'X Factor' Recap: Top 6 Go Unplugged

With Demi Lovato and Simon Cowell sniping at each other and L.A. Reid lobbying for Fifth Harmony to make yet another group name change, the final six took direction from their toughest mentors yet: America.
Ray Mickshaw / FOX

It’s hard to believe that the finale of The X Factor is only two weeks away. Perhaps this is the reason the judges are getting so testy with one another.

Or maybe they are just tired, as Demi Lovato admitted to nearly falling asleep during Tate Stevens’ earnest rendition of “If Tomorrow Never Comes” by Garth Brooks.

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Still, there is plenty of bite left in this show, as Lovato and Simon Cowell continued their weekly snipes at the judges table, and L.A. Reid got off some of his best soundbites yet of the whole season, mostly directed at Fifth Harmony, who at one point was renamed #FifthUnison on Twitter.

The judges did get a slight break this week, as the American public was handed over complete control of mentoring duties via the Pepsi Challenge voting. For at least one song, the contestants were instructed on everything from staging, to hair, to wardrobe and song choice.

“This is the week that the viewers take control,” said Reid. “So now we’re going to find out about America’s tastes.”

While some choices worked well for some contestants -- Stevens was told to just wear his hat, stand in a spotlight and sing -- others were pieced together as if they were styled through the Nintendo DS game Fashion Designer (we’re looking at you, CeCe Frey).

But first, the top six got to show off their vocals with performances of unplugged versions of hit songs, selected by the mentors.

This part of the show was the riskier proposition, or, as Frey put it, “if you have a vocal mistake people are going to hear it.”

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So who fared best?

CeCe Frey (ranked fifth last week):

Song: "Edge of Glory" by Lady Gaga

CeCe was concerned about the stripped-down portion of the show, mainly because she admitted that her vocal flaws were masked by big flashing lights and other diversions. Of course, it doesn’t help that in the pre-taped video package, Reid just about nails the Decatur, Ill., native to the cross with the statement, "I think Cece should have gone home a long time ago. And by the way, I know I'm not the only one who thinks that." She decides to deliver Gaga’s anthem in a simple way, sitting on the edge of a grand piano in a conservative black dress.

Reid changed his tune immediately, saying: “Sometimes we get it wrong. I’m starting to become a fan.” Britney Spears disagreed with a pointed critique, “I think at this point in the competition it should be great, and it was just good for me." Cowell didn’t think Frey is "worth the $5 million recording contract” and went with his tried-and-true line that the song was a "little too cabaret” for him. Of course, this ticked off Lovato, who felt it was one of Frey’s best performances and went off on a vendetta on Cowell as he began to introduce Emblem3.

Pepsi Challenge Song: "Part of Me" by Katy Perry

Where Frey’s Gaga was understated, this performance was a schizophrenic pop-culture abomination dreamed up by the American public, but you got to hand it to the girl -- she said she was going to do exactly what her supporters wanted, and she went all out. Leopard spots on the face? Check. Color streaks in her hair? Check. Daisy Duke shorts with Gaga-esque platform shoes? Yep. Her name in lights? Of course. Crazy dancers, glowing lights and just about anything else you can dream up was thrown on that stage, and you know what? It’s no different than some of the weird staging showcased at the MTV Video Music Awards. Reid, however, took back all of his praise like the windshield wiper he said he was and slagged the performance as “karaoke.” Spears, however, loved it and called it “very entertaining.” Cowell had a smile on his face the entire performance, and told Frey that he loved her defiance, and that if she goes, “I am going to miss you” because she is a “tryer.” Lovato, ever supporting her girl crush, said “You made me proud. And if the Princess of Pop is sitting right here saying you did a good job.”

Emblem 3 (ranked third last week):

