#IdolSoSnowWhite? A controversial double-elimination on 'American Idol' Disney Night

·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music

Sunday was Disney Night on American Idol, but the Idol soundstage wasn’t exactly the Happiest Place on Earth. Why? Because after the top 10 performed and the real-time live votes were tallied, the season’s only two black contestants, Uché and Dimitrius Graham, went home.

#IdolSoSnowWhite, anyone?

OK, so that hashtag wasn’t really a thing. But Twitter was definitely on fire this Sunday, with many outraged fans crying racism.

And then there were other, equally passionate fans arguing that it was unfair and incorrect to play the “race card” in this case.

It’s hard to know for sure just how much race affected the fates of Uché and Dimitrius. This was, undeniably, a déjà vu situation. American Idol has historically been a conservative program, with 12 of the past 16 winners being white, and nine of those winners being white men. (The term “WGWG,” or “White Guy With Guitar,” even became an Idol trope after David Cook, Kris Allen, Lee DeWyze, Scotty McCreery, and Phillip Phillips consecutively won in Seasons 7 through 11.) We all remember how viewers never accepted Season 12 judge Nicki Minaj, or how just last season, most of the contestants of color (Michelle Sussett, Dennis Lorenzo, Ada Vox, and Jurnee) went home in quick succession. To say that race wasn’t a factor at all this week would be naive.

But there could have been other reasons why Uché and Dimitrius never connected with the Idol audience. (Both singers only even made it into the top 10 as the judges’ wild card picks last week, after they failed to secure the public vote on top 14 night.) Uché, a.k.a. “Mr. Entertainment,” was this season’s most dynamite performer, but his confidence and swagger could easily be mistaken for arrogance (the ultimate kiss of death on Idol, a show whose core audience once preferred Kris Allen to Adam Lambert). And Uché’s huge personality was, as judge Katy Perry once said, “a lot.” The operatically trained Dimitrius was one of the season’s finest technical vocalists and “the male Beyoncé,” but his lack of screentime (he was the only top 10 contestant whose full audition never aired) hurt him, and he was so quiet and so solemn that he had the opposite personality problem of Uché.

It’s a shame that neither singer continued in the competition, whatever the reason, because they were both spectacular this Sunday. While Uché got some flak from the judges for going with a supposedly obscure song choice, Tevin Campbell’s “I 2 I” from 1995’s A Goofy Movie, and that was a risk that maybe hindered him even more, he sang that song in a way that made me feel like I was watching a Disney remake of Graffiti Bridge. And he certainly went out in style, with a swanning swan-song performance that featured hairography, a dramatic knee-drop, and a leatherman outfit with cutouts.

The show seemed to be trying to be set up Dimitrius for success this week. Guest adviser and self-declared “Disney fangirl” Rebel Wilson gave him pointers on how to loosen up and be more playful, and then Dimitrius’s beloved mother, who recently had heart surgery, surprised him at Disneyland for a feelgood TV moment. Then he did Phil Collins’s sentimental Tarzan ballad “You’ll Be in My Heart,” flaunted his crazy operatic range at the end, and broke down in tears. In fact, he was doubled over on the stage floor for so long that Katy, dressed up as Ursula the sea witch from The Little Mermaid for Disney Night, ran up and wrap all four of her purple tentacles around him in a compassionate embrace. But all this still was not enough to save him.

I do not know why the judges, who were hemming and hawing during the last 30 seconds of the episode, opted not to use their one Judges’ Save of the season on either Uché or Dimitrius. I am disappointed to bid both singers farewell, especially since I would have loved to see what Uché the showman could’ve done on next week’s Queen Night. (My dream was he’d do “Body Language.”) Both talented men will definitely still be in my heart after this. But let’s look at the performances by the eight singers who are moving on to next round:

Laci Kaye Booth, “I See the Light” (from Tangled)

I wasn’t fond of Laci’s Disney-princess styling, which infantilized the sophisticated songstress and made her look like she was competing on American Idol Juniors. And I do wish she’d taken Rebel’s advice to project more. And the song choice wasn’t great — I don’t think Laci should do treacly tunes that Jackie Evancho would cover. So, this was my least favorite Laci performance. But that being said, as Katy put it, her voice does have its own instantly recognizable “stamp” and “texture,” and she’s clearly so popular, she probably could have come out dressed as, well, Ursula, and racked up votes. I just hope she does something riskier and more special next week.

