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It was emotional Mother’s Day for the American Idol contestants on Sunday, with most of them quarantining at home with their families and serenading their moms with special dedications. Mom-to-be judge Katy Perry, watching remotely from her Los Angeles living room, maintained her composure throughout most of the episode, but she started to hormonally sob once she witnessed the tight bond between Julia Gargano and Julia’s doppelgänger mother, Jeanne. (“It’s a relationship I look forward to having with my own daughter,” Katy said, dabbing her eyes.) Other heartstring-yanking moments came when Just Sam — who’s been going through a tough time, isolated thousands of miles from her loved ones — broke down talking about her mother in prison, or when Jonny West, who’s been in self-isolation with girlfriend/fellow Idol contestant Margie Mays in L.A., surprised his mom in Murrieta, Calif., where he’ll be spending the rest of this Idol season (and presumably the rest of quarantine).
But as two other contestants, Dillon James and Francisco Martin, presented their supportive moms with from-the-heart Mother’s Day letters, that’s when Katy truly lost it. And surely so did America’s viewers — especially any parents out there whose children have battled addiction or depression.
Dillon, who’s been sober for more than two years now, has been extremely frank this season about his rock-bottom struggles, and as his mother Lindy noted Sunday, she has struggled by his side. “It wasn’t just a journey that he took for the last five years; I was on it with him. I saw the very lows, and I’ve seen how far he’s come,” she said somberly. As Lindy sat next to Dillon on the sofa in the James family’s Bakersfield home, she confessed that she was “nervous” as she read aloud her son’s humble words of gratitude.
“I’m writing this letter to the most wonderful woman I’ve ever known in my life,” Dillon’s letter began. “You are my best friend, the person I can tell anything to, my other half. You have always been a real mother to me, but I have not always been a true son to you. You’ve guided me back to myself to a new life, and that I can never repay. But I can start by being the son you always deserved. I love you more than anything, and I just wanted you to know you saved my life. You saved me. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.”
After Dillon tenderly crooned Amos Lee’s “Hang On, Hang On” while his stoic family watched on, a verklempt Katy praised him for making the performance all about his mother. And judge Luke Bryan remarked, “I can’t imagine how many sleepless nights [your mother has] had, and her love got you through it.”
Francisco Martin, who has been equally open about his mental health issues — including his anxiety, which has understandably worsened during the pandemic — also shared a touching moment with his “superwoman” mother Fatima, a nurse, to whom he dedicated “River” by Leon Bridges.
“I remember when I was going through a rough patch in 2019 and you were so worried for me,” Francisco’s letter said. “I wouldn’t leave my room for days and you were always there to comfort me, even if it was just to hear my voice. You did everything in your power to see a smile on my face, and you wouldn’t leave if I didn’t. So thank you for that. I guess that’s what mothers are for, but you are more than that. You care for others, working diligently hard on the frontlines, and you still have that beautiful smile on your face. And you do it selflessly. I’d be lucky to be anywhere near as good as the person you are. I appreciate all you do for us and for being such a gentle-hearted, passionate, and sweet person. I know that I can be such a pain, but you know I love you, Mom. I hope I can repay you one day.”
It was an emotional night in other ways, as the top 11 became the top seven. While Julia, Sam, Jonny, Dillon, Francisco, and two other contestants, Arthur Gunn and Louis Knight, were voted through, the show had to say goodbye to Jovin Webb, Makayla Phillips, Sophia James, and Grace Leer. The latter two cuts were somewhat surprising — Sophia gave one of the best performances last week with the Beach Boys’ “In My Room,” and I would have loved to see a poignant dedication this week to her late mother, singer Naomi Star, which no doubt would have had Katy all choked up. As for Grace, I had assumed she’d safe simply because she was the only straight-up country singer left in the competition, but perhaps being a bonus top 21 contestant a few weeks ago — the producers’ ploy to stir up some Final Judgment drama — had tainted her as an also-ran or as damaged goods in viewers’ minds. Sadly, if this season hadn’t been cut short due to coronavirus-related production delays and there had been more live episodes to allow viewers to get invested, I think any of these singers might have had a shot at the finale.
Anyway, this sentimental Sunday, the seven surviving singers all performed Mother’s Day tunes as well as classics from the Disney songbook. The Disney performances featured the same sort of distracting green-screen that had marred last week’s top 17 episode of The Voice, but some of them, for just a moment, still made Idol feel like the Happiest Show on Earth. Dog-mom Katy even dressed up for the occasion as Dumbo’s mother, “Mrs. Jumbo,” with her internet-famous pup Nugget in a matching Dumbo onesie, and that was an adorable distraction I welcomed. Anyway, here’s how it went:
Leave it to Arthur, this season’s coolest contestant, to make “Kiss the Girl” from The Little Mermaid sound like a lost Van Morrison outtake. It also sounded current (and actually reminiscent of one of the coolest Voice contestants ever, Sawyer Fredericks), with his vibrato utilized for maximum effect. Luke called Arthur a “truly massive potential recording artist,” and Katy said Arthur’s relaxed, breezy vibe put her in the mood for a cocktail (or in her third-trimester case, a mocktail) on the beach.
Arthur’s second song, a Mother’s Day cover of Bon Iver’s “Hey Ma,” was also lovely. Usually Justin Vernon’s music is so sleepy, but Arthur perked it right up with his sunny spirit and delivery. “This is what you want in a career,” raved Lionel Richie.
Sam was sporting a total Disney-princess glow-up this week — radiant in a pink sequined dress and her own expertly applied makeup, beaming as she beautifully belted the Cinderella song “A Dream Is a Wish the Heart Makes.” This was a genius song choice, since the Sam is the Cinderella story of Season 18: a humble Harlem singer whose wildest dreams are finally coming true. I loved her soothing, serene vibe here; it was comfort food to the ears. Even host Ryan Seacrest called this number “magical.”
