White for revisiting a song she'd performed earlier in the season, he had Fifth Harmony do Shontelle's "Impossible," the song they had already done at the Judges' Houses when they'd first formed as LYLAS. He justified this move by claiming that he was trying to remind viewers of that great performance (back then, everyone was predicting that LYLAS would win), but this still seemed like sabotage to me. The bits of Spanish in the song didn't help, either; though I appreciated the Latina girls in Fifth Harmony wanting to incorporate some of their heritage into the performance, with this particular song, the second language threw off the rhythm and made the whole performance feel disjointed and unfocused. "I think the song choice was a little bit lazy, because you've done it before. I think you did a decent job. Your first performance was finale-caliber, but that one, I was not so sure," shrugged L.A. "I would be really surprised if you guys were here next week," Britney said coldly. "I'm a little worried for you," admitted Demi. I am worried for Fifth Harmony too, because I think they belong in the finale more than Emblem3 (some of these girls could have even made it to the finale as solo singers), but as the Shontelle song says, it may be impossible for them to get there.

Well, this is when I usually say it's "prediction time," but I think it's pretty obvious that I've already predicted that Fifth Harmony will undeservedly go home Thursday. If they do somehow squeak through, it'll be Emblem3 that they edge out of the competition, so whatever happens, Simon is most likely going to have to say goodbye to one of his charges this week. I have a hunch that he'd rather bid farewell to his girl group than to his beloved boy band...but then again, anything could happen. So tune in Thursday to see what does!

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