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Boot Camp came to an end on "The X Factor" this Wednesday, and so did the dreams of 36 of this season's 60 remaining contestants. Only 24 singers (compared to last year's top 32) were granted access to the Judges' Houses, some of them only made it to those rented seaside McMansions because they were forced into prefab groups by Svengali Simon Cowell.
But before we get to those lucky top 24, of course no recap of any always-controversial "X Factor" episode would be complete without some serious analysis/complaining about those that didn't make it. Among the notable cuts on Wednesday were gospel belting "legend" Panda Ross, who was bizarrely never shown again after her first memorable audition; 540-pound minister Freddie Combs, whose "Wind Beneath My Wings" also made him an early Season 2 standout; Gene Simmons's daughter, Sophie Tweed-Simmons; and badass bottle-blonde rock chick Julia Bullock, the girl who (apparently unwisely) dumped her band to go solo on this show.
But perhaps the most egregious (and shocking) omission was that of 36-year-old single dad Jeffrey Gutt, whose "Hallelujah" audition this season was so remarkable, it had practically established him as THE man to beat. Jeffrey may have seemed like a sore loser on Wednesday when he grumbled through manly tears, "It's their loss; I could have won the show"--but he did have a point. He would have gone far, maybe to the very end, if he'd been given the chance.
Speaking of complaining, and grumbling, when the surviving 24 contestants were split into categories of six apiece and assigned a judge/mentor/Svengali, L.A. Reid did not accept his assignment very graciously or enthusiastically. He was given the "Over 25's," the oldest category of the season, but ironically, he acted like a totally immature brat, slamming down the phone and storming off the set in a huff. Later, he quite nastily admitted to his contestants that he hadn't wanted any of them in the first place and was unhappy to be saddled with them. (Wow, nice pep talk, L.A.! I bet they sure felt like potential winners after that.) What made L.A.'s tantrum even ruder/lamer was the fact that he actually did have some very talented contestants to work with, so there really was no reason for him to be so damn disappointed.
Sheesh. I can only imagine how L.A. would've reacted if he'd gotten this category last season, back when this increasingly youth-fetishizing show called it the "Over-30's." He probably would've thrown the fit like the one Nicki Minaj had on the "American Idol" set last week. Well, hopefully L.A. will get his attitude in check soon enough. Maybe he can even take some maturity lessons from his guest mentor...um, 18-year-old Justin Bieber.
As for the other categories, judge Britney Spears was assigned the Teens (contestants, of both genders, ages 12-17); Demi Lovato got the Young Adults (ages 18-24); and Simon Cowell got the dreaded Groups, the category that doomed poor Paula Abdul last year. But even Simon took his news more calmly than L.A. had (probably because he's hoping to find an American One Direction, though I have doubts that he'll get his wish, based on this season's selection). And Demi was actually thrilled with her assignment. I have to say, I've been continually impressed by Demi's enthusiasm and commitment to her job this season--L.A. Reid, please take notes.
Anyway, perhaps because Fox editors wanted to kick off the actual Judges' Houses rounds on an upbeat note, they showed Demi's for-the-most-part-positive experience with her contestants first, followed by stoic Simon soldiering on with his hodgepodge of groups--rather than showing L.A. reluctantly pouting and sulking his way through the Over-25's performances. We'll have to wait till Thursday to see that spectacle.
So without further ado, here's how Demi and Simon's Judges' Houses performances went down, ranked by my order of preference, from favorite to least favorite...
YOUNG ADULTS (mentored by Demi Lovato)
Jennel Garcia - This Pat Benatar-influenced rocker-girl-next-door, who slayed earlier this season with her performances of Grace Potter and Gavin DeGraw tunes, went a little more pop this time, singing Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl" for Demi and Demi's guest mentor/ex-"Camp Rock" co-star, Nick Jonas. I wasn't crazy about the song choice; I prefer Jennel in full-on rawk mode, since (as Simon pointed out when Jennel first auditioned) we need a girl like that on the charts right now. Another slight bummer: Demi had advised Jennel to not play with her hair so much, and Jennel unfortunately seemed to take this as a message that she should tone everything down. "Her light was a little dimmed," sighed a disappointed Demi, after an uncharacteristically subdued Jennel performed. Nick liked Jennel, though--he had nothing else to compare this performance to, of course. I thought Jennel was still good, but she could have done better. And I say let her go crazy with the hair-flipping! She could maybe even be the best hair-whipper in music since Willow Smith.
