Monday’s American Idol top 12 night — the first live episode of Season 19 — was already destined to be a “rollercoaster of a show,” as host Ryan Seacrest put it, because four more talented contestants would leave the competition. But within the episode’s first three minutes, viewers had already experienced enough highs and lows to feel like they’d spent a day at Six Flags. And one contestant’s wild Idol ride ended under mysterious circumstances, with him never even getting to meet Monday’s special surprise guest.
First off, Idol fans were saddened to learn that current judge Luke Bryan would have to miss Monday’s show due to testing positive for the coronavirus, but after Ryan assured viewers that Luke was on his way to a “speedy recovery,” it was time for some good news: Filling Luke’s chair would be none other than a member of the original Idol dream team, Paula Abdul!
This delightful development — Paula’s first time sitting behind the Idol judging desk since she left the show amid a salary dispute 12 years ago — was a shock, especially considering her longstanding ties to rival network Fox. After judging the first eight classic Idol seasons on Fox with Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson, she continued to appear on that network as a judge on Simon’s post-Idol show The X Factor USA, on So You Think You Can Dance (alongside former Idol producer Nigel Lythgoe), and most recently on The Masked Dancer (which featured Season 6 Idol winner Jordin Sparks as the Exotic Bird). Paula also sweetly reunited with Simon and Randy on Fox’s Idol “finale” five years ago, back when everyone thought the series was over for good. (ABC swooped in and rebooted it in 2018.)
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Paula was her usual awkward but endearing self on Monday, calling her old castmate Simon an “STD” and incredulously gasping to the phenomenally talented top 16 contestants, “I just want to ask all of you, what did your mothers breastfeed you?” She even FaceTimed with Randy Jackson on Ryan’s iPad at one point. “If I'm being honest, it's kind of nostalgic,” she told Ryan. “I feel like I'm visiting my little brother on a show that we started, with our other brother Randy and of course our grandfather, Simon.”
But the good vibes from this Idol family reunion didn’t last long. Almost as an afterthought, in mid-conversation with Paula, Ryan glanced sideways at the camera and mentioned, “Before we get to the results, I have to tell you that finalist Wyatt Pike will not be competing in the competition. He had to drop out, but we wish him the very best.” An audible groan of dismay could be heard emanating from the socially distanced studio audience. Ryan offered no details and moved on briskly, despite the fact that Wyatt had been a frontrunner and just the night before, on the pretaped top 16 show, had been told he had “an angle in this competition” and would “be able to do music for the rest of his life.”
Well, that might be the case, but Wyatt won’t be doing music on Idol. A representative for the show told Yahoo Entertainment, “Wyatt could not continue due to personal reasons, and we cannot comment further,” and left it at that. (Interestingly, an Instagram post by Wyatt five days ago included the same buzzword Ryan that had used: “rollercoaster.” The photo of Wyatt’s hometown, Park City, was captioned, “Something to feel this through: home. Thankful for the rollercoaster I’m on today.”)
So, the plan going into Monday’s eliminations had been that 10 singers would make it through based on America’s Sunday vote, and then the remaining six would perform for the judges, who’d pick two contestants to advance to the top 12. It was unclear if Paula had any say in this matter, since she was meeting the contestants for the first time, although judge Lionel Richie did note that the decision was based on Monday’s performances alone. Regardless, the judges’ deliberations were no doubt made easier by Wyatt’s abrupt exit, which cleared a spot for an on-the-cusp contestant. This meant only five singers landed in what Ryan called the “Danger Zone” and had to sing for survival — although, disappointingly, none of them actually sang Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone,” which would have been very awesome and very meta.
The contestants up for elimination were ex-boy band member Colin Jamieson (who would have totally slayed “Danger Zone,” come to think of it), Madison Watkins, Beane, Alanis Sophia, and Graham DeFranco. Colin, Alanis, and Graham all gave their strongest and most relevant performances of the season, respectively covering Dean Lewis, Demi Lovato, and Jason Isbell, but the judges absolutely made the right call by saving Madison and Beane. Madison should have sailed through after Sunday’s “Gravity” tour de force, and since she is “Paula Abdul’s biggest fan” and wore head-to-toe sequined bling (while jazzing up Drake’s “Hotline Bling”) just for Paula on Monday, this would have been an especially sad night for her to go home. Beane, my favorite Season 19 contestant and clearly judge Katy Perry’s favorite as well, also razzle-dazzled on a sublime rendition of Ben Platt’s “Grow As We Go” that left Paula “mesmerized.” Idol would be much less interesting sans Beane, so I was relieved that this season’s greatest showman got to stick around for at least another week.
