Katy Perry dubbed one contestant the "country Justin Bieber" -- plus, powerful stories of climbing out of deepest poverty to find that dreams are still there and worth pursuing.
This week’s “American Idol” delivered probably our favorite original song about the judges and the experience of auditioning for “American Idol.”
They always say to write what you know, and this contestant definitely did that. But he wasn’t the oddest audition of the night. That one went to a self-proclaimed “E.T.” who was just layers and layers of bizarre, down to writing Ryan Seacrest a love letter and a uniquely odd vocal tactic.
Have you ever heard a word bent and mangled and twisted so much it’s nearly unrecognizable? Now imagine an entire song performed that way. Now imagine that’s Katy Perry’s song and you’re performing it in front of her. Her reaction alone was worth the price of admission.
But it wouldn’t be “Idol” if there weren’t also plenty of tearjerker moments, and this week definitely delivered. We saw people who’d picked themselves up from the depths of poverty to chase their dreams, and we saw singers so consumed by their own fears and self-doubt they could barely get through their audition.
And in one case, we saw a delightfully talented singer who’d never performed in front of her mother -- and her mother still came with her to watch her audition. After she did, though, the judges brought her in to make her see her daughter sing live and it was a moment so pure and beautiful, we’re still touched by it.
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.
Just for fun, I'm going to rank the performances from worst to first to see who my favorites are.
(“[Untitled],” Tim McGovern - 28, Allentown, NJ) It’s rare that someone comes in with a catchy original song actually about the “Idol” experience. Tom did that and made it funny and made it relevant to each of the judges, with a sweet nod back home to his mom. On top of that, he delivered it with a nice tonal quality to his voice that fits that folk singer mold very well. It doesn’t sound particularly commercial, though, and apparently the judges agreed. No golden ticket, but at least he’s good at writing catchy lyrics, which should suit his jingle-writing career well.
(“Titanium,” David Guetta f. Sia - 25, Basking Ridge, NJ) Samantha certainly had the judges’ attention when she first performed “Into the Unknown” at top volume with her entire six-member family, the Sharpe Family Singers. While we only got a few moments of her singing solo, she had incredible control of her register, strategically and beautifully picking just the right notes in a run to maximize its effectiveness.
(“Good as You,” Kane Brown - 20, Las Cruces, NM) We only got a few moments with Dzaki as part of the segment on auditioners from home, but what we did see gave us a bit of a cool Bruno Mars vibe, chilling on a Kane Brown track. But the combination worked, as he’s both fun to watch and has a very soothing, relaxed quality to his voice.
(“Best of My Love,” The Emotions - 22, Oceanside, CA) A quick hit from the segment on home auditioner, we got to see her belt out one big note with all kinds of runs in it and hit a few lines of this classic R&B song. She definitely has power, but it felt like a safe audition, lacking in anything that really made her stand out as a unique artist rather than just a big voice.
(“Talkin’ Tennessee,” Morgan Wallen - 20, Cameron, TX) He lacks a little in polish and pizzazz, but Cecil had a few nice lines delivered through this song. We wanted a little more sincerity consistency throughout the piece, but we can see the raw talent underneath. His story is one of loss and hope all mixed together, but he doesn’t quite channel those emotions into his art yet.
He’s definitely got that early Justin Bieber hair flip going, which Katy picked up on and was digging. Luke did a good job of tempering some of the wild, proving that he can be taught and perhaps even honed into someone special.
(“Girl Crush,” Little Big Town - 20, Easley, SC) Absolutely overwhelmed by her nerves, Chrsitian has a nice tone to her voice, but she is way too much inside her head, overthinking every move, every note and every fear she’s ever had just screaming to take over her body. She needs to figure out how to get that confidence and believe that she’s got something special in there.
This audition is another example of the nurturing and creative texture of this panel in how they approach these contestants. Rather than just throw a hard no at her, which could break her, they actually got out there and tried to make her more at ease with everything around her so she could settle into her performance better. And it worked. It got better. She’s going to take a lot of work, and she may not yet be ready, but if she can get there, she could really make a run of this show.
(“E.T.,” Katy Perry - 26, Orange County, CA) There’s this annoying thing some singers do where they bend the enunciation of a word to make it suit the flow they’re going for, but some amateur singers bend it too much. Erika bent almost every other word of this song to the point Katy -- and it’s her song! -- couldn't even follow. She’s an interesting vocalist with a compelling tone in her voice, but it needs to be discernible what she’s saying.
