Four will become three this week, as the remaining contestants battle for a spot in the finals. Criticism from the judges was sparse, but one highlight of Wednesday's comments came at the chagrin of Carly Rose Sonenclar, who received a bit of mild criticism for the first time in the competition (and possibly, her life) at the hands of Simon Cowell.
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At least she can take solace in the fact that Bruno Mars will be on Thursday's elimination show to give a performance. If she's lucky, maybe he'll even give her some words of wisdom.
Tate Stevens and Emblem3 both received rave reviews, while poor Fifth Harmony couldn't move past their underdog status despite their best efforts. Read: a bilingual performance.
This week, audiences have complete control over the fate of each contestant. There will be no judges' decision and no opportunity for a sing-off. And for the remaining three, they'll go into the finals blind without the benefit of a leaderboard.
But for now, how did the top four fare with the judges? Read below to find out.
"Bonfire" by Craig Morgan
Stevens hit the stage with energy to boot and sky-high flames. Though the high production value went against everything Stevens said he wants (the country singer generally prefers simple and stripped-down sets), but the down-home party vibe was a perfect fit for the song. And, thankfully for us, Stevens' natural dance moves made a bit of a resurgence. Cowell said it best: "You look like a man right now who believes he can win this competition." Spears wasn't quite so convinced, telling Stevens that she's "seen it before but better," though Lovato wholeheartedly disagreed. "That was a freaking amazing performance," she gushed. Reid, donning a black cowboy hat in support of his final competitor, said the showing was "the most fun I've had in this competition." We'll believe that, for sure. While Reid looked like a fish out of water standing up, dancing along and cheering Stevens on, he also looked like he was having one hell of a good time.
"Fall" by Clay Walker
For his second performance, Stevens went with a polar opposite performance from his first. Save for one parallel: Both were great. "Fall" was a stripped-down, lovey-dovey song dedicated to his wife on their 15th anniversary. "Your wife must feel like the luckiest girl in the world," said Lovato. Regarding the competition, all the judges seemed to be in agreement. "You deserve this, you're so talented," Lovato added. "We've seen you hit and miss a lot on this competition, and I feel like that was a direct hit," said Spears, though the comment still drew ire from Reid. "You're consistent. You've been good over time. I don't know about the miss," he said. "Tonight is no exception." Cowell went so far as to say, "There is about as much chance as you going back to your old job as me flying to the moon tomorrow night." OK, so maybe he's not going TOMORROW, but if anyone had the means to take a trip to the moon, wouldn't it be Cowell?! "Let's be clear," he added. "You've made your mark here. I think you've done enough to get into the final. You certainly deserve it."
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Carly Rose Sonenclar:
"Your Song" by Elton John
If Sonenclar is one thing, it's predictably incredible. Lovato touched on that, expressing her initial annoyance that the "alien" 13-year-old had chosen yet another slow song (snooze), but, as usual, she killed it. "I think this was my favorite song you've performed," she ultimately confessed. Reid called the track "risky," but added, "You did things with that song I've never heard done before." Cowell said the rendition was "a beautiful version of a fantastic song," but added a bit of criticism. "I don't think it was your best performance," he said. "I think you're very lucky you've got a second song." The song held a special meaning to Sonenclar, as her pretaped packages revealed that "Your Song" was one of the first tunes that her father played to her as a child. "If you really connect with [the song], you can make other people connect with you," Sonenclar said. The packaged video served another purpose for audiences, as well, marking one of the first moments in which Sonenclar truly expressed emotion. The teen shed tears while saying goodbye to teammate Diamond White last week, while White told her "Britney's team seriously has to win it."
"Imagine" by John Lennon
Spears aimed to show the world a whole new side of her last remaining contestant, placing her at a white piano at the start of the song. And while the move did give Sonenclar a brief moment of musical cred, it was just that: brief. She later got up to walk around and played with the arrangement, delivering her signature big notes as she always does. "It's a difficult song to peak and bring the house down, but you always know how to go in and find that note, don't you?" mused Reid. And while the song was yet another slow option for the mini-diva, Lovato said, "The only predictable part of that performance was that it was going to be amazing." Gushed mentor Spears, "It's time for you to go beyond this stage and compete with the biggest stars in the world." The only bit of criticism came (predictably) from Cowell's mouth, telling Sonenclar that "I'm not sure that song needs those big notes. I just didn't like the arrangement, I'll be honest with you." The comment was a refreshing change of pace for this audience member, who's grown tired of the child prodigy skating by on rave reviews week after week. Her dejected reaction spoke volumes: Sonenclar does not hear criticism often. "It's kind of hard to hear that, but there's nothing else that I can do," she told Khloe Kardashian backstage. "It's up to people at home, so please vote."
