Sunday brought the first live-voted show of American Idol Season 20 — meaning that within the course of two hours, 14 contestants all performed live coast-to-coast; viewers in all time zones cast their votes in real time; and by the episode’s end, Ryan Seacrest was already sending three singers home.
It’s a controversial, fast-tracking, mass-elimination format that’s been in place ever since ABC rebooted the series and did away with separate results shows. And unfortunately, it’s a format that has resulted in many premature goodbyes to underdog, under-the-radar contestants who would have had the luxury of time and more opportunity to evolve if they’d competed back in the day. In fact, it could be argued that Jordin Sparks, David Cook, Kris Allen, Lee DeWyze, or even Kelly Clarkson would have never won Idol under these current circumstances.
And it’s a format that made it so Ava Maybee — who was just emerging as the new rock star of Season 20 — won’t be winning Idol. The 20-year-old daughter of Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith was sadly cut Sunday, along with Allegra Miles and Dan Marshall.
Ava came out swinging this week, covering “Sign of the Times” by Harry Styles and looking like a bona fide Harriet Styles with her lavender pussy-bow blouse and smart sailor slacks. (“I'm a massive [Harry] fan. I knew I was choosing him for the breakout round, for sure. He wore a glitter rainbow suit to Coachella! I would do that!” Ava laughed.) The Idol style-setter, from whom Katy Perry herself was actually starting to glean fashion tips, looked like a superstar, and she sounded like one too — Ava’s alto was always one of the most powerful and distinctive voices among the semifinalists. But a strange arrangement that started with the ballad’s less familiar pre-chorus (an artistic choice that this week’s refreshingly honest and astute guest mentor, Gabby Barrett, openly questioned) threw off the performance’s momentum — and was ultimately Ava’s undoing.
Lionel Richie said he noticed Ava “thinking” during the first half of the song, but said “the second half was on fire.” Katy agreed that “the whole room was vibrating” during the second half, and Luke Bryan told Ava, “You hit the big notes at the end, and some of those notes were the first time I've heard you dig in like that. Those were big, big moments, and that's what the show is about.” But apparently a strong second half just wasn’t enough. Ava was my favorite contestant this season, and I even thought she had a chance of making it to the finale. But she’s already such a star, maybe she doesn’t need to win Idol in the long run. After all, Gabby Barrett herself didn’t win Season 16, and she’s doing just fine.
As for Sunday night’s other two cast-offs, I was saddened but not surprised to see Allegra leave the competition. Her cover of Billie Eilish’s “Ocean Eyes” was, as Gabby put it, “a no-brainer” and “right in her wheelhouse,” and Allegra delivered a hauntingly falsetto-laden, nearly Grammy-level piano version of it. Luke explained, “That is why we saved you, right there” — referring to the fact that Allegra had been a judges’ pick last week, after failing to secure the public vote. Katy implored the voters who’d previously overlooked Allegra, “I hope America does not make the same mistake.” Oh well. For whatever reason, Allegra never really connected with Idol viewers. She actually did better on The Voice two years ago, when she made the top nine.
However, I don’t think America made a mistake when viewers sent Dan home this week. I never understood this vanilla everyman’s appeal in the first place, and his Sunday cover of Kenny Chesney’s “She’s Got It All” was yet another safe song choice and yet another charisma-free, amateur-hour performance that left the judges underwhelmed. In a fiercely competitive season when even a package artist as exciting as Ava Maybee can’t make the top 11, it was definitely this inexperienced ex-footballer’s time to go.
So, that leaves us with 11 talented contestants who will compete again Monday in something called the “Judges’ Song Contest” (not to be confused with NBC’s spring season The Voice replacement/failed Eurovision spinoff American Song Contest, which Idol has been steadily crushing in the ratings). Then, after another real-time coast-to-coast vote, two more singers will go home Monday. But before all that, let’s assess their Sunday performances, and see if America made any other “mistakes.”
