Sunday’s American Idol episode cold-opened with footage of Season 4 champion Carrie Underwood’s journey from humble Oklahoma farmgirl to country music superstar, followed by Season 16 contestant Gabby Barrett’s recent rise from Carrie Underwood fangirl to platinum-selling, record-setting ACM/CMA/CMT Awards nominee. This perfectly set up Sunday’s first audition, by Gabby superfan Laila Mach, to be a similarly torch-passing moment. But it was the night’s final audition, by 18-year-old small-town Kentucky misfit Alyssa Wray, that truly seemed historic, like a moment of Underwood-esque proportions… or maybe even Beyhive proportions.
“How cool was it to be in the room with that?” marveled judge Luke Bryan. “You just saw Beyoncé get born.”
“Did you just hear what I heard? … How lucky are we to be able to say we knew you when — and we had something to do with it!” concurred the “so happy” Lionel Richie. Lionel, Luke, and a stunned, beaming Katy Perry gave Alyssa’s finale-worthy, “once in a generation” tour de force of “I Am Changing” a standing ovation before her performance was even over. And Katy later quipped, “I just want to touch up my makeup” — whipping out a pink lipstick tube before delivering her rave review — “because this moment, when it goes down in history, I want to be looking my best as well.”
In a fiercely competitive season already packed with so many talented contestants that the judges have declared far more than 10 singers “top 10 material” or even potential winners, Alyssa still managed to stand as the new One to Beat — and not just because she stood at a statuesque 6-foot-2 and sported a headful of magenta curls as vibrant as her smile. She just had (along with a fantastic, elastic voice) what Katy called a certain sparkle. “The most challenging thing in entertainment is to have a presence,” explained Luke. “That means: door opens, crowded room, and people go, ‘Who is that? Where’s she from? Who’s her publicist? Who’s her manager?’”
Well, Alyssa better hire a PR agent and manager ASAP, because she’s going to need their services. This girl is magic, and she is destined to be a star, whether she wins American Idol like Carrie Underwood or just makes the finals like third-placer Gabby Barrett. She’s definitely top 10 material, that’s for sure. Katy predicted that Alyssa would soon achieve “pretty much you ever dreamed of,” and after Alyssa exited the audition room with her unanimously, enthusiastically bequeathed Golden Ticket in hand, she said, “I felt seen. It just felt right. It feels like I have the key to the world.”
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But Alyssa wasn’t the only impressive contestant of this Idol season’s penultimate auditions episode. The above-mentioned Laila Mach started the show off right, and the momentum really never let up from there. These were the other successful singers of the night:
Laila Mach, 15: Untitled original song
The Gabby fan’s self-penned piano ballad was inspired by Gabby’s post-breakup revenge song “I Hope,” but was “even angrier… it gets worse!” Laila’s song wasn’t actually country, more of twisted Tori Amos/Fiona Apple tortured singer-songwriter vibe, and while the verse was a bit busy and unfocused, the chorus was strong. Laila was interesting. Lionel loved her confidence and gave her “songwriting props,” and Katy appreciated her “more deranged” spin on the mainstream Gabby hit, telling her, “You’re exactly what it takes to be in this competition and go far.” Man, that top 10 is getting more and more crowded by the minute.
Re’h, 27: “Bad Girls”
I’m honestly surprised that this woman made earned three yeses. I loved her backstory — she’s a National Guard soldier and the lead singer of an army band – and I loved that her disco-diva performance came complete with a costume change from civilian attire to sequined slip-dress. And of course the retro '70s vibe hit Lionel right in his sweet spot. But this performance was so wedding band, so bachelorette party, and it had cringey pitch issues galore. I’d have a blast partying with Re’h at the karaoke club, and I’d like to borrow that little silver dress, but she was not Idol material.
Michael Gerow, 16: Untitled original song
This kid served Billy Joel-meets-Lewis Capaldi realness, and he showed songwriting promise, particularly as a lyricist. But his nasal voice grated quickly, and I wonder if it will lend itself well to the cover songs he’ll be forced to do on Idol. But Lionel loved Michael’s “vulnerability” and said, “I think you got something,” and Katy liked his “swag.” And Katy also said Michael was… wait for it… “top 10 material.” I doubt there is room in the top 10 for him this season.
Cameron McGhar, 16: “Girl Crush”/“You Ain’t Woman Enough”
This Alabama cheerleader with a hard-luck upbringing had big, deep, robust voice, but her Little Big Town cover was wooden and robotic. “It’s not flowing out, and it’s not natural,” griped Luke. Lionel said Cameron’s performance was “not comfortable,” and Katy called it “not believable at all.” That was a whole lotta “nots” for Cameron to overcome. The judges heard enough potential to give her a second shot, and her more attitudinal Loretta Lynn cover was a sassy improvement, but she was still awkward and lacking that “presence” that came so effortlessly to the likes of Alyssa Wray. On-the-fence judges Katy and Luke decided to go for a “dice roll” and put Cameron through, mostly based due to her “infectious personality” (and probably her blatant begging). But I agreed with dissenting judge Lionel, who told Cameron, “In my heart of hearts, I don’t think you’re quite ready.”
