Viewers veto judges’ votes on déjà vu-inducing top 12 ‘American Idol’ episode

Lucy Love and Nutsa flank 'American Idol' Season 21 contestant Marybeth Byrd as they learn their fate. (Photo: ABC)

Lucy Love and Nutsa flank ‘American Idol’ Season 21 contestant Marybeth Byrd as they learn their fate. (Photo: ABC)

Last Monday on American Idol Season 21, when the top 20 became the top 12, a whopping eight divas were up for elimination, and the judges chose to save two of them: soulful belter Lucy Love, and flashy Vegas-style entertainer Nutsa.

But this week, as Lucy, Nutsa, and the other remaining semifinalists returned to compete on Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Night, those two ladies found out they won’t be in Idol’s Class of 2023. After the first live coast-to-coast voting of Season 21 — which host Ryan Seacrest said generated more than 22 million real-time votes — America had spoken, once again, loud and clear. And once again, America had chosen to eliminate… Lucy and Nutsa.

And this time, the judges could not save either of them.

Ironically, Lucy went home after singing a song that she’d selected specifically to “celebrate Lionel,” the judge who had championed her all season and rallied the hardest to save her last week. While it was a sweet sentiment and intention, I don’t think a contestant still in such a risky position should have gone which such a throwaway party jam. While Lionel Richie told her, “You took my song and made it your song”; Katy Perry said, “You bodied that song”; and Luke Bryan said, “I am so glad we brought you back,” a ballad like “Running With the Night” or even “Hello” would have been a smarter direction for Lucy.

As for Nutsa, she was always already so over-the-top, I feared that her covering Queen’s “The Show Must Go On” (another ironic song choice, considering its title), would just be way too much. Even the king of unsubtle excess — this week’s guest mentor, current Queen frontman Adam Lambert himself — urged Nutsa to consider a different song that would showcase her softer side (assuming she has a softer side, that is). She ignored that advice and stuck with her original song choice, but to be fair, she did try to heed Adam’s instructions to be “more angelic.” And I think she did a solid job, leaning into her showgirl strengths while toning down some of her trademark razzle-dazzle pageant gimmicks. It was still an unhinged performance — Ryan said he “burned calories just watching her,” and she had lipstick on her chin by the song’s end — but it kind of worked. It didn’t work well enough, obviously, but the lady didn’t go down without a fight, which Luke admired. As Katy told her, “The word ‘nuts’ is in your name, and you will be Nutsa, forever and always.”

As for the two hours leading up to this double-elimination, Sunday’s episode was full of full-circle moments for Season 8 runner-up Lambert. After all, Adam first met his future employers, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees Queen, on his season’s finale. Second, this week he also got to advise several country contestants, 14 years after he game-changingly deconstructed and reconstructed “Ring of Fire” on Season 8’s Country Night and in the process totally spooked that episode’s guest mentor, Randy Travis, with his “guyliner” and black nail varnish.

Katy Perry in her Adam Lambert cape in Season 21, and wearing it during a performance from Season 8 in 2009. (Photos: ABC, Fox)Katy Perry in her Adam Lambert cape in Season 21, and wearing it during a performance from Season 8 in 2009. (Photos: ABC, Fox)

Katy Perry in her Adam Lambert cape in Season 21, and wearing it during a performance from Season 8 in 2009. (Photos: ABC, Fox)

And finally, as Adam returned to the show with his nails painted and face beat to the gods — doing a highly dramatic version of Ann Peebles’s “I Can’t Stand the Rain” from his new covers album, High Drama, and schooling all of the top 12 on how to truly make a song one’s own — Katy donned her infamous satin “Adam Lambert” cape. Katy first wore the Elvis-style garment when she was a guest performer during Season 8, generating controversy and getting “a little trouble” when fans complained that her “playing favorites: — as she appeared as basically a walking billboard for her L.A. scene friend — would sway the public vote.

