Wow this is super late, but this week has been a continual series of work disasters so I haven't really had the time or energy to write. Then again, I can't beat the spoilers at this point, so it doesn't matter that much. While these were written after the fact, the ranking is what I would've given before hand, so let's just all maintain a little suspension of disbelief.
Although I've been pretty positive on the previous from-home episodes, this one was a disappointment. The first round especially had a lot of clunkers, and the tone of the night just felt depressed. I think both the contestants and the audience are kind of exhausted at this point, but what was the exact culprit? There are a couple possibilities.
First off, it was a multi-song episode, and those almost always wreak havoc on the contestants. Whether it's difficulties with creating a varied set, lower amounts of rehearsal time, or just the added stress, the first two-song episode has resulted in the worst performances from some of Idol's most polished and consistent contestants: Melinda, Adam, Crystal, Clark, Trent, not to mention weak efforts from an endless list of more inconsistent competitors. Yet some of the most unexpected people have blossomed under the pressure. The most iconic example has to be Season 1's Top 4: both Kelly and Tamyra giving their worst, Tamyra in particularly cataclysmic style, Nikki pulling her absolute best out of some unknown orifice to buy herself another week, and Justin giving both his best and worst performances (as well as the best and worst performances of the episode per WNTS, 4 seasons before anyone had heard of McPhee). Or last year's Top 6, when both Wade and Alejandro pulled massive comebacks while everyone else declined. In both cases, shocking results occurred.
You could also argue that the repeated Disney theme is proving to be a failed innovation of ABC Idol. This one I think is a bit debatable. It wasn't actually THAT repetitive an episode in the long view, three out of seven performances were new to the show, and the other four had only had one performance apiece. While that might not be very impressive given a catalog with 300+ songs, it’s not bad by Idol standards, given we could’ve had the umpteenth versions of Circle of Life, Let It Go, Reflection, etc. Maybe you could blame the fairly unvaried nature of the most popular Disney ballads which contestants gravitate to, but Disney also has a variety of excellent uptempo options, starting with all of the great villain songs. A somewhat more fair accusation is that the familiarity of the Disney canon is a double edged sword, as you’re likely to either be a boring copy of the original, or a poorly received rearrangement, we certainly got examples of both. But the best performance of the round was also the most obscure, and neatly dodged that issue. At the end of the day, while I’m not a big fan of Disney’s continual cross-marketing barrage, I’m not sure you can really label the Disney theme as radioactive. S16 did a perfectly fine job with it after all. Sure it’s a minefield for contestants, but so are many other themes (Queen for starters).
I think the main thing is we’re just seeing the limits of the at-home format, especially as the goodwill of “bless, they’re doing their best” starts to wear off and the awkwardly high eliminations rack up, and it kind of exacerbated all the previously mentioned issues. The diminished rehearsal time for multiple songs can only be worse when everything is being conducted by Zoom, which undoubtedly contributed to the janky arrangements. Because the circumstances really limit the functionality of bigger, more energetic performances, it was that much harder to get a varied set of performances out of the contestants, especially with those sorely missed uptempo Disney songs falling firmly into the “Not going to work in your bedroom” category. That also applies to the longer-term impression of the contestants, since it’s hard to avoid a been-there-done-that feeling when there’s only one performance mode that works. While some contestants I think are suffering more than others from the lack of really quality guidance under these circumstances, I think all of them are giving us less quality than they might have in a real Idol season.
So with all that in mind, whose performances overcame the obstacles enough to put them into potential victory territory? It’s an interesting dichotomy. At this point, I think four out of seven are out of the running. I just can’t really imagine them pulling anything out of their pocket on Sunday which would do enough to get them over the finish line. Yet the other three are surprisingly close after this week, and I think there will legitimately be some uncertainty as to who takes the slightly tarnished crown. Of all the ABC Idol Innovations, I think the 3-person Finale has been one of the best ones, but a 5 person Finale is kind of ridiculous. Especially since it’ll be even more “Lucky just to be here” than before. We’ll see what happens.
