Reality television got super real this week as Luke Bryan contracted COVID-19, one fan-favorite contestant pulled out of the competition unexpectedly and Ryan dropped a bombshell twist that changes this season forever!
It was a night of huge surprises, epic performances, and the biggest twist in the history of “American Idol.”
We thought Luke Bryan coming down with COVID-19 ahead of the season’s first live show with OG judge Paul Abdul jumping in last minute to replace him was as exciting as it was going to get. Then we got a video chat with Randy Jackson, live text updates from Luke throughout the night and then that epic bombshell we’re still trying to fully process.
On top of that, we found out that one of the season’s most compelling artists had dropped out sometime between Sunday night’s show and this first live broadcast. And through it all, we had to get to the business of whittling down this incredible Top 16 -- well 15, now -- into a Top 12.
That was done by revealing America’s Top 10 vote and having the Bottom 5 sing for their lives, or in this case, the final two slots determined by the judges. Everyone got to perform, but with no vote from America after today’s show, only those five performances were critical.
Our Top 10 performing was just a bonus for their fans, as well as another piece of their “Idol” journey and something to consider once those voting options do open up again. After all, an “Idol” isn’t always just their most recent performance.
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.
(Light On,” Maggie Rogers - 24, Columbia, TN) It’s wild we still could hear so much in the way of nerves in Cassandra’s voice even after she’d been declared safe. She has come a long way with her confidence and has this infectious, almost fairy-like presence when she’s on stage. This wasn’t the most consistently on-point vocal she’s delivered to this point, but she’s still definitely growing into herself as a performer. If she finds her way, she could be a very compelling, indie-pop type of artist.
(“House of the RIsing Sun,” The Animals - 16, Estero, FL) We love everything Casey represents about throwback rock-and-roll, but this wasn’t the best fit for her voice. She didn’t have quite the command on the verses that the song wants, with an almost sinister and haunting tone, and it took quite a while for her vocals to finally soar into a beautiful end. She has such a richness to her tone, she just needs to find something she connects with more. Luckily, she’s in her own lane, so she’s always memorable, even if she goes first.
(“I Can’t Make You Love Me,” Bonnie Raitt - 22, Franklin, TN) Hunter has a sweet tenderness in his voice that no one else in the competition has, and it seems to surprise us again (in a good way) every time he hits the stage. This was a very understated performance, but it had a gentle believability to it. This song is all about the story, the message and the cry in the lyrics, and Hunter delivered it almost flawlessly. His is a compelling voice that draws you into his world. If he could emote a bit more effectively, he’d probably have us all in tears with it.
(“What Brings Life Also Kills,” Kolton Moore & The Clever Few - 24, Apple Valley, CA) From his first audition to now, Chayce has just remained this authentically cool guy -- who thought he wasn’t -- with a raspy grit in his voice you can’t buy. It’s the voice of authority and authenticity, a voice of pain and life lived. It might be a personal bias, but this is the kind of voice that screams Americana to us, like it’s the voice of our nation telling our story. We’ll just say, it’s special, and he did great on this one again.
(“Love of My Life,” Queen - 15, Laguna Niguel, CA) There’s a divine quality to Ava’s folk vocal that was perfect for her interpretation of this Queen (lesser-known) classic. Obviously, she’s not going to deliver what Freddie Mercury did, but Ava has her own unique tone and an honest sincerity she can inject into her performances. Every time, it’s shocking to see her as just a 15 year old because that voice carries so much authority and confidence you find yourself asking where on earth it all comes from.
(“Greatest Love of All,” Whitney Houston - 19, Perryville, KY) Someone has stepped into their confidence, following Roberta Flack with Whitney! It’s a daunting task on a good day and Alyssa stepped almost all the way up to the challenge. She fell short only in a few places, and those might not have mattered were the inevitable comparisons to one of the greatest voices of all time not swirling in our heads. Alyssa has a bright future in front of her as a singer, with a ton of raw power and already a sense of who she is as a vocalist.