But the competition won’t be getting any less fierce, even without Wyatt Pike in the mix. As if the news of Luke’s COVID scare and Wyatt’s disappearing act weren’t startling enough, on Monday Ryan also announced the forthcoming “biggest shakeup in Idol history,” when 10 finalists from last season, who never got to perform on the big stage due to coronavirus concerns, will compete on April 19 — with America voting one of them through to this season’s semifinals. Those contestants will be Faith Becnel, Franklin Boone, Dwayne Crocker Jr., Cyniah Elise, Aliana Jester, Louis Knight, Nick Merico, Makayla Phillips, Olivia Ximines… and Arthur Gunn. While I am all for giving these singers the stage time they were sadly robbed of last year, it doesn’t seem fair let to them enter this year’s already-crowded competition so late in the game – especially Arthur, who was actually last season’s runner-up. If the producers are going to do that, they might as well bring back Season 18 winner Just Sam too, since the show has done absolutely nothing to promote her since last year’s finale and she no longer appears to be signed to Hollywood Records or 19 Recordings. (Some other Season 18 contestants, like Francisco Martin and Dillon James, did land deals with one of the series' affiliated labels, which is why they won’t be returning.)
Anyway, speaking of crowded competitions, along with all of the above-mentioned bombshells, 10 other contestants were voted through Monday, and they all sang a victory song. Let’s check out their performances below and make some predictions… although it’s obviously difficult to predict anything when it comes to Idol anymore.
Casey Bishop, “House of the Rising Sun”
This season’s resident rocker chick and Sunday’s standout pulled a page from Season 10 fan favorite Haley Reinhart’s playbook with a bombastic, Zeppelin-esque take on the Animals-popularized classic. It was her hardest-charging performance yet, and Casey dominated the stage with her hairography and steely gaze. I am sure her biggest supporter, Luke Bryan, was headbanging along from home on Ryan’s iPad.
Deshawn Goncalves, “Higher Ground”
I’m pleased that Deshawn, a flawless technician whose performances have been smooth but snoozy this season, switched it up with something uptempo. But I still thought his old-fashioned Vegas revue got lost in Monday’s shuffle, and I still think he’s the least instantly identifiable artist of Season 19. And that is a problem.
Cassandra Coleman, “Right On”
Cassandra, on the other hand, while not flawless, is instantly identifiable. I could see her being signed to Third Man Records if Hollywood/19 passes her up. This Maggie Rogers cover was her most confident performance yet, even under the pressure of being summoned to perform on the spot on live TV. I’m so glad she’s being given the chance to grow. If she can get her occasional wonky notes under control, she could be a formidable dark horse.
Caleb Kennedy, “Nowhere”
Caleb sang this original at his audition, but it was unfinished at the time. In a full-circle moment, he sang the completed version tonight and proved he will be a force to be reckoned with on Music Row one day, regardless of how far he goes on Idol. That being said, as he continues to gain confidence as a performer — on Monday, he finally removed his hat and made actual eye contact with the camera and crowd, in the process displaying his lush mullet and impressing style icon Paula — he could go pretty far. I just hope he pulls a page from Alejandro Aranda’s playbook and keeps doing originals.
Ava August, “Love of My Life”
After covering Joni Mitchell last week but then doing a more youthful and modern Anne-Marie song on Sunday, the judges advised Ava to stick with “classic” material. I’m not sure if a sentimental Queen ballad was what they meant; this number felt a bit school-recital and princessy/actressy to me. But I do appreciate Ava’s versatility, and I still think she could be the queen of Season 19.
Chayce Beckham, “What Brings Life Also Kills”
Chayce was cool, calm, and collected onstage, as he always is, but this was not a particularly exciting moment from him, especially since it was his previously aired audition song. I think he’ll coast for a few more weeks on his likability and backstory (and with singer-songwriters Wyatt and Graham out of the running, Caleb Kennedy and Hunter Metts are really his only direct competition now). But eventually he will have to step it up, especially if Arthur Gunn rejoins the show.
Alyssa Ray, “The Greatest Love of All”
This was very classic Idol, and I am sure it was giving Paula some Season 2 flashbacks. But I am not sure if that was a good thing. I wasn’t feeling this pageant performance. Where’s that cool, magenta-haired teen misfit who wowed everyone with her dynamite first audition? I miss that quirky girl.
Willie Spence, “Diamonds”
This is the song that made Willie go viral, via a clip of him belting it a cappella during choir practice. It was also his Idol audition song. In another full-circle moment, he performed it for the first time with a live band this week. I actually preferred the simple magic of his choir-room version, and I think it’s time to retire this song so he keeps surprising viewers and doesn’t plateau. But this was a symbolic and flawless performance nonetheless.
Grace Kinstler, “Dangerous Woman”
Grace is really starting to feel herself, and I am feeling it too. This sassy number was not her best vocal, but it was still stupendous, and I enjoyed seeing this diva-in-training seize even more ownership of the stage.
Hunter Metts, “I Can’t Make You Love Me”
Hunter doesn’t have to make voters love him. He’s just lovable, period. While the sensitive singer-songwriter has had a few minor missteps this season due to his inexplicable lack of confidence, this was the perfect showcase for his vulnerable style. He’s really starting to connect now, and I think viewers feel that connection. I know I do.
So now, it is prediction time. On Sunday, nine of these dozen singers will advance (the top 10 will later be rounded out by a contestant from the Season 18 comeback kids, most likely Arthur). Sadly, I’m still worried for Beane and Madison since they didn’t get the votes before, and I think Deshawn is also at risk (I suspect he was the 11th-place contestant who squeaked through this week after Wyatt dropped out). Tune in next week, for what is sure to be another rollercoaster ride.
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