Why U.K. pop prince Sheeran judged 'American Idol' while Perry and Richie performed for King Charles
One of the U.K.’s biggest music stars seemingly sat out the U.K.’s biggest music event to judge one of America's biggest music TV shows. But that wasn't quite the case.
If you’ve been following the royal news, then you know that the “man formerly known as Prince,” King Charles III, was ceremonially crowned this weekend, and two American Idol judges, Lionel Richie and Katy Perry, performed at his Coronation Concert on Sunday. (Apparently Luke Bryan’s invitation got lost in the Royal Mail.) Even taking into account the eight-hour time difference between London and Hollywood, Katy and Lionel wouldn’t have been able to get back to the Idol set in time, unless they pulled a Phil Collins-at-Live Aid stunt and somehow gained access to a still-functioning Concorde jet. So, Katy and Lionel were temporarily dethroned this week, and as Luke comfortably settled into Katy’s center seat (“This chair’s so niiiice,” he cooed), he was flanked by two guest judges: the queen of ‘90s rock and, ironically, the current reigning prince of British pop.
The former, Katy’s own idol Alanis Morissette, pulled double-duty as both a mentor and judge, with the top eight semifinalists covering her songs. But the appearance by the latter guest judge, Ed Sheeran, was an especially interesting development, considering that one of the U.K.’s biggest music stars — who’d supposedly been at the top of King Charles’s concert wish list, alongside Adele — was sitting out the U.K.’s biggest music event to sit behind the desk of one of America's biggest music TV shows. But while other pop luminaries, including Kylie Minogue, Elton John, Harry Styles, the Spice Girls, Robbie Williams, and, yes, Adele had reportedly turned downs offers to perform for the new king, Ed was apparently never invited.
“Lots of people are saying to me how it's random that [Katy and Lionel] are going to sing at the king's coronation. ... I want to clear something up, actually, because there was loads of stuff in the press that I turned down the coronation, and no one ever asked me, ever,” Ed recently stated in a SiriusXM interview. "I assume if they went online and went, 'What's Ed doing on May 6?' they would've been like, 'Oh, he's playing in Dallas.' I think that's what happened. But obviously, [the] press had the negative story of loads of people turning down the coronation. But I never, ever turned it down. I wasn't asked. But yeah, I am excited to tune in to that. Historic, isn't it?”
Stateside viewers were excited to tune in to Idol Sunday, as Ed’s appearance occurred just two days after he historically won his big copyright case, when a jury ruled that he did not plagiarize Marvin Gaye's “Let's Get It On” for his own hit “Thinking Out Loud.” And while Ed did not mention the lawsuit on the air, he was understandably in good spirits — almost too good, because he was so bloody nice that he doled out no constructive criticism whatsoever, merely repeating how delighted he was to be there and how impressed he was by the top eight contestants duet versions of his songs. (Ed certainly had little in common with his tough-talking British predecessor, Simon Cowell.) Ed had vowed to quit music if he lost his “Thinking Out Loud” suit, and on Friday outside the courthouse he joked to reporters, “It looks like I'm not having to retire from my day job after all!” So, he probably didn’t see this one-off Idol appearance as his unofficial audition to be a permanent judge.
Meanwhile, as the top eight performed Sunday, Katy and Lionel did check in all night long (heh) from the Grand Reception Room at London’s Windsor Castle — and they were joined by two surprise guests of high honor. The just-crowned King Charles III and Queen Camilla themselves made a surprise appearance, with Charles interrupting the judges to ask, “I just wanted to check how long you’ll be using this room for?” before praising Richie’s “brilliant performance” at the Coronation Concert. (Richie reportedly arranged the royal couple’s on-air Idol cameo.) Depending on how much of a royalist one is, this could be seen as a slumming moment for the king and queen or for Katy and Lionel — but it made for good, historic television.
Eventually, it all got back to Idol business as usual, and at the end of Sunday’s two-hour episode, after 21 million live coast-to-coast votes, three of Season 21’s eight contestants went home: Warren Peay, Haven Madison, and Oliver Steele. Only Warren’s exit was truly surprising, considering how well country singers usually fare on Idol, but it seems most of the country votes went to Colin Stough and, possibly, Megan Danielle. As for the other two eliminees, Haven peaked weeks ago, and while Oliver had also seemed like an early fan favorite, after landing in the bottom three last week and apparently feeling like he had nothing to lose this week, he took a big risk that ultimately didn’t pay off. However, Oliver seemed the happiest among the top eight contestants to get a chance to meet Ed, even exclaiming, “You’re my hero!” to him from the stage. So, in a way, he got to be king for a day.
