When American Idol Season 20’s top 11 competed Monday, Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan were in competition as well, in something probably trollingly called the “Judges’ Song Contest” (not to be confused with NBC’s Kelly Clarkson-hosted American Song Contest, which Idol has been crushing in the Monday night ratings). Each contestant was given three songs to choose from, without knowing which judge had suggested the songs; by the end of the episode, the judge whose song picks were performed the most would be declared the contest winner.
Inter-judge rivalry can make for fun TV (hey, it worked on The Voice and The X Factor for a good long run), but things got really fun — and really awkward! — when it was young, green country singer Noah Thompson’s turn to perform. His options were John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and two John Mayer songs, “Bigger Than My Body” or “Heartbreak Warfare”; after considering the safe Denver tune, he decided to take a chance with “Heartbreak Warfare,” the song he knew the least but felt would showcase his vocal ability the most.
After his performance, host Ryan Seacrest got in on the game by asking Noah to guess which judge had picked the tune. And it turned out that Noah really didn’t know much about John Mayer, since his answer was… Katy.
“Noah, I feel like maybe you should Wikipedia me,” a wincing Katy deadpanned, before melodramatically exclaiming, “I can’t talk anymore!” and mock-fainting under her desk. “These guys are against me!” she then quipped — basically accusing Luke and Lionel of deliberately picking Mayer songs just to troll her and watch her squirm — while Luke chucklingly admitted that he enjoyed watching her “navigate the waters” on live television.
Katy — who of course selected the John Denver song for Noah — famously began dating John Mayer in August 2012, shortly after her acrimonious and abrupt divorce from Russel Brand. Her song “Unconditionally” was about John; his song “Still Feel Like Your Man” was about her; and they also recorded a duet together, “Who You Love.” After she and John split in 2013, blaming their busy schedules, she told Vogue she was still “madly in love” with the man she described as a “tortured soul” and “broken bird.” While Katy has been happily coupled with Orlando Bloom for years now (they became engaged in February 2019 and welcomed their first child together in August 2020), John Mayer is understandably still a bit of a sore subject for her.
“We'll explain later, Noah,” said Ryan, while Luke and Lionel laughed uproariously.
As it turned out, it was Luke that picked “Heartbreak Warfare” for Noah, and he was pleased with the result, saying, “Nothing is more challenging than trying to learn a song really, really quickly. … To take a song and crash-course it, it was done really well.” And even Katy had to admit she was impressed, telling Noah (after she began her critique with “Who is going to pay for my extra hour of therapy?”): “Honestly, you sounded great. It's a great song. [John Mayer is] a great artist. You're a great artist.”
By the night’s end, Luke and Katy were tied in the Judges’ Song Contest, with 4 song choices each — which meant they got to jointly decide which contestant to put through to the top 10, after viewers had voted through the other nine. It all came down to the bottom two of soul stylist Lady K and flamboyant rocker Tristen Gressett, and — much to my surprise — they decided to save Lady K. I always knew that wild-eyed showman Tristen was polarizing, but I figured that the judges picking classic rock songs for him — as opposed to the pop-leaning Weeknd and Adam Lambert fare he’d riskily chosen for himself lately — might boost his odds this week.
Tristen could have chosen Queen’s “I Want It All” or the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” or “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and I figured he’d either go with Queen (because of theatrical tendencies and Adam Lambert fandom) or with “Paint It Black” (to tap into his innate darkness and weird that Katy always seemed to dig so much). “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was the most mainstream option, which is maybe why he picked it, but of course Tristen’s churchy, hammy, caped-crusader rendition was far from safe. The judges were up out of their seats testifying, and Lionel, who’d picked the song, described this performance as being like “Mick Jagger on steroids” (which I assume was intended as a compliment). Katy called Tristen’s performance “electricity in a bottle” and pointed out that “none of the other contestants are doing a quarter of that.”
