“Did you watch the show growing up? I did. I cried when Adam Lambert lost,” American Idol mentor Finneas asked contestant Casey Bishop at the top of Sunday’s episode. It was a foreshadowing exchange, as by the night’s end, rock-loving viewers’ tears undoubtedly flowed anew — just as they had in 2009, when Adam shockingly lost to Kris Allen. Casey was sent home in fourth place Sunday, and sadly, unlike Lambert, she didn’t even make it to the finale, which will air next week.
Casey had been judge Luke Bryan’s favorite to win all season, ever since she auditioned with a bluesy version of Mötley Crüe’s “Live Wire” and he predicted she’d be the Season 19 winner (and first-ever rocker-girl winner). And when she reprised the Crüe’s 1981 debut single with a more faithful headbanger rendition this Sunday, she seemed on track to fulfill Luke’s prophecy, absolutely owning the stage with her advanced hairography, vocal pyrotechnics, and actual pyrotechnics. “We're two miles from Whisky a Go Go, the Roxy, all the bars the ’80s hair metal used to play. Let's just go kick the door in, take Casey, bring her in, and have a show, an encore!” Luke exclaimed.
With Finneas mentoring Sunday, Casey seemed to have an overall advantage — being a massive admirer of Finneas’s sister, Billie Eilish, for whom Finneas writes and produces, as well as the most alt-rock-leaning contestant among the top four. She was fangirling hard during her Finneas mentoring session, and even picked a Billie song, “Wish You Were Gay,” for her “Personal Idol” performance. I’d worried that the whimsical tune wouldn’t effectively showcase Casey’s rangy voice (Billie's James Bond theme “No Time to Die” or pummeling “You Should See Me in a Crown” might have been better choices), but Casey brought both power-pipes and a power suit to the stage, she positively smoldered, and she was an expert song stylist. Luke said it was her finest performance yet (“You crushed every aspect of that whole thing,” he raved), and judge Lionel Richie agreed that Casey “killed it.”
And later, when the contestants paired off to cover Finneas songs, Casey’s hushed and husky duet of “Break My Heart Again” with singer-songwriter Chayce Beckham totally worked, with a clear connection between the two, as opposed to Willie Spence and Grace Kinstler’s shouty “What They’ll Say About Us,” which came across as more of a vocal duel than duet.
While I shared Luke’s disappointment over Sunday's result (Casey was my favorite remaining singer on the show), in the end, it was simply too competitive a night. Host Ryan Seacrest declared this the strongest top four in Idol history, lamenting, “I wish we could have four winners: ‘The winner is, the winner is, the winner is, the winner is!’” And earlier in the evening, Lionel admitted he was saddened by “the realization for us that all of our birds are about to leave the nest.” One of the birds had to go.
The votes could have gone any which way; really the only contestant that seemed like a lock was Chayce, whose original single “23” is currently sitting pretty at No. 1 on Apple Music’s country chart. (Chayce also smartly played to the country audience Sunday by performing Zac Brown Band and Chris Stapleton songs — likely scooping up all of the votes that would have gone to top five contestant Caleb Kennedy, if Caleb hadn’t been disgracefully disqualified last week.) If there was one thing that hindered Casey this Sunday, it was the unremarkable original song she was assigned, “Love Me Leave Me,” a midtempo throwaway that sounded neither modern nor retro, but more like a Goo Goo Dolls or Matchbox Twenty deep cut. Maybe if Nikki Sixx (or Finneas) had written her single, Casey would have survived.
But judge and fellow rock chick Katy Perry didn’t seem worried about Casey’s bright future. “You found your stardust completely, and you're rolling around in it. It's all in your hair. It's all in your voice. You found that instant identity. And I think you look up to Billie Eilish, but whether you win American Idol or not, you are going to be your next hero, honey,” Katy assured the talented 16-year-old. Well, Katy just signed Season 16 top five contestant Michael J. Woodward to her boutique label, Unsub Records, so maybe Katy will soon add Casey to the Unsub roster and get her some stronger, more rawkin’ original material. (Side note: Michael was a delight when he came out Sunday to giddily announce his new single, though I don’t understand why neither he nor Season 17 champ Laine Hardy, who also made a brief promotional cameo, got to perform. Did we really need to hear Luke do his single “Waves” instead?)
Anyway, now it’s all down to Chayce, Grace, and Willie. Without further ado, let’s assess their performances on a night filled with what Ryan called “an insane amount of music.”
For his “Personal Idol” song, Chayce did Zac Brown’s “Colder Weather.” He was unsure and tentative at first, overpowered by the house band (perhaps the result of his last-minute decision to play guitar on the song after all). But he worked it out in the end, as Randy Jackson might say, and he delivered a robust, confident vocal in the hammering second chorus. “You were born on American Idol. … You live on this stage now,” said Katy. “What you need to realize is you're here because you're real, and everything that you give us feels real. And that can take you so far,” said Luke. Lionel echoed that sentiment, telling Chayce, “[Viewers] fell in love not only with your voice, but with who you are. That's a genuine quality of being a star.”
