This time last season (and the season before), the "X Factor" semifinalists were living it up, pleasure-cruising on Simon Cowell's yacht in the South of France or serenading Justin Bieber beside L.A. Reid's Malibu swimming pool during the swanky Judges' Houses rounds. This year, the contestants don't have it so easy. With the Judges' Houses round now a thing of the past for Season 3, this week the top 40 contestants faced a new challenge…the (cue ominous music)…FOUR-CHAIR CHALLENGE. Gulp.
Starting this Wednesday with Kelly Rowland's Over 25's (arguably the strongest category this season) and Demi Lovato's Girls, the contestants performed on a scary X-shaped stage in front of an unruly crowd of amped-up, egged-on, overexcited spectators who seemed like they belonged in the audience at a UFC match or an illegal chicken fight, not at a supposedly family-friendly show like "The X Factor." Kelly and Demi then had to decide which four contestants to keep. And then they changed their minds over and over again, telling one contestant after another, "You're in my final four!"— only to tell that same contestant minutes later to get up out of that chair to make room for someone else. Contestants' hopes were repeatedly raised and then crushed on national television, all in front of a rioting-in-the-aisles, Roman-coliseum-style crowd. Ish got real.
"I wouldn't want to be in your place now," snarked Simon, as he stared down those poor thrown-to-proverbial-lions contestants with his flinty, glinty eyes. Honestly, I didn't know if I wanted to be in my place, seated in front of my TV set, either. Contestant James Kenney worded it well when he said the Four-Chair Challenge was "like The Hunger Games." But the difference is, most people ENJOY watching The Hunger Games.
Yes, of course, this was suspenseful, nail-gnawing programming. I admit, I could not look away. And yet, at times I wanted to look away. Having already developed some emotional attachment to many of these talented singers, it bothered me to see their own emotions toyed with this way. Sometimes I even experienced squirmy flashbacks to those ickier moments of "X Factors" past, like when Rachel Crow dropped to her knees or Drew Ryniewicz, Astro, and Beatrice Miller suffered their own mini-meltdowns.
Sheesh. You'd think that after all the flak "The X Factor" caught for its mean-spiritedness before — not to mention the backlash against Fox's feud-centric "American Idol" this year, and all the praise for the much more pleasant "Voice" — Simon would not have chosen this ruthless route. But I should have realized that all that talk of this being a more fun, lighthearted "X Factor" season was just that: all talk. Unlike CeCe Frey, Simon Cowell cannot change his spots so easily.
So, first up among the Over 25's was a desperate single mother of EIGHT, Victoria Carriger. She weakly warbled Bob Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love," and she looked, understandably, absolutely terrified. Deer in front of headlights tend to show more confidence than Victoria did. Her performance was shaky and lacked energy. It didn't make me, or the judges, feel much of anything — certainly not love. But Kelly gave Victoria a chair anyway. It was obvious that it was only a matter of time before she'd be asked to give up her seat. Even Victoria knew it, judging by the anxious expression on her furrowed face.
Next was Kristine Mirelle, a cannon-fodder contestant whose first audition wasn't even shown. Her reworking of ex-"X Factor" judge Britney Spears's "Oops, I Did It Again" may have been a creative choice, but not only was Kristine "not that innocent," she was not that good. Kelly made GIFable displeased faces throughout this performance…but she put off the inevitable by letting Kristine sit in the second chair. Hopefully Kristine didn't get too comfortable. She wouldn't remain seated for long.
Singing third was returning contestant Jeff Gutt, the surest Over 25's shoo-in this side of Lillie McCloud. He probably could have sung anything and still gotten a permanent chair with his name on it. He decided to sing "Amazing Grace," and I didn't think it was his best performance. His attempt to turn it into a rock power ballad didn't quite work — it plodded along and felt a little forced. But of course he was offered a seat by Kelly. He'd already done enough this season, and last season, to earn it.
Rachel Potter seemed like a shoo-in as well…until she hit the stage. While her country version of Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable" (basically the Sugarland version) was more convincingly country than her previous performance, it still didn't have the wow factor of her "Somebody to Love" audition. And then she went totally off the rails at the end with a succession of ouchy, pitchy notes. Yikes. Gratuitous camera cutaways to grimacing audience members followed. Rachel tried to defend herself by explaining that she was sick all day, and then the unsympathetic audience booed. Kelly gave her the last available chair anyway. Then there was more booing. Apparently the crowd thought Rachel was replaceable.
So Kelly was was four for four. This meant that the next time Kelly decided to keep someone…she'd have to kick a contestant out of one of those occupied chairs.
Lorie Moore, the former female footballer and one of the standouts of this season's entire audition process, was next. Her cover of Boyz II Men's "I'll Make Love to You" lacked the power of her first Whitney performance (I don't recall her voice sounding this thin), but the confidence was there. The judges expressed their doubts about Lorie's relevance and marketability, at which point Lorie hollered a motivational-speaker sermon that she'd probably been rehearsing for weeks. "I am absolutely no stranger to hard work," she asserted. "Hard work beats a cutesy image. Hard work makes no excuses. Hard work shows up every day. Hard work might fall down, but hard work gets up. And hard work gets a seat!" The crowd erupted. Simon gave Lorie a standing ovation. Host Mario Lopez high-fived her. And the speech worked. To the surprise of no one, and to the cruelly cheering delight of the crowd, Kelly told Lorie to take Kristine's seat. Kristine was toast.