"Baby I Love Your Way" by Peter Frampton
While it's not an original song, Emblem3 did their best to bring things back to their SoCal roots with a beautiful performance of "Baby I Love Your Way" while channeling last week's criticism from Lovato. Specifically, the Huntington Beach-based trio spread out across the stage and gave equal love to the audience and the cameras. Smart boys, they are. Emblem3 knows where their votes are coming from. One awkward moment? When the cameras panned to Spears while she was looking down and ferociously taking notes. She must have had a lot of opinions for that 15-second critique that was to come later… So what did Spears have to say? "I feel like that performance felt really special," she said. "You guys have grown up so much. It would be unfair to call you a boy band because you're so much more than that." The boys (men?) also got Reid's blessing, with the Epic Records chairman saying , "I've been concerned about you guys having your big $5 million moment -- up until now. That was the first time I saw you as recording artists … you really did something inventive." The performance also ultimately won Lovato over and brought her back to their first audition that she loved so much. "That's what Emblem3 is, that's what's different about them and that's why I love them," she gushed. Cowell agreed: "If this doesn't get you into the final, I don't know what will."
"Hey Jude" by the Beatles
All eyes were on littlest brother Keaton as Cowell tasked him with belting out the McCartney ending to "Hey Jude." The performance could have easily felt "presumptuous," as Reid put it, but Emblem3 played their cards right. They were themselves -- they didn't try to compete with the legendary boy band so beloved across the globe. "I was prepared to rip you to shreds," Reid said, "but you actually are teen heartthrobs." The trio later took a bow after being prompted by Spears ("That was an A-level performance," she said), while Lovato confessed that the group could experience Beatles-level success in the future. "I don't know if you can compare it to the Beatles yet, but I think that you're getting there. I think you guys have the potential seeing that fan base that you have, it's crazy." Cowell played the role of proud papa, expressing his pride and saying, "You come into this competition with steel in your eyes and you have nailed it on both songs."
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"Anything Can Happen" by Ellie Goulding
Up next was another Cowell group because, as the Brit so kindly put it, "because Demi doesn't have any."
The girl group also took last week's critiques to heart, choosing a song that gave them plenty of room to harmonize, while also bringing some fun and girly flair (in frothy pink dresses) to the performance. Unfortunately for them, the set also featured shades of Lyric145's Mad Hatter-themed performance shortly before their elimination. Could that be a bad omen? Sitting at a long table, Camila donned an oversize bow on her head (a cute nod to her signature headwater), over-the-top waiters and … a wedding cake? "I loved everything about it. It was like magic when you guys got up there," Spears said, with Lovato agreeing that "you pulled out the little sparkle that I think you guys need sometimes." Reid, seemingly unimpressed with sparkle, was at least impressed by the vocals. "That performance was the very best vocal performance you've ever done," he said. "I thought that was a really inventive vocal and I'm really proud of you." Cowell acknowledged the girls' fourth-place finish last week, saying, "to get into the final is going to take a miracle because of who you're up against. But after that performance, like the lyric said, anything could happen."
"Impossible" by Shontelle
The ladies put a new spin on their judges' homes song, adding a few verses of Spanish to the lyrics. The strategy was an attempt to show a new side and, hopefully, secure votes from the previously untapped community of Latin viewers, while reminding the audience of that first moment that Cowell fell in love with the quintet as a group. Mario Lopez jumped in after their performance with a "gracias," but will the tactic work? Fifth Harmony is undoubtedly the underdogs this week, and the judges certainly wouldn't let them forget it. "I would really be surprised if you guys were here next week," zinged Spears, while Reid called the song choice "lazy." Said Lovato, "the hard thing about being the underdog is that you have not a lot of people supporting you on the judges panel, but I think that it's gonna come down to your fan base and how much they support you … I hope they pull through for you, but I'm a little worried." Cowell didn't mask his concerns, but pleaded with America to vote the girls through. "You've been one of the strongest acts tonight. If you are gonna judge based on tonight, I really hope and I pray that America gets behind you and puts you into the final because I really think you do deserve a place there." The biggest travesty of the performance: Where was Camila's bow?!
Email: Sophie.Schillaci@THR.com; Twitter: @SophieSchillaci