American Idol had a new look Sunday to kick off Season 19’s top 24 competitive shows, with the contestants performing on a COVID-safe, scaled-down set in front of an intimate “living, breathing studio audience” of fans sitting in socially distanced pods. But in some ways it felt like a classic Idol episode, and not just because this lounge was similar to the humble, sparsely populated studio where semifinalists used to perform for Simon, Paula, and Randy back in the day. No, the most old-school moment this Sunday was when Katharine McPhee — the runner-up from the highest-rated Idol season ever, in 2006 — teamed with frontrunner Willie Spence, a power-belter with a set of pipes on par with Kelly Clarkson’s or Jennifer Hudson’s.
Willie has been one to watch since his first audition, when he confessed that he hoped to win a Grammy in the next five years and it seemed like totally reasonable and within-reach goal. And this week he seemed to inch closer to his goal of winning American Idol, when he and Katharine joined forces for a duet of Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion’s “The Prayer.” In fact, this stupendous performance, dedicated to Willie’s recently departed grandfather and Kat’s late father, made it seem like viewers were already watching the Season 19 grand finale. And Katharine — no shade intended — seemed like a runner-up again, because on an evening when all of the contestants dueted with celebrities and often struggled to keep up, Willie actually out-sang his more experienced partner.
Of course, reality-show alumni tend to be gracious and empathetic duet partners in these situations, knowing full well what it's like to be in someone like Willie's shoes. And this did feel like a torch-passing moment, as Katharine gave Willie his time to shine. And she seemed as impressed by him as the judges were. “You can do no wrong in my eyes,” proclaimed Luke Bryan, while Lionel Richie called the 20-year-old prodigy “Willie Pavarotti” and gushed, “It’s just mesmerizing to watch you.” Katy Perry described Willie and Kat’s duet as “Goosebump Central” and — after also watching Willie effortlessly deliver an epic interpretation of Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings” — advised him to stay in this lane and keep doing “amazing classic songs that other powerhouses sing.”
I think Katy’s advice was sound. While many recent Idol standouts have trafficked in quirky indie-folk (Maddie Poppe, Catie Turner, Arthur Gunn) or even esoteric experimentalism (the oft-namechecked Alejandro “Scarypoolparty” Aranda), Willie could go the distance covering adult-contemporary ballads reminiscent of the greatest old-school Idol moments from Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino, or, yes, Katharine McPhee.
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Sunday’s episode was action- and music-packed, with 24 performances in just two hours. (Each of night’s dozen contestants did one solo number and one celebrity duet; on Monday, the season's other 12 hopefuls will give it a go.) Next week, eight of the top 24 contestants — four from Sunday’s batch, and four from Monday’s — will go home, based on the first public vote of the year. And while it’s a given that Willie will be among the contestants who make it through, it’s a lot tougher to predict the other results. But let’s assess Sunday’s mixed bag of performances and try to figure it out.
Getting stuck in what is known in the business as the “death spot” put Alanis at a disadvantage, and I don’t think she did enough to still be prominent in voters’ minds by the time the episode ended two hours and 11 singers later. From a technical standpoint, she mostly hit all the right notes during her solo performance of Sia’s “Alive” — until that last power note, that is, which was rough — but she didn’t tap into the survival song’s gritty spirit. It was a very going-through-the-motions exercise. Her duet with Jimmie Allen on “Shallow” was equally, well, shallow, and while their voices sounded pleasant on their own, when they sang together, they clashed rather than blended. Suffice to say, a star was not born. Lionel noted Alanis’s nerves, and Katy observed, “Here’s a megastar” — pointing to Jimmie — “and here’s a star rising [Alanis]. And I could see it.” I think poor Alanis, who has dreamed of Idol stardom since she was a little girl, went from frontrunner to also-ran tonight.
