We’re still about three weeks away from the American Idol Season 21 finale, but the top 10 contestants’ reaction Monday, when host Ryan Seacrest surprised them with some special news, was so over-the-top, I imagine that the actual winner’s coronation will be anticlimactic. And this news is all related to another coronation — that big one happening across the pond, one that understandably takes priority over all things Idol-related.
If you’ve been following the royal news, then you know that the man formerly known as Prince Charles will be ceremonially crowned this coming weekend, and two Idol judges, Lionel Richie and Katy Perry, will be performing at King Charles III’s “Coronation Concert” on Sunday, May 7. (Apparently Luke Bryan’s invitation got lost in the Royal Mail.) Even taking into account the eight-hour time difference between London and Los Angeles, Katy and Lionel wouldn’t be able to get back to the Idol set in time, unless they pulled a Phil Collins-at-Live Aid move and somehow gained access to a still-operational Concorde jet. So, while they do plan to check in live from Windsor Castle on Sunday, two A-list guest judges will be sitting next to Luke that night — and ironically, one of them happens to be the current reigning prince of British pop.
The Idol contestants were of course delighted Monday to learn that Alanis Morissette will be pulling double-duty on May 7 as both a mentor and guest judge, with the advancing top eight finalists interpreting some of her classic songs. But when Ed Sheeran’s familiar freckled face suddenly appeared onscreen, informing the finalists that he’d also be filling in, the set absolutely erupted.
“I can’t wait to guide you through this stage of the competition and career. This is the first time that I’ve done this on American Idol,” said Ed, while Oliver Steele practically fainted (or, as Ryan put it, “got vertical”), the easily excitable Zachariah Smith looked like he was about to have a sheer heart attack, and the usually subdued Iam Tongi was jumping up and down like he’d just won the lottery. “Mostly, I’m just looking forward to meeting all of you and talking through life and music.”
However, Oliver — probably the Season 21 contestant with the most in common with Ed — almost didn’t get the chance to meet his redheaded idol. Monday’s theme was the “Judges’ Song Contest,” with Katy, Luke, and Lionel giving each contestant a choice of three songs to cover; the judge whose songs were picked the most would then win bragging rights. When it was Oliver’s turn, he was given two predictable, pigeonholing John Mayer tunes, “Heartbreak Warfare” and “Bigger Than My Body,” along with a curveball, Radiohead’s “High and Dry.” I was thrilled when he went with the latter — my favorite Radiohead song, and finally a Radiohead song that wasn’t “Creep”! — and I thought his vulnerable performance was very Elliott Smith/Ed Harcourt/Bright Eyes/Kings of Convenience. But of course, that’s not what America wanted. America wanted, well, John Mayer. And so, after the live coast-to-coast public vote, Oliver landed in the bottom three.
Unsurprisingly, “High and Dry” was Katy’s pick (I say “unsurprisingly” because of her past history with Mayer — take her advice and “Wikipedia” her if you’re unaware). And she loved Oliver’s acoustic take on the song. “It was so delicate. It was so angelic. It was like nothing you’d done before. … Chef’s kiss,” Katy said. So, when Katy ultimately won the Judges’ Song Contest, at the end of the night, she was granted the authority to save one of the bottom-three contestants from elimination. And she saved Oliver.
I’m glad that Katy made this decision (with the endorsement of Luke and Lionel), not only because this means Oliver will get a chance to work with Ed Sheeran and bring his ailing father to the set (which he’d planned to do if he made the top eight), but because he’s been one of my favorites of this entire season. I was genuinely shocked that he was up for elimination this week, despite his relatively obscure song choice. But next Sunday, when the theme is not just Alanis songs but Sheeran duets, Oliver will be right back in his element. I expect to get shivers.
Oliver’s reprieve meant Idol instead bid farewell to Marybeth Byrd and this season’s one remaining Platinum Ticket recipient, Tyson Venegas. Apparently viewers really did not want emotional performances from the contestants this week. Marybeth picked Morgan Wallen’s “Wasted on You,” which Lionel had suggested to help her “get out of her comfort zone,” over her other two more winsome options, Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again” and Crystal Gayle’s “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.” And while Luke insisted, “That was what we needed to see from you: that emotion, that pain,” America did not want to see it and quickly sent Marybeth home. All three judges picked heart-on-sleeve ballads for the usually plucky Tyson: Bruno Mars’s “When I Was Your Man,” Adele’s “Someone Like You,” and Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved.” Tyson wisely went with the latter, which was the best fit for his voice, and Katy, the judge who’d picked it, said this was “exactly what I wanted to see from you.” But America didn’t want to see that, either.
Below are the seven other surviving contestants who’ll get the royal treatment Sunday, on a special coronation weekend episode guest-judged by the queen of ‘90s rock and West Yorkshire’s pop prince.