Jillian Jensen - This bullied girl and Demi Lovato superfan, already known for her passionate and borderline-unhinged performances, went with a great song choice: Sara Bareilles's "Gravity." But she seemed to be overacting just a little bit--for the first time, she didn't seem 100 percent genuine, although she certainly had her vulnerable moments. Nick actually thought Jillian was sexy, but Demi seemed slightly unimpressed--and she also seemed torn, considering the deep connection they'd made at Jillian's very first audition. Would Demi ever have the guts to face Jillian and tell her goodbye? I don't think Demi should say goodbye to Jillian, who still has so much potential--but if it ever comes down to that, Demi may stop enjoying her "X Factor" job so much.
Willie Jones - This African-American country singer took a massive risk by singing "Nobody Knows," the Kevin Sharp song he bombed with so massively at Boot Camp. What was he trying to prove? Why not just go with another song entirely? "Make us remember this performance, instead of the last," Demi warned him. Willie did nail it this time, not messing up a single lyric, but I do wish he'd tried something more fun and youthful--the guy is only 17, after all. But at least he proved that his Boot Camp flub was probably just a fluke.
CeCe Frey - It was interesting, and more than a bit ironic, that before her Judges' House performance, this obnoxious girl with the fake leopard tattoo on her face and "steel in her eyes" told Demi: "My one fear is that I would come across as unlikable." Oops. CeCe has actually been one of the most-unliked "X Factor" contestants of this season (along with Tara Simon and Emblem3, both of whom also unfortunately made the top 24). Demi advised CeCe to be more vulnerable, and to take all the pain she has stored up inside her, which usually makes her seem so tough and brittle, and turn it into to something more tender and real. And you know what? CeCe totally took that advice! I thought when she was announced her plan to sing LMFAO's "Sexy & I Know It" that it would be another cringe-worthy exercise in braggadocio, but she actually did the song in a playful, light-hearted way that--dare I even say it?--actually made her slightly likable. Later, CeCe vowed to get out the rubbing alcohol and scrub off that silly faux face tat, so that "the real CeCe" could be revealed. If she keeps this up, I may actually start rooting for the real CeCe.
Paige Thomas - This single mom/nursing student/Rihanna lookalike/CeCe nemesis gave yet another just-okay performance that didn't deliver on the promise of her very first audition. Tentatively singing a slowed-down version of Chris Brown's "Turn Up The Music" (an ironic song choice for a RiRi clone) while seated on a chaise lounge; awkwardly caressing her neck like a "Price Is Right" model showing off a matching earring/necklace set; and wearing some sort of combination bridesmaid's dress/diaper/leotard thingy, Paige came across as very contrived and over-thinking. Demi was underwhelmed, griping about Paige's increasing insecurity since her original audition. "Can you get her back to that girl you first saw?" asked Nick. Demi wasn't sure. I'm not so sure, either.
Nick Youngerman - The novelty rapper who first auditioned with "Ice Ice Baby" hardly earned himself any more cred by deciding to perform Ke$ha's "Tik Tok" this time around. This was total fraternity-party karaoke, not a $5 million act. Hey, even Ke$ha sang the chorus in the original "Tik Tok," but Nick couldn't even be bothered. The only cool thing about this performance was his revised "she looks like Mick Jagger" line, which admittedly was clever. Nick Jonas, for some reason, "thoroughly enjoyed" this performance, but Demi mused, "I couldn't tell if I was loving it, or super-annoyed by it." It was most definitely the latter for me.
GROUPS (mentored by Simon Cowell)
Lyric 145 - Zombie-contact-lensed act rap act ONE4FIVE started out as a duo, but Simon decided to throw eyepatched rapstress Lyric Da Queen into their mix and turn them into a co-ed trio. Personally, I wished Lyric had stayed solo--as Simon's guest mentor, Marc Anthony, astutely pointed out, she is a SUPERSTAR--but her off-the-charts charisma, combined with the outsized personalities and showmanship of the ONE4FIVE guys, could actually be a literally winning combination. Whoever thought Miley Cyrus's "Party In The USA" could sound so cool? Yes, this performance was a little bit sloppy and a lotta bit weird--but in a way I found weirdly compelling.
