After last week’s first public vote of this season, American Idol revealed its top 20 Sunday, which meant that we bid farewell to three more contestants. (We had a top 23 this year, not a top 24, because platinum-ticket frontrunner Kenedi Anderson mysteriously quit the show for “personal reasons.”) Those three castoffs were Scarlet, Danielle Finn, and Sir Blayke — none of which were shocking, considering the edits they received in Season 20.
It was surprising, however, that class-clown cutup Cameron Whitcomb made the cut, as I thought America would quickly tire of his wacky antics. But now I hope he sticks around, because his apparently equally kooky brother, Sheldon, got a giant American Idol logo tattoo on his butt, which he’d promised to do if Cameron made the top 24… and now Cameron has vowed to get matching backside ink, if he makes the top 10! (Thankfully, Scarlet, Danielle, and Blayke didn’t make that sort of premature commitment, and didn’t go under the needle.)
There is a certain undeniable likability to Cameron the guileless goofball, and the fact that he did a Black Sabbath song, “Changes,” for his top 20 performance this week — and turned it into a swampy blues ballad — just made me like him all the more. (I am pretty sure a Sabbath cover an Idol first!) But this was an actually serious performance, aside for some high-kicks in the second verse, and it just might be enough to help Cameron get closer to his new tattoo goal. “You stood up there and really delivered it,” said judge Luke Bryan. “The seriousness was noted,” said Lionel Richie.
However, Sunday’s performance-packed, three-hour show — which also featured appearances by reigning Idol champ Chayce Beckham, Season 17 runner-up Alejandro “Scarypoolparty” Aranda, and Season 11 winner/Idol prodigal son Phillip Phillips — was truly, unexpectedly phenomenal, so much so that Luke said it felt like a “finale night.” Monday will bring the first live results of this season, as 10 semifinalists from this batch of 20 advance to the top 14 based on the public vote, after which the other 10 will battle it out in real time for four spots selected by the judges. So, let’s look at Sunday’s other (mostly) fantastic performances, and make some tough predictions.
Emyrson Flora, “Tell Me You Love Me”
Emyrson is Season 20’s youngest contestant, only 16 years old, and I had no idea that this sweet, shy schoolgirl has his sort of smoke and fire and command of the stage. She was really vibing with this Demi Lovato song. Lionel described her stage presence as “out of control,” Katy Perry said she was one of the “most talented” singers of the top 20, and Luke called her a “superstar in the making” with “that magic thing.” I’m so glad she got through. Her learning curve on this show has been so rapid already, so there’s no telling how far she can go.
Mike Parker, “Chasing After You”
After sharing a moving moment with fellow Black country singer Jimmie Allen last week, Mike broke out as one to watch. His newfound confidence definitely translated to this stage this week with this silky, sexy performance. He looked and sounded like he belonged on the CMT Awards alongside Jimmie, so much so that Luke gasped “wow!” midway through this performance. Luke told him, “The time is right for you, and Katy predicted, “You’re the next country artist.”
Tristen Gressett, “Sacrifice”
I was worried that Tristen would be polarizing, so I’m thrilled that his flamboyant rock ‘n’ soul style connected with voters. I really didn’t expect this throwback rocker to do a fiery disco banger from the Weeknd’s just-released Dawn FM album, but I loved that he took such a massive risk. He even reminded me of shape-shifter Adam Lambert a bit. I am worried, however, that the fans who loved him doing Beatles and CCR songs won’t quite get this. Katy “appreciated that he rolled the dice” and Lionel said he was “acting like an artist,” but Luke thought the high-pitched tune was too challenging for Tristen. I hope he gets to roll the dice again.
I preferred the start of this big Mac classic, which was all slow and smoky and torchy and witchy, but when it picked up the pace, Sage's voice sounded a bit tired and hoarse, even shouty in parts. However, she mostly she used that rasp for good. I was also concerned that with her styling — black lace shawl, hippie tendrils — this might have been too on-the-nose, too Stevie Nicks vibe-alike. But Katy said Sage “gave the song a whole new shape” and actually compared her to Janis Joplin; Lionel warned Sage not to “get too psyched out by the other voices” in the competition, but thought this was “masterful” and “the closest thing to 1968 I can get.” I’d personally love to see Sage take a risk, like Tristen just did, and try something more modern.