Zachariah Smith, “Wanted Dead or Alive”
Zach’s other options were “Crocodile Rock” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” I think he was smart to go with Bon Jovi’s arena anthem, which “pushed his voice to the edge” and allowed him to focus and tone down some of his gimmicky goofiness. This was probably as serious as he was ever going to get. He saw a million faces tonight, and he indeed rocked them all. Lionel, who picked the song, told Zachariah his “attitude was perfect,” and Katy observed, “I have not heard this crowd scream that loud for anyone other than Iam.”
Haven Madison “The Only Exception”
I’m not sure what the judges were thinking giving this sweet kid options like Bishop Briggs’s “River” and Lizzo’s “Cuz I Love You.” I think both would have been disasters. Instead, Haven went with the Paramore love ballad — former Warped Tour artist Katy’s choice, of course — inspired by her own real-life blossoming teen romance. (Haven was downright adorable as she blushingly gushed about this.) And she gave her best performance of a non-original tune this season. “You’ve graduated,” said Lionel. “You are now in control of your entire career. … You’ve got that ‘it’ thing going for you.”
Wé Ani, “I Have Nothing”
Wé was actually presented with three great choices tonight: She could have also gone with “Don’t Watch Me Cry” by Jorja Smith or “I Try” by Macy Gray. I thought the latter would have been a perfect fit for her raspy tone, but then again, perhaps the result would’ve been too on-the-nose or soundalike. Instead, she did a total 180 from the previous episode’s edgy Etta James rock ‘n’ soul remake — and sang the Whitney Houston classic. Dressed in a golden Grammy-awards gown, she was serving J.Hud realness, and she proved that she is the most diverse contestant left in the competition. This was spectacular — and surprising. “I was wrong. You picked the right song. I had one idea of what you could be, but you showed us that you don’t have a box,” said Katy. Luke, who suggested this song, raved, “I am so proud of you. That was one of the most elegant things I’ve ever seen. It was pure beauty. … I’ve never had chills like that.” The late Whitney’s pal Lionel even walked onstage to hug Wé. This felt like a coronation moment in its own right.
Warren Peay, “Colder Weather”
“Free Bird” and “Blue Side of the Mountain” were really obvious choices, so I am glad that Warren instead went with the Zac Brown Band song (Lionel’s pick) to showcase his range. This was his best technical vocal of the season so far. “I love when you play with dynamics; I want even more of that in the future,” Katy told him, while Luke advised, “Always lean on that grit that you’ve got.”
Iam Tongi, “What a Wonderful World”
Iam initially was going to go with Katy’s pick, Extreme’s “More Than Words,” and I would have loved that; I figured him doing the 1993 ukulele version of “What a Wonderful World” by fellow Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole would be too copycat. Iam was simply afraid that Israel had set the bar too high. But after switching up his song (he apparently never considered Allen Stone’s “Consider Me”), Iam reached Israel’s level. “I prayed you would do that for us, and I’m so glad you did,” said Luke, who’d picked the tune. Lionel called Iam “anointed” and “very, very special.” Katy loved this too, but joked, “When you win American Idol, will you just sing Extreme for me?” But maybe she wasn’t really joking. At this point, especially after Oliver’s bottom-three scare, it’s hard to envision anyone other than Iam winning Season 21.
Megan Danielle, “Go Rest High on That Mountain”
Actually, if there’s anyone who could pose a threat to Iam, it is this other America’s sweetheart. She chose “Go Rest High on That Mountain” over Zach Williams’s “Rescue Story” and Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love,” despite previously “turning away” from the Vince Gill song ever since she sang it at her grandfather’s funeral. (The judges and producers claimed they had i idea about Megan’s personal sad history with “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” but the skeptic in me doesn’t quite believe that.) Megan feared that this would be her “most difficult performance ever,” but she faced her fears and pulled off a gorgeous moment. And her emotional performance, unlike Marybeth’s and Tyson’s, connected with viewers. “I just felt in my heart that I couldn’t pick a better song for you,” said a proud, teary Luke. “I don’t think Luke chose that song. I think your grandpa chose that song. I think he’s trying to tell you that you are exactly where you’re meant to be right now,” stated Katy.
Colin Stough, “It’s Been a While”
Colin had a breakout moment this season doing a Robyn song, so I was pleased when he chose this Staind cover (Katy’s pick) instead of Chris Stapleton’s more inside-the-box “Starting Over” or Cody Johnson’s “‘Til You Can’t.” Colin’s risks are paying off. While his performance skills still need work — he seemed a bit lost and flailing without his guitar tonight — this country-crooning, babyfaced Brad Pitt lookalike showed that he is coming into this own. “You picked the right song, because you took yourself out of that box. You listened to your intuition,” said Katy. Said Lionel, “You screamed, you let yourself go, and you scared yourself to death! Let’s have more of that!”
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