For the first time in the history of the show, there was a second competition running alongside the contestants battling it out. The judges were going head-to-head-to-head in a battle of their own, hoping the contestants would pick them in the “Judges Song Contest.”
Each judge picked a song for each contestant, so each contestant had three songs to choose from this week. They didn’t, however, know which judge selected which song for them. Only after they performed would it be revealed who chose that song for them.
As it turned out, this one was for more than just bragging rights, as there was a “twist no one sees coming” incorporated into the challenge -- at least until Katy and Luke Bryan collectively totally spoiled it before Ryan Seacrest could officially reveal it.
Consummate professional he is, Ryan ignored their spoiler-y ways and still announced it like it was fresh news when the time came.
But that wasn’t the only “oops!” moment of the night, nor the biggest. That had to come when one contestant guessed Katy had selected a John Mayer song for them, clearly having no idea of Katy’s history with John. Her awkward response, which culminated in her sliding beneath the desk, was absolutely priceless and hilarious.
So who was it? And which judge had the most success picking songs for the contestants? And who ultimately got eliminated before the night was out? Well, we have to get started before we can finish, so let’s get to 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.
And just for fun, I'm going to rank the performances from worst to first to see who my favorites are each week. That way I can see who's the best and then see if you get it right with your votes -- i.e., agree with me.
“Smile,” Charlie Chaplin [as performed by Nat King Cole]
“Jesus, Take the Wheel,” Carrie Underwood
“traitor,” Olivia Rodrigo
(25, Tuskegee, AL) Lady K only knew the Carrie Underwood song, but pushed herself into the new with the Olivia Rodrigo track. She put a lot of church into this arrangement, with more power than Olivia has in the original, She didn’t quite nail every note, but we loved the overall presentation, and the depth of emotion she poured into her performance. We could feel that she felt the story she was presenting. This wasn’t her strongest moment on the stage, but it was one of her most emotionally connected. [Lionel Richie pick]
“Someone Like You,” Adele
“My Heart Will Go On,” Céline Dion
“Since U Been Gone,” Kelly Clarkson
(18, Toronto, ON) Definitely a departure from what we’ve seen from Nicolina before, and perhaps that change in energy and tone caused her to go both sharp and flat at different points. This had moments that were interesting, but it was such a mismatch that it ultimately felt like the wrong song altogether for her. We get that she did feel connected to it, but we lost all of that passion and emotional resonance that makes a Nicolina performance so special, so that connection definitely wasn’t coming through. [Lionel Richie pick]
“I’m Not the Only One,” Sam Smith
“For Once in My Life,” Stevie Wonder
“Talking to the Moon,” Bruno Mars
(21, Patchogue, NY) After playing around with Stevie, Christian ultimately felt more connected to Sam Smith’s anthem. We weren’t as enamored in how he started the piece, but when he got into the heart of it, Christian came alive for the first time this week. He really does have an amazing voice when he’s belting. He needs to work on his softer tones to improve the quality of those facets of his talent so he’ll be a more consistently strong performer. Luckily for him, most of this performance stayed in his pocket as he got to wail for about 75 percent of it, and wail he did. [Katy Perry pick]
(27, Warrenton, VA) For Mike, this pick was easy because he just went with the one he knew. We’d have liked a little more oomph when he hit that first chorus as he almost got swallowed up by the band. Ultimately, though, he had a playfulness in his delivery through a lot of the piece that was very enjoyable. We still like that he injects some of his own flavor into each country track. He has a wholly unique sound in the genre, with a blend of traditional country elements and his clear R&B and soul influences; but what a cool vibe that can create on the right song. [Luke Bryan pick]
“Bigger Than My Body,” John Mayer
“Take Me Home, Country Roads,” John Denver
“Heartbreak Warfare,” John Mayer
(20, Louisa, KY) Noah is becoming the season’s biggest risk taker, and every time they’re paying off for him. We applaud him for stepping away from the familiarity of John Denver to explore a song he wasn’t familiar with. He played it pretty straight, but the natural cry and break in his voice were perfect for this. He doesn’t have to mix up a song too much because the very quality of his voice makes any performance unmistakably and uniquely his. He’s just such a special artist, genuine and authentic as a performer. We believe him when he sings, and that’s what it’s all about.
Hilariously, when he said he thought Katy Perry picked the song, her response was a tepid, “Noah, I think you should Wikipedia me.” Clearly someone doesn’t know about her history with Mayer. “I picked John Denver.” Luke added, “On a technicality,” as Katy slid under the desk. When Luke revealed it was him, he joked, “I just wanted to see Katy navigate the waters,” as she lamented, “These guys are against me.” They did both pick John Mayer songs.
