Fan-favorite contestant from audition rounds returns with amazing transformation to perform with Rascal Flatts -- plus, Lauren Daigle, Cynthia Erivo and more!
It's been a season of "American Idol" like no other as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic moved production into 25 homes across America, as Ryan Seacrest was excited to point out over and over again over the last few weeks.
Even though quarantine and stay-at-home mandates make a typica lavish "Idol" live final an impossibility, ABC nevertheless pulled out all the stops to rally as many superstars from their homes into joining in on the action.
Ryan Seacrest opened live voting throughout the show, so no one knew the results heading into the night. That also meant one more round of competition to help us make our final decisions on whether or not we want another pretty boy to take the crown, or someone with true artistry ... maybe both?
Just for giggles, I'm going to rank the performances from worst to first in each round to see who my favorites are. Then we can see how close America is to getting it right, i.e. agreeing with me when they vote.
Before they hit the stage (so to speak), Ryan whittled the remaining seven down to just five who would compete for that live vote from viewers. That means an inauspicious farewell for two of our semi-finalists.
We thought Ryan would announce them one by one, leaving us guessing as to who would advance until all five had been selected, but he just let them rip. That meant we had a few moments to say goodbye to Louis Knight and Julia Gargano before shifting our focus.
Here's where we'll pat ourselves on the back a little bit because when we ranked the Top 20 performances, we wound up with four of the remaining five finalists in our Top 6, which is pretty darn good. Our 5th place finisher, Kimmy Gabriella, didn't even crack the Top 11 while we had Francisco way back at number 18.
("Change the World," Eric Clapton- 26, Bakersfield, CA) While we love Dillon's story and his perseverance and strength, we did not love this performance. He put an inconsistent country twang in that was jarring because he slid into and out of it so abruptly. We're not sure what he was trying to tell with this, but we didn't feel the heart and conviction that usually comes across when he performs.
("I Don't Want to Be," Gavin DeGraw - 21, Wichita, KS) We absolutely loved watching Arthur let his rock star out, prowling around his living room and even playing with the audience (in the form of three cameras on tripods). This may not have been the most dynamic vocal performance he's ever given, but he's such an incredibly solid siger with a signature sound and he gave everything and more than we've seen from any at-home performance to date.
("Adore You," Harry Styles - 19, San Francisco, CA) Who is this guy? Seriously, there has been no performance glow-up like the one Francisco has enjoyed during his "Idol" journey. He is leaps and bounds from that scared kid in his initial audition. This was confidence and joy pouring from his throat and every fiber of his being. A world-class performance, Francisco made a strong argument for the title with this one.
("Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)," Kelly Clarkson - 21, Harlem, NY) Maybe we put our expectations a little too high, but we really thought Sam was going to absolutely slay this performance and while we thought she did a great job, it wasn't to that next level that makes it so memorable you find yourself thinking about it over the next week. She's got an uphill battle already against these fan-favorite boys and we're not sure that was enough to stand out.
("You Can't Keep a Good Man Down," James & Bobby Purify - 23, Murietta, CA) Jonny continues to make interesting and memorable performances. He emerged weeks ago as the front-runner to win this competition; he checks all the boxes for an "Idol" champion as a straight, white, good-looking guy. But on top of that, he's an incredible vocalist with a signature vibe all his own and may actually deserve the title on merit alone. Does he have it in the bag?
The theme this round was apparently the song that "Idol" would like to see the contestants release if they win, and yet they are all not only covers but songs these artists have sung before. On the one hand, it's a safe bet for producers, and on the other it allows us to see how much this journey has seen them grow.
("The Times They Are A-Changin'," Bob Dylan- 26, Bakersfield, CA) A much better fit for his affected style tonight, Dillon came back with that authenticity and charm that's made him a favorite to this point. You just want him to do well as much as you want to see him happy and healthy. Vocally, he kept it in his wheelhouse for most of it, but saved a little gas for the closing moments to make it more memorable for voters.
("Makin' Love," Jonny West - 23, Murietta, CA) Jonny has won hearts with his originals throughout this season, so he opted to wrap his journey in that wheelhouse again. On top of that, by dropping this particular single, he reminded us of his artistic versatility as a songwriter and even a rapper, performing his own verse. His flow wasn't quite as strong as the first time, but it's the kind of thing that voters might latch onto. An incredibly smart move as the last performance of the night, but was it too risky to go with something not so recognized?
("Have You Ever Seen the Rain," Creedence Clearwater Revival - 21, Wichita, KS) This is the third time Arthur has performed this song on the show and it sounds fresh every time. This is closer to his Hollywood Week arrangement and it is so fresh and invigorating, it's the kind of interpretation that does stick with you. It also takes a southern rock anthem into the world of acoustic singer-songwriter, which is a testament to both the song and Arthur himself. But was it dynamic or exciting enough to win?
