All hail the American Idol solo round. It’s the meatiest and most underrated part of the competition, an endless conveyer belt of auditions where underdogs skyrocket and front-runners trip over their egos and find themselves catapulted back to dinner theater in Celebration, Florida. We’ve got 742 auditions to analyze and cherish, so let’s quit with formalities and get into the slayage.
Gabby Barrett, “Ain’t No Way”
Like every “rocker” on Idol, Gabby Barrett is outfitted in leathery jackets and pants that you can find at The Grove. I’m surprised she hasn’t dyed her hair fuchsia or dressed the mic stand in Stevie scarves. But unlike every “rocker” on Idol, she’s performing an underrated Aretha Franklin jam (“Ain’t No Way”) and also killing it. You’d think it’d be difficult to stomach a soul song as delivered from a 17-year-old named Gabby who seems like a pleasant Cold Stone employee, but she still kills. I’d pay her to scream the entire Pink discography at my quinceanera.
Marcio Donaldson, “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman”
I almost enjoyed this. I’m all for a man owning the Carole King-penned Aretha classic and belting the words “You make me feel like a natural woman” as Carole intended. But no. Marcio Donaldson had the nerve to change the lyrics to “You make me feel like a natural MAN,” which is… pretty stupid, Marcio. What does “You make me feel like a natural man” even mean? And who cares? Stay tuned in the semifinals for Marcio to tackle Cyndi Lauper’s hit “Men Also Enjoy Fun, OK?” and Madonna’s pop classic “Material Person.”
Effie Passero, “Alone”
Even a casual American Idol viewer knows “Alone” has been on this damn show. Carrie Underwood. Allison Iraheta. Jacob Lusk. Ramiele Mulabay. All household names, all screamers of “Alone.” But Effie Passero’s voice is so powerful, she brainwashes you into believing it’s the only song suitable to her high, bellowing instrument. She’s got a Sinead radness to her, a self-possession that feels mature and decidedly un-mainstream. I like her, but I’m still amped for more creative song selections. Taylor Dayne has a half-dozen singles we could be plundering right now. “Don’t Rush Me,” anyone?
Amelia Hammer Harris, “Feel It Still”
Amelia’s father wrote “Great Balls of Fire,” so I’m prepared for her to shake my nerves and rattle my brain. Instead, she soothes my nerves and sort of confounds my brain. In order to turn her song choice, “Feel It Still,” into a worthy audition song, she contorts the melody beyond recognition, adds a blues element, and – to her credit – manages to sing it beautifully. But it’s as if she said, “Here’s ‘Feel It Still’ by Portugal. The Man” and then performed “Sexual Healing” for the hell of it.
Cade Foehner, “Feel It Still”
If we’re grading contortions of “Feel It Still,” be-denimed rock growler Cade Foehner’s version makes a little more sense than Amelia’s. He slows down the song and imbues a sort of Hozier gravitas into the mix. Normally I don’t dwell on aesthetic choices, but Cade Foehner’s rock hair is exactly Tori from Saved By the Bell. I kept thinking he was going to start an aggressive romance with Zack Morris and intimidate Mr. Belding with his motorcycle lingo.
Harper Grace, “Rest in Peace”
Onetime “Star Spangled Banner”-botcher Harper Grace took to the stage with my least favorite type of song – an original song – and acquitted herself angelically with this soft but damning ode to a heartbreak. Weird but true: I think it’s more memorable to croon your own song passably than to sing a classic well. Harper is already sticking out as a favorite of the episode to me, and that’s pretty wild for someone whose name sounds like any one of a set of Provo septuplets.
Noah Davis, “Piece by Piece”
The alpaca-loving southerner who gave us the immortal “wig” moment of the audition episodes is back and proving his mettle as a balladeer. He’s got Kelly Clarkson’s wrenching song down pat, and there are a couple of emotional moments that make me think he has the chops to sing anything and sound like a grownup twice his age (36!). But therein lies the issue with Noah and many of these contestants: They aren’t adults, and therefore some of the angst, experience, and growth required to make a song like “Piece by Piece” work feel merely play-acted. Also: Noah looks like a young John Madden, and I can’t get it off my mind.
Catie Turner, “Pity”
I’m not sure whether I’m for or against Catie Turner’s chortling, aw-shucksy screen presence. She’s always drawing attention to her awkwardness instead of just being awkward, and that feels like a shallow play for underdog status at times. But in her beret and jumper (looking like a daffy homeschooled Mary Tyler Moore) Catie beguiled the judges with an assured performance of a self-penned MRA-bashing jam. If I’m being honest, the song is awful and verbose. But her no-nonsense vocal and ability to draw you into her poppy cynicism feels like a brand Kacey Musgraves fans can understand.