Lylas - This was another Simon-masterminded prefab group, consisting of teen contestants who'd originally tried out as solo singers: Camila Cabello, Dinah Jane Hansen, Normani Hamilton, Ally Brooke, and Lauren Jauregui. All five talented young ladies probably could've made it on their own, but together, they could actually be unstoppable. Their group performance of Shontelle's "Impossible" was impossibly awesome, and while I was not yet quite buying their "we totally love each other and we're already total BFFs" act, I was totally buying them as a singing act. A girl group, Little Mix, won "The X Factor U.K" last year (the only group in eight U.K. seasons to do so), and if Lylas keep it up, they may replicate that success on this side of the pond. Simon knew what he was doing this time. Lylas are no Lakoda Rayne.
Sister C - Speaking of Lakoda Rayne, Sister C are this year's token country girl group, but they're an organically created one, since, you know, they're actual sisters. Their family-band harmonies sounded lovely during their Judges' House performance, and Simon later declared, "They are contenders for the real world"--meaning, they could actually sell records after this show is over (something no "X Factor USA" contestant has managed to do so far). Simon did question whether America would vote for Sister C, but clearly he is insane. Of course America would. America would LOVE these girls! Sister C are no Lakoda Rayne.
Playback - Simon struck gold (and possibly platinum) when he put together Lylas, but he wasn't quite so lucky with Playback, a prefab boy band featuring Austin Corini, Owen Stewart, Brandon Hassan, Johnny Maxwell, and some kid named Josh Metzler. (Who?) Simon called Playback's performance "naïve, likable, and fun," but straight-shooter Marc Anthony shook his head disdainfully and mumbled, "I just can't agree with you." Marc was right, and really, with honesty like that, he should have been an "Idol" judge all along, instead of his ex-wife Jennifer Lopez. This performance was just a mess, and no one should ever play it back. Playback are no One Direction.
Dope Crisis - I still have no idea who these people are, since they got no screentime all season and barely even got any this week. They're basically the Illusion Confusion of Season 2. And I don't really know if I need to see any more of them. Their cover of "Super Bass" was not as good as Nicki Minaj's, nor did it add anything new or different to the Nicki original. It wasn't that dope, and now the duo could be in crisis. Simon and Marc both mildly stated that Dope Crisis's audition was "good," but neither of them were exactly raving over it. These guys will be gone by the next episode, methinks.
Emblem3 - Now this is the group I would like to see go. Emblem3 are patently unlikable, smack-talking Linkin Park wannabes--except they're not as good as Linkin Park. They're not good at all, really, or at least not nearly as good as they think they are. Their not-magical cover of the Police's "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" was obviously under-rehearsed, which seemed downright disrespectful on a show featuring so many contestants that want this SO badly and take the competition SO seriously, not to mention a show featuring such a high-stakes prize. "You lost your way a bit there, didn't you?" Simon asked them rhetorically, while they shrugged and rolled their eyes. Marc understandably looked unamused. Please send these jerks home, Simon, and replace them with a prefab group consisting of Jeffrey Gutt, Julia Bullock, and Panda Ross. Seriously.
So on Thursday, the Judges' Houses rounds will continue apace with Britney and L.A.'s contestants, and when all is said and done, all four judges will have to cut two contestants apiece. Demi and Simon's decisions seem pretty obvious, at least to me--but then again, you never know what sort of infuriating surprises will happen on "The X Factor." As for the Britney and L.A. decisions that lie ahead, here's a cribsheet of the teams they're working with, with contestants once again ranked by my preference...
TEENS (mentored by Britney Spears)
Arin Ray - former member of last season's InTENsity
Carly Rose Sonenclar - tween prodigy who first auditioned with "Feeling Good"
Beatrice Miller - 13-year-old stunner who was Carly's Boot Camp singoff partner
Diamond White - the "baby Beyonce" who first auditioned with "It's A Man's, Man's, Man's World"
James Tanner - sassy boy rapper that we haven't seen much of yet; could be this year's Astro
Reed Deming - Bieber clone, first auditioned with two Bruno Mars songs
OVER-25's (mentored by L.A. Reid)
Jason Brock - flamboyant showman, IT tech, "glitter explosion" visionary
Daryl Black - retro crooner, handsome dad of five
Vino Alan - bad boy with a tattooed head, short temper, and gruff rock voice
David Correy - Brazilian pop-rocker searching for his biological mom
Tate Stevens - traditional, very marketable country crooner
Tara Simon - that annoying vocal coach who constantly oversings
Which of these contenders will impress at the Judges' Houses? Will Britney have what it takes to be a decent, tough-but-fair mentor? Will L.A. actually play nice? Tune in Thursday to find out.