“I can tell you, it's very close at the moment. You can't assume your favorite is safe,” host Ryan Seacrest announced during the first hour of Sunday’s American Idol Season 19 finale, as one of the strongest batches of finalists in the series’ history — soul/pop diva Grace Kinstler, gospel/R&B powerhouse Willie Spence, and country-rocker Chayce Beckham — performed one last time for America’s votes.
The fact that Grace came in third once again proved just how truly fantastic a top three this was, because in any other season she could have easily won — just like her obvious predecessor, Kelly Clarkson. Judge Lionel Richie even gasped at that announcement, saying, “I'm in shock! I don’t know what I expected, but to lose any one of those is ridiculous!”
It could be argued that it seemed like power-singers Grace and Willie, whose Sunday performances were bold and over-the-top, wanted this win more than the eternally chill Chayce, who was ultimately proclaimed the Next American Idol. But the stoic singer-songwriter and forklift operator from Apple Valley, who topped Apple Music’s country chart last week with his self-penned single “23,” had quite a long and arduous journey to get to the Idol winner’s circle — as “23’s” autobiographical lyrics about his battle with alcoholism revealed.
“When you're sober for the first time, performing for a long time, going in, I was a broken person. I came out the other side just a little bit more healed,” the 24-year-old told mentor Bobby Bones on Sunday's finale. During his emotional hometown visit, he even returned to the site of his drunken auto accident — the rock-bottom moment that made him get sober for good — and confessed, “I think before the crash, I was just a loose cannon, doing whatever I wanted to, until I suffered the consequences. That was the worst night of my life. Following that were some of the worst days of my life. … It was a self-realization moment. I needed to turn my life around.”
That was why viewers were so outraged when, after judge Luke Bryan invited Chayce to go fishing with him (to which Chayce smilingly answered, “Book the date!”), Ryan joked, “Chayce, this may be shocking to you, but that might involve some beer. I'm just sayin’.” Luke then quipped, “That's the point of fishing!" — to which Ryan replied, "Yeah, who cares if you fish, right? As long as it's icy and cold!” Um, awkward. But Chayce took the host and judge’s forgetful foot-in-mouth faux pas in shrugging stride, indicating that he’ll be able to handle any challenges thrown his way as he continues his career in Hollywood.
How insensitive to mention drinking to a sober young man, really @RyanSeacrest, it was just in his promo. Way to handle it Chayce!
— Jo Johnson (@PoshPets_Jo) May 24, 2021
— Ta-Ma-Ro (@tnola) May 24, 2021
So, now Chayce has landed a contract with 19 Recordings/BMG — right back where Idol began, with the label that made stars out of Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, et al. (While Hollywood Records, which became Idol’s label affiliate after the show was revived by ABC, has made a decent effort promoting Season 17 runner-up Alejandro “Scarypoolparty” Aranda, it did precious little for post-reboot winners Maddie Poppe, Laine Hardy, and especially Just Sam, who parted ways with the record company before even releasing a single.) 19 Recordings actually signed several contestants from last season and made Season 16’s third-placer Gabby Barrett a huge success at country radio, so I feel confident that 19 will do right by Chayce — and that this is not the last we’ve heard from Willie, Grace, and probably a few more of this season’s incredibly talented top 10. (I still hope that the lovely Cassandra Coleman gets a shot, even if her seemingly under-rehearsed “Go Your Own Way” finale duet with Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham didn’t exactly go the way I’d hoped.)
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Heck, maybe 19 Recordings will even sign top 64 fan favorite Murphy, who was invited back to beautifully perform his original folk song “Painted Man” on the finale after his controversial elimination, or top 16 contestant Graham DeFranco, who despite his history of stage-fright and self-doubt gamely jumped in at the “last minute” to duet with Sheryl Crow as top seven contestant Arthur Gunn’s replacement. (UPDATE: A source close to Idol told Yahoo Entertainment: “Arthur decided at the last minute that he did not want to perform, and Graham stepped in.” No reason for Arthur's decision was given.)
Other highlights from Sunday’s three-hour extravaganza included the top three’s opening rooftop number with Macklemore and the top 10’s boys with Fall Out Boy (two pyro-laden performances that were the absolute opposite of last year’s quarantined Zoom finale); small-town Kentucky girl Alyssa Wray sharing a powerful full-circle “Black Like Me” moment with Idol Season 8 contestant-turned-country superstar Mickey Guyton; Chaka Khan doing a dynamite hits medley with Casey Bishop, Alyssa Wray, Cassandra Coleman, Grace Kinstler, and the absolute star of that number, Deshawn Goncalves; X Factor champ Leona Lewis passing the torch to Willie on “You Are the Reason”; and judge Katy Perry doing an exquisite Hotel Café rendition of her early One of the Boys heartbreak ballad “Thinking of You” with Hunter Metts.
And, of course, the top three delivered stellar final competitive performances. Let’s check out those below, because Grace, Willie, and Chayce are all winners in my book…
Grace Kinstler, “All By Myself”
The judges, who compared Grace to the almighty Kelly Clarkson during her first audition of “Natural Woman” (the song Grace would've done Sunday for her encore performance if she’d made the top two), have always viewed her as an old-fashioned diva. And Katy in particular had always tried to sternly steer Grace towards balladry and away from uptempo pop/rock songs. So of course when Katy and her cohorts had their way with Grace, they gave her the Celine Dion showstopper version of Eric Carmen’s five-handkerchief breakup ballad. Grace handled it gracefully, just as the judges knew she would, and she made it look easy — almost too easy, which might have been the issue here — even though she claimed she’d been “nervous” when she found out her song assignment. “You did not just take that one higher than Celine even sings it! … Celine is going to have words!” Katy joked. “Only you can create another song out of a standard song. You're a storyteller with a great voice. Amazing performance,” said Lionel.