(“Nowhere,” Caleb Kennedy - 16, Roebuck, SC) This was Caleb’s unfinished audition song, finally finished and it got so much better! This is an incredible piece of contemporary country music that came from the pen of a 16 year old. If he can replicate this kind of songwriting and performing prowess on his own music, Nashville would be a fool not to welcome him with open arms. The vocal was perfect, the wistful heartache tinged with Southern pride and melancholy, painting just the right kind of picture and projecting just the right kind of mood for that truck ride to nowhere.
(“Higher Ground,” Stevie Wonder - 20, Cleveland, OH) We were happy to be wrong when it came to Deshawn after the Jason Warrior debacle Sunday night. He has such a natural talent, he was effortless tackling Stevie Wonder, of all people. He’s not completely confident moving around the stage, though he’s come a long way, but his voice is so buttery and smooth, we don’t mind the bouncing up and down (until it took a little of his breath away). With power and range like this, Deshawn really can inject so much energy into anything, and we’re thrilled he’s continuing to push himself creatively and artistically.
(“Dangerous Woman,” Ariana Grande - 20, Chicago, IL) We love watching Grace settle into her confidence. She brought a sultry sexiness to her performance this week that was exciting to see, showcasing a new texture to what might be the competition’s most blatantly powerful voice. She’s still learning to grapple and control her incredible gift, but this was a huge step in that direction, and an indication of what a big voice she could be in the contemporary music scene. We’re still not entirely sure who she is as an artist, but it’s starting to come together and it’s pretty exciting to watch.
(“Diamonds,” Rihanna - 21, Douglas, GA) This is a world-class singer on a singing competition. Willie could well become the biggest star to come out of ABC’s iteration of this show as he truly is that special. His voice has so many rich textures and depth, it’s almost as if he’s harmonizing with himself. On top of that, his humility and graciousness make him so endearing. Everything about Willie screams winner, and has since he first sauntered into that audition. He’s incredible every single time.
Mixing up the format, Ryan brought the Top 16 up one by one. They either got the good news they were in the Top 12 and performed immediately or they had to make their way to the “Danger Zone,” where they then had to sing for their very lives … and then wait until the end of the night for the judges’ decisions. With Wyatt stepping out of the competition, only five would find themselves here, with two getting the opportunity to advance.
(“Hotline Bling,” Drake - 26, Fayetteville, AR) We had her among the best singers of the night on Sunday, so it’s a bit of a surprise to see her here. But then, she kind of botched the delivery of this piece, with an awkwardly placed “Idol power note” and no real sense of compelling rhythm. It lacked anything to get us excited, which can’t be good news for someone who really needs to stand out right now to these judges. Luckily, she’s been much better in previous performances.
(“Cover Me Up,” Jason Isbell - 28, Rockwall, TX) Graham’s song choice did him in, we’d bet, on Sunday night. It’s hard to connect with a modern audience on a Frank Sinatra song, and that’s where we feel he fell short. This was a better song choice, and Graham handled it beautifully. He’s in a similar lane to Chayce stylistically, but he made a strong statement for why he deserves the opportunity to carry on with a gentle rasp, sincerity and so much heart. On top of that, Graham is just such a likable dude.
(“Heart Attack,” Demi Lovato - 19, Dade City, FL) Alanis has such an impressive instrument that she’s clearly still growing into, but she’s still missing a few of her big notes. And when she’s not belting, she’s yet to figure out how to be as compelling on the more gentle verses of each song she takes on. All the pieces are here for her to be a really exciting artist, who definitely fits into Demi’s mold and lane, but she hasn’t yet figured out how to fit them all together seamlessly. We thought she wouldn’t make it this far, and this one might have finally been too inconsistent to carry forward.
(“Grow as We Go,” Ben Platt - 23, Boston, MA) At this point, we’re not sure what America is doing. Bean had a terrible performance a couple of weeks ago and he was put into the Top 16. He had his best night of the competition Sunday night and here we are. Once again, he proved just how much he’s grown as a singer and a performer with this performance. Bean is coming into his confidence and it’s beautiful to watch. There’s a smooth purity in his voice that he’s now making look effortless, but we know how much he’s had to grow to get to this point. Is it too theater for this show, though?
