"American Idol" is about finding the best singer in America, but tonight they also found possibly the best songwriter that has ever graced the "Idol" stage in Brandon Elder. The 22-year old moved every one of the judges, including yours truly, with the song "Gone," which he wrote as part of a grieving process (we'll talk more about him later).
But it wasn't all tears of sadness this week, as we also got to see laughter when one contestant's dog was not going to let her sing without giving an instant and foul-smelling critique ... right there on the floor. Puppies also factored into the absolute best gift-giving experience possible at the hands of Ryan Seacrest, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan for Katy Perry's 33rd birthday. Anybody with a special anybody in their life needs to take notes.
With only three judges, you stand as the fourth judge, as your votes will certainly have a lot to say about who wins. I'll proudly stand beside you. Who do I think I am? you ask. Well, I spent nearly a decade of my life sweating and bleeding to the music as a dancer. During this time, I was also a member of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, as well as a gymnast, writer and cartoonist. I had a lot more energy in my younger years. And I've spent the last sixteen years analyzing and critiquing reality competition shows for various media publications. I've got this.
Fair warning, since I'm safe at home, I'm probably going to be a little harsher than my colleagues Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan. But I might be nicer, too. Maybe. For these early rounds, I'll just keep ranking them from worst to first as I do and we'll see who emerges at the top.
Now That's the Shit! No literally. One auditioner brought her dog in with her to join the judges, and the dog gave an insta-critique not more than five notes into her song by taking a dump right there on the floor. "Idol" has used its logo in lots of clever ways over the years, to cover expletives and even recently this season to protect Katy's modesty when she hit the floor, but this may have been the only time it was used to cover dog droppings ... and then pee. Yep, as soon as she started up again, the dog had another critique, and this time the logo expanded to cover the growing pool of criticism.
Whistle Tones: Katy Perry was challenged to show the boys how to do a "whistle tone," those ridiculously high octave notes that Mariah Carey liked to sprinkle in every single song she records. What Ms. Perry proved, and admitted, was "I can't do a whistle tone." The auditioner was able to hit some of those notes, but ironically missed every note in her actual audition. [Watch the whole mess unfold in Audriana Bolton's audition video below].
Katy Puppy and the Magic Dress: Ryan, Lionel and Luke really went above and beyond for Katy's 33rd birthday, not only giving her a room full of puppies, but also a dress she had praised during an earlier audition. That's paying attention and good gift-giving. Everyone could take a note from this on how to surprise anyone in your life. To top it all off, they brought her dog out in a giant cake. [Check out the dress in Kenedee Rittenhouse's audition video below].
Audriana Bolton (20) claimed comparison to some of the biggest names in music like Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera as part of her incredibly confident pre-audition package. But could she back up all that with Aretha Franklin's "Natural Woman"? That's a big ol' song! The short answer is no. Like it was really, really bad. Audriana said she was trained in opera and won state competitions, but taught herself pop. She clearly underestimated what it takes to sing popular music, because she just butchered the hell out of a great song. Yet another awful audition gets through; there was not a single note of that performance that was pleasant on the ear. Judges: 3 No
Cody Martin (26) serenaded Katy for her birthday with a surprisingly well-performed rendition of the song. But no one was more surprised than Cody when that was all it took for him to get three yes votes from the judges. No idea what else he has in his repertoire, but he did prove he's got the chops to sing. I was't ready to say yes from just that, though. Judges: 3 Yes
Britney Holmes (28) is a vocal coach who took on Whitney Houston's "I Have Nothing," and she fell short as most singers do. Whitney made those big notes look effortless, but Britney was clearly straining to hit some of them. She had some of the softer parts, but there was nothing really special about her or that performance. Part of the problem was the song, which can only ever sound like a Whitney impression. It's just too iconic. She's too technically clean, she needs to get dirty and feel it. Judges: 2 No, 1 Yes (Katy)
Kenedee Rittenhouse (19) comes from the same hometown as Carrie Underwood, and actually sang with her in fifth grade. She stayed right in that wheelhouse by singing "I Told You So," and you could tell she wears her influence right on her vocal chord. She definitely shares Carrie's big old voice -- with only a few misfires along the way -- but I wasn't able to hear exactly who Kenedee was in that song. She has a beautiful instrument, she needs now to discover who she is as a singer. Her personality is a lot of fun, though. Judges: 3 Yes
Trevor McBane (22) is a goat farmer who works it with his 81-year-old Nan. He was a little unpolished on Zac Brown Band's "Colder Weather," but he showed a depth of soul and compassion in his vocals that reached through the screen and told me he could be shaped to be better in tune when belting. He lacks polish -- which isn't necessarily a bad thing -- but he can emote a lyric. There's definitely something special inside him that is worth seeing if it can be brought out. Judges: 3 Yes
