Among a sea of new hopefuls, one singer makes an emotional comeback

By Justin Kirkland
January 15, 2016 at 04:29 AM EST
Ray Mickshaw/Fox
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A new day, a new opening, y’all. Tonight is all about personal stories — firefighters and grandpas and how Jennifer gets the goosies when people sing to her. Outside of Jennifer’s goosies, this opening sequence shows just how much cultural currency American Idol has. Remember “Pants on the Ground” guy? He was so great. But don’t be caught lookin’ like a fool with your pants on the ground and your focus in the past. Tonight isn’t about failed previous contestants. It’s about the now.

We kick things off in Denver with James Grey Dawson, a.k.a. James the VIII, and Amber Lynn (Anne Boleyn?). Amber actually forced James the VIII to come because he doesn’t even identify as a singer. What do you think will happen and how royal do you think it will be? Amber opens with Allen Stone’s “Unaware.” After Amber finishes, Harry critiques JAMES for rushing the song via guitar. Her performance, by the way? Flawless. If we didn’t figure it out from her ironic flat-bill hat, she’s a definite singer-songwriter type.

James VIII follows with a John Legend song. He goes into his falsetto and does this weird thing with his mouth, and I start touching my ears like I’ve never heard music before. I honestly have no idea what happens to me during episodes of American Idol. I think my desire to see people pursue their dreams in a public forum overwhelms my basic social cues, and then I do things like tap my ears when I hear things I like. It’s a strange contest between Amber and James because they’re both just…incredible. The contest doesn’t matter though. Both of these Denver hipsters are going to strum their way to Hollywood.

Following those two is Emily Wears, 25, who is a professional auctioneer. Speaking at that speed is my life goal. Imagine how many positive qualities I could tell potential dates at the club with that skill set! She chooses Jo Dee Messina’s “Bring on the Rain.” It’s very authentic, and her voice has a nice Sara Evans essence. But when it comes to the big notes, she plays it safe. And when it comes to the high notes, she can’t quite get there. Fortunately, she has that auctioneer career, but she struggles to sell to the judges. No Hollywood week for Emily.

Chris Johnson follows. He is from Memphis and goes by CJ. He’s a professional musician, which is crazy ambitious unless you’re, you know, successful. He chooses Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams,” and it’s everything you hope it will be. He has this Memphis barbecue style to his voice (run with me, here). It’s dry and authentic in a way that’s hard to explain. And what’s great about CJ is that you want to root for him. He gets three thumbs up.

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Did you guys even know we switched to Little Rock? I swear it just…happened. It might have happened with CJ, but it’s definitely obvious with Ethan.

Ethan Kuntz, 15, is from Nashville, Ark. His family trains hunting dogs, and he calls Ryan Seacrest “sir,” which is hilarious because Ryan isn’t that spring chicken he used to be back when he had Dunkleman on his arm. Ethan is just a laid-back teenager with a squad of hunting dogs who likes to jam with his blues band on occasion. His song choice is “Stormy Monday” by the Allman Brothers. His performance is strong for a 15-year-old, but that whole stigma about having to “live life” to sing the blues rings terribly true, in my opinion. Harry and Keith agree, but Jennifer steps up to fight for Ethan. Honestly, he’s a wonderful kid, but for a career in the blues, ihe’s just not ready. Harry says no. Jennifer says yes. And Keith, regardless of his gut, gives him a pass. Oh, Ethan.

NEXT: The problem with making songs up on the fly

Mary Williams, 23, comes up next, wearing one million carats of bedazzled tee-shirt (that’s how bedazzled gems are measured, right?). She’s from Belfast, Tenn., and has the best twang. I immediately throw my weight behind her because Tennessee girls gotta stick together. She chooses Tammy Wynette’s “’Til I Can Make It on My Own.” It’s ambitious, admittedly, but she manages to produce an admirable performance. Keith calls her out for the truth, which is that it was “Tammy Wynette-performed,” as opposed to “Tammy Wynette-felt.” She got Jennifer and Harry’s votes but a no from Keith. Mary will have another chance to win over Keith because she’s headed to Hollywood, too.

Back in Denver (Idol can’t choose a city tonight), Ryan brings the judges cans of oxygen, which is apparently very commonplace in Denver. I get nervous because I feel like I watched an episode of Dr. Phil about kids addicted to huffing canned air, but I can’t remember. While we pray for these miscreants, we’re introduced to Xavier.

Xavier Soller, 26, is an in-game host for the Denver Nuggets. He amps Jennifer up with a fun mini-basketball game. In a surprising turn, he chooses Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places.” He’s not bad, but he’s definitely not good. He promptly gets dismissed. He tells everyone he had a great time, and he heads back to the court. We quickly move to Terrian, 18, from North Memphis. She’s grown up in a not-so-great neighborhood, and she’s here to give kids from her neighborhood a good example of what you can do with your life. She chooses Pharrell’s “Happy.” She has vague Janelle Monáe undertones but is not quite as strong as real Janelle Monáe. Although she could have shined more brightly, she gets all yeses and heads to Hollywood.

We jump back to Little Rock to meet LeAnn “Blue” McIsaac, 23. She’s wearing all blue and has blue hair and a super cool septum piercing. She’s artsy like WHOA and refers to herself as a singing nomad. She’s lived in the jungle and Iceland (presumably with Bjö​rk), and now she’s here, in Little Rock, performing for American Idol judges. She decides to write the judges a song, using their names and “something that is important” to each of them. Keith chooses family, Jennifer chooses love, and Harry chooses music. Somehow, it strangely comes together like a religious chant. The judges, lovingly, tell her to go travel the world and do her business elsewhere. I know. Yikes.