Jay, “Just the Way You Are”
Jay did well with a retro-modern vibe last week when covering Amy Winehouse, and this Motown-ish Bruno Mars hit struck a similarly pleasant chord. I do think Jay's excessive, almost aggressive smiley-ness was distracting, but his vocal was solid (Bruno is not easy to sing). Lionel appreciated Jay’s song choice, saying, “For the first time, you're showing up on the stage singing songs that you should be singing. This is who you are. I felt this to be the closest thing to your artistry.”
Huntergirl, “Baby Girl”
Huntergirl looked glam and glowed-up, like a CMT-ready star, but I wish she’d shown more depth as she dedicated this song to her parents in the audience. She didn’t demonstrate either a vast vocal or emotional range, and she didn’t quite tap into the song’s meaning as Gabby had advised. But she did tear up at the end, and the judges, who’ve loved this country girl since her first platinum-ticket audition on the Season 20 premiere, almost teared up too. “You have a heart of gold with a voice of gold, and I just want to see you win. I think everyone in America wants to see you win, because you're a legit great person with a great talent,” proclaimed Katy — although she did advise Huntergirl to take more “ownership” of the stage.
Christian Guardino, “Take Me to Church”
Gabby told Christian to focus on Hozier’s lyrics and pick his moments, and while this killer singer took her direction for the most part, there was something about this arrangement that diminished the pomp and circumstance of the power ballad. Christian’s phrasing seemed a little rushed, and his staging was a bit unsure and awkward. Still, his vocal was technically stupendous — or, as Katy worded it, “spirited” and “evangelical.” Luke noticed Christian’s unsteadiness, but also saw the potential. “When you had the microphone on the microphone stand, that wasn't want you wanted to be doing. You wanted to grab the microphone off the stand! Because then you grabbed it, and it went to another level. Think about these things. If you're not comfortable with something you're doing, make sure you're firing on all cylinders right off the bat,” Luke explained.
Leah Marlene, “Happy Together”
After being torn between doing this cheery, feel-good Turtles ditty or Tears for Fears’ “Mad World,” Leah heeded Gabby’s advice to sing the former. I thought this was a mistake — that “Happy Together” would be too lightweight/throwaway/novelty — but Leah still brought a certain drama and moodiness to the proceedings. This was unexpectedly epic! “You took a Turtles song, which I happen to love, and turned it into your song — and I forgot all about the Turtles,” Lionel marveled. “In my opinion, the show has finally started. It's nice to see the variation of what you can do, and bringing back that slaying guitar. You look like and sound like you have this confidence. You're like St. Vincent. You're so cool. You really feel like you've arrived,” raved Katy.
Fritz Hager, “Let It Go”
The plaintive James Bay song — Fritz’s goodbye message to his insecure pre-Idol self — was a lovely fit for this sweet young soul. He sounded absolutely lovely. “You're an artist, the way you sold that on guitar and held the room,” said Luke. “That is the absolute way to make us listen: The quieter you get, the quieter we listen, the quieter we understand. You pulled us in,” added Lionel. Katy claimed she couldn’t “play favorites” (even though she’d pretty much done just that with Huntergirl?) and simply begged America to vote and “protect” Fritz. Does Katy know something we don’t? Is Fritz an on-the-bubble, at-risk contestant that needs to beg for votes? I’ve been assuming that this former dark horse has now achieved frontrunner status, thanks to an impressive, consistent run of heart-on-plaid-sleeve performances like this one.
Tristen Gressett, “Whataya Want From Me”
Tristen was someone that I definitely thought was at risk this week. (In fact, at the end of the night when he was awaiting his fate alongside Ava, Allegra, and Dan, I was sure that he was a goner.) After Tristen strayed from his classic rock roots last week with a Weeknd cover and had to be saved by the judges, this week he did another risky pop tune, Adam Lambert’s “Whataya Want From Me.” While I loved the song choice — I’ve actually compared over-the-top showman Tristen to Adam in the past — I knew many viewers probably wished he’d just go back to doing CCR and Joe Cocker songs. This was a very Lambertian performance — the way Tristen theatrically wailed, sex-eyed the camera, and rocked the guyliner and sequins — but it wasn’t a perfect (read: Adam-like) vocal. In fact, the background singers unfortunately overpowered him in the chorus. Still, a nice good-luck video message from Adam himself, and Tristen’s genuinely verklempt reaction to Adam’s message, probably won him some votes from the Glamberts, who are a loyal bunch. And I’m glad Tristen survived, because Season 20 would be a lot less interesting without him, especially now that Ava is gone. “You always bring the drama, and especially tonight. You were doing something interesting, new, and weird. You're pulling out a new card that we've never seen. You keep evolving. You have the coolest, weirdest, awesomest vibe. I'm so into it,” gushed Katy. Hopefully America can get into it too.