Top 20 Rankings
Top 11 Rankings
1. Dillon James (Previous Round 3) “Our Town” from Cars and “Hang On, Hang On” by Amos Lee.
If anyone was the McKibbin “who knew they had it in them” contestant of this episode, it was Dillon, who was arguably the only person to give good performances in both rounds. Really though, that doesn’t give enough credit to either performance even out of context. Our Town was an absolutely brilliant song choice, not only because it fell squarely into his vocal comfort zone and finally pulled some emotional commitment out of his performance, but because it resonated with both his target audience and the moment of the performance. For a country contestant, a song about small town life is practically cliche, but the song also has subtext of economic anxiety, and longing for a former lifestyle which seems to have disappeared in the blink of an eye. I think we’re all feeling some of that right now. It almost felt like KLC’s God Bless The USA, just… less gross. James Taylor is an interesting artist for Dillon to cover. While his public image is one of a gentle troubadour strumming quiet reflections, Taylor’s personal life has a lot more darkness running through it, especially as a result of his long history of heroin addiction. Maybe a kinship to that was what made Dillon connect more to this song. As a funny bonus, early in his career Taylor had a style described as “Cowboy Jesus.” Sound familiar?
If Dillon found subtext relevant to his story in his first performance, that story was front and center in his second one. While the Mother’s Day/Dedication themes have brought emotional weight out of almost all of the contestants in the last few seasons, Dillon really weaponized it in both his performance and especially the pre-performance video. After spending most of the season mentioning his dark past but not really digging into it, he and his mother fully grappled with it on-screen, and it was an affecting moment. While it would’ve been easy to go for a mournful song in those circumstances, he very smartly went for something more positive and upbeat, avoiding the whole thing becoming too maudlin. Overall, just a smart handling of the Idol game across the board.
While it can’t guarantee a victory, this episode was well timed to give Dillon a lead going into the Finale. While some of the past contestants who blossomed in the multi-song rounds were stragglers like Nikki and Wade who were only able to translate that surge into one more week, Dillon was already a formidable threat, and one week of goodwill is all he needs. A better comparison might be Kris or Lee, both of whom hit the two-song stage only one week before their Finales (not counting duets), and both of whom benefited from their more consistent rivals fumbling at the same time. Although it has to be said, Dillon has actually been one of the more consistent contestants this season. Not always thrilling, but usually solid (with the moderate exception of last week’s lackluster Beatles cover, which doesn’t look so bad after some of this week’s performances). It’s also notable that I noticed quite a few Idolsphere commenters saying things along the lines of “I haven’t liked him up until this point, but he was the best one this week” or even “I kind of want him to win now.” Add that to the usually silent mass of country voters, and the other contestants are going to need something big to beat him in the Finale.
2. Francisco Martin (Previous Round 2) “You’ll Be In My Heart” from Tarzan and “River” by Leon Bridges
Francisco had a mixed bag of a week, in that he made his most compelling argument for why he should be the final victor of the season, but also gave us a reminder of what might hold him back from the crown. His second performance was probably the best of the night, and arguably the best of the season, although Dillon and Arthur gave him some competition on the former, and Julia among others on the latter. It was the strongest vocal we’ve ever heard from him (staggeringly stronger than his first song in fact), on a great song choice, delivered with tons of passion, and given extra emotional weight by the context with his mother being there. It had all the components which make for a great Idol performance, aside from an impactful arrangement, and even that wasn’t bad. If undecided voters are going to be moved to get behind someone, and remember long enough for it to impact the votes in the Finale, Francisco may be their most likely beneficiary. It also fit comfortably into his growth arc, as the judges explicitly mentioned in their comments, and that’s a powerful factor on Idol.
On the other hand, his first performance was weak, not only in comparison to his second but also to his last few performances. While it was a reasonably good song choice, solidly in the nonthreatening-boyfriend core of his appeal, he just did not deliver it well vocally. At best it was uninspiring, and at times it verged on ragged. He also was the worst hit by the bizarre “lets splice them into the movie” effects which need to never happen again. While it didn’t quite have the reek of debacle as a couple other performances, it undermined some of the benefits of his second performance.
It also raises questions about how he’ll handle the increased pressure of the Finale. While his closest competitors have made some mistakes of strategy and song choice, I’m not sure either really raises concerns about their vocals failing in the way Francisco’s could. At the same time, while his discussion with his mother about his struggles with mental health was touching, it was also a reminder that his nerves have gotten the better of him in previous rounds. While Dillon seems to be at a point of having overcome his difficulties, Francisco is still working through them. It’s entirely possible that he delivers another River level performance on Sunday which gives him the final push he needs to win, but he could just as easily fall apart. It’s hard to put him in the lead with that uncertainty hanging over him.
