With three rounds of competition and more than two dozen additional performances, it was a three-hour extravaganza of music and excitement ... and falling confetti -- but who was under it?
“American Idol” is clearly doing pretty well for ABC as it’s been renewed for a fifth season on the network (20th overall), and they gave it three hours opposite the Billboard Music Awards tonight.
To help fill that time were three rounds of competition and more than two dozens additional performances, affectionately known around her as “filler.” After all, it’s all about padding that time to keep viewers tuning in until the last minute reveal of your winner.
Chayce Beckham, Grace Kinstler, and Willie Spence each came into the night with a compelling argument why they should win, and each found their moments to shine. They not only enjoyed great solo work, but made their mark with some celebrity duets
They also brought back audition jingle writer Tom McGovern to present his original song chronicling the season that was. And perhaps most importantly, they reminded all of us and themselves what a huge mistake it was to send this artist home by having Murphy perform a couple of his original songs.
There were some truly great moments on the night, with stellar duets, emotionally powerful hometown visits, three rounds of incredible work from our finalists and a final standings that proves America is getting harder and harder to predict on this show.
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.
And just for fun, I'm going to rank the performances from worst to first in each round to see who my favorites are, and then see how they fare when you pick your winner.
(“Blackbird,” The Beatles - 24, Apple Valley, CA) The judges didn’t really do Chayce any favors with this song. It may be a classic, but it doesn’t really offer him anything to hang his talent on and make the kind of statement musically that can’t be denied. Instead, he handled it capably and gave us his signature grit that makes his voice so special. It was a good performance, but not memorable in any way.
(“All by Myself,” Céline Dion - 20, Chicago, IL) Grace not only went as high as Céline does on this one, but she took it a step further and higher. She made some really strong choices to bring a bit of herself into such a well-known track and her voice sounded incredible in both the belting chorus as well as the more intimate verses. This was a step forward for her from last week as we even felt a bit of connected emotion.
(“Georgia,” Ray Charles - 21, Douglas, GA) We’re running out of glowing words to describe every single performance Willie gives us on this show. It’s such a treat to watch him do what he does. He puts so much passion into every moment and every note. This one was pure emotional resonance and epic power from the first note. And he always makes it look so, so easy. How does he have so much talent and so little understanding of his own greatness.
(“I Have Nothing,” Whitney Houston - 20, Chicago, IL) Yes, everything was calculated and presented meticulously, but it was also really damned impressive. Grace just has this amazing instrument and she seems to know intimately what to do with it. Probably the worst thing that happened to her was singing in a competition because she’s clearly so in her head a lot of the time. But it’s done little to stop her from shining like a superstar every time she hits the stage. Hopefully, she’ll get the chance to just relax and sing with a real career in music after this.
(“Fire Away,” Chris Stapleton - 24, Apple Valley, CA) Now this is exactly the artist that Chayce should be singing on this show. They share so many qualities as artists, if he’s going to have to cover someone, make it someone who brings out his best. This performance gave us a taste of the kind of artist he could be coming out of this show, no matter what happens. We can already see country music embracing him -- as they did last week, sending his single to number one on the charts.
(“A Change Is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke - 21, Douglas, GA) This one was going to church from the first note and Willie gave us the Word with every note. Yet another masterful performance filled with heart and just one incredible note after the other. We’ve been saying for weeks that this has been Willie’s show to lose, and after these first two performances, he may have just sealed his victory.
Well, just looking above -- and all season long -- there’s no way Willie doesn’t make it into the Top 2. That leaves Grace and Chayce to battle it out to stand beside him, and in many ways we do feel that it’s a battle.
Grace has the bigger voice, soaring into the stratosphere with incredible power. But she does it effortlessly and a little too clinically much of the time, leaving us on the ground just looking up at her. Chayce, on the other hand, is down here with us.
It’s not just the gravel in his voice, but it’s the heart he wears on his sleeves and liberally injects into almost every performance. And so you’re left to decide between the bigger, more impressive voice or the smaller, more intimate artist.
Considering Chayce was the only artist we were told who enjoyed his original single shooting straight to number one on the charts during last week’s show, we have a feeling voters are resonating more with him than Grace.
And it looks like they were as Chayce Beckahm joined Willie Spence in a somewhat surprising Top 2. As much as we’re frustrated to see women getting short-changed on this show, the talent was so tight in our Top 4 it could have gone any which way. That said, we’d have loved to see if Casey could have done any better in this finale.
And based on pure voice talent alone, there should have been no competition. Grace and Willie have been one-two all season long, with Grace ever so slightly in his shadow. That was our expected result, so color us a little stunned already.
