If we’ve learned one thing from American Idol, it’s that talent is not always interesting. How many times have we let competent belters soar to the finals only to realize there’s no there there, just the mistaken notion that oversinging “I’ll Stand By You” warrants superstardom?
What thrills me about ABC’s new lineup of judges, from the avuncular Lionel Richie to “Milk, Milk, Lemonade” poet Katy Perry, is their determination to suss out who’s fascinating rather than who’s simply capable. Maybe more people would watch the show if Simon Cowell were still here telling pitiful auditionees to fall off a building, but we get something better without that rancor: meaningful dialogue about whether contestants are imitators or artists. We also got a full montage of whoopee-cushion pranks leveled at Lionel Richie, who looked like he wanted to set his hands on fire and choke Luke Bryan with them.
There are only a couple of failed auditions on Sunday’s show (including a guy named Tyler “Cougar” Gordon, who sounds like the lead singer from The Darkness had been impaled, and a gent named Ryan Zamo whose rendition of Sara Bareilles’s “Gravity” is not worthy of the Bed Bath & Beyond where I often hear that song) and thus we’re left with a dozen cute Golden Ticket holders who are on their way to Hollywood. For historical record, I’ve ranked them.
12. Ricky Manning, “LA is Lonely”
Here’s a risk you run when you perform a self-penned song: It might be so earnest that I have to leave the room. Ricky Manning is handsome, sincere, and sweet, but I had to gasp when Katy Perry called him a brilliant songwriter because his ditty “LA is Lonely” was … downright literal? “Nobody’s here to make friends / Killing yourself to make ends meet,” he chirped. “I’m tired at all that I’ve seen / LA is lonely.” Um, good-bye, subtext. It’s so straightforward that I thought he’d sing “Culver City’s layout sucks” and “The parking garage at Hollywood and Highland overwhelms me.” His lilting vocals are memorable, however, and I’m optimistic for his chances in the lonely-ass Hollywood Round.
11. Kristyn Harris, “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart”
I can’t help it: I love ancient, haunted country songs like “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” Anything that sounds like a goddamn ghost whinging about wildwood flowers or cheatin’ hearts is A-OK in my book. Every year someone tries to yodel their way into Idol fame and this time it’s Kristyn Harris, whose rendition of the 83-year-old Patsy Montana song is joyously quaint, like an old saloon jukebox just started up again after 50 years on the fritz. Less cute: Luke Bryan requests a demonstration of udder-milking on his handy whoopee cushion and Kristyn is forced to oblige. Fozzie Bear over here with his penchant for prop comedy is weirding me out.
10. Crystal Alicea, “Lay Me Down”
With dyed hair that can only be described as “Janet in ‘97 red,” Crystal Alicea steps up to the mic claiming to be underconfident. What ensued is not just a stirring version of Sam Smith’s “Lay Me Down,” but an actual moment of unforced vulnerability on a show where contestants have learned how to feign depth at every turn. (Sidenote about Sam Smith: We were too harsh on him for botching that trivia about openly gay Oscar winners during his winning speech. Second sidenote about Sam Smith: It is so strange that he has an Oscar for his worst song.)
9. Johnny White, “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”
Welp, I’m done hearing this song. It’s 2018 and the lyric “It wouldn’t be nothin’ without a woman or a girl” does not speak to me. For real James Brown thrills, please watch his episode of Celebrity Wheel of Fortune where Pat Sajak asks James to name a consonant and he yells back, “Europe.” Anyway: Young triller Johnny White serves up the old JB standard with traditional zeal, but his wailing veers into dry heaving once or twice. Lionel Richie offers the following wisdom: “You’ve got to make love to us, but you’ve got to have a little foreplay before you do it.” That’s provocative enough, but then Luke Bryan adds, “[Lionel]’s being the boy’s daddy! Let Lionel be your daddy for ten minutes.” Um. Or don’t! After this comment, nobody is my daddy anymore. I’m pulling a full Dominique Moceanu and emancipating myself from the concept of parents just to get away from Luke Bryan’s insane words.
8. Jonny Brenns, “Blue Jeans”
Jonny Brenns is six-foot-five (which he is definitely asked about every day of his life), but he packs a tenderness that fits right in the Charlie Puth/James Arthur pocket of pop radio. And here’s where the judges impressed me: They heard the same potential, but still pressured Jonny to do more. Luke asks if he could “dig in” on some Michael Bublé, which is a little like asking someone to make a meal out of a Werther’s Original, but he nonetheless exposes that Jonny’s talents lack grandeur. I can’t imagine he’ll pop off during Hollywood Week, but to my ears, he sounds like he’s ready to premiere a single during a crucial surgery on Grey’s Anatomy.
