They were joined by newer “Idol” stars Laci Kaye Booth, Maddie Poppe, Caleb Lee Hutchinson, Grace Kinstler and Willie Spence. Laine Hardy also participated in the pre-taped event, which went down before his arrest. Nevertheless, his duet with Laci still opened the show.
There were a lot of tears on the night, including from original judge Paula Abdul, who returned with Randy Jackson briefly to the dais. But the biggest surprise of the night -- other than the return of Ryan Seacrest’s frosted tips (yikes!) -- has to be the most famous “Idol” reject of all time, William Hung.
Laci Kaye Booth & Laine Hardy
(“Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” Stevie Nicks & Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) Returning from the 2019 season, Laci made it to the Top 5 before Laine won the whole season.
Yes, this was filmed before Laine’s recent arrest for allegedly bugging his ex’s dorm room. ABC even made a point to emphasize that this was “Previously Recorded,” and then didn’t put the clip on their YouTube page -- even though this is one of the show’s 20 winners. Says a lot, and yet they still aired it. Perhaps it was too late to re-edit the episode.
Or maybe they didn’t want to take away this moment from Laci, who sounded even more confident and polished than when she was on the show. She always had a great, smoky sound that was hard to quantify. Laine was a pro up there as well, perfectly channeling Tom Petty’s vocal approach. Surprisingly, though, considering how things ended for both of them, Laci actually outperformed her season’s winner just a little bit on this one.
(“I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me),” George Michael & Aretha Franklin) The youngest-ever winner back in 2007 paired with the 2003 winner again -- they performed a duet during her finale -- and you could see how genuine their affection was for one another. Jordin teared up a bit talking about how much the show meant to her, as it gave her a career she’d only dreamed about.
That chemistry and affection carried into a beautiful performance with incredible harmonies. Both artists were generous to the other, and both of them sounded absolutely incredible individually, as well. These are “Idol” legends and they proved why they’ve earned that status as among the best to ever hit this stage -- and dare we say, Jordin continues to get better and stronger as a vocalist. The Velvet Teddy Bear was magic from Day 1 and he’s still got it!
(“She Bangs,” Ricky Martin) While “Idol” has made superstars for their great singing, there was a time when it was such a juggernaut, it could make even people who were terrible famous. The show used to also revel in sharing some of the worst auditions, which is how America first fell in love with William Hung back in 2004, who proudly declared he’d never had a singing lesson before in his life.
William hasn’t gotten any better as a singer, but he’s still such a joyous personality we can’t help but be infected with his exuberance. Katy may have been expecting someone else when Ryan hyped him as someone synonymous with “Idol” (probably Kelly or Carrie), but he’s not wrong. William is the most famous of the not-great singers, and he revels in it!
(“Islands in the Stream,” Dolly Parton & Kenny Rogers) The runner-up and winner of 2018, who also fell in love during their time on the show, returned to share their built-in chemistry with us by sharing the stage together like they did during their season. They also both switched up their looks in a big way in the intervening four years, with Maddie going dark with her hair and Caleb adding some beard.
Caleb was fresh out of high school when we first met him on this show, and as he’s matured, he’s grown into the timbre of his voice even more. Their voices meshed seamlessly on this one, but we’d have to say that Caleb is the more polished and confident vocalist at this point in their careers. It’s radio friendly and record ready. Hopefully, he gets his chance to break into the industry in a bigger way, as Maddie has already made some inroads.
David Archuleta Surprises “Crying Girls”
In one of the cuter moments of the night, we got to relive the 2008 season when it was the battle of the Davids, with a group of young Archuleta fans breaking down in tears when Cook was announced the winner. Not only did the sweet ladies get to come to this reunion special to relive their visceral reaction, they got to meet the man himself who elicited it, runner-up David Archuleta. Luckily, they’d already revealed they were still fans of his music.
His appearance was markedly different from the other “Idol” alums because not only did he not sing, he didn’t even speak. Instead, he spoke with a robotic voice reminiscent of Stephen Hawking, due to recent vocal chord surgery which has him unable to utter a sound (for now). Even recorded, though, he was just as sweet as ever.
(“Dreams,” The Cranberries) The David who beat Archuleta in 2008 joined forces with the Kris who beat Adam Lambert the following season for a “white guy with a guitar” duet -- it was a whole controversy for several years; look it up! -- that proved to be a lot of fun. Also, talk about contestants looking different than they did on the show. We got over our shock seeing David during Hollywood Week rocking his gray hair, but we weren’t ready for Kris’ long locks.
Even before they hit the stage, we could tell how much genuine friendship and affection they’d forged over the years just by how ruthlessly they were teasing each other. It was actually very sweet to see, and added more fun to a performance you knew they were getting a kick out of.
We were totally stoked for such an interesting performance, but we were not really feeling this duet at all. Neither of them really fit the track, and it didn’t get better when they were doing it together. The gentle wailing of the original was even worse than when they were singing words. We got a few moments we enjoyed -- particularly when David went high -- but overall this was a bit of a disappointment.
Willie Spence & Grace Kinstler
(“Rather Be,” Clean Bandit f. Jesse Glynne) For this duet, “Idol” didn’t have to reach nearly as far back, bringing back two fan-favorites from last season that fell just short of the title won by Chayce Beckham. Willie Spence settled for a solid second place finish, while Grace Kinstler got third, while many would argue that both had much more impressive and powerful voices than Chayce. Certainly, all three were worthy of contending for the title with stellar runs all season long.
Willie and Grace, because they are both powerhouse singers, did duet during their season, so there was some familiarity in playing off of one another vocally. They forced some belting in the back of the song, but it wasn’t there as organically as we would have liked.
This is what these two do, so we were hoping for a song that would naturally build to some incredible vocal acrobatics and passing back and forth that would leave us breathless. Instead, we enjoyed it, but it was way, way, way too subdued for knowing what they’re capable of. A bit of a disappointment, if we’re honest.
If you can’t land any of the biggest stars to come out of “Idol,” and we didn’t really get to see any of them, there’s definitely something special about seeing the first-ever runner-up -- and co-star of “From Justin to Kelly” -- Justin Guarini. Hilariously, he came out after Ryan brought back his infamous frosted tips (in a pretty obvious wig). He even cracked his voice like a young Ryan Seacrest while introducing Justin. Justin then came out and quickly took over, proving he would make a great choice to host this (or any show) should Ryan ever step down. He’s a natural!
Scotty McCreery & Lauren Alaina
(“When You Say Nothing At All,” Alison Krauss & Union Station) Scotty won his season back in 2011, just edging out Lauren Alaina in a battle of the country crooners. Both have since gone on to great success in Nashville, and certainly have stayed close in the intervening decade-plus. They were just babies when they did the show as young teenagers, but they had stage presence and voices well beyond their years. We just need Scotty to never sing Josh Turner’s “Your Man” again and we’ll be golden.
Scotty came out first and proved how well he’s grown into that bass voice of his, and then Alaina matched him note for note in quality and professionalism. It just shows how much “Idol” is a stepping stone to a career. They were both great when their season ended, but they’ve gotten so much better even than that in the intervening years. They played off each other beautifully, delivering a heartfelt and palpable performance. It was beautiful to see their friendship, too, through this performance.
“American Idol” continues every Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.