However, Just Sam’s Mother’s Day song for her beloved grandma was maybe too serene; I expected more fire from a Christina Aguilera cover. That being said, Sam’s performance of “I Turn to You” didn’t feature one imperfect note; she is a natural singer. Katy and Lionel called her “Sam the Star” (they both agreed that she needs to drop the “Just”), and Katy told Sam, “You have a victory in your voice.”
After his disappointingly off-brand Journey sapfest last week, Jonny was back on track with the impeccably chosen Randy Newman song “Almost There” from Princess and the Frog. This had a lot of heart and playfulness and wryness to it, and it was hippest of this week’s Disney performances after Arthur’s. Katy even compared Jonny not just to Newman, but also to Billy Joel and Paul Simon.
I am sure Jonny’s radical, risky remake of “Amazing Grace” had some purists crying blasphemy — he literally wrote entirely new verses to tell the story of his mother Michelle’s life story, leaving just the hymn’s chorus intact. But I appreciated his creativity and the Death Cab for Cutie-esque sonic makeover, and so did the judges. Luke praised Jonny’s “God-given songwriting talents,” and Katy even told him, “I personally think you should win this competition… and even if you don’t, you will have the biggest career.”
The judges and producers have been pushing the “heartthrob” narrative for Louis all season, but at some point, there’s only so far that his dreamy British accent (which has had Katy comparing him to the decidedly more charismatic Harry Styles or Niall Horan) can take him. And his dated, dorky “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” performance, which was more AGT than Idol, wasn’t enough to take him to next week’s finale. I was not feeling the love tonight, and neither were Luke and Lionel, who thought Louis’s performance was too linear and lacked focus.
Louis’s “You’ve Got a Friend” for his mom, while well-intentioned, had the same dreary school-recital vibe. It simply lacked edge. The judges appreciated this effort much more — Luke said this had “dynamics and emotion” and was the best of Louis’s three at-home performances, and Lionel said Louis “did exactly what he needed to do.” But I thought this was a performance that, well, only a mother could love.
Julia has been a frontrunner all season, but she surprisingly faltered this week, during both of her performances. While the slinky, jazzy, sophistipop arrangement on her “Beauty and the Beast” theme was nicely vibey (think Joss Stone, Lisa Stansfield), the song just seemed in way too low a key, and Julia’s voice never settled in comfortably. This was her first performance of the season that didn’t feel effortless. “The lows did not complement you,” admitted Lionel.
“Sweetest Devotion” by Adele, Julia’s Mother’s Day dedication, suffered from the same problem, with Julia’s usually supple voice still never really nestling into its familiar sweet spot. I’m not sure what was going on here, but it was frustrating for me as a listener, knowing what Julia is capable of and how close she is to winning this thing. But the judges seemed to believe that victory is still within Julia’s grasp, with a particularly enthusiastic Luke describing this performance as “badass.”
Francisco did a lot better on a potentially schmaltzy adult-contemporary ballad — Phil Collins’s “You’ll Be in My Heart,” from Tarzan — than his manufactured rival Louis did with that corny Lion King number. It was still a bit middle-of-the-road, and I wish Francisco had dug in more and been more raw, but he at least tried to give his song a modern twist. Lionel marveled at the once-nervous Francisco’s newfound confidence, and Katy told Francisco, “What you gave us at the end is kind of what I wanted from Louis Knight.”
The adorable Martin family dog almost stole the show during Francisco’s aforementioned “River” performance (that dog and Nugget need to go on a playdate once this lockdown is over), but Francisco was still the star, because this time, he did dig deep. I assume the motherly dedication helped him tap into his emotions. While I wouldn’t go so far as to agree with Luke’s crazy claim that Francisco’s version was better than Leon Bridges’s original, this was a standout moment. Francisco made his mama proud.
Dillon’s lightweight Beatles cover last week was underwhelming, but he had a strong night this Sunday, just when he needed it most. The “spiritual cowboy” and “package artist” seemed like he’d sprung fully formed out of a Midland music video or a CMT Ones to Watch special as he warbled James Taylor’s “Our Town” (from the Cars soundtrack) on his sepia-toned Bakersfield homestead. “You took everything we said last week and applied it magnificently,” said a pleased Katy, while Lionel called Dillon a “genuine artist.”
And then Dillon closed the show with his perfectly on-brand Amos Lee cover, which felt authentic and heartfelt, as if he’d written it himself. It was the sort of performances that had me all excited for a Dillon James album, whether he wins Idol or not. But I think he has a pretty good chance of winning in just one week’s time, especially since next Sunday’s rushed finale will feature a top five, not the usual top two or three.
So, that means two contestants will not make the grand, or not-so-grand, finale. Based on this week’s performances — and America’s obvious fondness for male singer-songwriters, who comprise five of this year’s top seven (and are the type who often win Idol in general) — I have feeling that golden girl Julia will stall in sixth or seventh place. I think Louis is in trouble too, despite fitting the male singer-songwriter stereotype. As for which of those other five I’d like to see win, I think Dillon is a true star, but Arthur and Sam are also deserving and also have the sort of underdog backstories that American Idol is all about. I just wish this season didn’t have to end so soon, so we could see more of them.
But when the season does end next Sunday, it will be historic no matter what, with the first-ever remote Idol finale. And Lionel will be singing his famous anthem “We Are the World” — a brilliant idea for which I take full credit. (I have the receipts; just click here!) Come back next week, as Kieran remotely dims the lights one more time this year.
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