7. Shannon O’Hara, “When We Were Young”
I’m drawing a line in the sand: I prefer Rissa Watson’s “When We Were Young” cover from last week to this and I’m not entirely sure why. Though Shannon, with her shocking maturity, has a richer tone than Rissa, I think Rissa’s deviations from Adele’s original were more inspired. I could’ve also been distracted by the fact that every one of Shannon’s facial expressions reminded me of the divine Karen Kilgariff.
6. Julian and Milo Sposato, “Runaway Baby”
Let’s be real: Siblings who audition together are cheaters. They’re gaming the system! They know the producers want a story line, and the inherent Osmond-y drama of sibling rivalry plays right into their hand. But American Idol wants to find a solo superstar, not a ‘70s variety act, so this tactic is ultimately faulty. Twins Julian and Milo do have some sweet moves, though: With a saxophone and trumpet in hand, they throw down an electrified version of Bruno Mars’s “Runaway Baby,” which has the soul of a Chips Ahoy! commercial, and manage to make the unthinkably hideous lyric “So many eager young bunnies that I’d like to pursue … There’s only one carrot and they all gotta share it” into theater of the adorbz. Soon, we’ll have to pick one Sposato to love more and it’s not gonna be fun. I’m rooting for the trumpeter at the moment because I want more inquisitive teens Googling Wynton Marsalis.
5. Les Greene, “A Change Is Gonna Come”
Let’s get this out of the way: Les Greene’s red and white shoes are blazing hot, and Lionel Richie is right to diagnose them as the freshest of 1968 lewks. When Les performed a little shuffle in the shoes, a Beatlemania-like scream exited my body. Now, his rendition of “A Change Is Gonna Come” wasn’t perfect, and it was sometimes trying. He took about eight minutes to announce he was born by the river. But once he pulled back on the pyrotechnics and let his voice convey actual, um, words, he emanated a sense of self-possession that lured us closer to the screen. It’s always a terrific relief when bombast gives way to charisma, and Les got us gagging just in time.
4. Effie Passero, “Troubled Mind”
This is the most controversial part of my ranking because the inked-up, k.d. lang–haired Effie sat down at the piano and unleashed a vivid, Earth-opening vocal that most would consider an episode high. Sure, she’s fabulous. And rad-seeming. And I want to watch her sing “Let the River Run” and every other song that makes me feel like a woman in control. But Effie’s entire performance varied between “belt” and “higher belt,” and that’s not as dynamic as I want it to be. My dream is she’ll murder us dead with a take on “Walking on Broken Glass” in the coming rounds. Hey, by the way: Where are the damn Annie Lennox songs on American Idol? Am I reaching for the stars when I ask for some “Little Bird” or “No More I Love You’s”?
3. Maddie Zahm, “New Rules”
Kris Allen’s take on Kanye West’s “Heartless.” Haley Reinhart’s take on Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets.” Thaddeus Johnson’s take on “Don’t You Worry Child” from last week. And now, we have another brilliant Idol spin on a familiar radio hit: Boise native Maddie Zahm’s version of Dua Lipa’s “New Rules.” Queen Dua Lipa, as you might know, is less known for stunning vocals and more known for looking damp. That’s why Maddie Zahm deserves all the credit in the world for turning “New Rules” into a valid vocal showcase. The cleverness of the song choice makes the performance not just good, but relevant. If Maddie’s backstory involving weight struggles, loneliness, and a redemptive friendship with a Down syndrome-affected kid named Marcus weren’t inspirational enough, her ingenuity as a performer surely is.
2. Caleb Lee Hutchinson, “If It Hadn’t Been for Love”
Get ready: Here’s one of those startlingly deep country vocals from a youngster. If you remember Scotty McCreery, you’ll know this quality can take you a long way. But while Scotty’s vocals were deep in a way that made me believe he was capable of murder, Caleb Lee Hutchinson’s vocals emanate sunniness and strength. He has sleepy blue eyes like Otto the automatic pilot from Airplane!, and I trust that instinctively. There’s no world in which this guy doesn’t vault to the top ten and continue to pelt us with mournful twang.
1. Amelia Hammer Harris, “Gimme Shelter”
The first great thing about Amelia Hammer Harris is that she’s not 15 or 16 or 17 years old. She’s 26, and good lord is it refreshing to hear a person who can legally rent a car sing. Second, her father Jack Hammer co-wrote “Great Balls of Fire,” which is inarguably the greatest song on the Sweatin’ to the Oldies soundtrack. Amelia also claims her father wrote “Yakety Yak,” but I don’t see that in the Wikipedia, so we might have a propagandist on our hands. But for me she was the highlight of this episode, a sultry rock vocalist who communicated a specific strength, vibe, and general musical awareness that I found exhilarating. Is she the strongest vocalist of the night? No. But she is the most engaging and winsome player of the evening, a lady fop whose commitment to her own brand will be sorely needed as balladeers try to take over the competition. A Leona Lewis–looking vamp who covers the Rolling Stones? Come on! Finally, American Idol comes to my emotional rescue.