Song: "Just the Way You Are" by Bruno Mars

The pressure of the competition sent Emblem3 straight to a skateboard shop for a little stress relief. In rehearsals, Cowell is overheard telling a vocal coach that the boys “needed help vocally” on the track, and he has a point. As he announces the group, Lovato grabbed the mic from Cowell to say that they were about to do another “predictable” performance. Yikes, the tension with Cowell and Lovato is starting to get really ugly. Of course, Emblem3 got their wish to finally come out and show the public that they can play an instrument (at least Drew Chadwick can, as he plucked on his acoustic). I’m sure this song was chosen to seduce female viewers with its romantic lyrics, but Emblem3 unplugged merely exposed the vocal weaknesses of at least one of the guys and also demonstrated that they are not quite good at harmony, despite what Reid says. “That was pretty good. At least one of Simon’s groups can sing harmony,” he said, foreshadowing the drubbing he was about to unleash on Fifth Harmony later in the competition. Spears felt it was their best performance, but Lovato wasn’t done unleashing her venom on the California trio with a humdinger of a burn, “I feel like it’s a downgraded version of the Jonas brothers five years ago.” Oh snap! Cowell was stunned and wanted to know what her problem was. He even called her critique “dumb.” The ever jovial Mario Lopez (still in his honeymoon phase since he got married over the weekend) said he wanted to hear Emblem3 do some Sublime, which actually makes sense.

Pepsi Challenge Song: "Forever Young" by Alphaville

The ‘80s song about living in a nuclear age somehow has a different feel when it’s transformed a la Jay-Z into a reggae number, but it’s what the public wanted. Of course, Emblem3 had a conflict with doing a One Direction-type performance prior to the show, but they handled it just fine. L.A. said he's a "fan" and that they “really nailed it,” while Spears called it “a superstar performance." Lovato, still on the warpath, told them that she wanted them to “command the stage more,” prompting Cowell in exasperation to ask, “What is the matter with you?” Lovato is clearly irritated that Emblem3 are being styled into something they insist they aren’t: a cheesy boy band.

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CarlyRose Sonenclar (ranked first last week):

Song: "As Long As You Love Me" by Justin Bieber

It’s a tall order for Sonenclar, as Brit-Brit chooses one of The Biebs’ biggest hits as her unplugged selection. The 13-year-old singer’s vocal range is quite astonishing. Accompanied by a guitarist and a drummer, Sonenclar’s interpretation is downright haunting, as she phrases some of the lyrics in a way Bieber hasn’t even approached yet. Reid was impressed and liked that she “showed some restraint. That was maybe your best for my taste.” Lovato had nothing but praise, risking irritating the Belieber fanbase with the comment, “You sang it better than Justin did.” Cowell said, “This is why I love working in this country. I’m seeing a star emerge week after week. You’re actually very cool, you really are. One of my favorite performances.” Spears, already smelling victory, said, “I’m so proud of you. Each week, you make the song your own.”

Pepsi Challenge song: "If I Were a Boy" by Beyonce

X Factor fans have fond memories of Rachel Crow singing this same song last season, but Sonenclar’s version may very well have set a new standard last night. Everything about this was perfect: the desert setting in the background, the fog at the song’s crescendo and, of course, that glory note in the middle. Before Reid even had a chance to talk, the audience was chanting, “Carly! Carly! Carly!” “As a judge and a mentor every time you get on the stage I get nervous,” he said. “You never let me down.” Lovato, who in the past called Sonenclar an “alien,” tipped her hat to the teen’s “phenomenal vocal,” but still wants to hear something “uptempo.” Cowell disagreed, and told Sonenclar the best advice was not to listen to Lovato. One question: Why did Cowell think it was a weird song for a girl to sing? Confusing.

Fifth Harmony (ranked fourth last week):

Song: "Set Fire to the Rain" by Adele

What was it Jimmy Iovine said on American Idol about singing Adele songs? Some people just shouldn’t do it, and we’ll apply this theory to Fifth Harmony. First of all, they are already a target of Reid, who slagged them early in the show during Emblem3’s performance without even mentioning them yet. So why do a song that is impossible to harmonize when that isn’t a strength? All this did was showcase each vocalist one at a time, and that’s confusing if they are a group. Reid went for the jugular, quipping, “I still didn’t hear any harmony. You should be named Fifth Unison.” It should be noted, the second he said that, the hashtags on Twitter began to fly. Spears agreed, as she is still  “trying to figure out what separates you from the other girl groups.” Lovato, still hating on all things Cowell, said, “I feel like there’s a couple of you that should just be solo artists.” You’ve got to hand it to this panel, their critiques say more than “that was beautiful” a la departed Idol juge, Steven Tyler. It actually got fun when Cowell tried to defend his group by saying they are nice girls, and Reid attacked with “this isn’t a competition of niceness.” DOUBLE SNAP.

