A Very Special Episode of American Idol brought all the feels this Wednesday, via two emotional-rollercoaster hours of auditions ranging from a screaming drill sergeant to a telenovela scenery-chewer. But it was 17-year-old Shayy Winn and 15-year-old Ethan Payne that really had viewers — and judge Lionel Richie — reaching for the triple-ply Kleenex. These kids had two of the most inspiring backstories in Idol history, but even more importantly, they had the talent to back it up.
First up was Shayy, a performing arts student who went legally blind a year ago due to a brain tumor, only 50 percent of which could be safely removed. “The doctors say I am a question mark,” Shayy told the judges when asked her long-term prognosis. When the newly vision-impaired Shayy recently returned to school with her cane, she was ruthlessly bulled. (Some especially cruel students even KICKED HER CANE! Who does that???) But this week, the resilient singer channeled all of her heartache into a gorgeous and pitch-perfect audition of Andra Day’s triumph-of-the-spirit anthem “Rise Up.” And Lionel lost it.
Lionel started getting weepy practically the moment that Shayy, still and stoic in the center of the room, gripping her cane, let out her first elegant note. By the time she was done, he was a blubbering mess. “You have wrecked me,” he told Shayy, before rushing up to hug her. “I’ve never seen Lionel cry this much,” observed judge Katy Perry. “You look like you’re walking a daughter down the aisle,” fellow judge Luke Bryan told the verklempt Lionel.
“You have what we cannot teach,” Lionel told Shayy. “We cannot teach letting the music flow straight from the soul, and that’s what you did. It just pours out of you. … I’m so in love with you.”
“For me, you’re not a question mark,” Katy said, before she and her fellow judges gave Shayy three assertive yeses.
The show then cut to footage of a homecoming rally for Shayy, as she strutted into her school gymnasium proudly brandishing her golden ticket. Oh, so now her classmates are supporting her? Grrr. Screw those ablist jerks!
And then there was Ethan, who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at 18 months old. Two years ago, the Make-a-Wish Foundation fulfilled Ethan’s dream to meet his own idol, Luke, and he ended up dueting with Luke in concert in front of 50,000 people. “I felt like the whole world had just shut down, and it was me and him,” Ethan recalled. After that big moment, Luke handed Ethan his guitar and told him, “This is gonna change your life. You’ll never be the same.”
Apparently Luke was spot-on with that prediction — though he probably never expected to see a healthy and happy Ethan enter the Idol audition room carrying that same guitar. Luke recognized him right away, and when Ethan suggested they reunite for another duet, Luke didn’t hesitate. The two sounded great together on Luke’s “Do I,” almost like they’d rehearsed, and Luke actually seemed more nervous than the smiling Ethan. I could not stop smiling myself while watching this — and neither could Katy, who called Ethan “15 going on 30,” and Lionel, who said “You, young man, are an inspiration. I’m hoping that the whole world understands what they’re watching here.”
“I think of Luke as like a father figure. I felt honored. I felt like I was one of his own,” said Ethan after he got his golden ticket. “We harmonized, we did stuff that was unrehearsed, and it went perfect.” I kind of think Ethan and Luke should team up and try out for Can You Duet? if this Idol thing doesn’t work out.
These were Wednesday’s other successful auditions:
Courtney Penry, 25: “Parachute”/“Girl Crush”
Courtney has her own Idol idol: Ryan Seacrest, to whom she confessed her real-life crush when she tried out for the show in 2011. (You may recall her as the “crazy chicken girl.”) Now she is back, a little older and wiser and happily engaged. “I wasn’t ready vocally, emotionally, mentally [in 2011],” she explained. I still thought she was going to be a joke contestant — but she was pretty solid, aside from her silly sound effects on the Chris Stapleton song, which Luke thought was “a little too much.” But Luke also told her, “What’s amazing is you were able to do all those antics and not make me want to dig my head in the sand.” Hopefully Courtney’s fiancé won’t be too jealous of all the time Courtney will soon be spending with Ryan in Hollywood.
Logan Johnson, 20: “Sober”
Logan, who is eight months’ sober, and his brother have both struggled with addiction. This audition was a bit timid and tepid, but I appreciated the close-to-home Demi Lovato song choice, and Katy seemed moved by Logan’s earnestness. “The beauty and sweetness of your voice is very rare for a man, and I think it’s an advantage,” she told him.
Eddie Island, 25: “Stay OK”
“I moved to Nashville for a Paramore concert after college and just stayed,” Eddie — the unofficial mayor of Nashville, according to his Instagram handle — told the judges. And I liked him already. I might just follow him on Instagram, if this quirky kid keeps it up. I dug his trebly twang and his original song. Ryan called him a “good time” and Katy called him a “star.” Said Luke, “You have to be in our life.” This mayor has my vote!
Kason Lester, 28: “Holding Her”
This handsome strawberry farmer might’ve fared better covering the Strawberry Alarm Clock, or Strawberry Switchblade, or “Strawberry Letter 23.” I found his Chris Janson cover unremarkable, and so did Luke, who said, “I know the Janson song, and I really don’t think you delivered the guitar convincingly.” But Lionel liked Kason’s “storytelling voice,” and Katy bizarrely predicted Kason would make the top 10. Perhaps Katy and Luke were more easily swayed by Kason’s care package of chocolate-covered strawberries than Luke was.
Cory Young, 21: “Parachute”
I adored the airy, almost Sting-like quality of this cool troubadour’s voice. And he is a ukulele teacher! I wish we’d seen more of him this Wednesday, but I’m already intrigued.
Betsy Jo, 21: “How Will I Know”
Betsy’s sassy singer-songwriter spin on the Whitney Houston classic was so delightful, so unique, that a very excited Katy told her, “I was asking the boys if they had any cash so they could put it in your hat. You were that good. Actually, what is your Venmo name?” Apparently Katy sent her $20, right then and there. I actually think Betsy deserved more than just an Andrew Jackson.
Juan Pablo, 26: “Bésame Mucho”
Not to be confused with the Bachelor villain of the same name, this guy seemed like a novelty contestant as first with his cheesy Latin-lover himbo shtick. But it turned out he really can sang. He was very extra, crooning what he called a “painful, sad lovemaking song,” and Lionel said he felt “seduced.” Katy loved all the drama and proceeded to act out a telenovela with Juan, which I really hope ABC will pick up for the fall 2019 season. Luke wasn’t feeling it at first, but eventually he was seduced as well.
Landen Knowlton, 23: “Washed by the Water”
This military man demonstrated his ample lung capacity by barking drills at the judges like he was auditioning for a remake of An Officer and a Gentleman instead of Idol. That shtick was actually more entertaining than his generic needtobreathe cover. But maybe all his army-shouting intimidated the judges into saying yes.
Alejandro Aranda, 24: “Out Loud”
For days, ABC has been hyping this as the BEST AUDITION OF ALL TIME — which I think did Alejandro a disservice, setting up viewers to shrug and say, “Hey, h’s not that good.” But really, this was pretty damn good. Alejandro, whose idols are Trent Reznor, Chopin, and Bach, is more of a virtuoso musician than vocalist (“I’m not really a singer-singer,” he said humbly), but his syncopated guitar playing and jazzy piano on two original songs dazzled and dumbfounded the judges. “You are no joke,” gasped Lionel. “I feel like I’m in the presence of greatness. I’ve never seen somebody do what you just did with a guitar. … It was like watching my favorite movie that I did not want to end,” said Luke. Katy called Alejandro an “amazing genius” and declared him the winner. This guy is a bona fide prodigy, so I do hope all this early hype won’t doom him and make him peak too early.
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