Alejandro Aranda, “Remember Me” (from Coco)

Surprisingly, Alejandro didn’t know the Miguel song, but it was an Alejandro song by the time he was done with it. Gently plucking at his acoustic guitar and warbling in a fragile, airy falsetto, he was giving me Elliott Smith/Jeff Buckley/Chris Martin/Damien Jurado vibes. It was as magical as the Magic Kingdom itself. This was on an entirely different level from most of the contestants — of any season, not just Season 17. “You embody what I call true artistry. … You manage to take us on a journey every time you perform,” said Lionel Richie. “This has been an incredible journey for you, and it’s just beginning. Trust the universe,” Katy told him.

Alyssa Raghu, “Colors of the Wind” (from Pocahontas)

The school-recital song choice was predictable and corny, and after Alejandro’s brilliant and creative tour de force, it felt especially childish and uninspired. There was nothing wrong with it — Alyssa sang it competently — but there was no element of surprise. It was dull. Katy and Lionel pulled a page from Paula Abdul’s judging playbook and mostly praised Alyssa’s appearance, with Katy calling her “beautiful and elegant” and Lionel calling her “gorgeous.” Alyssa was in the bottom three this Sunday, and I still cannot believe that she scraped through with more votes than either Dimitrius or Uché.

Wade Cota, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” (from Toy Story)

Randy Newman was a genius choice for Wade’s world-weary rasp (which sort of sounds like a Disney character, come to think of it). This was genuinely adorable. Sometimes Wade is sullen and ornery and lacks likability, but there was so much to like about this jolly, warm ‘n’ fuzzy performance, from Wade’s sweetly smiling face to the Andy character imprinted on the sole of his shoe. Katy and her fellow judges were arm-in-arm (or tentacle-in-tentacle), swaying back and forth with grins on their faces the entire time. “What a glimpse into the future of what you can potentially be,” said Luke Bryan. “We’re noticing you’re having fun,” said Lionel. Katy called Wade “approachable” and “relatable” and said, “You did Randy Newman so proud.”

Walker Burroughs, “When She Loved Me” (from Toy Story 2)

Returning to his piano for this Sarah McLachlan ballad was a smart move. It made Walker seem a bit more urbane. There was no denying the young man’s talent — “I hope America understands how difficult it is to do what you just did,” said Luke — but Lionel was pushing it when he called this “as perfect a performance as I could ever think of.” There’s something too theater-school and milquetoast about Walker. I prefer the edge that Uché and Dimitrius (and Alejandro) brought to the show.

Madison Vandenburg, “How Far I’ll Go” (from Moana)

There’s not much original about Madison — she’s spent most of this season being compared to the winner from Season 1 — but she’s a classic contestant with a massive, classic voice. I don’t know how far she’ll go (see what I did there?) on a series that has evolved a lot since 2002, but as Katy put it, she “stepped into her power” this evening.

Laine Hardy, “Oo-De-Lally” (from Robin Hood)

Rebel said Laine’s the contestant that’s “easy for fans at home to connect with” (i.e., he’s a WGWG type). And I did connect with this Tom Petty-ish cover. It wasn’t a powerhouse performance, but it felt natural and rugged and just plain cool. Rebel was right. This rock star could win. “You have found your wheelhouse,” declared Lionel. “Remember when I said you could win it this time? Don’t not believe that,” said Katy. “You better be careful or you might win American Idol,” said Luke, repeating his “warning” to Laine last season.

Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon, “Candle on the Water” (from Pete’s Dragon)

He sang Helen Reddy, hear him roar! Well, this wasn’t exactly a roar, but the pitch-perfect crooner did slay this Dragon song, and the older song choice and conservative styling probably appealed to older viewers, too. “You hit that note at the end with such gorgeous ease,” marveled Katy. “You are a pro, pro, pro… We know you’re going to deliver, week in and week out,” said Luke. You know, Jeremiah has been compared to Freddie Mercury before. I can’t wait to see him on next week’s Queen Night.

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