“Who’s gonna pay for my extra hour of therapy?” Katy quipped. [Luke Bryan pick]
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” The Rolling Stones
“I Want It All,” Queen
(17, Pell City, AL) Tristen definitely wants to be a theatrical frontman like Freddie Mercury and Mick Jagger, as evidenced by more physical antics from him than we’ve seen all season long. We actually liked him vocally earlier in the song, but it’s undeniable that he brings a lot of fun energy to the stage. He also made some great choices throughout to showcase different sides of what he can do, nailing every note he sought. He did sound a bit winded while running around, but pulled it back in by the close. He’s got the makings of a very groovy throwback rocker, which could be just in time for rock-and-roll to try and make a comeback. [Lionel Richie pick]
“9 to 5,” Dolly Parton
“Here You Come Again,” Dolly Parton
“Wide Open Spaces,” The Chicks
(23, Winchester, TN) HunterGirl is having more and more fun each week on this show, and it’s a delight to watch. She got a little playful with her backup singers on this one and created a really special, down-to-earth moment. She’s one of those artists that connects with the audience just by being authentically herself. Her throwback country voice fits perfect with Dolly’s, which was clear with two judges wanting her on this -- and Natalie Maines has a similar voice, too. Even so, she took the opportunity to push herself to hit bigger notes, find bigger moments, come out from behind the guitar and really put on a show. [Luke Bryan pick]
“lovely,” Billie Eilish f. Khalid
“Starting Over,” Chris Stapleton
“True Colors,” Cyndi Lauper
(16, Cleveland, OH) We’d have liked to see Emyrson step outside of her lane just a little bit, but she went with the absolute safest choice for her, choosing an artist that even she admits she already gets compared to all the time. It’s easy to see why, though, as she clearly feels at home in Billie’s unique cadence and delivery. She had a little more power than Billie, but it’s that same breathy delivery that is making such a stamp on popular music these days. She’s got a great voice, and this was definitely a stronger performance for her than she’s had in recent outings, but we do want her to stretch herself creatively. [Katy Perry pick]
(28, Dansville, MI) Fritz actually dug into the meaning behind the lyrics to connect to them and then sought his own arrangement to stand out a bit on one of the most recognizable songs of all time. He certainly put his own spin on it, focusing on the message that he pulled from the song, which is about those winding, blinding roads because he has no idea where this journey will take him. There were so many interesting and compelling artistic choices in his arrangement, and he poured so much of his heart into the performance, he managed a genuine moment. [Luke Bryan pick]
“I’ll Be There,” Jackson 5
“Lilac Wine,” Jeff Buckley
“Caught Up,” Usher
(23, Salisbury, MD) Yes, he was still smiling a lot through this piece, but this was the first time in a long time that it feels like Jay is showing that Platinum Ticket potential. All of is vocal acrobatics were so tastefully applied to an overall gentleness in his delivery, punctuated by the simplicity of holding that final note through a gorgeous vibrato until the sun set and rised again. It was almost a spiritual experience watching him restrain himself throughout this, but that restraint is where the magic was found. Sometimes less is more and sometimes less is everything. This was Jay’s best performance since his initial audition. [Katy Perry pick]
“Make You Feel My Love,” Bob Dylan
“The First Cut Is the Deepest,” Cat Stevens
“Steve McQueen,” Sheryl Crow
(20, Normal, IL) If Leah could get to the point where she doesn’t have to look down at her hands to feel confident in the notes she’s playing, that would be the last piece to creating a fully connected and stunning performance. This was vocally as flawless as she’s ever been. Her artistry was on full display. It was full of passion and heart with an arrangement that perfectly flattered her vocal ability. She chose her moments and had the audience in the palm of her hand through them big and small. Easily this was Leah’s best moment yet on the show -- and possibly ever in her singing career. [Katy Perry pick]
Based on our rankings, it seems as if Lionel Richie not only wasn’t chosen as much as his fellow judges, but he also didn’t serve those contestants who did pick him, with our Bottom 2 both performing songs he chose.
Lady K felt like she was the least connected to her song, while Christina Guardino was inconsistent in his, faltering early on before he found his path and soared to the end. We also thought this week a rare misfire for Nicolina. Everyone else seemed to really find a nice groove.
That’s a testament to the quality of this season’s crop of contestants, as well as a hint of how much harder this is going to get as soon as next week. That is, if this week’s eliminations keep themselves to just those three artists.
For us, based on what we know she’s capable of, we’d keep Nicolina safe and prepare to say goodbye to Christian and Lady K -- and then see what Luke and Katy do with the save that they both totally spoiled before Ryan was ready to reveal the night’s big “twist.”
Heading into America’s Top 9 first were Noah Thompson and Christian, which means we were already sweating the possibility of losing one of our favorites. They were followed by Fritz Hager and Nicolina, which leaves us with only Lady K among those we thought at risk. Is that bad news for Mike Parker?
HunterGirl, Emyrson Flora, Leah Marlene, and Jay. That left Lady K, Mike and Tristen Gressett which reminded us again that America has a love-hate relationship with rockers on this show. Some have gone all the way, but many great ones got cut way too soon. Will Tristen be one of those? Possibly, as Mike scored the last of America’s spots.
So, America decided it was time to say goodbye to Lady K and Tristen, without yet fully realizing that the competition between the judges was to decide who was going to get to save one of them. Of the two, we’d imagine Tristen will get the chance to come back as he’s very much in his own lane -- but he’s going to have his work cut out for him.
But that’s not what happened at all, as it was Tristen Gressett who had to say goodbye to the competition. Apparently, there’s no love for rock-and-roll at all this season. We love Lady K’s journey this season, too, but there’s no way she’s killing it more than Tristen week by week.
Probably a factor for the judges was that they’d already saved him once this season, at Top 14. Clearly he’s not connecting with this voting audience. Hopefully, he can find a way to take this platform and do something with it.
“American Idol” airs Sundays and Mondays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.