Los Angeles residents get one major bonus out of watching these Hollywood Week episodes: We are aware that the renowned Dolby Theatre, located smack in the middle of town under the Hollywood sign, is … part of an average mall with terrible pedestrian traffic. It’s not where you want to be, even as a tourist. To see giddy, stardom-drunk teenagers skipping around the vicinity like it’s the rink from Xanadu is kind of priceless. Sure, the Dolby holds the Academy Awards every year, but that only adds to its grim flavor: In 2012, Meryl Streep had to walk past a Cold Stone and a Foot Locker to receive her third Oscar. Weird, right? You know what Paul Newman and Ingrid Bergman never had to contend with at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion? Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, that’s what.
Although the locale may be dubious, the game is not: Hollywood Week is one of the highest highs in a given Idol season, full of tumult and revelatory performances. Since the focus shifts to behind-the-scenes drama (which often results in edited-down, abbreviated performances), I’ll stick to the biggest moments of the evening — from the first solo round to the majestic and traumatizing group rounds — and size up these caterwauling combatants.
Alyssa Raghu, “Wind Beneath My Wings”
Whenever a contestant picks “Wind Beneath My Wings” and dedicates it to a real-life loved one, I pick up the phone and dial the police because this is the mark of a killer. “Wind Beneath My Wings” is the shadiest song in history and it’s not trying to hide it. You’d have to be a sociopath to find meaning in these lyrics. “You were content to let me shine, that’s your way!” it intones with the faintest praise of all time, reminding me of a dead-eyed Charlize Theron cooing “You’re good here” to a lowly suburbanite acquaintance in Young Adult. Fifteen-year-old Alyssa Raghunandan, a.k.a. Alyssa Raghu, sang “WBMW” so well that it’s possible she’s Hannibal Lecter himself. She tore up that Bette Midler torch song with a mature, restrained performance and almost sold us on its sentimentality. Almost. You can’t sing, “It must’ve been cold there in my shadow” and feel good about it! You can’t! It’s a mean song for mean people who want to feign niceness for four minutes. Sorry, Alyssa! You’re mean now.
Caleb Lee Hutchinson, “Don’t Close Your Eyes”
Caleb Lee Hutchinson has an unsettling Jesse Plemons–in–Game Night quality and I’ve learned to accept it. His voice is gigantically countrified, a resonant instrument that summons the image of a mud-splashed Ford crashin’ through saloon doors and enforcin’ the patriarchy. His version of “Don’t Close Your Eyes” gave us perfect pitch that felt like a scalp massage. Did I shudder when he looked into the camera afterward and deadpanned, “I made it through. I’m going on to group rounds and then potentially world domination”? I did. I felt a medieval chill. And that’s another Hutchinson-brand thing I’ve learned to accept.
Noah Davis, “Mama Knows Best”
Wig-whispering sensation Noah Davis digs in with his performance of Jessie J’s “Mama Knows Best.” For a goofy kid who is legit funny, his voice has a confessional, sultry quality. It makes me want to murmur wig at different volumes until I figure out his X factor.
Catie Turner, “Come Together”
I accused Catie Turner of being a put-on Pollyanna in her initial appearance, but man, she is leaning hard into this Lisa Loopner shtick. She hugs the judges, admits she is feeling “gassy,” and sets the world record for most chortles in under 60 seconds. Her version of “Come Together” has a stomp-along, family-band vibe, which fits her Jan Brady neckerchief aesthetic. She soars through to the next round, though her crush — the stilted, handsomely dweeby Zach D’Onofrio, doesn’t survive with his take on “Cry Me a River” (Julie London, not Justin Timberlake). Like his audition, he sounds half-good and half like Bela Lugosi haunting us from the grave. He’s out, and we didn’t even get see him feign crush reciprocation on Catie for even a millisecond.
Jurnee, “You Don’t Do It for Me Anymore”
Idol had the nerve to show only 15 seconds from this flawless Demi Lovato cover. Jurnee, y’all. She’s a queer woman with a wife in the Army and a devastating voice. I’m not the kind of person who says, “This is the American Idol we need” but let’s face it, there are plenty of American Idols we don’t need, so we may as well be discerning about it. If she’s not top ten, prepare to phone Gloria Allred and GLAAD because we’re taking this to the courts and every pride parade in SoCal.
