I have some startling news for everyone: I’m going to miss the Top 24 rounds. You think the Top 14 will be the classic American Idol slugfest you love most, with Ryan Seacrest pacing around and announcing phone numbers like the televangelist he always could’ve been, but I think this highly competitive, sudden-death mode works well for the show. If we lost another five singers next week, I’d be pretty psyched too. Halting dreams is telegenic, what can I say?
No joke, tonight’s duets episode was an effing blast. Every musical guest forged a real connection with his/her partner and every contestant left pretty exhilarated with how their hokum went down. We also lost five singers at the episode’s end, and I spoil which ones advanced in my rankings below. Get ready to say good-bye to a lot of people at which Lionel Richie once screamed, several times, “You’re a star! Like me. Lionel Richie of the Commodores.”
12. Amelia Hammer Harris, “Me, Myself, & I” with Bebe Rexha
Give it up to Amelia, who really worked to slide in tender, jazzy vocals on this radio hit. It was wild to see her getting churchy with it as Bebe Rexha laid out her traditional Halsey-but-scratchy vocals. It was a good try, but it was not much more than a good try. I assume producers assigned this duet to Amelia because it doesn’t resemble anything she’s performed before. Props for the Slimer-green leather pants, though, because it’s rare that any contestant dares to challenge the fashion game of Candy Land showgirl Katy Perry.
Does she make the top 14? No. But she was on American Idol for a month and still manages to be cool as hell, so that’s an Olympic feat.
11. Ron Bultongez, “Someone to You,” With Banners
I wasn’t familiar with this song, but it’s in the lane of Phillips Phillips’ “Gone Gone Gone” — that gravelly hooo-oooooh whimsy that infected most of pop from 2011 to 2015. Ron was nervous to start; he has a bashful Tracy Chapman vibe when he’s talking about his music, but then he’ll surprise you with sharp sarcasm. You feel bad for everything that must be running through his head because it seems harrowing and personal and maybe funny too but not often. But this Banners guy and his Liverpudlian charms were pretty fun and helpful, and by the time Ron started trotting about the stage, things felt right. Mostly. Ron’s voice has a soft ache that is best delivered in slower songs. In this romp, we almost lost the singular nature of it altogether. As Katy said, “It wasn’t perfect, but perfect is boring.” I’d also add: It was awkward, but it made me yearn for another performance where we could experience his sad vibrancy.
Does he make the top 14? No, and I’m anxious about the extra ache this is adding to Ron’s load.
10. Caleb Lee Hutchinson, “Meant to Be,” With Bebe Rexha
Remember yesterday when I said Caleb Lee Hutchinson could only sing hayride-themed love songs and dirt road murder ballads (or something like that)? That is still true. But his voice sounded unexpectedly smooth on “Meant to Be,” Bebe Rexha’s duet with Florida Georgia Line. Yes, it seems like a rational fit, but those guys have way more of a chill pontoon-boat vibe than Caleb, whose instrument goes deeper. The chemistry between Caleb and Bebe (who looks more like an edgy Vanessa Hudgens role than I realized) was a bit contrived, but I also didn’t need to see them make out or anything. They smiled, they giggled, and they swayed like a wedding reception was just getting started. This performance aimed for pleasant and achieved pleasant, while ever-so-slightly expanding our view of Caleb’s abilities.
Does he make the top 14? [Gary Cooper hat-tip] Why, yes, ma’am.
9. Maddie Poppe, “Bubbly,” With Colbie Caillat
I dated a guy in 2008 who had “Bubbly” as his cell phone’s ringer. Not ringtone, but what the caller hears when he’s waiting for the pickup. In other words: I’ve heard this song on accident 9 million times and have clutched my face in agony during the lyric “I get the tingles in a silly place” most of those. But guess what? Colbie herself is an apparent saint, as we watched her calm down a fidgety Maddie Poppe during their rehearsal. These ladies seemed simpatico and fun and ready to rock together. Then we got the performance, which ended up as a showcase of how similar Maddie Poppe and Colbie Caillat sound. You could see them wanting to sing every line together, as it would basically sound the same as trading off parts. After yesterday’s fabulous performance of “Brand New Key,” I was let down to see Maddie fall into this hammock of a song and pretty much doze. Their shared last lines of “Wherever / Wherever you go” were beautiful, but were they Top 24–worthy? Not when (spoiler) Ada Vox is threatening to jump into the splits and cackle Broadway classics into space.
Does she make the top 14? In a somewhat surprising move, yes. I like her style a lot, but she made a meeker impression tonight.
8. Garrett Jacobs, “Lucky,” With Colbie Caillat
Garrett is a smiley, young, denim-shirted troubadour who is here to collect Kris Allen dollars from Simon Fuller. I get it. It works. He always seems to be shrugging and giggling, “I’m harmless!” with arms akimbo. Unfortunately, I find him more and more forgettable as the episodes pass, but this dainty li’l tune with Colbie Caillat made me sit up and say, “Hunh! What a gentleman!” I was nervous when Colbie said she co-wrote it with Jason Mraz. I was not in the mood for rapping about wordplay or whatever Jason’s passions are these days. But these two vibed and enjoyed themselves, which made the surprise appearance of Garrett’s hometown girlfriend so weird seconds later. I’m sure she’s a rad girl, but the timing (and Ryan Seacrest’s genuine shock?) made her seem like Rupert Pupkin showing up at Jerry Langford’s show.
