American Idol revealed the results of the first public vote of Season 19 this Sunday, with the top 24 quickly slimming down to a top 16. Unsurprisingly, Casey Bishop, the dynamite rocker girl that judge Luke Bryan declared the winner after her first audition weeks ago, made it through. And it seemed like more than ever, Luke’s prophecy was coming true, when Casey pulled a page straight out of Season 7 Idol champ David Cook’s playbook.
A little American Idol history lesson here: While rock contestants like Bo Bice, Constantine Maroulis and Chris Daughtry were standout contestants in earlier seasons, before David Cook came along in 2008, there had never been a rocker winner on the show. David started off as a dark horse, but he became an instant frontrunner in Season 7’s top 10 week when he did an elegiac rock-ballad rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” — which, as it turned out, was directly inspired by Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell’s solo “Billie Jean” cover from 2007. And Chris Cornell later ended up co-writing David’s “Light On,” a top 20 hit, after David won the whole damn show.
Since that game-changing moment, many other rockers, from Season 8 runner-up Adam Lambert to Season 13 winner Caleb Johnson, have done well on Idol. Caleb even first tried out for the show in 2011 with Soundgarden's “Rusty Cage,” although that audition wasn't shown in full. But no other contestant has done a Chris Cornell cover on the Idol main stage — until Casey slayed some Soundgarden this week, no doubt securing her spot in the top 12 and probably the finale. Casey could win the whole damn show too.
Sixteen-year-old Casey, who seems on a mission to prove that reports of rock ‘n’ roll’s extinction have been greatly exaggerated, first auditioned with Motley Crue’s “Live Wire,” drawing high praise not just from Luke but from the Crue’s own Nikki Sixx and Tommy Lee. Last week, she outsang Incubus’s Brandon Boyd on his own song, then showed she’s not just an ’80s/’90s revivalist with a Warped Tour-ready Paramore cover. This week she took on Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” and she did the late Chris, one of the greatest rock singers of all time, very proud. It was like watching Chrissy Cornell up there, as she smoldered and soared on this operatic stadium number. Her performance even reminded me of Miley Cyrus’s doubters-silencing “Say Hello to Heaven” tour de force at the “I Am the Highway” Chris Cornell tribute concert at Los Angeles’s Forum in 2019.
“I want to know where the extra pair of lungs are on you, because you're holding these notes out to the point of just plain phenomenal,” raved judge Lionel Richie, who went so far as to compare Casey to another late, great rock legend, Janis Joplin. “You're dangerous — and I like it!” purred Katy Perry. The other contestants this season probably think Casey is “dangerous” too. She’s a real threat in this competition. (Side note: For extra Idol credit, check out Season 10 third-place rocker girl Haley Reinhart's "Black Hole Sun" cover with Postmodern Jukebox from 2016 here.)
As for the contestants who were eliminated Sunday, it was sad to see eight singers all go home at once on such a talent-packed season. But none of Sunday’s eliminations were huge shockers. I’d already predicted that Andrea Valles, Anilee List, Alana, and Jason Warrior would be at risk due to their overall lack of screentime this season. That being said, I was particularly disappointed by Jason’s exit, since he was fantastic last week, and — after a run on The Voice and a more controversial appearance on The Four which led him to seek redemption on Idol — this was probably his last television opportunity. However, Jason took the news of this latest elimination in stride, with an ear-to-ear grin, which was quite a different reaction from his meltdown on The Four in 2018. Perhaps because Jason sang first last week, in the “death spot,” he was forgotten amid the shuffle of this season’s other soulful belters like Willie Spence, Grace Kinstler, Deshawn Goncalves, and Alyssa Ray. But I wish Jason well. And there’s always America’s Got Talent or Songland, I guess.
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As for Sunday’s other castoffs, TikTok singer Mary Jo Young clearly wasn’t ready for prime time, and she, along with also-rans Cecil Ray and Hannah Everhart, struggled the most last week — so, America made the right decision there. However, I had thought that the latter two would squeak through based on the loyalty of the country audience that Idol typically draws (or used to draw, at least). Liahona Olayan was the only eliminee that I’d felt confident would sail into the top 16, but either her playful and spunky performance style didn’t connect with viewers the way the aforementioned serious powerhouses did, or unforgiving viewers were still turned off by her grumpy, checked-out attitude in Hollywood.
