"The X Factor" played a rather confounding game of musical chairs on Wednesday, debuting a new elimination round called the Four-Chair Challenge.
The new competition — which judge Simon Cowell told MTV News is a little "controversial" — takes the place of the boot camp and judges' houses rounds. The rules are simple, at least on the surface: The 10 artists from each of the four categories — Boys, Girls, Over 25s and Groups — compete for the four available positions in their field, physically represented by chairs, and thereby narrowing the pool of contestants from 40 to 16. And that's what happens, eventually — after a drawn-out, passive-aggressive elimination process that removes all meaning from the phrase "final four."
Wednesday's episode focused on the Over 25s, overseen by Kelly Rowland. And while the Four-Chair Challenge had been teased in advertisements as the most brutal round of cuts ever, the reality wasn't so cruel, with the first four contestants to take the stage getting the nod of approval from Rowland and occupying those four precious chairs.
So that's it, right? Not quite. Because making it to one of the chairs means nothing until everyone has sang, because singers in those chairs can be replaced, even after their mentor has told them, in plain English, that they've "made the final four." Confused yet? Everyone is! And we haven't even gotten to the part where Rubio praised a contestant for having a lot of "gritch." (She really did.)
In the end, Rowland sent eight of her 10 singers through to her "final four." That means four singers that she told had made the final four were sent home, after they were told they had made the final four. (They probably left wondering why they didn't try out for "The Voice" instead.)
The four Over 25s moving on are Jeff Gutt, a 37-year-old single dad from Detroit who moved the judges with his version of "Amazing Grace"; 29-year-old Nashville bartender Rachel Potter, who struggled through a country rendition of Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable" but was sent through because Rowland said she believed in her raw potential; James Kenney, a season-one veteran from Portland, Oregon, who sang a soulful version of "Lean on Me" that earned Cowell's "total respect"; and Lillie McCloud, a 54-year-old grandmother who earned a standing ovation from the judges after singing "A House is Not a Home."
Victoria Carriger, Kristine Mirelle, Lorie Moore and Jeff Brinkman — the latter of whom sang a version of Usher and David Guetta's "Without You" that was aptly dismissed as "monstrous" and "totally ridiculous" by Cowell — had the rather dubious honor of being dismissed after being sent through to the chairs. Both Allison Davis, who sang an embarrassing mash-up of Ke$ha's "Tik Tok" and Salt-N-Pepa's "Push It," and 68-year-old Santa Claus lookalike Denny Smith were sent home without ever gracing one of the four finalist chairs.
The end of Wednesday's episode saw the beginning of the Girls' Four-Chair Challenge, and mentor Demi Lovato began by pulling a Rowland and letting her first four singers — Bree Randall, Khaya Cohen, Jamie Pineda and Ashly Williams — through to the four waiting chairs. But six more contestants have yet to go, and they'll compete for those same four chairs on Thursday's episode of "The X Factor." And it seems like making sense of the Four Chairs is just the beginning of "The X Factor's" latest challenge.