So, I am not sure why they went with Lady, who was much less interesting tonight. I wonder if Lionel would have made the same decision, but given his Tuskegee bond with Lady, probably so. I do know Season 20 will be much less interesting without Tristen, who along with Sunday’s eliminee Ava Maybee was among my favorites. I just hope he has no regrets about leaving it all on the stage this week — because he just might have left his two functional teenage knees on that stage, after his dramatic death-drop onto the hard plexiglass floor.
Tristen will be missed, but among the 10 contestants who survived Monday’s round were some worthy contenders who really upped their game and the stakes. Let’s assess their performance below. Thankfully for Katy’s sake, there wasn’t another John Mayer song in the bunch; if Luke or Lionel had picked “Still Feel Like Your Man” or “Who You Love,” things could’ve gotten really awkward!
Nicolina’s options were Adele’s “Someone Like You,” Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.” She was “super-honored” that the judges felt like she could take on such big songs, but she surprisingly went with the uptempo Kelly hit, which turned out to be Lionel’s pick. I appreciated that she showed a different side of herself, but this was her worst vocal yet — she was shouting most of the song, and her breath control was lacking. Luke liked her “high energy” and bizarrely dared to call this performance “punk-rock,” and Katy claimed Nicolina sang this “as good as Kelly Clarkson.” But they must have been watching a different show, or this was a classic case of it just sounding different in the room.
Mike, a Black country singer, could have gone with Diane Warren & Darius Rucker’s “Times Like This” or John Michael Montgomery’s “I Swear,” but he interestingly chose “Chasin’ You” by known N-word user Morgan Wallen, which was Luke’s pick. “Luke addressed racism in country music, which I appreciate. He said it's going to take time. I want to be that person who brings multiple communities together. And it is going to take time, but I'm here to speed that process up,” Mike explained. This was a solid performance, but I think he too could have had a better moment with a ballad. However, Luke loved Mike’s “soulful version of certainly a Morgan Wallen song,” and Katy told Mike, “It was so soulful, a wonderful hybrid of country and soul. It's your own stamp.”
Fritz chose Oasis’s “Wonderwall” (Luke’s pick) over the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” and Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect,” and while I would have loved for him to do “God Only Knows,” I loved this Britpop moment too. (I’ve actually been rallying for a Britpop Night on Idol for over a decade now.) “If I can come up with a cool arrangement and make it special, I think it can be really cool moment,” Fritz said. To be fair, he was clearly doing the Ryan Adams arrangement of this song, but it was a really cool breakthrough moment for him. I really think Fritz could win this thing now. “I don't even have anything to say, except it was perfect. The song was just delivered perfectly. … ‘Wonderwall’ can get a little party-jammy, but you flipped that on its head. … That was brilliance,” Katy raved.
At first Christian was going to do “For Once in My Life” because, as someone who is visually impaired himself, he has always admired Stevie Wonder’s career. But I am glad he ultimately went with Katy’s more modern pick, Sam Smith’s “I’m Not the Only One,” even if his dinner-theater-crooner performance still came across as old-fashioned. (His other option was “Talking to the Moon” by Bruno Mars, which I’d still like to hear him sing someday.) “I love listening to that song. It has soul, it has gospel in it. You can just rev up into it. That's what your voice does,” said Katy. “You are so special. Halfway through the song, I kept thinking, ‘Sam who?’ That's Sam's song, and then all of a sudden you turned Sam's song into your song. The whole vibe, everything about it, was fabulous,” said Lionel. I was a bit underwhelmed, but there’s an audience for what Christian does — and it’s the old-school Idol audience that was voting for Ruben Studdard in Season 2 and Elliott Yamin in Season 5.