Dennis Lorenzo, “Home” and Brandon Elder, “Home”
Wish I knew what possessed these two promising prospects to sing the Daughtry hit “Home,” which is about as generic a 2006 radio hit as you can find without an appearance from Akon. I muttered “Nice” after both performers concluded their respective versions. Nice. Arguably the worst word we have. Cue the Sondheim.
Maddie Poppe, “Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up”
I expected the darkest thing about American Idol to be Lionel Richie’s anecdotes about Kenny Rogers, but Jesus was I mistaken. Maddie Poppe, the Iowa native with a confessional, whimpery voice in the same sphere as Anna Nalick, bopped us with an original ballad that had the grimmest lyrics since Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. “You didn’t know how cold and cruel this world would one day be,” she begins, before purring, “How didn’t we know that one day we’d hate our bodies and that we’d orbit around buttons on a phone?” Daaaamn. Jagged Millennial Pill up in here. Her vocal was precise and articulate, drawing out the escalating cynicism with jarring clarity. Impressive. Next, Maddie should perform a version of “Sunny Came Home” where Sunny burns down Instagram headquarters.
Michelle Sussett, “I’m Coming Out”
In the audition rounds, Michelle tried our patience with a Selena cover that felt more like a Gong Show act than a serious bid for stardom. Today, she seemed doomed again when she complained to us that she’d lost her voice. But thanks to the power of Diana Ross and abject homosexuality, she surges forward: Her no-frills take on “I’m Coming Out” adhered to that song’s indelible melody and sent a vivacious spark through the auditorium. I was having such a good time waving my vodka-soda and bingo card in the air, I had no time to grimace at the four-second moonwalk she added to her act. What’s next, a unicycle? Stick to the hip-popping gay anthems and leave the Victory tour footwork to the pros.
Ron Bultongez, “Home”
Like the movie Up in the Air, this performance started off slick and powerful and ended up bobbling, veering off course, and making us wonder what it was going for in the first place. That tricky, wordless “woo-OOO-ooo”ing in Phillip Phillips’ calm Olympic anthem is not built for live performance, and that turned Ron’s vocal into a non-moment. If we gave her a chance, I’m sure Vera Farmiga still could wring a Best Supporting Actress nomination out of it.
Jonny Brenns, “I Lived”
OneRepublic is one of those acts that could have 30 more hits or zero and I wouldn’t be surprised either way. I guess we always need moody nice guy anthems? Jonny Brenns set out to duplicate the record’s vocal and mostly succeeded until a falsetto and a few additional high notes were required. I know he wore a baggy gray sweater to remind me of Danny from The Real World: New Orleans and sway me into sympathy, but I’m afraid this was a missed attempt to establish contemporary viability. But man, Danny from New Orleans. What a dreamy little mensch.
Crystal Alicea, “Set Fire to the Rain”
More like “Set Alarm Clock to the Snooze” because Crystal’s vocal, at best, amounted to a karaoke track and, at worst, fell off the song entirely. Her inexperience with a live band hindered her performance and evoked none of the fiery confidence we associate with Adele. We gave Adele an Oscar for one of the least memorable Bond themes and no one one minded because she has an ineffable confidence! That’s power.
Deonte Baker, “Too Good at Good-byes”
Deonte has more gesticulations and sudden outbursts than a hit televangelist. I want to see him exorcise studio audience members and scream a phone number at a frightened cameraperson. His vibe is just plain too crazy to sell a ballad like “Too Good at Goodbyes,” which requires Sam Smith’s sullen Winnie the Pooh stylings to work properly, but his vocal prowess is a pure rush.
Trevor Holmes, “Home”
In case you’ve forgotten, Trevor Holmes is handsome. And because Idol is somewhat nostalgic for its Caucasian male winners, we have Trevor stepping into Phillip Phillips’ shoes and basically recreating him, like Kim Novak stepping into the green light in Vertigo. His take leaves me uninspired, but his smile is fit for a Juicy Fruit commercial, and that’s the-taste-the-taste-the-taste that’s gonna mooove voters.
Maddie Zahm, “Up to the Mountain”
Maddie placated us with her initial audition, turning “New Rules” into a Jewel song. This time she picked a more traditional angle, a Patty Griffin song once covered by underrated Idol runner-up Crystal Bowersox. She crackled and cooed, conveying a bluesy vibe, and startled the judges until Katy wondered if she still had more to give. My concern: She seems too polite to hit us with a sonic thrashing. I want to be thrashed! I thought we both understood that!