3. Arthur Gunn (Previous Round 4) “Kiss the Girl” from The Little Mermaid and “Hey Ma” by Bon Iver
This week was actually the most I’ve liked Arthur all season, which makes the fact that I still have reservations about his victory chances kind of funny. While his first performance wasn’t anything I’d go crazy over usually, it was solid, which was more than most performances that round could say. The song choice fit comfortably into his easy-going style, and the arrangement struck a good balance of respect for the original song and innovation. The main difficulty is that the rasp and rapid vibrato in Arthur’s voice often feel at odds with the kind of relaxed music he’s been choosing. It’s almost a jarring sound cutting through those jam band arrangements
On the other hand, with the right song it does produce that instantly impactful effect which makes you take notice. His second performance was that kind of song. Against the darker, more contemplative background of a song like that, his tone adds emotional weight and draws you in. Bon Iver are very stylized, sometimes verging on intentionally opaque, and covering them effectively in this kind of show is a serious challenge, but I think he managed it. The challenging nature of the song might make it hard for voters to get behind it, but I was impressed.
I can’t really put my finger on what leaves me unconvinced that Arthur will win, despite his commanding lead on social media. Maybe it’s the memory of Alejandro’s similar lead failing to earn him a win, even with the benefit of a late surge in performance quality. I think Alejandro was too love-or-hate a contestant in the end to overcome a broader appeal, no matter how enthusiastic those who love him, and it feels like Arthur occupies a similar space. Maybe it’s that Idol victories rarely seem to go to the obvious winner, with a spare handful of exceptions (and those mostly in the country realm, which Arthur only slightly resembles), and my gut just says that Arthur will be another shock runner-up. He’s certainly out of the running, it’s going to be a close fight regardless of the outcome. His most likely path to victory seems to be based on the potential fumbles of his competitors. If Dillon performs on par with Yesterday, and Francisco with You’ll Be In My Heart, Arthur’s larger committed base could easily take him to victory even if his own performance is a bit lackluster. But if one of them performs at their peak level from this week, it may not work out for him.
4. Sam Diaz (Previous Round 1) “A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes” from Cinderella and “I Turn To You” by Christina Aguilera
From here on down, I don’t feel like we’re discussing chances of victory. Like I said previously, while the Top 3 are in a close race, the others feel like they’re miles behind. At this point, we’re just talking about their chances of making the Finale and making the most of their last chance at the spotlight. And it’s depressing to put Sam there, given their Hollywood performances were some of my favorite of the season. But it can’t be avoided. I’ve been rating their chances highly in large part because they had such potential to pull out a season-changing performance, but it hasn’t happened. While past weeks’ song choices had hints of the right idea but didn’t quite get there, this week’s were just poor choices period. Their Disney performance was blandly impactful, without any complete failures, but also without much in the way of vocal interest or emotional weight. It’s bizarre to me that Almost There was performed on the episode, but not by Sam despite being a perfect fit. Maybe they just didn’t fight for it? Meanwhile, their Christina song choice was not only generic in a way which completely fails to capture what makes Sam an interesting artist, but the sped up arrangement sucked away all possibility of making an impact either vocally or emotionally. From any contestant, these two performances would be a disappointing fizzle, but even more from someone I thought had the potential for greatness.
I can’t help but feeling that, more than anyone, Sam is a victim of the coronavirus-induced changes in Idol. It seems like, stuck in a rented apartment with no support network, Sam has struggled to open up and be fully vulnerable, which was their potential secret weapon. Letting your emotions pour out in a way that walks right up to a breakdown without falling over the edge is the path to the kind of performance that punches you in the gut. And it’s a hard thing to do, even when you have people to pull you back and ground you if you get too close to the brink. How much harder must it be when you’re completely alone in a strange place. With a coaching staff to help negotiate that challenge, Sam might have pulled something amazing out, especially since the show would undoubtedly have tried to get Grandma into the audience at some point. But in isolation, it just couldn’t happen.
It’s not out of the question that, with nothing left to lose, Sam could find that killer performance in the Finale, and I think their track record thus far plus a still-affecting story is enough to secure a spot there. But at that point, it just seems too late to really win over enough voters to make the difference. And that’s a shame. I’ll always wonder what might have been in a different situation.
5. Jonny West (Previous Round 7) “Almost There” from The Princess and the Frog and “Amazing Grace” by… errr, Jonny West I guess
I honestly have no idea what will happen with Jonny. He seems like as love-or-hate a contestant as there’s ever been. For me, this week was a bit of both. I didn’t think his version of Almost There worked at all. Tiana is an unusual character. In a canon full of Disney princesses who are flighty dreamers, she’s striking for being a pragmatist with no time to waste on fairy godmother nonsense. That’s the entire point of the song. Jonny’s introverted slacker vibe is a terrible fit for that kind of character, and the lackadaisical spin he put on the song just amplified a feeling of laziness, especially when combined with a vocal ability which can’t really deliver a powerhouse Disney ballad sound, and just ends up sounding like it’s giving up. Others may disagree, but it did nothing for me.