Jay Copeland, “You Know I’m No Good”
I was surprised that Jay made it through — he sang in the “death spot” last week, and I always thought his over-the-top performance style was so off-putting. But with this Amy Winehouse torch song, he finally found his groove. He is really dazzling in this retro-soul style, and he needs to stay in this lane. What a showman he was tonight! I finally get what all the fuss was about. Luke said Jay “really solidified why we gave you that platinum ticket,” and Lionel agreed, saying, “Tonight, you lived up the that potential.”
Nicolina Bozzo, “Edge of Seventeen”
Nicolina also did a Stevie song, and her voice also sound fatigued in parts. But even a fatigued Nicolina voice is awesome, because she’s one of the most dynamic belters of this season. I loved Nicolina’s own arrangement here — how it started off like an ethereal Kate Bush ballad, then transformed into a Benatar-esque stadium rocker — and her big a cappella finish tied it all together. Katy likened Nicolina’s power vocals to a Ferrari; Luke loved her “amazing” softer tone and said, “It tells me you know exactly everything you’re doing as a singer”; and Lionel told her, “You have a way of bringing the absolute peak of the song to its finale.”
Jacob Moran, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing”
This second-chancer was another contestant I thought would be in jeopardy this week, but apparently his old-fashioned balladeer style appealed to the Idol base. This was a perfectly pleasant performance, but once again, I felt it was too American Idol Season 2. Lionel said Jacob “nailed this” but now needs to “step into his light,” and Katy actually declared Jacob the best singer of the season but said it was time for him to “step into who he is as an artist, as a character.” I wish he’d take more risks, but then again, maybe Jacob knows what he’s doing by sticking to classic crooner fare.
Huntergirl, “Heartbreak Down”
The other platinum ticket recipient in the top 23 also validated the judges’ decision by making it this far, then took a huge chance by doing an original song on this crucial night. But I think it’ll pay off. As Katy pointed out, “This is when you pull out these tricks, because you are an artist.” Huntergirl’s original was an infectious, triumph-of-the-spirit ballad that established her identity, and it was much better than the weak covers she did in Hollywood. Like her song said, she got back on her own two feet with this. Lionel called her “a natural” and gave this composition an “A-plus.” Luke told her, “When you start singing, it sounds like the daggone country radio. … You just have that magic sound, and then you write the songs to back it up.
Elli Rowe, “Somewhere We Only Know”
This result was another (mild) surprise, as I worried Elli might get lost in the shuffle of this season’s mightier voices. But as Elli said, “I want America to see although my voice isn’t the loudest one in the room, it can still be equally as powerful.” That’s why this delicately delivered Keane ballad was such a genius song choice. Luke loved her “pure, angelic, and emotional voice,” and Lionel told her, “There’s nothing like you. … You’re in your lane.” Katy said, “I really hope America sees you like we see you.” After this, I think voters at home will continue to take notice.
Dan Marshall, “Friends in Low Places”
Last week, this generic country-crooning football player gave a lackluster performance, but Luke predicted he’d get through anyway. He ditched his guitar last Sunday, which Katy said was a mistake for this inexperience performer, so this week, the guitar was back. I will say this Garth Brooks cover, Dan’s second of the season, was an improvement — but I was still bored. Despite a bit of cute call-and-response audience interplay, his performance had none of Garth’s joy and personality. But Katy thought this was “so fun,” “natural,” and “authentic,” and Lionel said Dan was ready to go on tour with this hat act. Luke agreed that this was the right song that showcased Dan’s potential and “upped his game.” Eh, I don’t know. Maybe it sounded better on the room. I still don’t understand Dan’s appeal.
Ava Maybee, “Anyone”
Ava is one of my favorites of Season 20, and she belted Demi Lovato’s desperate ballad with her proud parents — including an unbilled Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers — in the audience, she was a red-hot rock star in her own right. This was majestic. Katy said she “reinvented” this “interesting” song choice, and Luke said, “You showed us a different side of yourself that we didn’t necessary have imprinted in our minds.” Ava is one of this season’s biggest risk-takers, and so far, every one of her risks is paying off in a big way.
Allegra Miles, “Free Fallin’”
Tom Petty songs rarely get cleared for singing shows, so I was thrilled to hear Allegra put her Sarah McLachlan-like spin on this American girl’s anthem. This was so pretty, so delightful! This performance earned Sunday’s first standing ovation from the judges, whom as Katy put it, “became putty.” Luke even declared it his favorite performance of the night so far and said the angelic intro was “one of the most magical things I’ve ever witnessed sitting in this chair.”