We didn’t dislike what she was doing vocally at all, and in fact found ourselves mesmerized by her performance. If she could just learn to pronounce the words a little closer to proper, maybe she could be someone really special to watch. It’s really going to come down to how open she’ll be to the coaching.
We kind of love that Katy recognized the insecurities behind all the costuming and airs (hitting a little close to her own insecurities) and then helped break through that wall to find a real, vulnerable young woman under that. That woman is worth rooting for because we still like her tone under all the nonsense. We’ll see how it goes.
(“Simple Man,” Lynyrd Skynyrd - 23, Apopka, FL) Living in one of the starkest levels of poverty we’ve ever seen on this show, Mias effectively channeled his life experiences into a confident and controlled vocal on a rock classic. It was so effortless, he almost made it look like it was too easy for him. We’d love to see what he can do if he actually pushes himself vocally and emotionally to an even deeper level. We’re not sure he was really taking in their advice fully as he was just giving polite responses. We sure hope so, because it’s in there.
We can’t help but wonder if he’d shown anything; a bit of hunger, an eagerness to learn; in his responses to their feedback if they might have given him a chance this year. When he talked later about how content and happy he is with his life right now as a firefighter, it clicked. That’s the problem. He enjoyed this experience, but he doesn’t have that driving hunger to be a singer. And that lacking passion was what we were missing.
(“Anyone,” Demi Lovato - 19, Wesley Chapel, FL by way of Puerto Rico) First of all, it was so touching that she sang on the “American Idol” toy microphone her mother gave her when she was little as a dream for the future. But then to take on one of the most emotional and powerful songs of the past year or so, she was either going to be great or flop hard on her face. Well, she didn’t quite rise to Demi’s performance of this, but she certainly soared in the chorus. There’s a very gifted vocalist in there; she just couldn’t completely connect with the pain of the track.
[See Dzaki's audition above for video]
(“Wanted,” Hunter Hayes - 22, Atlanta, GA) with just a few seconds as part of a segment on people who first auditioned from home, Xavier showed off an incredible range and a lot of strength and control in his falsetto. He really put his own stamp on this Hunter Hayes track, making it sound totally his own.
Mary Jo Young
(“You Broke Me First,” Tate McRae - 19, Cleveland, OH) A bundle of nerves and never having even sung live in front of her mother (just on TikTok and Twitter), Mary Jo was a delightful revelation. She has an incredible grit and break in her voice that must just be natural instinct, though you can hear she’s heavily influenced by a lot of the current pop singers on the charts. That said, she’s very effectively in that lane and delivered this piece with true heart. It’s incredible to think she’s so fresh into this world because she’s got a lot of potential.
We were absolutely torn apart at the moment the judges brought her mom in to hear her sing live for the first time, and once again Mary Jo just sounded so current and fresh and exciting. She could be an artist on the radio right now. It’s just so there, and she barely knows it. What an exciting find!
(“All the Pretty Girls,” Kaleo - 22, Franklin, TN) He could calm down a bit on slamming down those guitar strings because he has a beautifully rich smoothness to his voice that gets buried when he starts going at it too aggressively. Hunter threw in a few natural moments of grit and push in his voice that emphasized the message of the song, and it was done in such a way to make it sound instinctual. If it wasn’t, he’s very calculated. But we just think he’s a natural.
(“Part One,” Band of Horses - 27, Rockwall, TX) Graham is one of the most unassuming, charming guys to walk onto this show. In awe of the whole production, he was so sweet. And then he began to sing, and there was that same sweet tenderness to his voice. It’s a unique and beautiful tone that immediately draws you in with its intimacy. There’s just something about a singer who just breathes sincerity in every aspect of their life.
(“One Night Only,” “Dreamgirls” - 19, Milwaukee, WI) From living rough, homeless and moving around all of her life, to the “Idol” stage, Ronda owned her chance at a new direction in life. There is so much controlled strength in her voice, she didn’t miss a single note and she went for quite a few of them. There’s also a natural, heartbreaking cry in there that can’t be taught. Ronda is a real-deal talent who doesn’t even seem to know how good she is. That humility puts a vulnerability into her performances, as well, creating a truly winning formula.
What a beautiful moment she was able to share with her mother after she got those well-earned yeses. Mama’s favorite song is The Commodores’ “Zoom,” a song Lionel Richie revealed he’d written when he was searching for a direction in life. It helped him find his, just as this moment may yet prove to be the beginning of Ronda finding hers. She’s an absolute sweetheart and a pure soul who deserves everything this journey has in store for her.
”American Idol” continues every Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.