As the farewell season kicks off, 'Idol' brings back some memorable faces to judge the new hopefuls

By Justin Kirkland
January 07, 2016 at 05:56 AM EST
Michael Becker/Fox
  • TV Show

Welcome to American Idol season 15, also known as the farewell season to any and all of you who care about the face of 21st-century popular culture.

That is correct — for those living under a rock, it is the farewell season of Idol, with only one more crooner to be crowned. On the other hand, this is my first season to be recapping, but trust — you are in good hands. As an avid watcher and a one-time audition victim (Rascal Flatts, mind you), I feel prepared. Though God may not have blessed my broken road to Hollywood, he did lead me straight to you.

There will be loads of memories to reflect on, but before we start the reflecting, we have to, you know… start the season. We open with Ryan Seacrest and Brian Dunkleman’s (!!!) first moments from season 1, but as the camera pulls out, we come to present day and watch today’s youth watch the classics like Kelly and Carrie get crowned victors.


To kick off the final season, we start in Atlanta with Michelle Marie, who is the same age as the show — 15. She’s a superfan who loves a good early-Taylor-Swift sparkle sundress. We see where she grew up, which is usually a sure sign that she makes it through. I can’t imagine that the first up wouldn’t get a pass. She opts for a sweet version of LeAnn Rimes’ “Blue.” She shines brightest in the songs most complex moments, earning a ticket to Hollywood and a near-heart attack for Jennifer Lopez when her entire family storms the room to congratulate her.

As part of the final season, previous contestants have been invited back to the auditions to screen talent. Some of them are welcomed with emphatic admiration (Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken) and and some of them are welcomed by stories of the contestant’s parents’ admiration (Taylor Hicks, Soul Patrol et al). Oh, these kids and their Snapchats and Twitters…

Following Michelle Marie is Josiah Siska, an 18-year-old from Georgia who has a Luke Bryan speaking voice. You know exactly what I’m talking about. He chooses “Ghost Riders in the Sky” by Johnny Cash. It is nothing like Luke Bryan. Keith is immediately intrigued, and when Harry Connick Jr. says at the end, “We’ve never heard anything like that,” he’s not lying. It’s a cross between a ’60s country throwback and a mock-Tarantino spaghetti western theme song. It’s definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but he gets three (well-deserved) yeses from the judges and moves on to Hollywood.

Lindita from Kosovo comes next. Ryan points out that she lost 150 pounds for this audition. Lindita says that people would tell her that she could sing, “but she’s really fat.” So in response, she lost the weight and then came to audition with “This is a Man’s World,” permanently banishing her haters forever. No matter how you describe her, her performance is wonderful, but hardly polished. The judges’ comment on how untamed the runs are, but it’s three yeses anyway.

Travis “Billy Bob” Evitt, 25, waltzes in while the judges are on a strange stretch break. He’s from Florida, wears overalls, calls himself a “fat John Travolta.” He also appreciates Jennifer Lopez from her “fly girl days.” He choose Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.” It’s a great performance at one in the morning next to a bonfire after five PBRs, but it’s just not strong enough for the judges, especially in the farewell season. Billy Bob cries, cause Billy Bob’s a crier, and he goes home with no ticket in hand.

NEXT: When Dr. Quinn meets funk

Lee Jean, 15, is next. He talks about the death of his older brother. Before he sings, Lee makes you fall in love with him. He’s responsible and well spoken — you want Lee to do well. He sings “I See Fire” by Ed Sheeran. Something vaguely bluesy happens along with something kind of singer-songwriter-y. The performance starts strong and slowly drops off in quality. But he gets three yeses and advances to Hollywood. Objectively, the judges were wrong. Subjectively, I don’t care.

For the record, no one ever wants to watch Idol with me because bad performances by good people are null and void. I was already full-on Paula Abdul with my Diet Coke raised in the air and my head turned to the side with my eyes closed, repeating, “I just feel, I just feel” to myself in my living room.


Just like that we move to Denver, where we’re joined by Taylor Hicks. Up first is Jeneve Rose Mitchell, a 15-year-old from the little known 51st state called “Elk Wilderness.” Her family has a generator that they turn on once a week for American Idol, which is what we like to call “having your priorities in order.” She comes to her audition wielding a cello, a side braid, and a winning smile. She chooses “Chainsaw” by The Band Perry. The cello is just wonderful, but the vocal almost works against the cello — it’s reminiscent of what I imagine Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman would have been like if it had a funk soundtrack. The originality paid off though, and the judges give her a pass to Hollywood. Even Taylor Hicks was jazzed. Somewhere in the wilderness, elks are bleating so loudly in support.

It turns out that everyone who auditioned in Denver lives off the grid. Everyone except Sonica Vaid, 20, from the little known Martha’s Vineyard. She tackles Carrie Underwood’s “Look at Me,” and it’s powerful. It’s not impossible to imagine her performing in the top 24. The judges agree and send her through to Hollywood.

Where Sonica is understated and humble, Joseph Kohlruss, 15, from Arizona believes he’s going to get four yeses. That’s like 101 percent in his mind (his logic, not mine). He’s also brought friends along who cheer for him at random. It’s hard because you don’t want to root against a 15-year-old, but you also kind of want that 15 year old to give you a chance to want to root for him. Unfortunately, we can’t all have what we want.