Four more singers will go home Monday — with viewers voting through 10, and the judges saving two others. I’ve already made it clear that Casey is a lock for the top 12, but let’s assess Sunday’s other performers and try to predict the rest.
Alyssa Ray, “Killing Me Softly With His Song”
Alyssa started off sounding a bit frog-throated, as if the song was in too low a key. I am beginning to worry that she set the bar too high with her first audition — which the judges declared would go down in Idol history — and now she can never recapture that glory. She may have peaked too early. But as Randy Jackson would say, Alyssa worked it out in the end, powering through Sunday’s Roberta Flack cover, so there’s still a chance that she could go far. Lionel cautioned her about her song pacing, but called this a “stellar performance” overall. Katy described this performance as “totally a vibe” and said, “I've never heard you in that way. You were actually an artist for the first time in my eyes today.”
Graham DeFranco, “That’s Life”
Graham has a compelling backstory, but for me he has always been better on paper than onstage. He had a decent night last week, especially during his Ben Rector duet, but I still think he coasted to the top 16 mostly on likability. I would have preferred his spot to go to a go-for-broke singer like Alana, Andrea, Anilee, or Jason instead. Anyway, I have no idea what Graham was thinking doing some weird, swag-free, SNL’s The Mellow Show jam-band version of “That’s Life” — at the very least, he could have perked things up with the David Lee Roth version! This was instantly forgettable; maybe this pilot never really wanted this Idol dream, because he was totally on autopilot and asleep at the wheel. (Sorry for the mixed aviation metaphors; I just couldn’t resist.) “What's really endearing about you is you keep being the guy that can't believe he's here. I mean, people pull for that guy, because you're just being you,” grinned Luke. Said Katy, “I just think you're an underdog and everybody wants to root for you… and I'm glad you're starting to believe in it.” Eh, I don’t know. I don’t find Graham’s lazy shtick endearing, and I’m not a believer.
Grace Kinstler, “Elastic Heart”
This is when the episode really got going for me. Tapping into the Glamazonian-warrior spirit of last week’s cover of Jessie J’s body-positivity anthem “Queen,” Grace delivered once again, power-note after powe- note. This was a simple performance, just a woman with her microphone stand and what Luke called a “race-car, thoroughbred voice” — but that’s all that was needed to make an impact. This performance felt classic and modern at the same time, and Grace, despite later confessing that she was nervous, owned the moment. Lionel rightfully called her “a force to be reckoned with.”
Alanis Sophia, “The Story”
Alanis is another teen diva that I think is still chasing the magic of her first breakthrough audition — but unlike Alyssa, I don’t think she can ever get back there. Simply put, this was not good. Alanis started off shaky, and she never “worked it out in the end.” To her credit, she did go for it, unlike someone like Graham. Her risk just didn’t pay off. Luke pointed out that this was a “rangy song” and advised, “Just make sure on that lower-end stuff to get your breath.” Lionel warned, “Don't get lost inside yourself.” Katy, usually the toughest judge, barely commented at all, offering some faint everyone-gets-a-gold-star praise about Alanis “keeping it together” despite being so young and supposedly being “thrown off” by Ryan Seacrest calling her name. I wonder if Alanis will be called to the stage by Ryan on Monday’s results show. I doubt it.
Willie Spence, “Set Fire to the Rain”
Normally I would argue that no contestant, on any singing show, should ever cover Adele. But Willie gets an official “Adele Pass” from me, because he can sing anything. At first I thought he was holding back too much, not tapping into that angry Adele energy, even though I respected some of the choices he made. But then, when he got all churchy and wailing about halfway though, that was a shoe-throwing moment. “The coolest thing you did at the top of the chorus, you didn't go high then. You sucked us right in. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, what's he doing?’ And that's what you do to make people watch,” said Luke “What we just saw was God took control of you. That was as close to a Donny Hathaway, Luther Vandross moment…” declared a nearly speechless Lionel. “You were possessed — in a godly way,” added Katy, as grateful tears streamed down Willie’s cheeks.