Does she make the top 14? Yep. Someone’s got to bring in those Riverdale viewers and may as well be this QT.
7. Marcio Donaldson, “What’s Goin’ On,” With Allen Stone
Tough luck that Toni Braxton dropped out last minute (especially if they were planning on hitting “He Wasn’t Man Enough,” my favorite finger-wagging jam of 2000) but the opportunity to sing “What’s Goin’ On” instead is not bad news for Marcio Donaldson, who was born to croon every Marvin Gaye hit for millennial ears. Do “I Want You” next! Allen Stone gamely trilled along, but Marcio’s casual sauciness (very … Gladys Knight?) made this song almost tickle. And now I’m running into verbs from “Bubbly” and should censor myself.
Does he make the top 14? Absolutely. We’ve got to hear him sing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” with Michelle Sussett, don’t we?
6. Alyssa Raghu, “Yellow,” With Banners
I’m shocked to disagree with Katy on this one: She felt Alyssa needed a few more big notes this week, and I thought this was her proudest showing of the season. Banners mimicked Chris Martin well enough, but Alyssa turned the melancholic lyrics into an opportunity for conversational, fluttery vocals. It was a sophisticated performance with little in the way of showboating to distract us. Her physical reactions and casual rapport with Banners were also impressive, and just delicate enough to make us believe in “Yellow” as a duet.
Does she make the top 14? No, which isn’t terribly surprising given that Luke Bryan kept screaming, “Katy’s your only real stan here, Alyssa!” But it’s a loss.
5. Jurnee, “Run to You,” With Lea Michele
Important note: This is not the same “Run to You” that Mara Justine weep-belted on Sunday’s episode. This is the Lea Michele song “Run to You,” which is adequately weepy, too! I hope no one feels betrayed here, but I actually concurred most with Luke on his remarks, which amounted to: “It’s effortless and you two seemed like old pals and collaborators!” Indeed, it is hard to add to “effortless.” Jurnee’s voice is both fresh air and a lullaby, qualities that offset Lea’s more piercing vocal well. Not my favorite Jurnee performance, but a minor triumph in an arc I suspect will last awhile.
Does she make the top 14? Oh yeah. Which is right and rad. You realize this is the queerest season yet, right?
4. Shannon O’Hara, “Burning House,” With Cam
I’ve spoken at length about Shannon O’Hara’s shocking maturity, but my God: This duet with Cam was like something off the Dolly Parton/Linda Ronstadt/Emmylou Harris Trio album. Just a coupla down-home ladies sharin’ their wisdom. Another burst of lachrymose, light-as-lace balladry from Shannon, who is as dependable as Olivia Benson at this point. Broken-record time: Did she add to our perceptions of her abilities? No, but she still swept us up in her abilities, which will be a difficult trick to keep pulling off the longer she stays predictably, extraordinarily talented.
Does she make the top 14? No. Brutal, but a bit inevitable. You’ve got to have a little nerve to make it and Shannon seems like an actual grown-up you’d want to spend actual time with.
3. Effie Passero, “Diane,” With Cam
I was not aware that we had a “Jolene” reboot from Jolene’s perspective called “Diane.” But wow! I am glad Jolene — in the form of this very nice country lady with Glenn Close hair named Cam — blessed us and Effie with it. Effie was originally supposed to sing with Jessie J, who fell ill or simply ran off with Toni Braxton. And I think it worked: Effie would never have chosen a hollerin’, lyin’, cheatin’ anthem and here she was sounding like the dame with the widest brim at the hootenanny. While Effie’s lack of twang may have led to some nondescript line-readings during the chorus, I felt this performance invigorated the room like few others. And she learned the song in 15 minutes? People with real skills weird me out.
Does she make the top 14? In the cruelest cut of the season, no. What can’t Effie do? She is instantly lovable and obviously fantastic. Just head to The Voice, Effie, no one will mind.
2. Mara Justine, “Fight Song,” With Rachel Platten
Um, who knew Rachel Platten was a veritable Quincy Jones? She sat down with Mara, heard her sing, fielded her heaving vulnerability for a moment, and immediately recognized she’d be best served with a piano and vocal arrangement. “Fight Song” is an earworm, but I don’t think of it is as a singers’ showcase; this version a perfect exhibition for Mara’s near-tears wail. In fact, I think I like this version of the song better, period. This one has more fight in it. Which is crucial to “Fight Song” if you ask me.
Does she make the top 14? Yes. There are plenty more gigantic, blubbery, heart-shaped tears where this came from.
1. Ada Vox, “Defying Gravity,” With Lea Michele
Here’s what happened when this performance started: I pushed my laptop to the edge of my desk, looked skyward, and let this Broadway bomb of endorphins, sky-high ambition, and queer dream-making just pulverize me. Every note was a heavenly poison dart right to the gay prostates of America. We knew it was going to be a fresh-ass poppers blast, but it just kept killing. It is overwhelming to watch for a first or a fifth time (which is what I’m on). Lea led with her characteristically bonkers instrument and Ada’s stratospheric, poignant belt set the room ablaze thereafter. When it began I thought, “Maybe ‘For Good’ would be a cuter jam for these two …” and before I could cancel that opinion, I was smacked like a croquet ball through the back wall of my living room by the sheer force of this performance. The No. 1 of the season, absolutely.
Does she make the top 14? D-u-h. This queen has all of her competitors lip-syncing for their lives.