Below are the 10 performances from Sunday’s surviving singers. They’ll be back Monday for the “Judges’ Song Contest,” after which only seven will advance. Based on Sunday’s performances, as well as this show’s overall voting patterns which have favored male and folk/country/rock contestants, I think the singers most in danger are Marybeth Byrd, Haven Madison, Zachariah Smith, and Tyson Venegas. But Wé Ani is real outlier who could flip that whole script.

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Tyson Venegas, “For Once in My Life”

Adam suggested a Stevie Wonder song for Tyson because there’s a certain sweetness to this young pop crooner — but interestingly, he left it up to Tyson to figure out exactly which tune. I don’t think Tyson chose badly here, but the issue with most Stevie songs is they tend to sound old-fashioned — as opposed to timeless — when done by anyone but Stevie. Despite his natty outfit, which was giving Harry Styles circa Fine Line or Bruno Mars in his Silk Sonic era, Tyson’s performance still felt very stuffy, Idol Season 2. But perhaps old-fashioned smarm ‘n’ charm is this sweet kid’s sweet spot, because, as Luke and Katy observed, he’d never seemed so comfortable onstage before.

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Warren Peay, “House of the Rising Sun”

Technically, this is not a song by Hall of Famers the Animals, but a traditional folk ballad of unknown origin. But Warren was unmistakably doing the Animals’ version, because this sure did rock. It wasn’t at the level of Haley Reinhart, who had a breakthrough moment with this classic in Season 10, but it was still a moment. While Lionel (and Luke) noted that the song started a bit too low for Warren, once the performance fired up, his roaring voice — which Katy described a as a “bottle of grit” — “resonated perfectly with it.” Warren’s star just keeps rising this season.

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Haven Madison, “Livin’ on a Prayer”

Adam was impressed that Madison, with the help of her pro-musician father, was “making the song her own” — high praise from one of the biggest song-flippers in the history of this series. But honestly, once the band kicked in, her version of Bon Jovi’s arena anthem wasn’t all that different from the original; I’d expected something more along the lines of Season 7 contestant Brooke White’s folky acoustic remake of future Hall inductee Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield.” I wish Haven, a skilled singer-songwriter herself, had done something by, say, Joni Mitchell or Carole King, rather than a bombastic rock song that was way too big for her voice. I will say, however, that Haven’s performance skills are developing at an impressively rapid pace. Having the “most fun” she’d ever had onstage in her life, she delivered what Luke called the “huge step-out moment” of a “massive star.” Lionel added, “You were ready for this! Your confidence is just staring us in the face. You walked out on this stage and took control.”

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Oliver Steele, “Georgia on My Mind”

Adam was “bored” with Oliver’s original acoustic arrangement of the Ray Charles classic, and wanted more “edge” and more of a “journey.” I do think the island/reggae vibes Oliver added to his final version livened things up a bit, but his performance was still too laid-back and safe. Katy agreed with Adam’s comments and said she “wanted to see a little of an electric [element]. Where was that Stevie Ray Vaughan solo?” But she and her fellow judges “couldn’t get enough” of Oliver’s lovely voice, so they just encouraged himself to keep pushing himself creatively and putting his own stamp on his covers.

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Colin Stough, “Midnight Rider”

Last week, Colin had a huge breakthrough covering Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” but that was just a victory-lap performance. Now that he was performing again for actual votes, I was hoping for another genre/gender-flip of a pop song — how about some Madonna, Janet, or Whitney? But instead, this Southerner just went back to playing it safe with some Allman Brothers. Sigh. It was good, but not great, because it simply didn’t have that element of surprise. “I think you’re still in that growth stage,” Katy said, wishing aloud that Colin had “attacked” the song more. Lionel also thought Colin needed to be more “nasty.” Said Luke, “We want more body. We want more big star out of you. Because you have all the tools to turn into that.”