He sings, “Hello,” by Lionel Richie. He belts, “Is it me you’re looking for?” and I raise my Diet Coke again, turning my head, eyes closed, and say, “No.” The audition is shouty with nuggets of good, surrounded by piles of not-so-much. The trickiest part is when Harry asks him to try a couple of scales, and he starts shakily on a note and ends on a noise that sounds kind of like my garbage disposal when I put an entire expired chicken breast in it (don’t do this). He gets three no’s, and his friends and family cheer anyway. Let’s go Joe home! *clap clap, clap clap clap*

Next up is police officer, Reanna Molinaro, 23. Harry asks her to handcuff him, and she’s way into it. This is a family show, but the nuances are just filthy. She chooses “Leavin’ on Your Mind” by Patsy Cline. The choice is super ambitious because Patsy is a legend. Reanna does a perfectly serviceable rendition of Patsy — Jennifer and Harry call it “good,” which is the most perfect use of “good” thus far this season. It wasn’t great, but it was simply good. She gets three yeses and then uncuffs our boy and sets him back into the Denver wilderness.

NEXT: If at first, or fifth, you don’t succeed…

We take a break from the fun and games to revisit classic underdog stories like Josiah Leming (lived in a van), Kellie Pickler (mom left her, dad was in prison), and Vanessa Wolfe (pronounces flowers like “flurs”). It’s a nice reminder that Idol is a place where you can rise above and move mountains.

Somehow, it’s used as a purposefully awkward segue for Sylvia Lee Walker, 16, who is not struggling to rise above at all. She’s just looking for someone to listen to her talk about herself. She dives into a song, which is actually a yodel. She 100 percent did not sing. Arguably, she didn’t yodel either. She got not a single yes, and thus had to go home.

But there were a few who did rise above:

  • Shevonne Philidor, 24, is the definition of resilient. After six auditions, she returns to sing “Latch” in the style of Sam Smith. A few seasons back, Randy told her she wasn’t even close to ready, but now she’s returned.
  • Kory Wheeler returned after a successful audition last year turned awry at Hollywood week. He continues to be my misunderstood-hipster dreamboat with a raspy rendition of “Benny and the Jets.”
  • Then there’s Laurel Wright, from my college town of Maryville, Tennessee. I’m immediately obligated to root for her because of her hometown and her Kacey Musgraves song choice.
  • ALL THREE OF THEM GET IN BECAUSE DREAMS COME TRUE AND THE TEARS WERE ALREADY STREAMING DOWN MY SEASON 15 FAREWELL FACE. While those tears dry, the judges perform a rendition of the Laverne and Shirley theme song that I humbly request be made available on iTunes.

    Next on the chopping block is Joshua Wicker from Jacksonville, who is a creative and worship director at his local church. His wife is pregnant, and he’s attractive in that approachable way that feels attainable, but actually isn’t. Joshua wears a vintage plaid shirt and has named his unborn daughter, Branch. Rooting against him is literally sacrilege. He chooses “Stay” by Rihanna, causing me to spew the rest of my Diet Coke all over my television. His voice is both rich and scratchy in a perfect James Morrison way. This is a memorable audition, simply because he’s someone with a good voice you’d want to vote for.

    My gut tells me that the final season’s winner will return to its most successful roots and name a female victor, but this WGWG (white guy with guitar) deserves a spot on the way there. The judges try to play a joke on his wife to tell her he didn’t make it, but she’s not entertained because she has a WHOLE BABY inside of her. Three weeks later, they have a ridiculously adorable baby, proving that Branch doesn’t fall far from the daddy tree. Get it?!

    NEXT: The couple that auditions together, doesn’t always stay together

    Keeping up with the baby motif, a mother and father come to audition. Jordan “Man Bun” Sasser and Alex “Messy Bun” Sasser both audition. Alex tackles Bruno Mars in a style that might appear on a remixed Disney soundtrack. It was friendly, but that’s pretty much it. The judges agree and give three no’s. Meanwhile, Man Bun steps up and gives an enviously beautiful rendition of “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.” Three yeses prove the theory to be true: the tidier the bun, the tighter the performance. Jordan moves on and Alex keeps singing to their baby — it’s bittersweet, and then it’s just bitter when Alex blames her rejection on the fact that Jordan was dancing with their baby. BEST OF LUCK IN YOUR MARRIAGE.

    Down in the Denver ranks with Taylor Hicks is Kerry Courtney, who has a fun mustache and guitar. He’s a strange performer, but in an intriguing way. Singing “Black Sun” by Death Cab for Cutie (high school, what’s good?) he hits crazy falsetto notes, but the performance, as a whole, feels intentionally disjointed. It’s an experience. Harry and Jennifer compare it to art, even though Jennifer says it could be a little scary for America. But he’s the nicest scary guy ever because he gets three thumbs up and calls the judges “beautiful.”

    As Denver winds down, Shelbie “Z” James shows up from Alabama with a country accent and a cool headband. She’s a hair stylist, and just upon first impression, she appears to be the “country artist” that no one has successfully encompassed this episode. Her rendition of “Last Name” is a little throat heavy, but it’s hard to deny that she has authentic country chops. The best part of Shelbie is that she’s sincere. Also that she’s not one of those hair stylists who does questionable things with her hair. But mostly that she’s sincere. She skates through to the next round.

    And then of course, the final audition is from a man whose confidence is only rivaled by the great Joseph Kohlruss. When Kanye West walks in and starts talking, you almost forget that weird speech he gave at the VMAs or all those other strange things he says. Outside Kim Kardashian is being very Kim Kardashian in her then-pregnant black silk muumuu. Following the nightly theme, they give him a golden ticket. Kim is way proud.

    And with that, Atlanta and Denver are in the books. From there we head to San Francisco and Little Rock. Fill up your Diet Coke and your tear ducts — we’re just getting started.

    Episode Recaps

    Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.
    • TV Show
    • 16
    • 574
    • 06/11/02
    • Simon Fuller
    Complete Coverage