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After a two-week hiatus, American Idol returned Sunday and kicked off with the most anticlimactic resolution of the least suspenseful cliffhanger in TV history: when host Ryan Seacrest announced that last season’s runner-up, Arthur Gunn, had won the “Comeback” round and secured a spot in this season’s top 10. Yeah, that wasn’t exactly a cliffhanger of “Who Shot J.R.?” proportions. But if I can make yet another Dallas reference here, producers really should contemplate cold-opening next week’s Idol show with a scene of Bobby Ewing soaping up in the shower, assuring furious viewers that this week’s controversial top seven result was just a bad dream.
Allow me to recap what’s been going on with American Idol for those of you who didn’t watch the above-mentioned Comeback episode — which is probably most of you, since it was the series’ lowest-rated episode ever. Yes, it even did worse than the mid-season clip show that was hastily cobbled together last year while the coronavirus-derailed show pivoted to a virtual/remote format. So, when 10 of the contestants from last year’s pandemic season (including Arthur) returned in person for a second chance, on April 19’s Comeback show, it did not go over well with the fans who actually did watch. Most of those Season 18 contestants, aside from Arthur and Louis Knight, didn’t even make it into last year’s top 10. And while Louis’s Comeback performance was arguably stronger than Arthur’s lazy Goo Goo Dolls cover, the fact that Arthur ultimately won the vote anyway proved that this had just been a silly popularity contest.
And so, that brings us to this week — when Arthur, as expected, joined this season’s top nine. Those nine singers didn’t exactly welcome him with open arms, and not just because of social-distancing protocols on the Idol stage. Sure, no one could blame Arthur for seizing an opportunity to finally perform on that stage, instead of in his living room. But no one could blame the Season 19 contestants for being resentful that he’d basically stolen a spot from the singer who would’ve likely made the top 10 under normal circumstances, Ava August. Arthur even looked a bit guilty and chagrined, as if reluctant to appear too celebratory, as he sat with his sullen new costars on the set’s sofas. And the situation became even more awkward at the end of the evening, when Arthur was voted through to the top seven — thus taking a spot from either Deshawn Goncalves, Alyssa Ray, or Cassandra Coleman, all of whom went home after giving excellent Disney performances.
Twitter was not the Happiest Place Online after this controversial outcome. And viewers did not seem to agree with judge Katy Perry, who was all dolled up for Sunday’s theme episode in Tinkerbell cosplay, that this was “the best night of the year!” (And that was a shame, because I’d actually say this was overall the best Disney Night since the series moved to ABC.)
Again, this backlash was not Arthur’s fault (the blame lies with the producers, who thought this “biggest shakeup in Idol history” was such a fabulous idea in the first place). And Arthur’s “bright and hopeful,” Mumfordian take on the Coco song “Remember Me,” complete with soulful horns and gospel backup singers, was much, much better than his phoned-in “Iris” Comeback performance — Katy even said “Remember Me” was one of his most memorable performances ever. It was definitely a reminder of why I liked him so much last year. Perhaps it was smart and strategic of Arthur to wait to do something like this in the top 10 week, since he probably knew he could coast through the Comeback round against a random assortment of Season 18 also-rans without having to waste his best material.
But I still think this is a lose-lose situation. As much as I rooted for Arthur last year (I still don’t understand why 19 Recordings didn’t sign him then, when other contestants from his season like Francisco Martin and Dillon James did land record deals), I don’t think he will make the top two again this season — especially since his advancement has already generated so much fan outrage. So, Arthur will likely go home next week — sort of an Idol demotion, with his Wikipedia page now billing him as “Season 19 top seven finalist” instead of “Season 18 runner-up.” And in the meantime, we had to say goodbye to three contestants who’d worked hard all season — this season — to earn their spots, and had given some of their best performances ever this week.
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But for now, six contestants from this season are still in the running, and one of them is likely to be the next American Idol. These were their Disney performances from Sunday night:
Caleb Kennedy, “Real Gone” (from Cars)
This uptempo Sheryl Crow tune was a rousing start to the show, but it wasn’t exactly a magical, classic Disney performance. But maybe magical, classic Disney performances aren’t what most Idol viewers even want anymore, since they didn’t vote for Deshawn’s classy and jazzy “When You Wish Upon a Star,” Alyssa’s princessy “A Wish Is a Dream Your Heart Makes,” or Cassandra’s Grecian-goddess Hercules song. Personally, I’d like to see Caleb do covers that have as much grit and gravitas as his originals, and it annoyed me when perpetually jolly judge Lionel Richie suggested that he smile more. But Katy loved Caleb’s “infectious energy” and thought “the song choice was really cool,” and I do think Caleb the songwriter is coming into his own as Caleb the performer.
