Ten years ago, on American Idol Season 8, Adam Lambert first entered the audition room, and America’s living rooms, belting Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Three months later, he lost the Idol title to Kris Allen, but after he and Kris joined Queen’s Brian May and Roger Taylor for a spectacular performance of “We Will Rock You”/“We Are the Champions” on that the season’s splashy finale, he obviously emerged the true long-term winner. Adam eventually became Queen’s new full-time frontman — a journey that will be explored Monday night on ABC’s two-hour documentary The Show Must Go On: The Queen + Adam Lambert Story — and this Sunday, the Glamerican Idol triumphantly returned to the show that started it all, to mentor this season’s top eight contestants on Queen Night.
Adam did a fantastic job at imparting his knowledge, giving specific and actionable advice that elevated some performances, particularly Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon’s and Laine Hardy’s. (Apparently he’s been a very involved mentor ever since his own season. “He was very influential with other contestants, like Allison [Iraheta] and Kris [Allen], picking their lighting, picking their staging. He really likes to get his hands dirty, which is amazing,” longtime executive producer Trish Kinane recently told me.) Unfortunately, some Season 17 contestants were not nearly at a Lambert level this Sunday. They could not play the game, so to speak.
Wade Cota’s own awkward attempt at the unprophetically titled “We Are the Champions” was more cringeworthy than that time that Brian May and Ace Young sparred on the Season 5 set, for instance. But in the end, it was Walker Burroughs and Alyssa Raghu who went home. The show did not go on for them. (Side note: I really wish last week’s two controversially eliminated contestants, Dimitrius Graham and Uché, could have competed this week. Kinane told me Dimitrius the opera singer would’ve done “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and I bet Uché totally could have brought the funk with, say, “Another One Bites the Dust.”)
Walker’s song choice, the finger-snapping rockabilly romp “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” suited his Richie Cunningham malt-shop vibe, but his corny performance lacked swagger; I don’t think either Freddie Mercury or Leather Tuscadero would’ve approved, and clearly neither did America’s voters. Judge Katy Perry faintly praised Walker for “using all his appendages” (Walker had confessed to Adam during rehearsal that he was “mortified” about being forced to work the stage on an uptempo number), but all three judges noticed that he seemed to be too in his head. I think Walker would’ve fared better on a piano ballad performance, something like “These Are the Days of Our Lives.”
As for Alyssa, who almost went home last week, it probably didn’t bode well for her that host Ryan Seacrest forgot all about her and announced that there was “one more performance to go!” when actually there were actually two more upcoming Queen numbers, including hers. Oops! She handled herself vocally, but she was still, well, forgettable. Lionel Richie called her “the epitome of determination,” but her try-hard Rachel Berry affectations still annoyed — especially when she attempted to stall the judges for time, before the commercial break, to extend her voting window. That was more like the epitome of desperation. And it clearly didn’t work. And so, another one bit the dust.
Along with their Queen songs, the contestants sang movie-theme duets this Sunday. (But aren’t all Queen’s songs movie themes, really? They were all in Bohemian Rhapsody, after all!) A couple of those duets were Oscar-worthy, while others deserved to go straight to DVD. Let’s take a look at all the performance and see which contestants thrived under pressure.
Madison Vandenburg, “The Show Must Go On”
Even Adam confessed that this is a damn hard song to sing, but, as Adam also noted, Madison is “a force” and her voice is “nuts.” Her only problem was she made this look almost too easy — so Adam tried to coach her on how to command “authority” and sell the “drama” of the epic power ballad. I’m not sure if I was buying what she was selling. Madison smiled disconcertingly throughout this performance — and though I suppose I’d smile too, if I’d just gotten out of a one-on-one mentoring session with one of the best singers in the biz, this grinning made what should have been Madison’s “diva moment” feel lightweight and immature. Luke Bryan declared this Madison’s best performance yet, but Katy acknowledged the emotional disconnect, saying Madison still has “a way to go.”
Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon, “Who Wants to Live Forever”
This was the dream team: The man who replaced Freddie Mercury in Queen and the Season 17 contestant once compared to Freddie Mercury (both LGBTQ pioneers for the show, too). Adam seemed to be especially proactive in his guidance of Jeremiah, advising him to ditch his tepid folk-guitar arrangement for something bigger and bolder. And it was advice that paid off. Jeremiah delivered an intense, stupendous vocal that kept building and building, and just when I thought he couldn’t take it any higher, he soared anew. And this was after battling a sinus infection and being on vocal rest this week! JLH’s performance was practically Lambert-level, the perfect balance of vulnerability and strength, passion and pathos, triumph and sorrow. (Seriously, I think if Adam and Jeremiah ever dueted together, my head, or at least my eardrums, would explode.) Luke called this “an emotional ride.” Said Katy, “You really embodied the spit of Freddie Mercury with that performance. It was like you froze time.”