Lady had quite a variety of songs to choose from — “Smile” by Nat King Cole/Charlie Chaplin, “Jesus, Take the Wheel” by Carrie Underwood, or “Traitor” by Olivia Rodrigo — which means either the judges see her as a versatile “can sing the phone book” sort of artist, or they’re not quite sure what sort of artist she actually is. Lady went with the song most out of her comfort zone, “Traitor,” and attempted to tear into it with the same aggression and enthusiasm that made her performance of Jazmine Sullivan’s “Bust Your Windows” so sensational. This wasn’t at that level, but at least it was better than her other revenge anthem of the season, “Before He Cheats.” (Lady was wise to not pick the Carrie song this week.) She missed a line when she “got a little in her feels” and choked up, but she rebounded nicely, and Luke dismissed the flub as just a “little hiccup.” Surprisingly, this song was Lionel’s pick (“Is there a teenage girl trapped in your body?” gasped Katy), but he explained: “I knew it was different, out of the box. … That's exactly why I did it. I took you out of your wheelhouse and put you into something where it challenged you. And you won the challenge.”
Huntergirl had a choice between two Dolly Parton songs, “9 to 5” or “Here You Come Again,” or “Wide Open Spaces” by the Chicks. I wasn’t surprised that she sang Luke’s pick, “9 to 5” — it was a safe and easy choice, very much in her sassy-Branson wheelhouse. This was a fun, crowd-pleasing performance with a lively big finish, but unlike some this season’s other contestants who’ve really pushed themselves and evolved in a short period of time, I feel Huntergirl just keeps coasting on her platinum-ticket frontrunner status and likability. She seems to be plateauing, but then again, the fawning judges don’t seem to care. Lionel called her performance “absolutely amazing,” and Katy told her, “You took my advice from last night about the stage presence, and then you interacted with the background vocals. You showed there's more — and more sparkle. You embodied Dolly.”
Speaking of contestants who’ve truly evolved… Leah started this season as a quirky-girl cliché, but the fact that judges gave her Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love,” Cat Stevens’s “The First Cut Is the Deepest,” or Sheryl Crow’s “Steve McQueen” proves that they now consider her a serious artist. Leah went with the Dylan ballad (Katy’s pick) because, she said, “I just feel like when I sing it, I'm just painting on a canvas. I have full freedom.” And she managed to paint a beautiful picture, even though this song has been done to death on Idol. “It really was a big canvas for you to do your thing and hold the room in the palm of your hand like you do so well, and make everybody just zone into you. You were like Alison Krauss on that stage, with all the tremors in your voice. You were angelic,” gushed Katy. Luke compared Leah to both Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris, and he told her, “If I could get a 12-foot ladder and stand on top of that for your standing ovation, that's what I wanted to do.”
After her shaky top 14 performance, Emyrson needed a redemption song, and she figured Katy’s pick, Billie Eilish’s “Lovely” (as opposed to Chris Stapleton’s “Starting Over” or Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors”), would be that song. It was a safe choice, given the fact that she’s been compared to Billie all season, but her vocal was pristine, and the performance was haunting and 100% connected — which likely would not have been the case if this 16-year-old had gone with her other options. “Never run from who you are. Yes, you do have a little bit of a Billie Eilish tone, but that's what I want to listen to. Because Billie is amazing, and you're amazing,” said Katy. Luke called this a “beautiful rendition,” and Lionel called it “an all-around perfect performance.”
“I’ll Be There” by the Jackson 5 or “Caught Up” by Usher would have been easier and more predictable choices for Jay — especially the former, since he has covered the Jacksons before on this show. I was therefore thrilled that Jay, who frankly usually picks boring songs when left to his own devices, took a chance on Katy’s much more vulnerable pick, Jeff Buckley’s “Lilac Wine.” (Finally, a Jeff Buckley cover on Idol that isn’t his cover of “Hallelujah”!) What a majestic performance this was. Jay’s phrasing was flawless, he looked like a superstar in that Pepto-pink suit, and he seemed to be channeling all the soul greats — Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke. Luke even described the performance as being “like Nat King Cole reborn in front of my eyes.” At first Katy said this was Jay’s best performance, then she said it was the best performance “of the whole show.” And Lionel took it even farther and proclaimed, “That was probably one of the greatest performances I've ever seen in my life.”
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