Lady K, “I Believe”
Lady confessed that covering her idol Fantasia’s coronation song was a “ big performance” for her, and Gabby noticed how nervous and “uncomfortable” Lady looked during rehearsals. But Lady sure looked pretty comfortable by the time she got onstage! She almost looked like she was singing on her own finale night. Katy described her as “elegance personified.” Luke cried out, “Evolution alert!” And Lady’s biggest fan and fellow Tuskegee native, Lionel, described her journey as “from homeless to centerstage to going to the next level.” Lionel also told her, “That was the best performance I've ever seen you do.”
Mike Parker, “Hurricane”
Mike was surprisingly up for elimination last week and had to be saved by the judges, and I don’t know if he exactly set the stage on fire with this serviceable Luke Combs cover this week. This might not be enough, although maybe there will be a clearer lane for him now that one of this season’s other male country crooners, Dan, is out of the way. That being said, Katy loved Mike’s “authentic country soul sangin’” and was “vibing” him, and Luke told him, “What that performance showed me is, man, you're a fighter. Way to show up and show America you're here to play.” I think Mike needs to show up a bit more, and fight a bit harder, to stay in this game. But I am happy that he’s made it this far.
Emyrson Flora, “Drivers License”
Gabby advised this self-confessed “over-thinker” to loosen up — but maybe Emyrson needed to think a bit more. While Emyrson’s performance was convincing, as this 16-year-old delivered Olivia Rodrigo’s teen heartbreak ballad, she did hit some surprisingly sharp, shouty notes at end. It was the first time that I’d ever noticed pitch problems from this wunderkind. But the intention was there, and that’s what the judges appreciated. “Your stage presence, the way you sing, it's just so timeless and classy and classic,” said Luke. “There’s an old, settled cry you have in your voice. And when that cry comes out, regardless of anything else you're thinking, it's believable. That's the essence, to make sure we feel what you're singing,” said Lionel. Katy agreed that Emyrson’s cry is her “special sauce.”
Noah Thompson, “Stand by Me”
Noah had planned to do Chris Stapleton’s “Nobody to Blame,” but Gabby sensed that he had no real connection to that song, so he switched it at the last minute. Obviously this was a huge risk, and the Ben E. King oldie has been covered so many times, but Gabby’s advice turned out to be wise indeed. The sweet and tender “Stand by Me” was the perfect showcase for Noah’s weathered, lived-in voice and pretension-free persona, and while he did look somewhat terrified and probably could have benefited from more rehearsal, it still worked in the end. “Gabby gave you a gift by changing that song,” asserteed Lionel. “No matter if you're singing a Rihanna song or ‘Stand by Me,’ it's always that Kentucky-kid authentic country sound, which is fantastic,” raved Katy.
Leonard Cohen’s classic has been performed on singing competitions so many times that Cohen actually once said too many people have covered it, and one reality fan even made a “megamix” (back in 2014!) of all the Idol, Voice, Got Talent, and X Factor contestants who’ve given it a go. But this vocal goddess, dedicating the Jeff Buckley version to her cancer-survivor grandmother, somehow managed to breathe new life into the song. Katy was of course way too effusive when she blasphemously declared, “Backstage, we had a fight over who does the best rendition — Leonard Cohen or Jeff Buckley. It might just be Nicolina now!” But Nicolina is masterful when it comes to picking her moments, building the drama, and never over-singing, so even the late Cohen may have grudgingly appreciated her “angelic” effort. Luke told Nicolina, “You truly look like you've been in this role for 30, 40 years. It's truly just a God-given talent.”
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