You will believe that a woman who speaks like a toddler can sing Tina Turner and Adele -- plus, the season's first recipient of the all-new and upgraded PLATINUM Ticket.
After two networks and 14 different judges, "American Idol" finds itself finally achieving its 20th season.
It also marks the fifth seasons for Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan as judges. All three joined when ABC revived the series, tweaking it just slightly to emphasize mentorship and artistry over a heavy focus on voice and marketability.
This season also introduced a new prize for auditioners to covet, with tonight giving us our first recipient of this season's rare Platinum Ticket. Limited to only one per audition city, these tickets grant their holders a free pass through the first round of Hollywood Week, which is a pretty big deal when you're talking about a grueling week that has broken many a contestant.
Also sticking around in the ABC iteration is the emphasis on the positive, with no time given to truly horrific singers no matter how entertaining it might be in a horrifying way. Instead, we get heartwarming stories, powerful voices and more than one opportunity to bawl our eyes out despite our best efforts to keep it together.
Tonight, we witnessed a young lady Luke Bryan has declared the best female country vocalist he's heard in five seasons on this show, as well as a young man who wrote a powerful message about being Black in America just three days after the death of George Floyd. It is an incredible song delivered with such heart and passion.
And in perhaps the biggest shocker of the night, the judges were graced with the granddaughter of music royalty in the form of a 15-year-old girl who's grandma was none other than the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin. Could she live up to that familial legacy? Could anyone?
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 as the season progresses.
("Proud Mary," Tina Turner - 29, Baltimore, MD) From the jump, she was clearly putting on a child's voice in an effort to be memorable, or is that actually real? Her singing voice, of course, was far more normal. But it also wasn't nearly as compelling or strong. She sang like someone who's pretty good at this song at karaoke and her friends all think it's great. Katy pushed her into an Adele song. It was better than Tina, but still came across as very reserved and tepid, despite some moments she pushed. This is someone who probably likes to surprise people at karaoke who has an okay voice, but she really needs to work on it -- and her stage presence, as in have one -- if she wants to seriously make a go of this.
Results: Y, Y, Y
Maddie Bell Glidewell
("Redneck Woman," Gretchen Wilson - 19, Glasgow, KY) We love the way she talks and her whole demeanor but from the songs she riffed to the one she prepared, Maddie showed that she struggles with both lyrics and timing. She was off the rhythm several times and didn't even seem fully aware of it. Her voice had some qualities to it, but it was also a little too nasal -- yes, that can still be a thing in country -- as she wasn't letting her full quality come through. Her vocal charisma was also very much in one lane, even on a song that offers moments for a little sass. We got a wink to the camera, but the voice did nothing to match it. She's more of a personality than a voice for us.
Results: N, N, N
("I'm Not the Only One," Sam Smith - 16, Lumberton, NJ) This was a segment on the judges coaching the contestants, which they've proven to do very effectively. In Camryn's case, Katy was right to push her to really use her full diaphragm and push those vocals out. She was singing timidly on a song that is larger than life. The results was a huge improvement, though we'd still not necessarily say she sounds ready just yet.
("Killing Me Softly," Roberta Flack [as performed by Fugees] - 15, Detroit, MI) You could hear her nerves throughout this copycat performance, but it didn't take away from her evident talent. Her performance was half lyrics and half those vocal runs that Lauryn Hill did so effortlessly, and it was just about the same for Grace. She was a little timid in her approach to the song -- again those nerves, which gave her a shaky vibrato on the runs -- but gave it a sweetness that makes sense for her tender age. With a gift at this stage of development now, she's poised to really grow into a solid singer in her own right. But she needs to learn to own her confidence and her talent. When pushed for a second song, she chose Grandma's "Ain't No Way" and gave a little more oomph in it. But she was still holding back on those big notes that Aretha sang to the back of the next room. Katy fought for her with Lionel, but he held strong in telling her no, but to come back.
Results: N, Y, N
[[see Camryn Champion above for video]]
("Mirror," Madison Ryann Ward - 17, Los Angeles, CA) In a segment on coaching, they took Danielle up a key and it really transformed both her presentation and the overall performance into something with real punch. We also liked seeing how hard the judges will even fight each other for someone they're passionate about. It shows how seriously they take the show and how much they are about not only getting it right with the easy finds, but fighting for people they believe in. She definitely lacks some polish, but can get there.