As a mid-show treat, we get to see the hopes and dreams of lesser-singers get crushed in the garbage compactor of American Idol aspirations. But the trend has to end eventually, so why shouldn’t it with Thomas Stringfellow, 17, who is the trendiest little teenager you’ve ever seen? He chooses “Give Me Love” by Ed Sheeran, and of course it’s quirky and interesting — he weaves strong notes among tender, vulnerable moments. He gets three big yeses from the judges.

NEXT: Tankercise: the new Bend and Snap

Our next hopeful is Tywan “Tank” Jackson, who is a dance teacher who developed Tankercise. It’s a dancing exercise that has helped Tank lose 40 pounds. He chooses Luther Vandross’ “Superstar,” and I’m going to shoot you straight: Tankercise is not the only thing that Tank does well. My only complaint is that I think Tankercise got in his way of giving his best performance.  “Superstar” is one of those audition songs that throws you back to seasons 2 and 3. It’s just a classic Idol hymn. The song’s end begins to fall off, but Tank holds his own, even without breath. He gets a pass to Hollywood, wipes his brow, and trots his way out the door.

Following Tank is literally the most attractive person I’ve ever seen. John Wayne Schulz, 27, is the epitome of a cowboy. And of course, he’s a Marine. He auditioned in season 10 but got nixed over winner Scotty McCreery. He went home, and his mom was diagnosed with cancer and passed away. They show a picture of him carrying the casket, and then he chooses “The Dance” by Garth Brooks. I miss the first half because I’m inconsolably crying, but when I bring myself to, I’m delightfully surprised by an understated, simply gorgeous version of an often-overdone song. He gets three yeses, and I desperately need to blow my nose and stop crying.

Leah Harbert, who is literally the New Mexican version of Maggie Gyllenhaal, doesn’t care to be Maggie at all. She says that she’s going to be the next Britney Spears, which is an interesting musical aspiration. You can see the moments when she’s trying to get to Britney-level, and it’s because she’s literally yelling in a whispery way. It’s concerning. The judges dismiss her, and she just doesn’t get why. But then there’s Jordyn Simone, 15, who walks in looking all of 25. She chooses the Jackson 5’s “Who’s Loving You?” I begin to feel my Idol third eye pulsing, so I go ahead and put my hand in the air in presumptive praise. As I suspected, she completely owns the song with an effortless vocal. That’s what happens when you decide to be yourself and not be Britney. Jordyn is going to Hollywood. Leah (and I) will be performing “Lucky” with no audience.

After Jordyn, the judges hit a streak of kindness. Kassy Levels, 19, chooses Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend,” which is an American classic if there ever were one. She moves on. And then there’s Rhea Raj, 19, who chooses Whitney’s “How Will I Know” with a piano backup. She skates through, as well. But the focus is on the plumber’s apprentice, Jake Dillon, who got married at 18 and has two kids. He has a beard you can hide Cheetos in and a spirit that can’t be beat. Harry asks him what he’s got, and he talks about his wife and two kids — literally the nicest person in the world. His song though is Kenny Loggins’ “Danny’s Song.” America breaks into a full sing-along, but the loudest voice is Jake’s. To be honest, the voice isn’t that remarkable, but every word is sincere. There’s a sense of desperation in his voice that comes through, and it falls across his face when Harry tells him that it’s “good,” but good isn’t good enough. Little harsh, Gretch. Jennifer and Keith put him through, and this plumber’s apprentice grabs his kids and packs his bags for Hollywood.

NEXT: An infinite soul, a Russian powerhouse, and a Kentucky reform

The chilliest contestant of all time, Ashley Lilinoe, from Hawaii comes in next. When asked how old she is, she says she’s infinite. Then she says she’s been around the sun 20 times. Then she finally just says she’s 21. But none of the craziness matters when she sings “Black Velvet” because her voice is gritty and powerful and just wonderful. She gets a yes from Harry and Keith, and somehow, Jennifer gives her a no. Jenny and I need to have a serious talk soon because that was the wrong call, even if she was a little…infinite. Following her, Andrew Nazarbekian, 20, comes in from Russia. Literally Moscow. He chooses Adele’s “Make You Feel My Love,” and I immediately decide to give up on him. Then he starts singing, and his voice is rich and his vibrato is crazy strong. Yes, he’s from Russia, but other than that…he doesn’t have a story or a gimmick. He is just a good singer, and that’s what I think this season should be about. He gets three quick yeses (and a selfie with Ryan).

The final audition of the night is Elvie Shane, 27, from Kentucky. We get a nice backwoods shot as he plays guitar and talks about his past drug use. He talks about his wife Mandy, who is way pretty. She had a 5-year-old son, and now they’re a family! How nice is that? I bet he can sing, too. Just wait. He chooses “House of the Rising Sun,” which was done pretty wonderfully just yesterday by Gianna Isabella in Philadelphia. I like his audition, but Gianna set The Animals’ bar REALLY high. The performance was good, and Elvie fits a good Southern rocker vibe, but let the record show where my allegiance is. Elvie brings in Mandy and their son to meet the judges, and then Elvie tells the judges, “God bless.”

And that’s it for Denver. God bless, Elvie and the judges and all of you. God bless us, everyone. Next week, we jump into another week of auditions, but do we need it? Have we found this season’s winner, or are they holding out on us? Take some time, mull it over, get some Tankercise in, and I’ll see you next week. Our journey’s not over yet.

Episode Recaps

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.
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