Sunday’s American Idol episode was Coldplay-themed (an Idol first), with Chris Martin mentoring the top seven… and it quickly became apparently that, well, no one can sing Coldplay songs quite like Chris Martin. Chris was incredibly humble, at one point even joking that he “can’t sing” (not true), would never pass an Idol audition (probably true), and would soon be surpassed on the charts by Idol hopefuls Willie Spence and Hunter Metts (probably not true). And he seemed genuinely invested in the mentoring process. But Coldplay’s catalog is so specific to the frontman’s quirky, charismatic delivery that despite Chris’s enthusiastic coaching efforts, most of the material just didn’t translate to the contestants.
And there was Coldplay song that really got lost in translation. That was when Arthur Gunn — last year’s runner-up, who controversially returned to the competition last week via the “Comeback” twist — covered the A Rush of Blood to the Head single “In My Place.” Arthur’s didn’t seem to know his place, switching up the power ballad so drastically that it was unrecognizable; he might as well have performed one of his originals instead. And Arthur had the audacity to strum this radical remake right front of Chris! Chris maintained his cordial British manners during rehearsal, but it was clear from his subsequent subtle shade-throwing that he wasn’t thrilled with Arthur’s artistic liberties. “Funny enough, I always thought the melody was the best bit — and that's the bit you've thrown away,” Chris quipped acerbically.
Of course, American Idol contestants are often encouraged to “make the song their own,” as they say in the biz — a strategy that has resulted in iconic breakout moments for past Idols like Chris Daughtry, David Cook, Adam Lambert, Brooke White, and Phillip Phillips, to name but a few. But to completely ignore the melody of a classic, popular song is pretty extreme — or even disrespectful. Chris was a good sport about it; we didn’t get a replay of that Season 6 night when Jon Bon Jovi sneered at Blake Lewis’s (actually amazing and historic) beatboxing remake of “You Give Love a Bad Name,” or that awkward Season 5 exchange when Ace Young wanted to give Queen’s “We Will Rock You” an R&B vibe and a visibly irritated Brian May quickly nipped that right in the bud. Instead, Chris respected Arthur’s decision to “go rogue” and merely gave him some tuning tips. “Some people are very protective of the original. And I feel like, no, the nature of music is that it's an ongoing conversation,” Chris shrugged. “It's water moving. I think what you're doing is brave, and I'm all-in.”
Onstage, Arthur gave a serviceable performance, albeit one that sacrificed much of the stadium singalong’s anthemic, lighters-up energy along with the melody. Two of the judges seemed all-in, actually praising Arthur for his hard-headedness. Luke Bryan said, “To sit there and stick to your guns and change the melody to the song is pretty amazing. What is so cool about you is you walk to the beat of your own drum and you do things your own way.” Lionel Richie even gushed, “Oh my God, Arthur, you are a cherished soul in my book, because anyone who can stand before the writer and say, ‘Eh, I'll change the melody, and a few words too, and make it mine,’ it's called an artist. And you're dead on in your artistry.” But Katy Perry was not all-in, and she threw some subtle shade of her own, hinting that Arthur’s version hadn’t improved on Coldplay’s original.
“One thing to know about artists, we're very stubborn. I think Chris was saying it kindly — like, the best part of that song is the melody,” Katy noted. “But of course, you are Arthur Gunn, and you do it your way. … But sometimes it is about playing along just a little bit. Because I did want to sing along with you, Arthur, but I didn't know that melody.” Interestingly, Arthur scowled and rolled his eyes when Katy uttered the word “stubborn,” which was not a good look. And then, when she said the line about how she’d wanted to sing with him, he said, “That's so nice to know! Thank you so much!” — seemingly not understanding (or just ignoring) Katy’s constructive criticism.
— davegrz (@original6NHLfan) May 10, 2021
It’s disrespectful to completely change the arrangements of “In My Place” by Coldplay .. sorry Arthur Gunn I can’t give any vote for you tonight 👎🏽
— RUTHIE (@fitgirlruth) May 10, 2021
@AmericanIdol I like that Arthur Gunn wants to be his own guy, but find it cocky to tell Chris he will do it his own way when it is Coldplay's song
— Melinda De La Rosa (@Mindlr) May 10, 2021
I never tweet. However. #AmericanIdol #arthurgunn WTF?! The whole point of a night featuring a specific artist’s songs is so the contestants Sing. Their. Songs. What Arthur did was Not a #Coldplay song. #epicfail and #disrespectful
— Emily (@emberbee3) May 10, 2021
Eventually, at the end of the night, Arthur was voted off the show, along with Hunter Metts. Hunter absolutely did not deserve to go home — Chris Martin had been so impressed by Hunter’s exquisite “Everglow” cover, he’d even kidded that he felt like an “aging male lion that can sense the threat of a young lion coming through” while watching Hunter perform. And the judges had given Hunter’s Mother’s Day dedication, a beautiful original folk song titled “The River,” a “10 out of 10.” But it was Arthur’s time to go, because he really shouldn’t have been part of this year’s competition in the first place.