Alejandro Aranda, “Under Pressure”
Alejandro took a major risk drastically twisting up a song by not one but two late icons, Freddie Mercury and David Bowie. Adam, who first really grabbed the nation’s attention a decade ago on Idol’s Country Night by turning “Ring of Fire” into an Indian psych-rock jam, and who clearly respected Alejandro as a fellow unique artist, didn’t discourage Alejandro. Adam mainly advised Alejandro to commit to the creative choice. But maybe Adam should have been more hands-on in this case. Alejandro’s attempt felt flat for me, never really going anywhere, and his vocals were so muddled in the mix that I could barely hear him at all. And he too had a weird smile that didn’t gel with the angsty song. I think this might have worked better if he’d gone his DJ/EDM route, as he did with his Drake cover. The judges admitted this wasn’t Alejandro’s best moment, but they praised his individuality nonetheless.
Laine Hardy, “Fat-Bottomed Girls”
This was a genius song choice that had everyone partying with a Hardy. It adapted well to his country-rock style and twangy vocals, and it brought out the “inner rock star” that we’ve been seeing during Laine’s recent young-Elvis performances. Laine was even giving me some Lambert (Adam and Miranda) vibes as he stomped around in gold boots and a snazzy sequined tuxedo jacket. This was hardly the best vocal of the night, but it was damn fun. It made my rockin’ world go ‘round.
Laci Kaye Booth, “Love of My Life”
“The minute I heard the song, I was enamored with it,” Adam said during Laci’s rehearsal. So was I. My goosebumps had goosebumps. Arguably the most heartbreaking song in the Queen catalog, “Love of My Life” was a perfect fit for Laci’s signature rasp, which always has a broken-down, verge-of-tears quality no matter what song she takes on. What a tender, transcendent, heart-on-sparkly-sleeve performance this was. This was Laci’s breakthrough moment, and I bet Freddie would have loved it. “This could be the star, right here on this stage,” declared Lionel. Luke called this performance “one of the most amazing things I’ve seen since I’ve been judging,” adding, “Your ability to really capture the emotion and make it happen is truly remarkable.”
Wade Cota, “We Are the Champions”
Wade has one of the most distinctive voices in Idol history… but Mercury-esque, it ain’t. I was worried he wouldn’t be able to pull off one of the biggest, most blustering stadium classics in the Queen songbook… and he didn’t. I’m not sure what Queen song would have worked with Wade’s limited range, but this really wasn’t the one. Wade’s croak, the result of years of screaming in a metal band, sounded especially fatigued here. He almost sounded like he was in physical pain, especially when he pushed himself too hard with the over-ambitious vibrato, and frankly, it hurt me to listen to him struggle. His performance may have embodied the fighting underdog spirit of the song, but this was not good. “You’ve already won. You’re in the top eight of American Idol,” Lionel told Wade as cordial kiss-off, while Katy nicely pointed out that Adam Lambert didn’t win Idol but still did quite all right for himself, so all was not lost for Wade. Well, Adam made it to the top two, remember. Wade bafflingly advanced to the top six after this disaster, but he has no chance of getting to the finale, unless next week’s theme is Tom Waits Night. He’s not the champion, my friends.
Laine Hardy & Laci Kaye Booth, “Jackson” (from Walk the Line)
This performance will probably help Laci more than it will help the untouchable Laine. She’s been straying from straight country lately with some risk-taking performances, and while I loved her Blink-182 cover a couple weeks ago, it may not have appealed to the core country demographic that comprises a big chunk of the Idol audience. Plus, we all know Laine is the true America’s sweetheart of this American Idol season, so the Johnny-‘n’-June chemistry that Laine and Laci shared — which Katy compared to that of last season’s real-life couple, Maddie Poppe and Caleb Lee Hutchinson — will also help Laci’s cause. This duet wasn’t mind-blowing, but it sure was cute. “I loved the performance, and I think America will love it too,” said Lionel.
Alyssa Raghu & Wade Cota, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (from Guardians of the Galaxy)
Wade lent the 1966 Motown/Tamla classic some cool vintage blues grit, but he and 17-year-old pageant girl Alyssa were such an odd-couple mismatch. There was zero chemistry here, and no vocal blend. If this had aired during the Battle Rounds of rival show The Voice, it would have been montaged. But Wade and Alyssia powered through it best they could.
Madison Vandenburg & Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon, “A Million Dreams” (from The Greatest Showman)
“I expect nothing less than to be lying on the floor in a fetal position at the end of the song,” said in-house mentor Bobby Bones of this powerhouse pairing. Well, someone better go check on Bobby and make sure he’s OK. These two were certainly a vocal match, despite their own age discrepancy, and they were generous, respectful, professional duet partners. I felt like I was watching the finale, and I honestly would not mind if these were the last two contestants standing in three weeks’ time.
Alejandro Aranda & Walker Burroughs, “Mrs. Robinson” (from The Graduate)
This duet between the season’s two “savants” could have had potential, given their stellar musicianship, but instead it was listless and mushmouthed. I felt like I watching an open-mic night at Phoebe-from-Friends’ “Smelly Cat” coffeehouse, not American Idol top eight night. I actually wondered if they’d even rehearsed this. Oof. Poor Alejandro did not have a good week; he’s very lucky that he has such a solid fanbase and great body of past work, otherwise he might have gone home along with Walker.
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