Results: Y, Y, Y
("I Believe in You and Me," Whitney Houston - 24, Mobile, AL) A heartbreaking story accompanied Tyler's take on a Whitney classic. He'd lost his nephew at one year old in a horrific accident with an 18-wheeler and this was a song that he sang to the boy all the time. It was performed with a lot of heart, but it wasn't until he actually reached the bigger parts of the song that we were more on board with him vocally. There's something in there, but it wasn't consistent for us in a way that left us compelled and moved as much as his story did. He needs to work on singing through his more gentle parts with a bit more musicality to balance the bigger moments better.
("Opportunity," Sia - 18, Berkley, MA) Delaney is someone who benefited from the kindness of others; in this case, the mother of the kids she babysits. Mom recorded her singing because Delaney didn't believe she was all that great, and then got her permission to put that video on TikTok, where it promptly blew up to 18 million views. Apparently, "Idol" found her from that, so ... you know ... no pressure. The message of the song is all about her taking this moment, so it couldn't be more appropriate. She has a tender purity to her voice that comes so naturally. This wasn't as compelling as her take on "Part of Your World" from "The Little Mermaid," but there's no denying that Mom was right and she's got a natural talent.
Results: Y, Y, Y
("Riot," Rascal Flatts - 23, Winchester, TN) We got just enough of a hint to the softer side of her voice to confirm it's there, and that's what we needed to hear. Huntergirl has such a natural ease in the center of her voice, which is where most of this performance landed. But she performs there with real heart and emotion in a way that makes us want to believe her. When she did offer up that tender side at the end, we felt that on the right song, she could really pull the heartstrings. And it's all just so effortless for her, which makes us excited about what she could do if she really pushed herself. Even she was excited about what happened when Luke pushed her up a half step -- it really did make a huge difference in her overall sound.
We kind of love that Luke could not get this girl, who he called his favorite female country vocalist of all his seasons on the show, out of his mind. So the judges called her up to set her up to sing in his bar "tonight," and then one-upped that by showing up to surprise everyone with Platinum on their minds. With this ticket, Huntergirl gets to skip the first day and first round.
Results: Y, Y, Y [Platinum Ticket]
("We Need More," Taylor Fagins - 26, New York, NY) Taylor said he writes his songs for himself, but decided it was time. And what a time. This song, written specifically about Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, but generally about systemic racism and the crossroads we find ourselves in as a nation is a brutally powerful message that needs to be heard around the world. This is a song from inside the Black experience. Art has the power to communicate when mere words fail, and it's things like this song and this moment that can start to make a difference by taking us inside what it's like to be one of those little Black boys and little Black girls who are just scared of this world they've found themselves in.
His voice took some time to really blow us away, but the song had us from the beginning. It had Lionel, too, who shared that there were songs like that in the 1960s when he was coming up, and yet we need Taylor's song now. The word he used was "disgusting," because it shows just how far we've not come in all that time. But we can never stop fighting the fight with every weapon available, including art.
("Lodi," Creedence Clearwater Revival - 22, Manasquan, NJ) Cole brought his younger sister, who has a chromosomal deletion, with him as inspiration and support. Lacking in confidence, he proved that sometimes the most humble people are the most endearing. And then he began to sing with a perfectly chosen song and vocalist. He's got a similar vocal vibe to John Fogerty, but it doesn't sound like he's an artist from another era. Instead, it's that depth of quality that someone like Chris Stapleton has in a voice that still sounds totally fresh and current. It's the gift of putting feeling into your voice without even thinking about it. He then did a victory lap with his sister on the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" without nerves and it was even more beautiful. He is the real deal.
Results: Y, Y, Y
("Giving You Up," Kameron Marlowe - 19, Louisa, KY) Sometimes our friends know best. This construction worker didn't think he had the chops, but his buddy on the work crew did and signed him up. It's a good thing he did, because what a beautifully authentic storytelling voice he has for country music. There's a natural crack in his voice and a bit of a cry that could break your heart when he learns to use it. He's as raw as they come, and has a tendency to swallow his words, but those are things that can be taught. His natural tone, pitch and the quality of his voice is what's truly magical. If he can keep taking advice as well as he did Luke's one note here, he could really be someone to watch go far.
Results: Y, Y, Y
("She Used to Be Mine," Sara Bareilles - 18, Toronto, CA) It's actually easier to hit big old notes, and Nicolino certainly has that ability. She has such a natural power and control, with an amazing vibrato, to leave you breathless with each belt. But it was when she pulled it back in toward the end and gave us a breathy delivery so soft it was almost lost in a cry that she absolutely broke our hearts. We were already mesmerized by her growing talent through the audition as she showcased her range, but in that moment, we were mesmerized by her. What a singular, gifted, amazing young talent.
Results: Y, Y, Y
We'll see what happens when "American Idol" wraps it season next Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.