Willie Spence, “Georgia on My Mind”
Willie is another classic Idol balladeer, although — unlike Grace — he always seemed to have a strong sense of artistic identity, and he always managed to make modern pop hits by the likes of Rihanna, Adele, and Beyoncé his own. So I questioned the judges’ decision to give him a Ray Charles standard originally recorded by Hoagy Carmichael way back in 1930; I would have preferred something more relevant to 2021. But there’s nothing Willie can’t sing, and this was a peachy-sweet tribute to Willie’s state on a hometown-themed finale. “I can smell magnolias. I can smell Spanish moss, peaches!” sighed Luke. Lionel called this performance a “religious experience,” and Katy said, “Willie, hallelujah! I needed my hanky. The sky is the limit for you, sir.”
Chayce Beckham, “Blackbird”
Of the three contestants in this round, Chayce was the one who put the most original spin on his song assignment. More of a stylist than traditional power-belter — more of a David Cook or Phillip Phillips than a Kelly or Carrie, if you will — Chayce took the Beatles’ civil rights anthem and did a gently folksy, Mumfordian version than seemed ready for Bonnaroo or the Americana tent at the Stagecoach Festival. “You have an identifiable voice, to the point where I was wondering how you were going to pull this out. Where was the punch going to be? At the end, you gave us that identity-sound of yours, with that wonderful, raspy voice of life,” raved Lionel. “I think we chose that song for you because it's a classic small-but-mighty song. You do that so well, Chayce the ace,” assured Katy.
Grace Kinstler, “I Have Nothing”
Finally realizing, as the judges and Bobby had told her all season long, that she is a direct disciple of Celine/Mariah/Whitney, Grace chose wisely with this swing-for-the-fences Whitney Houston tour de force, dedicated to her recently departed dad. It was especially smart of her to start off a cappella (displaying masterful vocal control while holding back tears, after watching her hometown-visit footage for the first time). Katy clutched her chest in shock, all three judges gave Grace a standing ovation, and Luke joked, “I wanted to stand on the desk, because just a normal standing ovation was not proper. I wanted more!” Said Lionel, “I'm just sitting here trying to figure out how you just took a Whitney Houston sing and took it up two, three more octaves? Young lady, you have outdone yourself.” Grace really did come into her own as a performer, ending her Idol journey as a star.
Willie Spence, “A Change is Gonna Come”
Willie stayed in old-fashioned R&B mode with this Sam Cooke classic, and he seemed very ready for finale night, performing in a green velvet tuxedo on a golden-backlit stage that made the Billboard Music Awards taking place over on NBC look like public access TV. “We’ve heard that one done a few times on this show, but we ain't never heard it done like that,” said Luke, incurring the wrath of Glamberts everywhere. “I want you to take this moment in your life and bathe in this, because this is something fabulous,” said Lionel. Tearing up after watching Willie’s hometown package (during which Willie reunited with his mom and returned to the choir room where his life-changing “Diamonds” viral video was filmed), Katy simply gurgled, “I love you.”
Chayce Beckham, “Fire Away”
Roots-rocker Chayce, who no doubt picked up all of country singer Caleb Kennedy’s votes (after Caleb was disqualified two weeks ago) and rocker-girl Casey Bishop’s (after Casey was eliminated last week), stayed in his rough-hewn lane with yet another Chris Stapleton cover. This felt like a comedown after Grace and Willie’s massive moments, but it was in his signature style, and it was certainly in line with “23.” Said Katy, “Sometimes God has to turn up the volume on your life to see if you're listening. And you are listening. So Chayce, keep listening, stay open, stay the guy from Apple Valley, because your world is about to change.” And Luke told him, “Man, to see you come in, in your audition, we could tell you were just keeping everything close to the chest. … And watching your confidence, I can't imagine what you're going to look like in five years. How much you've grown since we first met you.”
Chayce Beckham, “Afterglow”
Chayce did this Ed Sheeran tune in the top 24 week, and it was a surprising choice for a repeat, as I would have not singled this out as one of his standout moments of Season 19. To be honest, I wouldn’t single out any one Chayce performance as an obvious standout — Chayce was more a “slow and steady wins the race” type of contestant, and consistency was his key. It’s a workmanlike vibe that will take him far, long after Idol. “I don't think there's anything left to say, Chayce. You're out here in a satin suit, playing like a rock star. You had this dream, and now you're living it,” said Katy. “It's just a bright future — and it's your future. … And I don't have any doubt in my mind you'll go out there and work for it,” said Luke. “Welcome to your career,” proclaimed Lionel.
Willie Spence, “Stand Up”
Willie closed the show with his Cynthia Erivo Harriet spectacular from the top 12’s Oscar night, and he was going for the gold. He was even dressed like an Oscar, in that gilt blazer. This was the moment when it really seemed like Willie was the winner; his performance was so much bigger and brasher than Chayce’s, so when just minutes later, Ryan called Chayce’s name instead of Willie’s, I got déjà vu to that night when Sam Smith anticlimactically won the Best Song Oscar right after Lady Gaga had brought the house down with “Til It Happens to You.” But Willie was a champion tonight nonetheless. “We're saying thank you, because it took you to find us, to give us the opportunity to find you,” said Lionel. “From the first audition and our secret little wink, I know you've got everything inside of you, and you've just been pulling it out for us. Thank you so much for blessing us, for saving us, for lifting us up, and leading us to the light. I might just get saved right now because of that song,” said Katy.
And that’s a wrap! Kieran has dimmed the lights for the last time in 2021. See you next year, when American Idol’s just-renewed fifth ABC season airs, and the series celebrates 20 (yes, TWENTY!) total years on the air. Until then, Parker out.
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