Monday on American Idol Season 19, what Ryan Seacrest called the “biggest shakeup in Idol history” took place. Ten “familiar faces” from last year — who were robbed of the chance to perform on the main stage, due to production shutdown amid coronavirus concerns — competed for a spot in this year’s top 10. “Those finalists never got the true experience of the big stage, the lights, the cameras, the hair, the makeup, the wardrobe, that fun stuff, Kris Pooley and the band backing them up,” Ryan explained, which judge Katy Perry noted was “kind of unfair.”
True. It was unfair, albeit unavoidable. But you know what else was kind of unfair? Allowing another contestant — especially one with an existing fanbase, like last season’s top seven standout Louis Knight (whom judge Luke Bryan once predicted would the biggest Idol star ever) or actual Season 18 runner-up Arthur Gunn — enter this season’s already talent-stacked competition. Just the night before, three fantastic Season 19 singers (Ava August, Beane, and Madison Watkins) had been eliminated, and one of them, probably former frontrunner Ava, would have otherwise secured that 10th spot if not for this needless new “plot twist” called “The Comeback.”
And that just didn’t seem right. If the producers insisted on bringing back second-chancers from last year, that should’ve at least happened way earlier this season, perhaps during the auditions or Hollywood Week — not this late in the game, with so much at stake.
Fans were not happy, aside from maybe Arthur's fans.
Monday’s entire Comeback episode was just… weird. Last year’s remote, virtual season seems so long ago now, and with fickle Idol viewers inclined to move on from one season to the next even under normal circumstances, to trot out one forgotten contestant after another this week created a disconnect. Most of these contestants — aside from the memorable Arthur and Louis, the only two with any shot — didn’t even make past last year’s top 20, so this Comeback setup was also kind of unfair to also-rans Faith Becnel, Franklin Boone, Dwayne Crocker Jr., Cyniah Elise, Aliana Jester, Nick Merico, Makayla Phillips, and Olivia Ximines. (Side note: Some contestants who made it further in Season 18, like Francisco Martin, Grace Leer, Julia Gargano, and Dillon James, were signed to 19 Recordings, which is why they didn’t return this week. But it’s still unclear why 19 Recordings passed on Arthur, since he nearly won the whole show.)
But hey, I don’t make the rules. Obviously. So without further ado, let’s assess these performances below, and predict
which of the 10 contestants whether Arthur or Louis will advance.
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Cyniah Elise, “Edge of Midnight (Midnight Sky Remix)”
I vaguely recalled Cyniah being a power-singer, the sort of dynamite-diva balladeer who might pose a threat to this season’s Grace Kinstler or Alyssa Ray. Lionel Richie even once compared her to Whitney Houston. So it was baffling that she decided to mix it up with an uptempo rock song and show “another side” of herself, rather than remind viewers of her main side — aka what she actually does best. And rock is definitely not what Cyniah does best. This performance was clumsy and amateurish, and as Monday’s opening number, it didn’t exactly make a convincing argument that this one-off Comeback show was such a bright idea.
Nick Merico, “City Lights”
This was actually Nick’s third chance on Idol. He quit in Season 17 for mysterious “personal reasons,” then returned last year with his tail between his legs — but didn’t exactly receive a warm welcome then, when Lionel flat-out told him, “I don’t like you.” This week, Nick got the cold shoulder from Luke, who said, “The only thing that I think you may be up against this year is just our talent level. I'm not sure it was knocked out of the park for me vocally.” (Um, the only thing?) Nick’s vocals were serviceable enough, actually. But his original song was awful, like a bad parody of an ’80s action flick theme by Survivor or John Parr. “He's not going to get another shot like this ever again,” said mentor Bobby Brown. Bobby had ever uttered wiser words on this program.
Aliana Jester, “I’ll Never Love Again”
This was the first contestant of the evening who seemed like a truly worthy contender, delivering a stupendous vocal. And while she won’t get the votes (even if Katy claimed, “You really, really have a chance to be in that top 10”), I’m glad she had her moment. I recall thinking Aliana was really pitchy and green last season, but clearly she has evolved. Lionel called this a “world-class, wonderful performance,” and Katy said, “This takes 10 years of experience, to show up looking poised and elegant. It was like I was watching VH1 Divas back in the early 2000s. … It's just incredible growth.”