Dennis Lorenzo, “Thinking Out Loud”
Imagine needing to hear this song again. And yet, here we are with Dennis Lorenzo, whose urgent vocal performance reinvigorates this supermarket favorite. People fall in love in mysterious ways (do they?) and I’m blown away to realize I could stand to hear this performance a few more times. Such a standout in terms of command and charisma.
Moving on to the group rounds, a handful of teams stood out from the rest, for better or for worse. Let’s inspect their merits.
God’s Diversity, “Rather Be”
Or as “Rather Be” will now be called: “And I’m Tellllllllling You There’s No Place I’d Rather Be.” Putting aside the fact that “God’s Diversity” sounds like a Mormon cult, this is a piquant platter of talents. The supporting players do their thing, but newfound belter Kourtney Smith is the Effie White here belting Clean Bandit’s earworm like she’s warning a whole town about an incoming tornado. Lionel, Katy, and Luke leap to their feet like they were just called down to Contestant’s Row on The Price Is Right. The first item up for bids? This revival of soul. We’ll start the bidding at one WIG.
The Gorupe, “Stayin’ Alive”
This always happens during Hollywood Week: Some group picks a song with fast, difficult lyrics and can’t remember any of it during the stage performance. Luckily a couple of the members of this group, the Gurope, took an improv class and scare up passable words to fill the otherwise intractable, perfect melody of the Bee Gees’ classic. Hey, remember when Siobhan Magnus and Aaron Kelly got to sing “How Deep Is Your Love” with Barry Gibb and the late Robin Gibb? Isn’t that unbelievably wild?
Taco, “La La La”
A perfectly adorkable presentation, with dork sorceress Catie Turner in the mix with her Dorkenstein moves. Also onboard is Victoria McQueen, potentially my No. 1 pick from the audition rounds with her hip-swaying ebullience. I would never think to pair these two ladies, but that’s the beauty of the Idol group rounds: You’re thrown together like Simon Cowell assembling a girl band called Rumba Babes or Ice Vixen$ and you have to make it work. Naturally, Catie hams it up and clasps her hands to her mouth a few times like Prairie Dawn from Sesame Street, but it is a pleasure seeing these queens vibe.
The Soul 4s, “Love Yourself”
I know The Soul 4s didn’t name themselves in tribute to the legendary mid-’90s group Soul IV Real, but I want to believe it. The truth is they weren’t born when Soul IV Real performed on All That in 1994 and that’s something I have to accept as a 31-year-old American. Also hard to swallow: Laine Hardy, the sleepy-eyed heartthrob and sole male member of the Soul 4s, survives this round even though he gives an uninspired, sighing performance of Justin Bieber’s hit. From a business perspective, it’s the right choice. I didn’t realize until tonight that the preeminent heartthrob of the season, Trevor Holmes, racked up 3 million views on YouTube with his flirty audition. Three million. Most other popular auditions linger in the six-figures range. Let’s keep this in mind as the chanteuses of season 16 disappear much faster than the gents. Also, let’s keep in mind: There was another performance of “Love Yourself” just before this with no heartthrobs and it was much cleaner. (It currently has half the views of the Soul 4s.)
Don’t Touch, “Me and My Broken Heart”
Guys, something came over me when this group of be-denimed, neck-wagging dames announced they were named Don’t Touch: That thing was called God. Don’t Touch! Definitely the best girl group name of the 21st century and, yes, I remember Isyss. I love everything about it. And their performance – which is hindered slightly by a nervous, magenta-haired Crystal Alicea – churns with camaraderie and vivaciousness. Almost accidentally, they seem like a real group. Can’t say that about any other performance tonight. But the craziest moment of the evening comes when Katy Perry pretends she is cutting one of the members and announces, “I need one of you to volunteer not to go to the next round.” And right after a tearful Crystal says she’d take the cut (!), Katy declares she was joking. The hell?! Katy is playing ringmaster games like Gig Young in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, taunting these desperate souls with an inhuman snicker. Ms. Perry felt bad for her stunt and ran up to hug the girls afterward, but my God would it have been fierce if they screamed, “Don’t touch” in her face. Don’t Touch! Scream it at a stranger. Feels good. Feels right!
Next week, we bolt to the solo rounds where, once again, troubadours we trusted will let us down with a braying rendition of “Love on the Brain” that sends Lionel Richie sprinting for the exit. I’m ready for the hurt!