The real question mark though was his second song. Take one of the most beloved songs of traditional American music, and a religious one at that, and turn it into something only vaguely related? That runs a huge risk of driving people away, even if they were previously fans. It could also win people over by virtue of its creativity and uniqueness, and it obviously had emotional importance to him. But I feel like that positive impact is somewhat muted by again being a very low-key, internalized performance. It doesn’t really grab your attention, it more waves gently and then goes back to what it was doing. I didn’t really dislike it, even though Amazing Grace is an important song to me, but it didn’t really motivate me either.
I could be the exception. A bunch of people could see Jonny in a new light, and be motivated to vote for him now. His fans were onboard thus far, so maybe these performances wont lose him a substantial number of votes. He could easily be in the Finale. But I can’t really imagine him getting a large enough portion of the audience to vote for him, given the lack of power voting. He’s just too specific a taste to have broad appeal, and I doubt he does anything in the last round to change that. For better or worse, Jonny’s going to do Jonny. Kind of admirable, but not enough for the victory.
6. Julia Gargano (Previous Round 5) “Beauty and the Beast” from duh, “Sweetest Devotion” by Adele
As disappointing in the long term as Sam’s failure this week was, Julia’s collapse was a much more immediate and painful sting. When was the last time a previously strong contestant took such a massive tumble? Majesty maybe, ironically on another Disney tune, but there were warning signs of what undid Majesty, that weak spot in her voice. Could we have seen what went wrong with Julia coming? Well… maybe, at least in retrospect. If she had delivered Beauty and the Beast in a style close to the original, this could’ve worked very well. Instead, we got this lukewarm lounge-arrangement, which nullified the beauty of the song and just sounded cheesy and awkward. The issues went beyond the arrangement though. Vocally, Julia sounded like she was fighting with the song from beginning to end, and she wasn’t winning. All of the ad libs sounded forced and contrary to the rhythm of the melody, and because she couldn’t get her feet under her, her breath support was a mess. This, I had definitely noticed signs of before. Julia seems to have a hard time just leaving a melody alone without over embellishing it, and it detracts from the performances, which was part of what held New York State of Mind from really impressing me. This was much more pronounced.
I feel like this reflects a bigger issue for Julia in the competition: She seems like she’s trying too hard to give Idol what it wants. There’s a danger zone for contestants who have some experience, but not a ton. True amateurs only know how to do things one way, and stick to that. Very experienced performers are confident in their self-knowledge, and it shows in their delivery. They might make strategic choices in their song picks and arrangements, but usually they’ve built up their instincts enough for their choices in how they actually perform the songs. But there’s a certain level where contestants start thinking too much about “I need to do X to impress the audience, I need more high notes somewhere, I need to show I can do this differently,” and it doesn’t flow organically into the performance. It just becomes awkward. Something tells me Julia’s in that place.
Her Adele performance was ok out of context, but it still felt like she couldn’t relax into the song and let it flow smoothly, and it didn’t make much contrast to her first song. She would’ve needed something completely outstanding to cancel out her first performance, and this was just decent. It also seemed to lack the emotional weight of some of the other Mother’s Day performances. While it could be enough to motivate her fans to keep voting, Julia’s in a dangerous position. In all those rocky multi-song rounds where former frontrunners took a tumble, the sudden drop frequently resulted in a swift elimination. Fans feel complacent because they’ve been strong previously and don’t vote, while more casual voters lose interest. Not a good sign.
7. Louis Knight (Previous Round 11) “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” from The Lion King and “You’ve Got A Friend” by Carole King/James Taylor
Is it James Taylor week and I don’t know it? He was just on The Voice, and now two songs on Idol (although YGAF will always be a Carole King song to me). Is Louis also a former heroin addict?
I just don’t have much to say about Louis. His Disney performance had arguably as bad an arrangement as Julia’s with an awkward attempt at a Coldplay-esque climax that didn’t go anywhere, and nowhere close to enough vocal power to fill it out, but it wasn’t as much of a shock because he’s been mediocre thus far. His second song wasn’t as egregious, but it was still bland and underpowered. He’s just… not that good. Even in a boyband, he’d be the one they never let sing solos. They’d just have him sway in the background, and maybe tell people he had an incurable illness. I’m going to say consumption, for that old-school Bohemian flair.
Stranger things than Louis going through to Top 5 have happened. Scott Savol was a thing at one point. But this is about where the outclassed cute-boys usually go home, so it’s appropriate for history to repeat.
I’ll be back next week to contemplate where Idol goes from here, because the times they are a changin’. Yay renewal, but there’s no way we don’t get major changes next season.