Below are all of the performances that received the royal treatment, so to speak, from Alanis and Ed this week.
Warren Peay, “All I Really Want”
Warren chose to ditch his guitar, and I think he needed it; he was already out of his comfort zone as it was, opening the show with a ‘90s Lilith Fair song, and he admitted he was nervous. Maybe having his guitar would have helped him survive and make the top five the week. That being said, the uptempo rock tune was a decent fit for his voice, and he mostly understood the assignment when Alanis advised him to “start small” and build the dynamics. By the end of the performance, he finally found his confidence, and found his literal footing as worked the crowd and stage. Fellow axeman Ed was impressed, empathetically admitting, “I am someone who always has a guitar and always uses it as a barrier between me and the audience, and I always feel naked without it. And I think you really shined without the guitar.”
Zachariah Smith, “Ironic”
Honestly, I think it would have been kind of a genius move for this often manic and unhinged performer to do a gender-flipped take on Alanis’s most manic and unhinged song, “You Oughta Know.” (Instead — spoiler alert! — it would be another male maverick of Season 21 who’d take a risk with that famous revenge anthem. And that didn’t turn out so well… so maybe Zach chose wisely after all. ) “Ironic” was a more subtle song selection, but it did allow Zachariah to soar in the chorus, and it was probably a good — if not textbook-definition-ironic — omen when Zachariah and Alanis were rehearsing outdoors and a downpour actually started during that “it’s like raaaaayy-ay-ainnnnn” line. Ed told him, “I think your voice is super-super-powerful, and I was captivated through the whole thing.” Alanis loved the freedom and “liquidity” of Zachariah onstage movements. And Luke appreciated Zach’s new sense of dynamics this week, saying, “A lot of times you come out full-speed ahead… but you had some tender moments in there.”
Haven Madison, “You Learn”
Haven teased that she was going to showcase her falsetto for the first time this season, but she just sang in her full voice instead. However, she was always more of a songwriter than singer (I kind of wish she’d pulled an Alejandro Aranda and done originals all season; if she had, we might be seeing her in the top five), so the falsetto shtick probably wouldn’t have worked out anyway. Ed was being quite hyperbolic when he kindly described her performance as “vocally, it was nuts,” but it was solid enough. And it was obvious that working with Alanis, the woman she said “laid the blueprint,” meant a lot to Haven. Alanis praised Haven’s “confidence and agency” and — perhaps sensing that Haven’s time was up — urged the budding teen artist to keep pursuing her dream, proudly telling Haven, “You have that inside-out, music-in-your-body thing.”
Colin Stough, “Hand in My Pocket”
I knew Colin had the potential for another big moment this week, since his two standout performances of the season were when he stepped outside the country genre with Robyn and Staind covers. And my hunch was correct! Heeding the judges’ previous advice to get “nasty” and Alanis’s instruction to “make it imperfect,” Colin let his rawness work for him. The result was the performance of a rising rock star. Alanis “did not see that coming!” and said Colin “put a whole new life into that song for me,” praising the “big, bombastic beautifulness” of this cover. Ed was a fan, gushing, “That’s really, really up my alley. I loved how it rocked out at the end, but also how you gave it a different spin in the beginning. … It was brilliant.” It was this performance that, I believe, edged out the more experienced but less versatile Warren this week.
Megan Danielle, “Head Over Feet”
This was my favorite performance from Danielle so far. Not only did this romantic ballad showcase her rasp to stunning effect, but she exuded a new confidence and womanly maturity, probably because she dedicated the song to her much-adored boyfriend. (That little smitten giggle at the end was everything.) Alanis thought Danielle “really authentically” captured the “ambivalence” of the conflicted lyrics, and Luke told Danielle, “You made it real inviting. … Your voice makes that happen naturally.” And Ed, hearing Danielle’s unique vocals for the first time, was the most impressed and even shocked, raving, “I genuinely forgot for a second that we were on American Idol. I thought we were watching a classic singer from the ‘60s or something. Your tone is incredible.”
Iam Tongi, “Guardian”
This was a lesser-known song from 2012, as opposed to Alanis’s golden ‘90s era, and for any other contestant, the choice would have been a risk. However, for Iam — whose first breakout moment of the season was a dedication to his late father — tenderly crooning this family-themed ballad for his mother was a total slam dunk. Ed called this “really, really beautiful,” and Iam was so flattered that he adorably blushed. “Listening to Iam sing it as if I was his mom brought me to tears,” Alanis sighed during rehearsal, later saying, “You took what we shared and brainstormed together to a whole new level. I have to think of baseball or I’ll start weeping! You have this empathy in your voice… and the planet needs empathy more than ever.”