Willie Spence, “Circle of Life” (from The Lion King)
“Circle of Life” was a massive moment for Jennifer Hudson in Season 3 (even though J.Hud shockingly went home that week, her version is still considered one of the greatest Idol performances of all time). So, the bar was set high here. And of course, Willie reached it. He’s the best belter of the season, and while some contestants who start off strong often plateau by the semifinals, Willie just keeps soaring. As long as he can throw a couple of curveballs in the next few weeks, this is his competition to lose — but on Disney Night, he was wise to stay in the balladeer lane. “You just have the magic, buddy. When you hit those big notes, man, it’s the best stuff in the world,” raved judge Luke Bryan. “I love what you did. The arrangement was sparkly and magnificent. … It was real spiritual. I’m excited to see you sing again,” said Katy. I’m excited too.
Casey Bishop, “When She Loved Me” (from Toy Story 2)
I appreciated Casey mixing it up, but I do wish she’d kept a little bit of her signature rock sound intact, rather than strip everything back completely. It’s not like I expected her to cover a Halyx song, even though that would have been awesome. (Fun fact: Halyx was a troupe of glam sci-fi rockers, a.k.a. “the Star Wars Cantina Band meets KISS,” who played a residency at a secret amphitheater under Disneyland’s Space Mountain for one glorious summer in 1981. Yes, that happened.) But Casey was a bit Stepfordian here; I missed her rawk ‘n’ roll fire. The judges didn’t seem to miss it, however. Katy loved the “sophisticated” transformation, and Casey’s biggest fan on the panel, Luke, gushed, “I just believe you are a superstar in the making. … I don’t know if I’ve had chill-bumps like that in four years of doing this show.”
Chayce Beckham, “Baby Mine” (from Dumbo)
OK, this is what I wish Casey would have done. Rocker Chayce, basically the David Cook of Season 19, put his own spin on the sweet, sincere lullaby, roughing it up with some steel guitar (which Luke greatly appreciated it), folksy acoustic strumming, and a raw, urgent, keening delivery. Chayce will be the reinstated Arthur’s most direct competition this season, or vice versa. Luke called this a “really retro cool country moment,” and Katy compared it to the Goo Goo Dolls, which apparently was a compliment.
Hunter Metts, “You’ll Be in My Heart” (from Tarzan)
This performance was hyped as Hunter’s own comeback of sorts, after he flubbed his lyrics during top 12 week and had a meltdown onstage. But there was really nothing to “come back” from, because that was Hunter’s finest performance and he’d beaten himself up unnecessarily. This week, I felt he was holding back, seemingly afraid to lose control again, but when he finally did let go, he approached the greatness of “Falling Slowly.” Said Lionel, “Yep, that’s what I was waiting on. The thing you were fearing the most was to get emotional, and just by getting emotional, you heard the crowd [cheer]. And that’s what it’s about.” Luke observed, “When you started, I felt like you were really, really reluctant to go there. And now when you go there, it works, it gets reactions, and it takes the song to higher places. Your voice is so recognizable. When you expand your range and go for it, it’s just going to make you more undeniable.”
Grace Kinstler, Into the Unknown” (from Frozen 2)
Grace has been criticized for blithely and repeatedly ignoring the judges’ advice to sing grand, timeless ballads; even in the top 12 Oscar-themed week, she bizarrely went with Pharrell Williams’s boppy “Happy” instead of a more suitable James Bond theme or Diane Warren power ballad. But this week, Grace finally gave the judges and fans what they craved, with a spectacular tour de force that showcased all of her diva strengths. It was a show-closing big finish that earned a standing ovation from the panel. “Oh my goddess, Grace. It was like you had a magic wand. … You had the whole room controlled with your voice,” exclaimed Katy. “You walked to the mic with a look in your eyes like, ‘I’m about to slay this.’ And there was never any doubt. You had the eye of the tiger,” said Luke. “Just do that. That’s all you have to do,” advised Lionel.
Side note: This week’s guest mentor was “the one-and-only John Stamos” (those were Ryan’s words), apparently because “starring in the Disney+ sports drama Big Shot” and being a “self-confessed Disney fanatic” qualified Uncle Jesse as “no one better to help bring some Disney magic to the Idol stage.” Amusingly, Arthur advanced to the top seven by totally ignoring John’s advice, but whatever. Next Sunday’s episode will be Coldplay-themed, with the actual members of Coldplay (literally no one better for the job) mentoring the top seven. It seems the Coldplay catalog might favor singer-songwriter types like Chayce, Hunter, and, yes, Arthur (and I really would have loved to see what Cassandra could’ve done), but hopefully that episode will feature many enjoyable hymns for the weekend. See you then.
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