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Marybeth Byrd, “Dancing Queen”

I’m always delighted to hear ABBA covers in any TV singing competiton, especially when a radical-remake rearrangement proves just what great songcrafters Björn, Benny, Agnetha, and Anni-Frid always were. Adam called this cover a “nice surprise,” but I don’t think Marybeth’s vocal ever reached to the bar set by the effervescent original (or matched the Dolly/Shania linedancing-queen glam she was rocking this evening, for that matter). But she got an A for effort, I guess. “I love how you made that you,” said Luke. “You just delivered the goods, and it was absolutely you,” agreed Lionel.

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Wé Ani, “It Must Be Love”

Wé was waffling between covering Etta James or Tina Turner, so she brought the best of both awesome worlds to the stage and did a completely ferocious, Tina-like Etta cover. This was one of the most full-on rock ‘n’ roll assaults in Idol history, right up there with Caleb Johnson doing “Still of the Night,” James Durbin doing “You Got Another Thing Coming,” or even Adam Lambert tearing into Zep’s “Whole Lotta Love.” This was pure fire and pure theater, and Wé — a huge Adam fan who seemed more excited than anyone else in the top 12 to work with him — fulfilled her dream of making her mentor proud. “I looked at Katy’s face a couple of times, and I’d never seen her look like that — it was quite distorted!” chuckled Luke, adding, “It was mesmerizing. I’ve never heard this room get that loud.” Lionel needed to “get a grip on the situation” and collect his thoughts before commenting, “That was how to bring ‘nasty’ to the table. … That was a breakout performance, right there!” And the distorted-faced Katy (who’d look fabulous in a “Wé Ani” satin cape, just sayin’) declared, “You just turned this thing into a competition.”

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Megan Danielle, “Angel From Montgomery”

The naturally gifted Megan — who Adam gushingly praised as having a “bananas” voice that “makes the hairs on your arms stand up” and is “the reason why this show works” — was already delivering the raw goods during rehearsal. But after Adam advised her to slow down her arrangement to give it more “gravitas” and “take it to church,” she had a real moment tonight. “I’m a mess. I’m so emotional about what you just did. What you just did will stand up in any room — at the Grammys, any awards show I’ve ever been to. What Adam Lambert told you was so right: You are the reason American Idol works,” said a verge-of-tears Luke.

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Zachariah Smith, “Don’t Bring Me Down”

Zach almost did Paul McCartney’s ballad “Maybe I’m Amazed,” which on paper might have seemed like a better heartstring-tugging choice. But during rehearsals, his clear kindred spirit, fellow showman Adam, encouraged him to do the ELO rollerdisco stomper, telling him, “It’s got attitude. It’s playful. You sound dope on it.” I’m glad that Zachariah, wearing a sequined blazer that looked like it’d been nicked from Adam’s walk-in wardrobe, took this advice — not just because Electric Light Orchestra isn’t covered nearly enough on these talent shows, but because his “Don’t Bring Me Down” really brought the mood up, up, up. This was the big Zach attack I’d been craving last week. “You brought the party to the stage!” said Lionel. “Man, I need a drink. I feel like I’ve been in a two-hour treadmill/stairclimbing session,” Luke laughed. “You’re just Zachariah, and there’s no one else like you,” said Katy.

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Iam Tongi, “Bring It on Home”

Ditching the good-luck-charm guitar that belonged to his late father — something that Luke called a “huge step” and “brave thing,” and Lionel said was “important moment” — was a risk. But it allowed Iam to be more rangy and soulful than he’d ever sounded before. This was the first time I’d really heard Iam belt, and he nailed this Sam Cooke standard. By the time he was finished, the sweet island crooner, who is quickly becoming the odds-on favorite to win Season 21, had the audience cheering so enthusiastically that Katy’s critique was barely audible above the din. “I can’t even hear myself talk! … This is just magic. You are magic. You are the one,” she said. “There’s nothing we can say, that I can say. The crowd is saying it all for us,” said Lionel. “There is no way people can’t love you,” Luke summed up.

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