Pepsi Challenge song: "Give Your Heart a Break" by Demi Lovato

Now this was a perfect selection for the girls. Not only did America select the perfect nerd glasses for Ally (whose idea was that? Fess up! That was awesome!) but it gave the girls the opportunity to A) harmonize and B) showcase the outstanding vocals of Dinah and Lauren. Once these girls gel, they definitely have the potential to be the American version of the Spice Girls, but none of them have that wacky Scary Spice gene in them. Reid was in shock, as he finally heard harmonies the same way Haley Joel Osment saw dead people in The Sixth Sense. “That was your very very best performance,” said Spears  “A friend of mine sings this song good, and so do you.” Lovato thoroughly enjoyed hearing her own song, and said, “I think this song should have been your song. You sing it better than the original. It was energetic, fun. Simon did a good job this week.” That was sweet of her to say, but really that song is Demi’s, and nobody else's.

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Diamond White (ranked sixth last week):

Song: "It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World" by James Brown

Yeah, we heard her sing this song already, but if it works, it works. Ask Josh Ledet. Although this wasn’t really unplugged as she used a full band, White really gave it her all. Wearing a simple black Michael Jackson-esque fedora, she poured every drop of her tiny body into huge notes until she finally went full on rock star and slammed the microphone to the ground. The girl means business: She will not be singing for her life tomorrow is she can help it. Reid loved that she brought “showbiz” to her game this week, which was exactly his criticism as he had called the teen “dull” in a pre-taped segment. “That was really different for you. This week, you brought attitude. You sang your butt off,” he said. Lovato told her that it was “risky singing a song you’ve done before, but it paid off.” Cowell felt “it was a little bit screechy in parts, you made up for it in the end. I wish you had chosen a different song.”  Spears said, “You not only nailed it; you destroyed it.”

Pepsi Challenge song: "Diamonds" by Rihanna

This could have been a disastrous choice, but it is understandable why the public chose it for her. For one, it was an awesome opportunity to showcase her beautiful name by encasing the singer in a diamond. That part was kind of neat. Secondly, Diamond was rewarded with a confetti explosion released from cannons. Jason Brock would have loved to have that! Vocally, she was kind of shouting the lyrics, and Reid “didn’t love” the rendition. Lovato thought she did the song justice, while Cowell said that White’s problem was the other competitors were so strong, but overall she had a good night.

Tate Stevens (ranked second last week):

Song:  "Livin' on a Prayer" by  Bon Jovi

Oh, for the love of God why did Reid choose another Bon Jovi song for Stevens to sing? It’s either country or Bon Jovi? "Livin’ on a Prayer"? Really? Are we going to go for the Slippery When Wet trifecta with "You Give Love a Bad Name" next? If you want to give him a rock song to try, how about "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" by Poison while we’re at it? I get why Reid picked it with the working-o- the-docks-themed blue-collar values of it all, since Stevens works at drywall and asphalt jobs to support his family, but two songs from the same band can get boring. AND he skipped the high notes (but to be fair, so does Jon Bon Jovi these days). “I feel like you’re getting away from what you do best, down the middle country,” griped Spears. Lovato found the  performance “a little boring and you skipped out on the high note.” Cowell pulled out a typical Cowell-ism: “It’s like taking a goldfish for a walk. You can’t do it. You have to choose the material. I like it when you choose the material. Not a great song choice.”

Pepsi Challenge song: “If Tomorrow Never Comes” by Garth Brooks

Well, at least Stevens was thrilled with America choosing his “hero” for a song choice. It’s a standard country song, perfect for Stevens with its affirmations of love (again, he’s directing those lyrics straight for his wife, sigh) and perfectly in his wheelhouse. “That felt like a Tate Stevens performance,” said Spears, while Lovato admitted although she sees herself buying his album one day, she took a nap halfway through it, “I got a little sleep on that performance.”

“Welcome back to the competition,” Cowell said. “You don’t put an age cap on talent. We are going to see you next week 100%.” Reid, clearly still ticked that the other judges slagged him for picking another Bon Jovi song for Stevens, said “If there is any truth that you were straying away from your roots, America brought you back. That was great.”

So who is going home in tomorrow’s double elimination episode? Are you pumped to see Melanie Amaro return tomorrow night with Ke$ha? Will Lopez be able to pronounce her name right by then? Will Khloe Kardashian be permitted to make an outfit change midshow ever this season? Let us know in the comments below.

Twitter: MicheleAmabile