Deshawn Goncalves, “Feeling Good”
“Feeling Good” is a cursed song on Idol — it even once almost sent the almighty Adam Lambert home! — but Deshawn might have good luck with it this week. I liked what Lionel called the “cold start” at the piano, on a night (and frankly, in a season) when few contestants played instruments. I just wish Deshawn had stayed at the piano. (It’s a big pet peeve of mine when contestants ditch their instruments mid-song, with no discernible change to the audio or arrangement when they do so.) But the judges seemed to appreciate the razzle-dazzle Deshawn exhibited during the second, piano-free half of his performance, which was probably necessary. We all know Deshawn is a great vocal technician and musician at this point, but he could otherwise be easily outdazzled among the top 16. (I’d actually feared that his snoozy top 24 performance last week would get him sent home early.) “Something happened within a week's span. I don't know if you had a talk with yourself in the mirror and just said, ‘I'm worth it. I can do this. I will make it to the top 16,’ but if you continue with that confidence… you've got all the talent in the world, now you need to just bring out that personality,” Katy told him.
Wyatt Pike, “Use Somebody”
Wyatt is a humble ski-resort busker, so doing a blustery stadium staple by Kings of Leon was a smart move to get him to the next level. I liked what he did with it — just enough to make it his own, and I don’t recall him ever sounding so pleasingly gruff and growly before. He had that low-key-rock-star Ed Sheeran/John Mayer thing going on. Interestingly, while Katy said Wyatt has “a little bit of an angle in this competition” because he’s “an authentic singer-songwriter,” she didn’t seem like a fan of this louder, shoutier Wyatt, telling him, “I would like to see you do something that’s just you really small and vulnerable — bring us to tears at some point.” But she then told him, “Whatever happens, you're it.” And Luke assured Wyatt, “You're gonna be able to do music for the rest of your life.” Yeah, Wyatt ain’t going anywhere any time soon.
Cassandra Coleman, “Wicked Game”
Wow. This was witchy magic. Cassandra was really selling the drama tonight. Chris Isaak’s Wild at Heart scorned-lover scorcher was a perfect showcase for her vulnerable delivery. No, this was not perfect performance — she strained in the chorus, although Luke said her “verses were absolutely incredible” — but I didn’t care. It was raw, it was passionate, and it was real. She even made that voice-crack work in the moment. Cassandra is what is known in the business as a “package artist,” as Katy noted. “I would love to see what you would do with a show on tour. You know, there's American Idol, and then there's life after American Idol. And I think you’re gonna ace both of them,” said Katy.
Caleb Kennedy, “Midnight Train to Memphis”
Caleb is now the only country singer left on the show, but he was always most interesting one, so I am glad he made the cut. He’s definitely a package artist too. I just wish he’d sing more originals and become the country version of Alejandro Aranda, because his best performances have been when he's done his own songs. That being said, based on last week’s Allmans cover and this week’s skronky Chris Stapleton barn-burner, he’s positioning himself as a rocker as well as a country contender, and I can’t be mad about that. At a point in the competition when some other young contestants are starting to choke, this 16-year-old exuded more confidence and personality than ever before. Lionel called him “stone cold” and “brilliant.” Katy told him, “You just have this grit, this real country thing. You are becoming the outlaw.” And Luke praised Caleb for staying on his path and keeping his cool. I think this cool kid is going to follow that path straight to the top five, at least.
Colin Jamieson, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”
I loved the Tears for Fears song choice, the Blake Lewis throwback vibes, and the way this boy-band veteran worked the crowd like no other contestant in the top 16. Colin always acts like Idol is his own Kik-it concert, and he’s usually wildly entertaining. But I think this time, all that moving and grooving really compromised his vocals. He sounded winded, and a lot of his lines trailed off. This performance didn’t quite gel for me. But the kid was still an undeniable star, and Katy got all “emo” watching him. The judges thought his vocals were great (Luke even said they were “next level” and “surprising”), so maybe Colin sounded different in the room. Either way, I still wouldn’t mind seeing Colin on my TV again — or in concert.