Beane, 23: “Wait for the Moment”
I loved everything about this adorkable jazzbo: the leftfield Vulfpeck cover, the Bronski Beat-meets-Fine Young Cannibals new-wave-nerd look, the hipster-crooner vibe that reminded me of that time David Bowie visited Bing Crosby at his home during Christmas season 1977. What a charmer! Lionel even declared the cardigan-sweatered singer “the new Mister Rogers.” That to me meant Beane is universally lovable, so it was surprising when the judges wondered if he was right for American Idol. Thankfully, Lionel and Katy rolled the dice again, with Katy saying, “I see something very special in you. You are walking pocketful of sunshine.” I am concerned if someone with such a signature style can adapt to the many themes and genres that Idol will throw at him week after week, but I am excited to see Beane try.
Ash Ruder, 22: Untitled original song
Ash was estranged from her addict father, Bryan, for much of her unstable childhood, but they’ve forged a solid bond since he got sober two years ago. So, when Bryan accompanied her to her audition on what happened to be his birthday, she gave him the best present ever: serenading him with a lovely song she wrote about his journey — and her forgiveness. “I couldn’t ask for a better birthday than that, holy smokes. … It was my life story, being sung to me by my daughter,” gushed Bryan, not only his eyes but his entire face reddened from weeping. Lionel cried too, but Ash, consummate professional that she is, held it together until the song was over and she and her dad tearfully embraced. That alone proved she can handle the pressures of a national TV talent competition, but her shimmering vibrato and willingness to wear her heart on her denim sleeve should also take her far. “You can sing, and you have found the only subject that does not go out of style: love,” said Lionel. “It was so beautiful to witness.”
Heather Russell, 20: “Harleys in Hawaii”
Singing a judge’s song could be an advantage, or it could backfire in a major way. For Heather, it was a bit of both. It probably flattered Katy that Heather performed “Harleys in Hawaii,” a totally underrated bop from Katy’s solid but commercially disappointing recent sixth album, Smile. Heather’s jazzy piano arrangement was cool, and she had an intriguing Charli XCX quality to her voice, but her bizarre phrasing, staccato grunting, and unnecessary vocal acrobatics threw the whole performance off. As Katy put it, it was “way, way too much.” Luke thought Heather’s voice was “world-class,” but sternly warned her to “be careful about all the tricks”; Lionel grumbled, “I’m not a fan of runs, runs, runs, and more runs”; and while Katy appreciated Heather’s raw talent (and the song choice, of course), she likened this performance to a cake made entirely out of frosting. “You have the best voice in the word – you’ve just got to learn how to use it,” Katy cautioned. Heather has a steep learning curve ahead if she wants to “be an artist, not a singer,” as Luke wisely advised.
Caleb Kennedy, 16: “Nowhere”
“What are your hobbies?” Luke asked 16-going-on-60 Caleb when he entered the audition room. “Writing songs,” Caleb answered gruffly, without missing a beat. Good answer! This kid is deep. I’m not sure if he has the vocal range to compete with this season’s standouts (he freely admitted that he considers himself more of songwriter than a singer), but his strummy original, sort of a Stone Temple Pilots-meets-“Wonderwall” dark grunge ballad with a country-rock twist, showcased tons of potential. Lionel said Caleb had “mastered a storyteller’s voice,” and Katy said, “That song is going to take you somewhere. … You’ve got a grit and a gravel and crack in your voice that says, ‘I’m in pain, someone please come save me through this song,’ and there are a lot of people like you.” Caleb declared, “I wanna be a legend. I wanna be someone who changed country music” — and while I don’t know if that will happen, he does have a future. He should try out for Songland if Idol doesn’t work out.
Abby LeBaron, 19: “All I Want”
Abby admitted she’s never been confident in her singing ability and has therefore kept her musical passion to herself, but Luke “started getting chill-bumps everywhere” as soon as she sat down at the piano for this Kodaline cover. Her voice was just so pretty, so pure, so pristine, and it went to places I didn’t expect. Yes, her insecurities did get to her mid-song, resulting in what Luke called “a couple misguided moves” when she messed up a chord. But if she can start believing in herself and her talent, she could be a Season 19 dark horse. Idol viewers love modest contestants with a good story arc, after all.
Murphy, 27: “Just the Two of Us”/“The Painted Man”
This bookish old soul had a compelling presence the minute he quietly loped into the audition room, giving me Arthur Gunn vibes. And he had a harrowing backstory for the Idol ages that involved being born half-blind (and being teased for his disability); losing both his parents at a young age (his father died due to alcohol and heroin abuse); and busking around the country for three years in an attempt to find himself. I have no idea why the judges thought Murphy was a “novelty” act at first — there’s a difference being quirky or eccentric and being a joke, and it was evident from Murphy’s finger-plucking, Croce-esque, very serious Bill Withers cover that he was the real deal. I am glad, however, that the indecisive judges asked him to do a second song, because the real magic happened when Murphy warbled his original, “The Painted Man.” That one sounded like an instant classic from another era. “We don’t have anything like this. This is going be an interesting experiment,” proclaimed Lionel, his entire face lighting up, before he cast the deciding yes vote. Bring it on, I say.
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