(“Waves,” Dean Lewis - 22, Boxford, MA) With his back against the wall, Colin had the perfect song lined up to really showcase his heart and his talent. This song had a lot of different vocal layers, which he delivered flawlessly. It was an extremely polished performance and did a lot to make up for his underwhelming Sunday night performance that left us disappointed, as we knew he had this type of potential in him.
Three of our bottom four predictions wound up in this group, alongside Bean -- who was better than he’s ever been Sunday night -- and the big shocker of the week, Madison Watkins. She was one of our favorites, but clearly not one of yours.
Tonight, she proved you might have been right to put here in this group as she really underperformed. The other four all had solid outings, making this an even harder choice for the judges. We suspected Beane’s more theatrical outing might have been the end for him.
And with a Top 10 evenly divided between the genders, we kind of felt the judges might try to continue that streak, meaning it was the two ladies competing for one spot and the three guys for the other. On the women’s side, Alanis was definitely the stronger of the two, but Madison has been more consistently stronger throughout the season.
On the guy’s side, all three bring something unique and special to the competition, and they all three had something special going on. Of the three, though, two are pretty polished and settled into who they are, while the other is just finding themselves.
We’d have advanced Beane and Madison based on a combination of their overall talent and their personalities. Madison is a much better singer than she delivered tonight (she was our top singer of Group B Sunday night), and Beane just blew us away twice in a row, showing that he's not only growing into who he is, but into his incredible talent.
Interestingly, Lionel agreed with us about Madison, but we chose her more based on her previous performances and he said they made their decision based on tonight’s performance. But tonight wasn't great, Lionel! So they got it right and wrong at the same time -- but we’ll take it!
We wondered, though, if Beane’s growth and unique lane might make a difference with the judges, and it apparently did. He had a stellar week, so we can’t be made about him continuing in the competition as it’s exciting to imagine where he could go as his confidence continues to grow.
Next week promises to be the wildest week in the history of “American Idol.” First, the Top 12 hit the stage and battle it out live coast-to-coast for a spot in the Top 9. Then, on Monday, the script gets thrown out the window as COVID-19 creates the wildest twist in franchise history.
Last season was an unexpected and unorthodox ride for all the contestants, to say the least, as they had to set up their own stages and perform basically the entire thing from their homes. It was like nothing seen before, and apparently producers felt that it was a little unfair none of them got to perform on the “Idol” stage.
Now that the show is back home, they’ve decided to invite ten of those finalists from Season 18 back to the big stage. But it’s not just to finally get a chance to live out their dream of performing on this stage. For one of them, it will promise them a spot in this season’s Top 10 and a second chance to win the whole show.
It’s an unprecedented opportunity for someone, getting that shot in back-to-back seasons. Ryan didn’t specify beyond saying “Finalists” as to who that might entail out of all the faces we saw last year, but we feel we could safely break that down to the Top 20.
If they’re going for a shot in this year’s Top 10, it’s only fair that they’ve at least proven themselves that far. Oh, and we can probably predicted that Season 18 winner Just Sam won’t be one of the contestants invited to join this season.
But perhaps her runner-up, Arthur Gunn, will be among them. Other familiar faces that could crop up include Dillon James, Francisco Martin, Jonny West, Julia Gargano, Louis Knight, Sophia James, Grace Lee and Makayla Phillips -- last season’s Top 10.
Beyond that group the remainder of the Top 20 included Jovin Webb, Faith Becnel, Franklin Boone, Dewayne Crocker Jr., Cyniah Elise, Kimmy Gabriela, Aliana Jester, Nick Merico, Lauren Spencer-Smith and Olivia Ximines. Who among them most deserves that second shot at stardom?
”American Idol” airs Sundays and Mondays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.