At least Allison Davis got a straight-up rejection: Kelly didn't even bother to humor Allison by giving her a temporary chair. Allison attempted to be this year's CeCe Frey (minus CeCe's moxy or bitchen leopard spots), with a ballsy but ultimately horrific "Tik Tok"/"Push It" mashup. Suffice to say, the party did not start when Allison walked in. The judges looked more startled than that time when Second Hand High performed "Ask Me to Dance." (Which was way, way better.) Kelly made the right decision when she showed Allison to the door instead of to a chair.
Jeff Brinkman, the raspy doggy-daycare dad, was also a miss with a sluggish, semi-lobotomized cover of David Guetta and Usher's "Without You" that sucked all the soul out of the song. Simon called the rendition "monstrous" and "ridiculous." It wasn't quite that bad, but it wasn't chair-worthy, either. Yet Kelly decided to send sad-sack mommy Victoria home so that Jeff could take her seat. Simon protested. The crowd booed obnoxiously, which probably made Jeff feel like doggy-poo. And thus, the cruelest game of musical chairs EVER continued apace.
Denny Smith, the pushing-70 Santa Claus lookalike, took the stage in his signature red suit and wooly beard, and the audience instantly fell in love with him. Nobody wanted to send Santa back to the North Pole, not even lump-of-coal-hearted Simon. But Kelly was able to see past Denny's novelty-act shtick. "Are you going to be naughty or nice?" asked Mario. Kelly opted for naughty, and she let Denny go on his not-so-merry way.
There were only two Over 25's singers left, and since they were two of this season's top contenders — James Kenney and Lillie McCloud — the so-called "final four…for now!" started shaking in their seats. When James strutted onstage and tore into a fiery, fantastic version of "Lean on Me," even Jeff Gutt, James's obvious Over 25's rival, looked worried. The other Jeff, Brinkman, already looked defeated. Afterwards, Simon told James, "I've heard this song a million times, and I've never heard it sung like that. You've earned my total respect." James then rattled off a heartfelt speech to make his case to Kelly, but that was totally unnecessary. Kenney was in. Brinkman was out.
Last up in this category was the impeccable Lillie McCloud, arguably the top frontrunner on the show ever since she performed "Alabaster Box" on this season's premiere. Unless she REALLY messed up — like, unless she faceplanted off the stage, puked in Simon's lap, and started rapping "Ask Me to Dance" — it was a given that she was getting a chair. It was just a question of whose chair.
Lillie's performance of "A House is Not a Home" (a song that ironically started with the line "a chair is still a chair") was as stunning as her first audition, with the judges literally bowing down to her and the once-shrieking audience members mercifully going pindrop-silent and breaking into tears.
But there were more tears to come. Kelly decided to send Lorie home in order to make room for Lillie, and Lorie's friends in the audience practically angrily stormed the stage in protest. Other audience members also seemed displeased, jeering and booing, although it was unclear just who would have preferred to see unseated instead. They probably wanted Rachel out (after all, they never saw her actual good "Somebody to Love" audition, and only had "Irreplaceable" to go by). But I think maybe some of them just liked hearing themselves boo.
Ultimately, Kelly solidified exactly the final-four lineup I would have chosen (and expected, based on the first round of auditions): Lillie McCloud, James Kenney, Jeff Gutt, and Rachel Potter. So was all this drama really necessary? Well, it made for some good TV, so apparently yes, it was.
And then there was more drama. In the final half-hour of Wednesday's episode, Demi's Girls hit the stage, starting with Bree Randall, a fodder contestant who received little screentime before this week. Bree did a dreary and slightly pitchy ballad version of the Wanted's "Glad You Came." No one was glad she came. Even with four empty chairs up for grabs, it still seemed like Bree might get sent home. But of course, filling up the chairs fast, to ensure that some suspenseful switchouts would happen later on, was part of this whole process. Bree begged and whined and basically embarrassed herself. The most embarrassing part was when she said she was "literally born to do this," indicating that she doesn't really know what "literally" means. Anyway, Demi needlessly raised Bree's hopes by giving her a chair…for now. Bree acted way too excited, jumping up and down and clearly taking the phrase "You're in my final four" way too (wait for it) literally. Obviously no one explained to Bree how this Four-Chair Challenge works.
Khaya Cohen wowed next with a torchy take on Bruno Mars's "Locked Out of Heaven." While she'd come across as old-fashioned and pageanty before, doing standards like "I Put a Spell on You" at her first audition, this time she seemed modern and even cool. This was a very easy yes.
Jamie Pineda, another fodder girl (her first audition wasn't shown at all), was up next with a passable performance of No Doubt's "Don't Speak." When she started singing in Spanish, the crowd went wild and Paulina Rubio perked up, and even Simon said that was the best part of the performance. Overall, though, this was not amazing. Still, Demi gave Jamie a chair, telling her, "I can't let you go." So why did I have a feeling Demi would be letting Jamie go as soon as those chairs filled up and more space was needed?
The fourth and final Girls chair of the night went to soul singer Ashly Williams, whose cover of Aerosmith's "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" wasn't quite at the level of her stellar "I Will Always Love You" audition, but was still impressive. Well, Simon wasn't impressed. But Demi was, so Ashly was safe and seated. For now.
It wasn't much of a cliffhanger, but with four Demi contestants in the seated position, Wednesday's episode came to an end, with the other six ladies' fates still hanging in the balance. On Thursday, surely some of those first four will be dethroned (I'd say two of them, and I'm sure you can guess which two, were there as mere seat-warmers for Rion Paige or Simone Torres). And since these contestants are obviously younger than the Over 25's, there could be some very emotional reactions. It could be Rachel Crow-gate all over again.
But, of course, I'll watch. See you then.