Shannon O’Hara, “Up to the Mountain”
Shannon O’Hara, a.k.a. Li’l Karen Kilgariff, is here to exhibit control. Pure, restrained vocalizing with a diplomatic grin at the end. She’s also serving up “Up to the Mountain,” but there’s a more poetic quality to her version, an artistic statement. I can’t picture Idol voters rallying behind her, but I also can’t picture the judges leaving her behind. We love you, Shannon, but you need to cover Niall Horan or BTS soon if you want to woo the hyperventilating preteens who fuel this operation.
Genevieve Linkowski, “Praying”
Here’s a rule I have for covering “Praying”: You need to sound like you’ve been through some shit. Genevieve Linkowksi looks like she’s been through math-team tryouts and a couple of yearbook meetings. She trilled admirably but gave us none of the lived-in rancor that made “Praying” a surprise radio hit.
Garrett Jacobs, “Wicked Game”
It takes exactly one second of “Wicked Game” for me to think, “I wonder how Helena Christensen’s doing” and “We need another Herb Ritts” simultaneously. Garrett Jacobs is a young, football-paying buck who knows nothing of Chris Isaak’s videography, but he managed to trick his scorched vocal cords into giving a heartthrobby performance. He’s not ready to challenge Andrea Bocelli, but he has an effortless watchability and star quality that puts him in another (elevated) category than many other auditioners.
Britney Holmes, “Dive”
Out of nowhere, Britney Holmes — who barely inched through in her initial audition — vaults forward with this soulful and vocally suspenseful take on Ed Sheeran. She didn’t slay us with stage presence and for one of the first times this season, that didn’t matter to me. Like a good lip-sync on Drag Race, my attention flew right to her lips and stayed there for the entirety of the performance. A standout.
Gabbii Jones, “Million Reasons”
Controversial choice here, but I think this may be Lady Gaga’s worst single. It’s too maudlin, too self-serious in its pomp, and too unadventurous lyrically. Gabbii thought she could enliven it with some howling, angst-ridden vocals similar to her “Dangerous Woman” audition, but I mostly found her rage contrived and a little unpleasant. Mind you, her stagewear is so rad I’d just as soon let her through to the Top 24.
Thaddeus Johnson, “Rise”
Un-controversial choice here, but “Rise” is definitely Katy Perry’s most boring single. You wouldn’t know it from Thaddeus Johnson, who gave – unequivocally – the greatest performance of “Rise” humanity has yet seen. A soaring final note sent him into the stratosphere, but the whole thing was a captivating rallying call. Katy leapt to her feet and, I assume, off-camera, demanded he perform “The One That Got Away” so we could redeem that ballad’s reputation, too.
Kay Kay, “Set Fire to the Rain”
Saw some sparks on the rain this time! It wasn’t a full forest fire, but those were some sizzling droplets. Can we update our Adele song choices, though? Where’s my sensual take on “Send My Love (to Your New Lover)”? Is it weird that that’s my favorite Adele song?
Laine Hardy, “Fire Away”
The dream teen used his much-vaunted quiet energy to give us a Chris Stapleton rendition. It was purdy at best, a little nondescript otherwise. Like Harper Grace, he has the name of a heroine in a John Grisham novel. That’s not important really, but I can’t stop thinking about these kids and their cryptic, cutesy monikers.
Caleb Lee Hutchinson, “Your Man”
You may know this song by it’s true name, Babylockthemdoors, sung famously in auditions by season-ten winner and haunted-ass gothic country vocalist Scotty McCreery. Caleb’s take is a mimicry that feels authentic, a definite attempt to recreate a past Idol moment with unassuming confidence and talent. Here’s the problem with a gifted country vocalist: He will never, ever surprise us during the competition if he makes the Top 10, and I hope soon he decides to thrill us with, say, a song that doesn’t play on every pontoon boat in the Ozarks.
Michael J. Woodard, “Maybe This Time”
Um, did you expect this guy to roll out a Liza jam? And did you expect him to turn it into such a money-money-money song? I was agape from note one, blown away by his song choice and his rollicking, flavorful tone. I rose from my chair and hollered like a wizened old barkeep at the Kit Kat Klub. Also: Cabaret is the finest movie musical of all time, so please treat yourself to it if, like any good Idol fan, you want to be reminded of the original production where desperate singers wowed and unnerved us with chutzpah.