Victoria McQueen (15) was born the day "American Idol" premiered, the fun cutoff date they came up with for eligibility for this revival, making her the youngest person in the auditions. She could barely string a sentence together for nerves, and forgot what grade she was in, but her personality is full of bubbly joy. She ambitiously tackled Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry About a Thing." There was a lot of youth in her voice, and a lack of connection to the song, but she had power and control over her voice. There was nuance and she hit all of those notes just flawlessly. The raw talent is there, and she's ready to just grow into the rest of it. Judges: 3 Yes
Samothias (20) was very invested in his har. He took on Chris Stapleton's "Tennessee Whiskey" in a very slow-tempo lounge-singer style that left him practically cooing the lines. There were hints of greatness in his voice, and when pushed I think he surprised himself at his own capabilities. Samothias strikes me as someone who knows he's got something special, but he's never really felt the need to challenge himself. If he does, though, he could just reach the same heights as Stapleton, a singer-songwriter who can wring tears out of a single word. Judges: 3 Yes
Taryn Coccia (17) took on Jessie J's "Masterpiece and had a very hip and current approach to it. She was cool and ahd the staccato delivery that Jessie J does like no one else. It was a great opportunity for Taryn to show her entire arsenal. Taryn nailed this audition, I think, but Katy couldn't stop wondering if her sister -- who accompanied her on guitar -- sang as well. And so Payton Taylor (20) got her shot as well. She tried so hard to defer to Taryn and let this be her moment, but Katy's older sister stepped back and let Katy shine, and there was just no getting out of it. Payton was all country, but what a voice she has as well. The juxtaposition of their styles is compelling and both sisters have really got natural talent. I think they could probably sing each other's genres and more besides, if they tried. The judges put Payton through, but left Taryn hanging there... which was downright cruel (and perfect for a commercial break teaser). Judges (Taryn): 2 Yes, 1 No (Katy) Judges (Payton): 3 Yes
Daniel Ethridge (22) is a half-Korean country singer, which throws everyone off when they first see and hear him. He had all the gravel he needed and a great voice to back it up on Chris Stapleton's "Fire Away." He even had a falsetto to slip into, and some wonderful nuance to his voice. But his real moment to shine came after Katy asked for something original. He wrote a song for his little sister, who got teased for looking up to him. It was a sweet, gentle little song if written a little too directly, but Daniel showed some diversity in his skill. Judges: 3 Yes
Genavieve Linkowski (18) is the oldest of ten children, who stepped up at a young age when her mother's health took a turn at a young age. There's a pleasant youthfulness to her voice, that crept on shrieky at one point. You can hear the years she stepped away from music, but you can also hear the pure talent exuding from her on every note. Genavieve is a natural singer, and one who is ripe to find who she is as an artist and start blowing people away. She's at the perfect age and stage of her vocal development to step up and take this journey. She's not there completely yet, but she is ready to find it. Judges: 3 Yes
Marcio Donaldson (28) took on his sister's child so he wouldn't end up in the system as he had. He put his own life on hold to take on this one-week old child without a moment's hesitation. That tells us everything we need to know about his character. His stunning take on Labrinth's "Jealous" told us he was everything we need in this competition. This is a young man who has found his purpose in his life. There was a smooth ease in his voice, even as he cracked at a few points. There were a few rough moments early on in his lower register, but by the time he hit the heart of the song, I was feeling it right there with him. Judges: 3 Yes
Dominique Posey (26) effortlessly emoted through Donny Hathaway's "A Song for You." I'd have liked for him to cut back on the runs a little bit -- you don't need them in every line and they're more special when they're more rare -- but that's just nitpicking an incredibly solid and affective vocal. He had power and compassion and a gentleness that was so polished, he is more than ready to take this competition by storm. Judges:
Amalia Watty (28) tackled a songwriter's song with Adele's "To Make You Feel My Love," and immediately put her own unique flare on it. She punched it up a bit without losing the message of the song. There were some wonderful vocal affectations and changes she made to the original melody to interpret it better for her wider range and higher voice. This is how you tackle a cover tune; you make it your own. Amalia is ready for this, with a polished and impressive vocal on a song with a limited range. Her journey could be very exciting to watch. Judges: 3 Yes
Brandon Elder (22) has only been singing for about a year, picking it up to help him process his mother's decline and death from cancer. Even as a newcomer to music, he presented an original song he wrote for his mother called "Gone." That song was genuinely breathtaking, easily one of the most beautiful, honest and heartfelt original songs to ever grace this show, and performed with such subtle emotion and beauty. There aren't the words to properly capture the specialness of what Brandon just laid out there. And song aside, that is a voice that can sell records, even if it has an unpolished and limited range, reminding me at times of Chris Stapleton. Judges: 3 Yes
"American Idol" airs twice weekly on Sundays and Mondays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.