I’m not sure if the fact that the guy who almost won last season only made it to the top seven of this season was because of his inflexible attitude, because of the backlash to the Comeback twist, or simply because he wasn’t up to par with the contestants of Season 19. But after Arthur dedicated Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man” to his mom for his second performance, Luke had thrown his own subtle shade, implying the latter. “Be sure to be up there fighting every chance you can,” Luke had warned Arthur. “And be sure to really dig in, even more. This thing is getting tough now. We’ve got big-time singers. Put yourself in the best position.”
So now, Arthur is not in the best position — sadly, he sort of got an Idol demotion, as his Wikipedia page will now describe him as a “Season 19 top seven finalist” instead of “Season 18’s runner-up.” But he is a talented guy, even if he was ultimately outshined by Season 19’s crop, so hopefully he can benefit from the added exposure he received this year. I have a feeling he’ll be better off doing originals (like the ones on the two albums he’s already released in the past year) than trying to make Coldplay and Goo Goo Dolls songs his own, anyway.
Below are Sunday's Coldplay and Mother’s Day performances by the surviving top five. Almost all of these contestants fared better with their second songs, but I think any of them, overall, have a chance to be crowned the Next American Idol in just two weeks’ time.
Chris Martin was impressed with this teen belter, saying she has “the perfect singing gift,” but Casey’s cover of Coldplay’s “Paradise” was surprisingly her most low-energy and least self-assured performance of the season. I think an aching ballad like “The Scientist” or “Trouble” might have helped her tap into some rock ‘n’ roll grit and angst, which she didn’t really bring to the song until the very end (and at that point, it seemed a bit screamy and try-hard). But Katy loved Casey’s “eccentrism”; Lionel likened Casey to a little bird, much like the girl in “Paradise,” who eventually takes flight; and Luke told her, “I've never heard you hit a bad note this whole competition. You keep delivering night after night. And that was yet another glimpse into your future and what you can be.”
Casey’s second performance, a Mother’s Day dedication of Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic,” was much stronger, even though I still have no idea what a song about flies in chardonnay and ten thousand spoons and misunderstood irony has to do with moms or motherhood or Mother’s Day. Maybe it’s Mama’s Bishop favorite song, or maybe Casey just wanted to sing an on-brand alt-rock hit and redeem herself. Well, if it was the latter case, it worked. Casey was back in her element, exuding confidence, personality, and power notes. “We've put you through the gauntlet of all this stuff, and you finally get to get back and do a rock song. And it was so fun just watching you be like, ‘All right, this is my jam. And I'm going to do it my way.’ It was awesome,” said Luke. “There's my little whirlwind! …Keep bringing that kind of stage presence and energy, and I promise it's going to work,” assured Katy.
I figured roots-rock singer-songwriter Chayce would handle the Coldplay challenge well, and he did, for the most part. He and Chris were definitely vibing, so much so that Chris actually forgot to mentor Chayce and they just started jamming. “Magic” might not have been the best song choice for Chayce, as it took a while to rev up and was lacking in dynamics and range, but Chayce had some nice moments at the end and did that moody, brooding thing that he does so well. “I think you have that Chris Martin magic about you, I really do. Sitting and talking with Chris, I think you were amongst equals,” said Katy.
For his Mother’s Day song, Chayce did an original he wrote while on Idol, “Mama” — sort of a musical apology, thanking his mom for being his rock when he was struggling with addiction. It wasn’t the strongest original of the night (Hunter’s “The River” was the best, although that obviously ended up not mattering), but as Chayce crooned, “All of the pain you've felt/I hope you never have to feel it again/And the night you picked me up from jail/And I swore I'd never do it again/I'm sorry mama/No woman should have to carry anyone/Let alone her own son”… well, it was hard not to root for the guy. “You make my heart happy, Chayce,” sighed his proud mother, watching him through tears on Zoom. “You have me crying on your song. As a songwriter, I'm going to tell you, put that song out now, OK? That's a smash record,” said Lionel. “Way to pull out the right song on the right night,” said Luke.