Cassandra was far less polished than Alanis, and she too was imperfect, but her performances made me feel something, at least. Yes, the inexperienced alt-rock chanteuse looked utterly terrified during her solo of Sigma’s “Find Me,” but she made the fear work for her in a way, heightening the fragility and vulnerability of the song. Even Ryan Tedder found her jitters “endearing” as they teamed up for OneRepublic’s “Apologize.” I relished the almost angry he said/she said energy of their duet — it reminded me of Gotye and Kimbra’s call-and-response on “Somebody That I Used to Know” — and since this was the song Cassandra had originally auditioned with, she seemed a little more comfortable here. Luke said Cassandra was “in her own lane,” and Katy described her voice as a “spiritual experience” that induced “full-body chills.”
Like Willie, Alyssa is a classic power-singer in the classic Idol mold, so it made sense that she’d do a song by one of the series’ biggest superstars, Carrie Underwood, for her solo. She probably could have pushed it even further on the triumphant and euphoric “Something in the Water,” but it was still enough to elicit a gasp of “wow” from Katy mid-song. And then, when Alyssa joined Katharine McPhee for another crown-relinquishing Idol moment on Whitney Houston’s “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” it was like a performance straight out of VH1 Divas Live, with a big, brash scatting finish and perfect synergy between the two. “Watching you perform is like watching someone try to keep a cap on a volcano,” said Lionel. I did agree with Katy that Alyssa could've gotten a little more “dirty with it” (there’s a fine line on Idol when it comes to being too polished, and naturals like Alanis and Alyssa sometimes cross that line). But Katy did note that Alyssa was one of the few contestants who were at the same level as their celebrity duet partners.
Why am I feeling like Wyatt is this season’s Phillip Phillips — the sort of untouchable contestant who’ll slide into the finale seemingly without even trying? Katy remarked that the jeans-and-T-shirted, floppy-haired singer-songwriter “looked like he’d just rolled out of bed” in the very same breath that she called him an “authentic superstar.” However, I thought his sleepy solo Tate McRae cover felt more like a rehearsal than a swing-for-the-fences performance (especially following Alyssa). Wyatt came more alive dueting with his hero Ben Rector, but the two were so similar that there were few dynamics or layers to their performance; I wish Wyatt had been matched with someone who could have provided more contrast. That being said, I commend Wyatt for taking a chance and ditching his ever-present guitar for his second performance; this did free him up to work the stage, and the judges were thrilled with the results. “You owned that moment,” claimed Lionel.
Alans has a sassy ’90s-diva vibe that I find intriguing; during her first performance, a cover of disco dolly Dua Lipa’s “Blow Your Mind,” she was serving En Vogue, Chilli from TLC, and a bit of Mary J. Blige. Luke said she brought “great energy,” and Katy was even up on her feet boogie-ing up a storm. During her “Back at One” performance with Brian McKnight — the first time that Brian had ever done his signature song as a duet — Alana sometimes seemed relegated to the role of Brian’s backup singer (which was mainly due to the band’s arrangement), but she ultimately managed to claim a few breakout moments. Katy said Alana “embodied entertainment,” but since Alana has gotten almost zero screentime this season, I fear this all will be too little, too late for her.
During her first number, I loved how Anilee emphasized the jazzy undertones of Billie Eilish’s “My Future” and transformed it into a full-on cabaret/theater torch-singer showcase. Anilee also hasn’t received much screentime so far, and she just came out of nowhere tonight. She held her own with fellow power-singer and kindred spirit Joss Stone too — two earth mamas in flowing floral hippie outfits and bare feet, grooving to Rufus & Chaka Khan. Anilee wasn’t quite at Joss’s level (we are talking about the woman who just managed to win The Masked Singer U.K. dressed as the giant, newspaper-wrapped Sausage), but she was like a junior Joss-in-training. Lionel said she was “in her element,” Luke said she was “so close to next-level greatness,” and Katy said, “I felt like I was at a gospel Sunday brunch!” Anilee has massive potential — if America’s viewers vote her through and give her the chance to showcase it.
