I’ve neglected to discuss one of the most important triumphs of American Idol this season, so forgive me as I make up for it now: Katy Perry’s fashion game has been — and I’m serious about this — untouchable. Some weeks she’s a walking valentine from Branson and other times, like last night, she’s Zsa Zsa Gabor on the panel for Match Game ’75. I wanted her to flip over a card and yell “My bazooms!” in a Hungarian accent. Her fashion has been refined camp, which is a nice step up from Katy’s days of cupcake bras and Candy Land headgear. And better yet, her critiques were fabulous and pointed last night. She’s back to being the best, long after I thought she was lost to the Luke Bryan School of Um, Well, Keep Doing What You’re Doing Up There.
I can’t say it’s a difficult exercise to rank three singers, but it’s still necessary as we head into finale night, where (at the very least) Patti LaBelle is scheduled to pile-drive these perky teens with some vocals. Can’t wait. But for now, we got three performances from the night’s three finalists in the following categories: New Single, Memorable Season Performance, and Contestant’s Choice. You’ll never guess who came out on top unless you’ve been paying any attention at all.
3. Caleb Lee Hutchinson
“Johnny Cash Heart”
Oh no. The title “Johnny Cash Heart” is annoying just anyway (and is it really true, Caleb? is it?), but Caleb’s performance of this languid ditty somehow got slower as the song progressed. It’s the kind of song you hear as you mosey through a part of Six Flags called Saloonsville or something. There was no climax in either the lyrics or the melody, and thus we got a performance that felt like a single tumbleweed crawling across a road and into the Betty Ford Clinic to recover from Klonopin addiction. Katy Perry made a delightful return to form when she called it Caleb’s worst performance of the season, which was nice to hear after Lionel yapped, “Great job! See you on the charts, old pal!” or whatever. Idol debut singles are rarely gems, but this song was bad enough that I wanted June Carter Cash to shake it by the shoulders and tell it to fix itself.
“Don’t Close Your Eyes”
Even though we’ve seen Caleb perform 10,000 times, something remains notable (and a little funny) about that church-basement-deep voice coming from such an unassuming young face. It’s like when Garfield sang “Hello, Hawaii” and revealed himself to be Lou Rawls. Who knew? Anyway: This repeat performance was as placid and lazy-river-ific as you imagine, with Caleb daring to sound three to five times his age again. Although Gabby tends toward treacly songs, she at least heeds the obligation to prove her versatility. This performance was a pair of dungarees thrown at a porch swing. Again.
“Folsom Prison Blues”
This was about five times zippier than the average Caleb performance, and it needed to be. Caleb’s body seemed to — now hear me out on this — move as he performed. Though it’s hard to believe Caleb would have any insight on the dynamics of prison life, he snarled with admirable gusto through Johnny Cash’s inescapable hit. And he looked sharp! Young Sajak came through with some jet-black stylings this time. I’d still put him in third place behind Gabby and Maddie, but Caleb reestablished his authority in the competition with this performance. And I guess he shot a man in Reno. Isn’t that something? What an adorable little murderer.
2. Gabby Barrett
Gabby is here to holler, and “Rivers Deep” gave her a fair opportunity to do that. With some ersatz gospel tones in the background, she whooped it up with her familiar Aguilera-meets-Underwood growl that wouldn’t sound of place coming from Linda Blair’s soup-spewing mouth in The Exorcist. She got the chance to really pipe up, which is more than I can say for Caleb’s debut-single performance. But otherwise this confirmed what we know: Gabby has a voice. It’s a big old wail. She still concludes every performance with a side-smile that says, “Who, me? Crazy, right?” Except it’s not crazy! It’s merely very good and we need more. More inventiveness, more nerve, more personality.
“Little Red Wagon”
Interesting choice for a repeat performance, and I’ll tell you why: As much as Miranda Lambert’s rowdiness works for Gabby, this performance mostly reinforces how much she’s like Carrie Underwood. There’s a politeness to her grit and a half-heartedness to her angst. She’s too friendly, dammit! Miranda Lambert may be mainstream, but something about her feels genuinely unhinged in a good way (unless we’re talking about the gun stilettos, of course). Miranda is effortlessly messy while Gabby is never even slightly out of control. But the firepower here was undeniable, if not magnetic, and at this point she’s seeming like the only inevitable combatant in the final two.
“Don’t Stop Believin’”
I have PTSD from the movie adaptation of Rock of Ages and wasn’t ready to hear this song again. I walked out of that movie with my fingers on my temples murmuring, “This was supposed to be Catherine Zeta-Jones’s comeback” and I endured a 48-hour rage headache afterward. But all was forgiven when I saw Steve Perry in the audience at Idol looking awed at Gabby’s talent. She crooned real hard and Steve probably didn’t think he ever needed to hear that song again, but his delight was palpable. Hot take: “Don’t Stop Believin’” is secretly a depressing song. Telling someone to believe is depressing! Ever read Three Sisters? All they do is believe things will change and then they don’t. Anyway, I have a theater degree.
1. Maddie Poppe
“Going, Going Gone”
It’s savvy of Maddie Poppe to pick something this close to Phillip Phillips’s “Home.” That rambling, whimsical quality suits her, and it continues to set her apart from Caleb and Gabby, two people who may as well release covers of Faith Hill’s “Breathe” and get it over with. Would I have liked a little less instrumentation and a little more vocal horsepower, since that combination comprises all of Maddie’s best Idol moments? Yes, but she gave a grounded, engaging performance of a B-minus radio song and that put her — to my eyes and ears — well ahead of her competitors.
“Don’t Ever Let Your Children Grow Up”
I forgot all about Cynical Maddie! What a pleasure to be reacquainted with this dour millennial poem for burnout teens. It’s like a revamp of “American Pie” where the biggest voices of our generation were killed by the media and texting. This was the first performance of the evening to feel like it had any sentiment whatsoever, let alone a bold one. Maddie is pretty fearless when it comes to expressing her taste, and this original song remains one of her most revealing performances. If we can reintroduce cynicism to the Top 40, I’d be much obliged. Remember when you’d turn on the radio and everything was jaded except for the Counting Crows? Maddie brings us a step closer to the “Feed the Tree” era of radio, and I’m for it.
Well, here it is: the most perfect song choice of the entire season. And what a weird song “Landslide” remains. It’s both vague and direct, metaphorical and confessional. It sounds like a Yoko Ono tweet. Christine McVie herself once called Stevie Nicks’s lyrics “downright cryptic,” and she is dead right. It takes a special touch (and some adult weariness) to make “Landslide” work, and here comes Maddie again making contemplative, melancholic lyrics her own. It doesn’t hurt that Maddie is following in the footsteps of Natalie Maines, who is the evolved Maddie of everyone’s dreams. Not a thing about this performance was either twee or heavy-handed, and Maddie deserves extra praise for finding comfortable niches in songs of many different eras. I give this performance five Sedona shawls out of five.
Prediction: You know I want Gabby and Maddie to duke it out in the finale. That’s the most exciting option. But if I’ve learned anything from Maddie, it’s to believe in my long-held cynicism. I think it’s a Caleb-Gabby final two with Caleb pulling out the victory. I can’t be sure, but I’m pretty sure the child in my heart won’t rise above the votes of 11-year-olds in the corn belt.