Doing one of Coldplay’s most signature songs and their first big hit, “Yellow,” was a tall order, but of course Willie did a fantastic job with it, transforming it into a grand gospel hymn while (are you reading this, Arthur Gunn?) keeping its melody intact. Chris even claimed that he’d been “doing it wrong this whole time!” after hearing Willie sing. The performance opened all churchy and a cappella and ended with a dramatic sudden stop, and everything in between was sublime. “That was a religious experience,” raved Lionel. “Willie, you are back in that connected place. It's in between heaven and Earth. And you touch it every once in a while. … That spot you get to, I love it. You get go and let God,” said Katy. “I will cherish forever the times I have gotten to watch you perform like 20 feet away from me, man. I will always cherish this time getting to watch you sing. Being in the room with you, it's a special thing week after week. And I don't want it to end. Can we add a couple of extra episodes to this thing?” said Luke. (Side note: Luke is right. This season is going by way too fast. I would not complain if more live shows were tacked on.)
Willie’s Mother’s Day performance, “You Are So Beautiful,” was predictable and old-fashioned, but it certainly was sweet (and vocally beyond reproach). Willie’s own mom was sobbing on the Zoom screen, and new mom Katy was also choked up, describing his performance as “opening up to the heavens.” But it was Lionel who gave perhaps the highest praise of the night, to any performance or contestant, when he said, “I was there when Billy Preston wrote it, and when Joe Cocker sang it. And you Willie-ized that bad boy to the point, just incredible. It was Willie-ized.”
Caleb admitted that he was unfamiliar with the Coldplay catalog and didn’t even know that the song he settled on, “Violet Hill,” was a “deep cut” and one of the first songs Coldplay ever wrote. I only wish he’d heard another deep cut, the Johnny Cash-like X&Y hidden track “Til Kingdom Come,” because I think that would have suited him much better. (I also wish he’d just been allowed to do the brand-new original he played for an impressed Chris, “I Blame My Youth,” which was really strong.) “Til Kingdom Come” would have been a solid showcase for Caleb’s quiet troubadour strengths, instead of his booming, bombastic performance that sounded like a mashup of “The Thunder Rolls,” “In the Air Tonight,” “Eye of the Tiger,” and some Jim Steinman outtake. The blustery arrangement was too big and Caleb got lost in the mix, and he seemed to suffer from some sound issues too. Luke, who admitted that “Violet Hill” would have been “a little tough” for even him to pull off, noticed Caleb’s self-doubt and said: “Your first 20 seconds of that, man, you looked like you were ready to overthrow the galaxy of music. You need to channel that every time. … Don't let those demons in. Be that character you walked out and gave us the first 20, 30 seconds today.”
Caleb never got to do “I Blame My Youth,” but he did get to sing an original for his second performance, “Mama Said,” and it once again displayed his true gift. I wish he’d just done originals all season and marketed himself as the country Alejandro Aranda, because this was impressive. The kid knows how to write a good song, and he will one day be unstoppable on Music Row. Luke called him a “true anomaly,” Lionel called this a “smash record,” and Katy said, “I think you wearing your heart on your sleeve looks really good on you. Seeing your eyes sparkle about your mother and just opening up, you look brighter and better.”
Grace Kinstler, “Fix You”
Grace has grappled with her artistic identity all season, delivering technically flawless vocals but rarely deeply connecting with the material. Well, Chris earned his Idol paycheck just from his Grace mentoring alone, because he transformed her this week. First, he advised her to go with her initial pick, “Fix You,” instead of the safer “Hymn for the Weekend.” Then he told her to get “super-vulnerable,” even if she sang “imperfectly,” telling her, “I want to make sure that what you choose is what your heart is choosing, and not what your logical, worried brain is choosing.” So Grace set her fears aside and gave her best performance of the season — totally connected, totally vulnerable, and not overdone or affected or showboaty. The judges gave her a standing ovation. “Your flaws are your magic,” Lionel told Grace. “That was intimacy. It was breaking through the facade of show business. It was really connected. I think you've finally arrived with that song,” said Katy. “It just took me out of even what I'm doing. I didn't even realize I was on American Idol watching you do that. It was amazing,” marveled Luke.
Grace had a really excellent night, the best overall night of anyone in the top five. Whatever lessons she learned from Chris, she applied them to her passionate performance of Adele’s “When We Were Young” and she stayed in that zone. “I know your mother must be so proud of you. But I want to say, tonight especially, that I am so proud of you. You've really stepped up your game. And I think, I think it's going to happen,” said Katy. “It was like being in the movie. It was truly a magical performance,” said Luke.
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