Katy pointed out that Deshawn is one the three best male vocalists of Season 19, and she wasn’t wrong. From a technical standpoint, Willie Spence and Jason Warrior are his only direct male competition. But he is beginning to fade for me. His old-fashioned dinner-theater cover of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” didn’t feel as relevant as the night’s other performances, and when he teamed with Ryan Tedder for “I Lived,” I didn’t feel much of a connection between Deshawn and Ryan, or between Deshawn and the song itself. He also was very awkward during his duet whenever he was waiting for his turn to sing, which prompted Katy to advise him, “Let your body not be so stiff.” Luke also commented, “Your voice does take us to a nice place… but you have to shake this thing out.” Hopefully Deshawn will get to the top 16 with his voice alone, but if he wants to be “top 10 material,” he needs to hone his performance skills quickly.
Graham has never been a confident performer, and his snoozy solo number, “Raye,” got off to a shaky start from which he never fully recovered (although I do give him credit for trying something a little different with this sultry tune). However, his “Love Like This” duet with Ben Rector was a pleasant surprise. Whether it was down to the genuine chemistry between Graham and Ben, or the fact that Graham felt more at ease sitting on stool for this second performance, the low-key-ness of the number worked in his favor. And his falsetto was unexpectedly pretty and even sexy. Luke said Graham’s range went to “another level,” and Katy said she was drawn in by Graham’s storytelling abilities.
Rocking a rhinestoned eyepatch due to a recent detached-retina operation, Andrea didn’t let a little thing like a lack of depth perception slow her down. I’d never been all that impressed by Andrea's generic performances before, but this week I thought her interpretation of Billie Eilish and Rosalía’s bilingual smash “Lo Vas a Olvidar” was haunting, ethereal, and elegant. Perhaps having to performing with impaired vision caused her to turn inward and reflective. Later, on her duet with Brian McKnight on George Michael and Wham!’s “Careless Whisper,” Andrea actually outshined Brian. “The way she sings, it’s not going to matter if she’s got one eye or five eyes,” Brian remarked graciously. Lionel praised Andrea for “standing on her own” against one of the “smoothest voices in the business,” and Luke said Andrea did what she needed to do to get “back on the map” after her lackluster Hollywood Week. “I think everyone is saying, ‘I’m going to vote for the girl with the eyepatch!’” quipped Katy.
Cecil has an interesting reedy tone, and as one of only three country contestants in the entire top 24, he could go far based on genre alone. But he really fumbled on “Paint Me a Birmingham.” His vocals were wobbly right out of the gate, and he seemed nervous throughout. The disappointment on Luke’s face was evident. Cecil’s duet with Jimmie Allen, “Freedom Was a Highway,” was better (based on this, if Cecil advances, he should stick with uptempo fare from now on). However, when country superstar Jimmie strutted out looking like an iced-out rhinestone cowboy while Cecil just stood there awkwardly looking like his roadie, I wished that the judges had put through the sassier Drake McCain instead of Cecil during last week’s Final Judgment. “You kind of got swallowed up as bit. There were some pitch problems I hadn’t heard from you before,” sighed a frustrated Luke.
Grace reigned supreme on Jessie J’s swaggering, stankfaced, and statement-making “Queen” — an attitudinal body-positivity anthem that clearly meant a lot to the 20-year-old, who has frequently admitted that she feels like she doesn't fit the conventional pop-star mold. Grace's duet with Joss Stone, “Midnight Train to Georgia,” was also a revelation, with Grace matching Joss note-for-amazing-note on the soul staple. “I’m so excited to be a part of this. … I just can’t believe I have a front-row seat for this,” raved Luke. Katy described Grace and Joss’s performance as “timeless” and “soaring on a different level,” and she advised Grace (whose first audition was “Natural Woman”) to keep doing “upper echelon” classics like this.
So now, it is prediction time. I think the contestants from this batch most likely to go home are Alanis, Alana, Anilee, and Cecil, although Deshawn and Andrea could unfortunately be at risk as well. We’ll have to wait until next Sunday to learn those results, but come back Monday night when this season’s other 12 contestants compete for spots in the top 16 semifinals.
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