Please note that with Caleb Kennedy eliminated from the competition, all “Top X” listings are excluding him. Also missing from tonight’s finale was Top 7 finisher Arthur Gunn, so we’ve excluded him as well. We’re not sure if his absence was by his choice or in response to the public backlash his inclusion in this season’s group of finalists unexpectedly caused (after the public voted him back in).
Top 3 & Macklemore
(“Can’t Hold Us,” Macklemore & Ryan Lewis) A high-energy rooftop performance, but one that was certainly an odd choice to kick off a competition about singing. The Top 3 did their best with the chorus that was left for them, but there’s just not much to do there. Willie got a few moments to shine, but for the most part this was just a Macklemore showcase. We’d have liked to see a few quick reminders of why the Top 3 is here in the cold open ,but that’s apparently not what this was.
Alyssa Wray & Mickey Guyton
(“Black Like Me,” Mickey Guyton) If there’s one artist from this season’s crop of finalists who didn’t crack the Top 7 who has a real shot of going on to find a career anyway, it might just be Alyssa. Mickey didn’t quite make the Top 24 the year she competed, and there are plenty of others who’ve found their path. Alyssa is a powerful voice with a lot of heart and conviction in her storytelling. She’s someone who’s exciting to listen to every time (and deserved better) -- this was no different.
(“Story of the Season,” Tom McGovern) The audition jingle-writer hit the piano to write another catchy jingle to sum up the entirety of the season, which served as a nice soundtrack for a video of highlights. He’s actually got a really pleasant voice, and wrote a cute song as well. We’re not sure why he wasn’t given more of a chance, as we didn’t hate his audition, either. Maybe he’ll come back for Season 20 next year.
Top 4 Men & Fall Out Boy
(“My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light Em Up),” Fall Out Boy) We now we put the male finalists first in our listings, but that’s because we want to honor contestants first and foremost. But that descriptor is definitely not an accurate representation of this performance. Not only were the guys nothing more than glorified backup singers, the cameras paid so little attention to them it took until the final verse before we could even definitively identify all the guys were up there. This was just a Fall Out Boy performance. Their usual standard, but a poor use of our finalists.
Deshawn Goncalves, Top 4 Women & Chaka Khan
([Medley of Hits], Chaka Khan) Right away, Chaka gave Deshawn a co-headlining spot on her stage, which is more than Fall Out Boy gave anyone. She was then joined by the Top 4 female finalists where they served much the same function as the guys in the previous performance. It’s still an odd choice and not a great use of the season’s talent. If this was all they were going to do, then why not just skip them altogether and just have the guest hit the stage. Chaka sounded incredible, and the ladies harmonized very well in backup, so the overall performance was stronger than the men, so there’s that.
(“You Are the Reason,” Calum Scott) We were a little surprised at how subdued Leona’s vocal was on this, as we know she has a lot more power than what she gave. She harmonized beautifully with Willie, but he definitely had a little more fire on this performance than Leona did. Maybe he was still in competition mode, or maybe it’s just that natural richness of his voice. It comes on strong even in his quieter moments. If voters needed a reminder why he’s incredible, this was a good one.
Graham DeFranco & Sheryl Crow
([Medley of Hits], Sheryl Crow) Graham is one of the most infectious personalities to ever come from this show, we could see him making a career out of this even if it’s not in singing. He was a good counter to Sheryl, who seemed to take a bit to get warmed up herself. Graham was a little too mellow compared to where Sheryl landed, but it was clear they were enjoying the stage together. Sometimes the unlikely pairing can really bring the entertainment. It was definitely a fun routine and we can believe that Graham opted to join her at the last second.
(“Am I Still Mine?” & “The Painted Man,” Murphy) From the first note, we found ourselves again scratching our heads that the judges ever thought there wasn’t a place for Murphy’s unique talent and artistry on this stage. He really is a singular vision with a clear sense of identity. And he’s got an incredible voice. He did get that offer to work with Josh Gad making music for Apple TV+ series “Central Park,” so hopefully that’s just the first step in his own career.
(“Livin’ on a Prayer,” Bon Jovi) Casey reminded us why she’s such a great, young entertainer. She brought out Luke’s rock side and absolutely commanded the stage and a song even older than she is. But Casey knows how to make it sound fresh and exciting. We really hope the rock field finds room for her, or she just knocks down the door and makes room, because she really is a spitfire of talent, she knows who she is as an artist, and she’s great great pipes!