Noah Thompson, “Falling”
Noah, like Dan, is inexperienced, but unlike Dan, he is a country singer who thinks outside the box. His Rihanna cover two weeks ago was a revelation, and his twangy interpretation of Harry Styles’s heartbreak ballad this week was also exquisite. Lionel noted Noah’s shyness but told still him, “You have arrived, my brother.” Luke predicted, “You’re gonna aw-shucks your way to the top.”
Leah Marlene, “Heal”
Showing a more serious side with this heart-on-sleeve Tom Odell ballad, Season 20’s presumed token quirky girl was nearly unrecognizable, and she proved all her doubters wrong. Leah is no novelty act; this girl has layers. I loved seeing this mix of sophistication and vulnerability from her, and I had no idea that her voice could reach such stratospheric octaves. Katy was agog, picking her jaw up off her desk to marvel, “Are you real? … You’re growing into this beautiful woman right before our eyes!" Lionel praised Leah's “amazing transformation” and raved, “We witnessed a possession. It was spiritual. It was crazy-good.”
Christian Guardino, “Imagine”
Doing an iconic peace anthem back in the news after John Lennon’s son Julian recently covered it for a Ukraine benefit, Christian made the admittedly overdone late Beatle’s song his own, the instant he hit that unexpected wailing high note. Katy was sobbing even before Christian sang, after hearing his backstory about his childhood blindness, and she told Christian, “Hearing the obstacles you have overcome and the mountains you have climbed and the attitude of gratitude that you have… and then you sing ‘Imagine,’ which is a world-changing song? You were put on this planet to do something super-powerful, and you are doing it right now.” Lionel agreed, saying, “You are the posterchild for the power of the human spirit.” But Luke focused on Christian’s actual vocals, telling him, “You just slayed that performance, I didn’t hear anything but perfection.”
Fritz Hager, “When the Party’s Over”
Being hyped as the New Phillip Phillips, Ryan Seacrest of course announced Fritz’s good news right after Phillip’s guest performance. Fritz was a bit intimidated to follow his hero, but honestly, when he did this passionate Billie Eilish cover, he actually reminded me more of the artsy Alejandro. This was haunting, compelling, and so powerful. “That falsetto moment could have been recorded for an album and just sent out there to the world. It was really perfectly done," said Luke. Lionel teared up and called Fritz “stellar.” And Katy cried some more, saying Fritz was “reborn” and would “never be misunderstood again. … The world sees you now.”
Katyrah Love, “Dream”
This true artist also took a risk with an unexpected Bishop Briggs songs, and she made it her own. The percussive, propulsive alt-rock barnstormer was a fantastic showcase for her big personality and vocal acrobatics. But Katy didn’t seem to appreciate the song choice, saying “I hear moments of Whitney all the time in your voice” and suggesting a different direction. Still, Katy said Katyrah looked like “royalty,” and Luke loved Katyrah's “energy.” Lionel just congratulated Katyrah for making it this far. I’m honestly surprised the judges weren’t more enthusiastic. I thought this was stupendous.
Cadence Baker, “Train Wreck”
After a standout first audition, Cadence has since struggled with nerves and homesickness, as well as the pressure of being from a musical family (her grandfather, songwriter Gary Baker, has penned hits for Michael Montgomery, Alabama, Lonestar, and others). Doing this perhaps too fittingly titled James Arthur song, she still looked terrified, but that vibe kind of/sort of worked with the song’s underlying anxiety. Lionel thought Cadence should have played to the audience more, but said she still “delivered the goods.” Luke said this performance got Cadence “back to that audition level” and told her, “You showed up and got in the show.” And Katy praised her with, “Wait to fight, girl!” I think Cadence will have to keep on fighting if she wants to advance this fiercely competitive season.
Lady K, “Love on the Brain”
The pimp spot and Grammy-level production will hopefully help this talented diva, who’s mostly flown under the radar this season due to a less-than-generous edit. Lady K definitely deserved this final slot. Lady’s fellow Tuskegee native, Lionel ,was up out of his seat, testifying. Katy joked that she actually mistook Lady K for Rihanna, and gushed, “You are beautiful, inside and out… and now you get to shine like the goddess that you always have been.”
So now, it is prediction time. I think Jacob, Dan, Sage, Tristen, Katyrah, and Cadence are the most at risk, but with such a competitive top 20, anything could happen Monday, especially depending on how these contestants handle the added pressure of live TV. But it’s going to be good TV, no matter what. See you then.
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