Madison Watkins, “Gravity”
This Arkansas spitfire has always kept things light and bright — the judges have described her as “a package of sunshine” and “fresh-off-the-bus, Britney-Spears-movie, hope-in-a-bottle positivity” — so I was surprised when Madison went with a maudlin Sara Bareilles weeper this week. She even broke into real tears at the end, though she never explained why she was crying. She must have some deep, personal connection to the ballad (“I know it’s a tough song for you to sing,” noted Ryan), but whatever the reason, she didn’t let her choked-back sobs compromise her stellar vocals, which Luke actually called “flawless.” And I loved seeing another facet of this effervescent charmer. “You really surprised me. I was locked from the first couple of notes. You are so not lacking in personality and glitz and glam and hair, and sometimes people think that's like the bells and whistles. But you showed me an incredibly serious side of being an artist, a musician, a vocalist. It was the best you've ever sounded. It was such stardom,” raved Katy. I think, much like David Cook after his above-mentioned “Billie Jean” breakthrough, Madison went from middle-packer to frontrunner tonight.
Beane, “Searching for a Feeling”
Beane took a risk doing a lesser-known midtempo tune by New York trio Thirdstory (and by wearing even brighter and sparklier eyeshadow, which I am sure not coincidentally matched his satin blouse). But risk-taking has gotten Beane pretty far, so far, and I hope it will pay off again, because Idol would be a whole lot less interesting without him. Beane may be the other true rock star of Season 19 — after all, he seems to be the only contestant that already has a name for his fanbase, the “Beanie Babies,” a group to which I proudly belong. Katy is apparently a card-carrying Beanie Baby too: This week she told Beane, “I love you. You know that you've got my vote all the time.” Said Luke, “I think what America is telling us is they want to be entertained, and they want to smile and feel engaged with who they're watching through the TV, and that's how you reel us in. And then you're able to really back it up with amazing vocals.”
Hunter Metts, “Skinny Love”
This is what I am talking about! Hunter’s Sia cover didn’t work for him last week — the massive song wasn’t a fit for his fragile voice, so all of his weaknesses were on full display. But this Bon Iver cover absolutely hit the sweet spot for Hunter. This was his finest moment yet. “What was really, really impressive is we finally got some angst in your music. We heard you dig in, and it taught me a lot about your future, because no one sounds anything like you in the world,” said Luke. “You gave us growl. That was awesome. That was like another level of who you are,” said Katy. “It's called ‘instant identity.’ Can I close my eyes and know who's singing? That's you,” said Lionel.
Ava August, “2002”
Ava also played a keyboard (at least for a little while) during this Anne-Marie electropop ballad, and she was giving me Reputation-era Taylor Swift realness. The 15-year-old pop prodigy is arguably this season’s most modern and marketable remaining contestant, and her naturalness and looseness onstage was thrilling to behold. I’m not sure if the judges were so thrilled, however. Katy told Ava, “Last week, I thought it was just a little bit more elegant, and you kind of felt like Joni Mitchell or Audrey Hepburn. This week, I was reminded that you were 15 and that you like popular music and you still want to sing fun, cute, cool songs. But don't forget that classic always trumps cool. And you're classic.” Luke additionally warned Ava, “Don't leave us wanting for that elegance and grace that really moved the needle for you last week.” I simply think Ava showcased her versatility with this performance. She’ll definitely be around in future weeks to show what else she can do.
Chayce Beckham, “Waiting in Vain”
Tonight, Chayce was also reminding me of David Cook with his ‘90s-alt-rock take on Bob Marley’s gentle Exodus classic. This was the first time I witnessed real artistry from him. “You check all the boxes. … I think America really sees this authenticity,” said Katy. “I'm going to tell you the reason careers last a long time. If you can start out in the category of ‘real,’ it lasts longer. … It's not about glitz and glamour with you. You're just a real guy. And America has fallen in love with you,” proclaimed Lionel.
But who hasn’t America fallen in love with this season? It is now prediction time, and I think the contestants in jeopardy are Alanis, Deshawn, Graham, and — though I truly hope I’m wrong about this one — my beloved but possibly polarizing Beane. I just take solace in knowing that if Beane is up for elimination on Monday, Katy has already promised to vote for him. See you then.
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