It was probably a good omen when Chayce played his Petty-esque self-penned original, “23,” for Finneas, and Finneas — a Grammy-winner who knows a thing or two about writing a hit — starting enthusiastically singing along. Onstage, Chayce combined a full-band version with a reprise of an earlier Season 19 cover, Chris Stapleton’s “You Should Probably Leave.” (This medley format was, according to Willie and Grace’s recent social media posts, also a last-minute switch, and it was slightly awkward.) The staged version of “23” wasn’t as “earnest” (the adjective Finneas had used) as Chayce's acoustic rehearsal, but its lyrics of drunken regret still resonated, and it was the most identifiable of the night’s original singles. Kudos for Chayce for getting to do his own song, too. “Who have you turned into?” gasped Lionel. “It's a complete transformation. You have stepped into your light to the point where I now know exactly who you are. I know your sound. I know your demeanor. Everything is lining up.” (Watch the lyric video for the studio recording of “23” here.)
“A Moment Like This” was an audacious, possibly presumptuous, and definitely corny choice for Grace’s “Personal Idol” performance. Was she trying to position herself as the next Kelly Clarkson by doing original Idol winner Kelly’s confetti-strewn coronation song? Kelly certainly has many better, cooler songs her in catalog — songs that could have recaptured the beautiful brokenness that Grace finally tapped into last week, like “Already Gone,” “Because of You,” or especially “Piece by Piece.” Unfortunately, Grace was back in her Stepford-Singer mode here, and while she sounded perfect, as always, I missed the vulnerability and artistry of last week’s breakthrough performances. The judges babblingly praised her, however, with Luke saying, “Your voice is vocal pyro; you don't need pyro!” and Katy telling her, “I think you are a lot like Kelly Clarkson — and she is a bona fide megastar.”
For her second solo number, Grace’s original single “Love Someone” was about as generic and radio-unfriendly as Casey’s, but her reprise of Demi Lovato’s “Father” thankfully brought the authenticity and ache that I was craving. Yes, there were a couple vocal cracks, but they only added to the rawness and realness (Grace lost her dad, who was her biggest fan, last year). “Way to represent as an artist. Hearing your story and being reminded of everything that you've been through and hearing you sing that song, it really touched me. I felt you. I felt that. That was big, Grace,” said Katy. (Watch the lyric video for the studio recording of “Love Someone” here.)
After Finneas praised Willie for having “one of the best voices I’ve ever heard” and the two threw some enjoyable shade at rival show The Voice, Willie tackled Voice coach John Legend’s Academy Award-winning “Glory” and had his own Oscar-worthy moment. This guy should be singing Bond themes! Willie took viewers on a journey, building the drama slowly and masterfully, and eventually navigating two key changes with ease. The intense performance exploded at the end, and suddenly it felt like we were already watching the finale night. “I'm so glad you took us to church. It was amazing. It was connected. It was spiritual. I'm so glad that it's in God's hands now,” said Katy, as Willie sobbed gratefully. “You're literally going to save people's lives with your voice. You're going to bring people back from dark place. You're going to bring people out of stuff. They're going to walk up to you one day and they're going to tell you that you saved their lives,” said Luke.
Willie’s single, “Never Be Alone,” was definitely dramatic, in a Mary J. Blige “No More Drama” sort of way (with a Bond-style arrangement, actually), and it segued seamlessly into his reprise song, Beyoncé’s “I Was Here.” (I was relieved that he didn’t do Rihanna’s “Diamonds” again.) This was the sonically smoothest medley of the night — it could have been a mashup, even — and it seemed like the performance of the rightful champion. “You're a giant of a voice and a giant of a presence,” said Lionel, praising Willie’s “God-given talent.” Katy added, “Every time, I get chills. Tonight I got chills in places on my face that I had frozen. You brought the chills back. It was a Lazarus moment on my face! … You have that connection to that next realm, and you are using it. … You are stepping into your power and you are walking in the light.” (Watch the lyric video for the studio recording of “Never Be Alone” here.)
So now, it is prediction time. It seems like Chayce has become the frontrunner, as he is in his own lane; it’s quite possible that the roots-rocker will now pick up Casey’s votes as well as Caleb’s. But with one of the strongest top threes in Idol history, it still could be close, so I think next week’s finale is going to be a real nail-biter. However, regardless of this competition’s end result, the May 23 finale will also give the Billboard Music Awards (which are surely uncoincidentally airing on NBC the same night, hosted by The Voice’s Nick Jonas) some stiff competition. The three-hour Idol event will feature performances by Mickey Guyton, Chaka Khan, Lindsey Buckingham, Sheryl Crow, Luke Combs, Leona Lewis, Macklemore, Fall Out Boy, Alessia Cara, and of course all three judges. Kieran, dim the lights! See you then.
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