Franklin Boone, “Meant to Live”
I actually remember Franklin well; he was one of my favorites last season. I wasn’t thrilled with his Switchfoot song choice, which seemed way too low for him, but he did still exude star quality, and I appreciated him bringing a bit of rock to Monday’s proceedings. “Wow. We just thought you were like a coffee shop/theater guy, and then you come out here and you do Switchfoot. Switch it up! I do miss the Franklin Boone singer-songwriter, but it's so nice to see all of these colors and shapes,” said Katy.
Faith Becnel, “Cry Baby”
Faith messed up this Janis Joplin song in Hollywood last year, so she was ready to redeem herself in more ways than one. Katy commended Faith for taking the judges’ notes from “Season 3” (she meant the third ABC season, not the Fantasia/Jennifer Hudson season from 2004) about toning down her “too saucy” vibrato, and while this performance got off to a rough start, and Faith is no Allison Iraheta, overall this was a solid showcase for her big pipes and even bigger personality. I still wonder why a sparkling spitfire like Faith got so little screentime last season.
Arthur Gunn, “Iris”
Arthur deliberated between three options this week: an original song, a Bob Dylan song, or… a Goo Goo Dolls song. Not sure why he went with the latter, but I think he made a big mistake. Perhaps it won’t matter, considering how many fans will vote for him anyway. (Katy even told him, “I saw you trending on Twitter several times. You have a massive fan group, and I know that they're still out there.”) But while Arthur had some nice gravelly moments here, this was ultimately underwhelming. It was not Dibesh at his best, nor was it a performance on the level of almost anyone in this season’s current top nine. (Side note: Last season’s “winner,” Just Sam, was finally acknowledged Monday, when Bobby Bones forced Arthur to rewatch 2020 finale footage of him losing to her. The producers should’ve just brought Sam back this week too, since they’ve done nothing to promote her and she does not appear to be signed to 19 Recordings. Just sayin’.)
DeWayne Crocker Jr., “Voice of God”
Interestingly, this week DeWayne confessed that last season he was “focused on picking the right songs” and “trying to fit the mold” of the show, and he regretted doing James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)” during his top 20 week. So this time around, he did a religious Dante Bowe song. He won’t advance on Idol, but he could have a real gospel/CCM career after this for sure, and kudos to him for keeping it real. This performance was much better than last year’s. Katy called it “really dope” and said she “felt those church chills.” Lionel told DeWayne, “I don't really know what happened during this time off and away from each other, but you clearly have stepped into your light.”
Makayla Phillips, “Anyone”
Makayla made the top 11 via the Judges’ Save last year, and this week she proved that she’d deserved to be saved — and to be given this Comeback chance. Her emotional Demi Lovato cover, which ended in real tears, was powerful. This was not the precocious Disney teen from Season 18, but that voice was still fantastic. “Last year, you always had probably my favorite voice in the competition, and that right there stacked up like you always delivered. Great job. Way to come back and really show up,” said Luke. “We felt every bit of that performance,” said Lionel. “At the end, when your voice was cracking and you were about to cry and it was a little off-key, it was everything. It told the story, and best storyteller wins,” said Katy.
Olivia Ximines, “Say Yes”
I recall Olivia being another precocious teen, very actressy and pageanty, but she too has matured a lot over the last year. This Michelle Williams cover was still youthful and cute, but she commanded the stage like a seasoned pro. “You weren't meant to stay in the living room. That wouldn't have been fair. You needed to be on this stage. You gave us moments. You gave us real show business. I thought it was a whole, complete package,” said Katy.
Louis Knight, “Maybe That”
I’d totally assumed that Arthur had this in the bag, but then Louis got the “pimp spot” and, unlike Arthur, did an original song. And it was a great song! It was like Louis was the new Lewis, as in Capaldi. He really excels when he does plaintive, aching ballads like this, which, combined with his heartthrob appeal and dreamy British accent, might seal the deal for him. “I’ve always thought you were super-authentic, and I think you really came out here and bared your soul. … I really felt that for you, and that means I was connected,” said Katy. “This may be my favorite American Idol moment I've had with you, and I'm so glad it happened tonight,” added Luke.
American Idol is going dark for Oscar week, with the voting window for the Comeback staying open until April 26. So, come back May 2 to see either Arthur or Louis, and the rest of the top 10, perform Disney songs.
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