("Rise Up," Andra Day - 21, Harlem, NY) This is the story of Sam's life in song form and you could see her connecting to the lyric in a way we hadn't yet seen tonight. Sam is at her best when her heart is connected to her vocal and her performance. It's then that she touches our souls and this is the right song to do that. I would have liked a little bit of oomph on the track to get some votes, but there's no denying it was heartfelt and beautiful.
("Alaska," Maggie Rogers - 19, San Francisco, CA) Once again, this is the Francisco he's been fighting to find all his life and it's been amazing seeing him discover his artistry and his confidence together on this show. He's gone from a dark horse contender to a sentimental favorite to a genuine threat to take the whole thing. And he's done it in record time through this process. "Idol" has been very, very good to Francisco.
("One Margarita," Luke Bryan) Luke totally brought the party with a mix of at-home footage and shots clearly made before the world went into quarantine. The concert footage with crowds added a tinge of melancholy to the otherwise peppy bop, but the song itself is definitely a feel-good party song as only a true country artist can deliver. And it's always good to for the contestants to see their judges putting their voices where their advice is.
Doug Kiker w/ Rascal Flatts
("Bless the Broken Road," Rascal Flatts) We were so excited to see the return of one of this season's sentimental favorites. He may not have survived Hollywood Week, but Doug is an amazing father and a dreamer who really does have a remarkable gift he just had no idea what to do with. With this performance, not only does Doug look fantastic but he sounded more confident and in control of his instrument than ever before. It was another feel-good moment from the best singer to not make the Top 20 this season!
("You Say," Lauren Daigle) All we'll say is that the boys are damned lucky that Just Sam didn't sing this before the voting was closed or it would have been over. That was simply incredible!
("Daisies," Katy Perry) We're not sure if there's a rights issue or not, but "Idol" did not provide video for this a/v club circa 2001 masterpiece. It was so kitschy and Katy was so silly in interacting with her digital world that it was mesmerizing to watch throughout. The song itself is very catchy in a classic Katy Perry way, too, which helps keep your attention.
Cynthia Erivo & Top 11
Who better to lead a tribute to Aretha Franklin than Cynthia Erivo, who sounded absolutely stunning as she effortlessly crawled all over Aretha's incredible range and power through a medley of her biggest hits. It was great to see the rest of the Top 11 used strategically to best emphasize their strengths as well. It was a beautiful tribute and a great way to say goodbye to ten of those 11 faces. But who won?
Before revealing the winner, Ryan decided he needed to reveal a Top 2. Based on how last year's vote went, we'd say that Jonny West and Arthur Gunn are the most likely candidates for that, but this season is much tighter than even last year.
Francisco Martin shot like a rocket into contention and had an incredible night, so he can't be dismissed. And then there's the incredibly inspiring stories of both Dillon James and Just Sam. On top of that, could Sam being the only woman left be a nod in her favor when it comes to these final votes?
Based on tonight's performances alone, and our own rankings, we technically wound up with a tie as we had Sam in second for both rounds, while Francisco was third and first -- thus averaging second. But a third place finish doesn't get votes, right?
So did Sam edge in for her consistency on the night? Did Jonny (who we think won the first round) clinch it? We'd put our money on Jonny as he's had a longer run of being beloved but our heart is with Arthur as one of the show's true artists this season.
Right off the bat we were wrong and happy at the same time as this season's Alejandro Aranda, Arthur Gunn, was first in the Top 2! The other half of our prediction came true, though, as it was Just Sam who rounded out the Top 2, and what a great pair of artists!
At this point, even though we were kind of expecting women to be shut out entirely, we're now ready to flip entirely and give it to Sam since we were so wrong. She's got the sentimental story and Arthur is too much like that Alejandro slot from last season.
While those are amazing and compelling artists, they rarely are the ones who win this type of show. Second place seems to be more their jam, and then they use that platform to go on and do their own amazing thing.
While we'll never really know why America votes the way they do -- we can only offer wild and totally baseless speculation -- we were right!
Just Sam was easily the most stunned and humble winner we've ever seen on the show. We're not sure who's reaction was better to watch, Sam's total disbelief, or her grandma's celebration through the tablet she was holding.
But it was beautiful to watch, and with her talent and grace and beauty and story, there may not be a better brand ambassador for this show this season than Sam.
And we really, really hope she can turn this into a career and not just a reality-show win. It all starts with her take on "Rise Up" as her winner's single and we can't wait to see what she does from here and where she goes next.
Lionel Richie & American Idol All-Stars
("We Are the World," USA for Africa) As the winner, Sam got the spotlight position next to Lionel Richie among "Idol" contestants past and present, including appearances by winners Ruben Studdard, Fantasia and several others. Sure, it would have been great to get even more "Idol" alums for such a monumental song, but we'll take what we can get.