Top 8 & Lionel Richie
(“One World,” Lionel Richie) This was a pretty mellow and tame performance, and it was definitely more about just letting Lionel have a chance to get up there and do his thing like the legend he is. The contestants were his accompanying chorus and they handled that well enough. Unfortunately, there was nothing particularly exciting about any of it.
Lindsey Buckingham & Cassandra Coleman
(“Go Your Own Way,” Fleetwood Mac) Was Lindsay not sure what lines Cassandra was supposed to be singing? He started her first line for her and only stopped when he heard she was performing. Once again, we found ourselves underwhelmed by Cassandra’s overall vocals, all those missed notes, and the strange bleating quality of her vibrato. But even more than that, was Lindsay happy to be performing with her? It was impossible to tell. Was he happy to be performing on this show at all? We may never know. His guitar work was great, though.
(“Scars to Your Beautiful,” Alessia Cara) Just as we’d hoped, the Grace who’d already been eliminated from the competition came out with a sense of fun in her performance and stage presence that we haven’t seen from her in a long time. She’s a special talent who needs to learn to let loose and just be in the moment. When she is, she can create magic. This was a wonderful duet with a great message, performed with great harmonies. More importantly, we believed both of them.
Chayce Beckham & Luke Combs
(“Forever After All,” Luke Combs) Oh wow, Chayce really sounds incredible on this modern country classic. He has some similar vocal qualities to Luke, and he definitely has that earnest ability to connect emotionally. This moment could prove a slight advantage for Chayce as it came so much closer to the final round of competition than Willie’s duet. Let’s just say, this is one of Chayce’s best vocals of the season, matching Luke on every level. It was fantastic.
Hunter Metts & Katy Perry
(“Thinking of You,” Katy Perry) Hunter’s voice actually paired even better with Katy’s than we guessed going into this. He really has a unique vocal quality that helps him stand out. The harmonies weren’t as sharp as other duets on the night, but his solo work was absolutely beautiful. In this moment, we were reminded of how exciting he was earlier on in the competition. How many stars could one season make? If there’s enough room, we’d be interested to see what Hunter can do -- Katy seems to be a fan, maybe she’ll make it happen for him.
(“Afterglow,” Ed Sheeran - 24, Apple Valley, CA) Chayce may be performing as the underdog on paper, but with each performance he’s connecting more and more with his lyrics and with his audience. This was a heartfelt performance riddled with pain and longing. He’s such a believable singer, you can’t help but root for him. It was smooth and confident. It’s like tonight he’s finally starting to believe in his own potential.
(“Stand Up,” Cynthia Erivo - 21, Douglas, GA) Willie is one of the most naturally gifted singers to ever hit the “Idol” stage. He has such a rich timbre in his tone, filled with so much power and volume and believability. This season has been his to lose almost from the beginning. We’re not sure this was his most dynamic song he could have reprised, as it doesn’t really pick up and start to showcase his wow factor until about halfway through, but he proved how incredible he is on it once again.
Here’s where we’re at on this one before the results were read. Willie has been consistently incredible from the jump, making this to us a season like when we had Fantasia just dominating the competition. It’s been his to win from the beginning.
Grace was there with him, but she started to lose us as she got in her head and we can’t fault America for putting her third because of it. But something else was happening along the way. Chayce is that underdog story that Americans love to root for, which could be bad news for Willie’s dominant season.
With each round that Chayce survived, his story got a little better and a little stronger. He’s a great vocalist in his own right, though not nearly as compelling on most days as Willie. But he’s also the blue collar guy who overcame addiction and gave us a story of hope and perseverance.
His story might just be more compelling than Willies, whereas Willie has the edge on voice. We just saw voice lose out to story when Chayce overcame Grace. While we’d give this season to Willie because he absolutely deserves it, we kind of felt ourselves thinking that America might just reward the story.
Did Willie make it look too easy, the way Grace did? Will Chayce actually beat out both of this season’s front-runners, and the biggest voices we’ve seen on this show in years? In a season with the most talent ever in the Top 10?
We have to take into consideration that his single, “23,” was already charting at number one during last week’s show, which didn’t happen for anyone else. Clearly he’s resonating with a lot of people. It’s another factor that says maybe, just maybe, he can pull off the improbable.
That’s exactly what he did, as no one looked more surprised at this season’s winner than this season’s winner himself, Chayce Beckham. Was he robbed? Totally deserving?
Twitter was certainly surprised at what could definitely be considered a controversial win. Many couldn’t quite believe he’d beaten either Willie or Grace! Honestly, we're still a little shell-shocked, too, as we really thought Willie had this sewn up long ago.