Wé Ani, “Uninvited”
There was great potential for great drama with this cinematic City of Angels power ballad, and powerhouse diva Wé certainly was selling the drama. This was the perfect choice for her, as she boldly delivered the song to an unnamed ex in a way that the queen of all breakup songs, Alanis herself, described as “chilling to behold. … I wanted to believe that you’re singing this to somebody. … It was just directly communicating and so beautiful.” Luke declared this the best cover of “Uninvited” that he’d ever heard on Idol, and Ed said, “I loved how the arrangement and style of it really just showcased every bit of your voice. … It was very, very powerful.”
Oliver Steele, “You Oughta Know”
And now for something completely different! Almost getting eliminated last week “definitely lit a fire under” Oliver, so he decided, “I think it’s about time I wake people up!” Well, he certainly did that. Doing a song “coming from a place of anger and rage,” the typically gentle troubadour showed “a different side” and, as Alanis put it, “brought a masculine vulnerability that a lot of men are told they can’t feel.” I think if Oliver had done a truly vulnerable, stripped-back acoustic version of the song, it would have worked. But this was a copycat karaoke version, and it just felt off-brand for him. And while the reveal of his newly shaved head at the end of the performance was a classic reality TV moment and also a lovely gesture of solidarity for his ailing, bald father (who was in the studio audience), the makeover seemed to have the same damning, Samson/Felicity-like that Michael Williams’s drastic haircut had a few weeks ago. Alanis said she “loved the idea of [Oliver] embracing the ‘unpopulars’: angry, devastated, sad, terrified,” but this performance was in fact unpopular, and it was Oliver’s unfortunate undoing. But kudos to him for trying something new and going out, as Luke put it, “with swords and guns blazing.”
Iam Tongi & Oliver Steele, “Photograph”
This was a recreation of this dream team’s magic moment from Hollywood Week’s duets round, and the magic was definitely still there. But it was clear that since then, Oliver’s “little brother” Iam had become Season 21’s breakout superstar: The live audience roared every time Iam opened his mouth to sing. Even Oliver noticed and prophetically told Iam, “I don’t know if I’ll go home tonight, but if I do, my money’s on you!” Sweetly, there was no competitiveness between these fast friends, and the two gracious guys were totally connected throughout. “How well your voices complement each other, that was so beautiful to listen to. … Just the gentleness and soulfulness you’re bringing, I got emotional listening to that,” gushed Ed.
Warren Peay & Wé Ani, “Perfect”
This was an intriguing opposites-attract pairing — the key word of that sentence being “attract.” With Wé ably taking on the Beyoncé role in this classic Ed duet, these two gave a CMT Crossroads-level performance that totally worked. If Warren had been this good during his solo, he might have stayed. Alanis praised their “massive” ranges, both vocally and emotionally; Luke told him they “really did something pretty special”; and Ed said, “That was really, really, really cool. I love both of your voices. I’m just so happy to be here.”
Zachariah Smith & Haven Madison, “Thinking Out Loud”
This was weakest of the night’s duets, but I suppose it was nice that Zach and Haven were able to perform “Thinking Out Loud” without any fear of legal ramifications. Again, Ed made no comment about his recent court battle over this wedding ballad, merely saying, “I usually find when people cover my songs, they do them better than I do! It was really soulful, really powerful, and I really, really enjoyed it.” Alanis called this “very loose and very free and very precious in the best way,” while Luke expressed appreciation for Zachariah’s rarely seen “tender side” and quipped, “I have ‘smile cramps’. ... I just smiled the whole time. … Just good vibes, all around.”
Megan Danielle & Colin Stough, “Dive”
This was an especially heavenly match. Ed marveled, “Whoever put you two together was a genius. … You complement each other so well,” and Alanis described their shared “plaintive cry” and connection as “almost familial.” Luke noticed that belter Megan was unsurprisingly more comfortable with the big, rangy song (which Megan and Colin picked themselves) and ABBA-style back-to-back staging, but said this was a “sweet moment” and assured the endearingly awkward Colin, “You survived it!” And they literally survived, as Sunday’s only two duet partners that weren’t torn apart by the public vote by the evening’s end.
Megan and Colin’s joint performance seemed like a foreshadowing of the Season 21 finale, but before one of the remaining top five contestants experiences a different sort of coronation on that night, they will all compete at another sort of Magic Kingdom, on next week's Disney Night. See you then.
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