The intimate settings allows the best vocalists to shine

Pressing on through these unprecedented times, American Idol is doing the best it can as it tries to give season 18’s Top 20 the chance they deserve to show off their musical chops. Obviously, with huge live studio performances out of the question, we’re working with what we’ve got. Each of the Top 20 contestants has been sent the same equipment to get set up in their homes, and each will be joined via video by the full band, as well as Ryan Seacrest and our three judges: Katy Perry (sporting a giant hand sanitizer costume for the duration because, sure), Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan. Even though it’s not a live performance for us, the judges will be tuning in as each contestant performs to offer feedback.

Credit: ABC

The intimate setting will certainly favor some artists more than others and song choice has never been so important. Plus, with only half of the artists singing tonight making it through to the Top 10 next week, the pressure is really on. So, buckle up friends, we've got 20 performances to plow through over the next two hours. Who will rise to the occasion?

Credit: ABC

Kimmy Gabriela, Lakeland, Fla. // “Leave Me Lonely” by Ariana Grande feat. Macy Gray

Well, if Kimmy Gabriela is any indication of how this remote version of American Idol will work, then we might just be okay. Throughout her time on Idol, the judges have been pretty vocal about how although she is a knockout singer, she hasn’t shown them “an artist.” In short, she needs to work on performance value. She does just that in her Top 20 performance. First of all, Kimmy’s never sounded so good. As Luke Bryan points out, the way she moves from her falsetto into her full voice is effortless. Also, hi, that low note at the end? Yes, please and thank you. But more than that, Katy Perry is happy to see Kimmy took their notes and has shown up as a star. She’s finally “evolving as an artist.” 

Jovin Webb, Baton Rouge, La. // “With a Little Help From My Friends” by Joe Cocker

This is the type of performance — and Jovin has the type of voice — that would definitely be enhanced by a live audience with a huge band on-stage. Jovin’s voice is so full of emotion and he easily connects with his audience and his lyrics. So, basically, throughout this entire performance, I was thinking about how great it would’ve been in the before times, you know? Not that it isn’t good now: Lionel Richie’s right, Jovin is instantly recognizable as an artist. He does his thing (I mean, that scream? Yes, sir!). Katy points out that all of the contestants were sent the same equipment for this thing, but Jovin is easily able to set himself apart thanks to the natural texture in his voice. 

Franklin Boone, Hillsborough, N.C. // “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears

Oh, how I have missed Franklin’s rasp. He’s known for being a reserved, quiet guy, and a lot of times, he just lets his gorgeous vocals tell the whole story. This Tears for Fears song is an excellent choice for Franklin because it shows off some real power that we haven’t seen before. Luke has chills the entire performance and tells Franklin that he’s “top 10 worthy,” Lionel says that everything about that was “right on point,” and Katy feels silly for tearing up while in her giant hand sanitizer costume. I mean, no duh. She also lets him know that they’ve been wondering whether or not the “It Factor” of it all can be felt even from these remote performances, and Franklin just proved that it’s possible. 

Olivia Ximines, Menifee, Calif. // “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish

This performance is the first of the bunch that really falls flat because of the remote performance situation. Olivia’s vocals are great. In fact, Katy says that she loved getting to hear “the quality of [Olivia’s] voice” and can tell how much she’s grown in that regard. The song is just zapped of a lot of its energy because of the circumstances. Olivia loves to bring the show (that last time we saw her performing, she was shimmying to “Proud Mary”) and that isn’t really possible here without some awkwardness. Will this be enough for Olivia to edge out the other 3,000 teen girl singers left? 

Louis Knight, Narberth, Penn. // “If the World Was Ending” by JP Saxe feat. Julia Michaels

This is definitely the Louis Knight that got the judges all hot and bothered during the audition round. As the judges are quick to note, this is the perfect song choice for Louis. It gets him back in front of the piano, singing a heartbreaking ballad that he can connect with emotionally. It’s heartthrob 101, guys. Lionel Richie is especially pleased to hear the “cry” in Louis’s voice used so well — that’s what “makes it believable,” he tells the young singer. That falsetto doesn’t hurt either. This was the kind of performance Louis really needed if he wants to nab a spot in the Top 10.

Makayla Phillips, Temecula, Calif. // “Greedy” by Ariana Grande

Katy’s been calling Makayla “Top 10 material” since she first heard her in the auditions, and now it's Makayla’s time to prove her right. She’s been compared to Ariana Grande throughout this competition, so this song obviously fits her well vocally-speaking. Katy loves the performance — it all “looks so natural” — but advises Makayla to remember to choose songs that will connect with the audience a bit better. Luke loved that she showed off her “star power” and Lionel is blown away by how professional the entire performance felt. As Luke says, Makayla makes the entire thing look effortless. 

Aliana Jester, Fort Walton Beach, Fla. // “Run to You” by Whitney Houston

Like Makayla, Aliana selects a song by an artist she’s been compared to on Idol already, but this one seems a bit more successful. Taking on a Whitney Houston song is a risk because you’re always going up against the original version. Even in her sea of lamps in her garage, Aliana is able to really connect with the audience. The end, especially, really shows off what Aliana can do with her voice. It’s layered! Katy loves the dynamics and thought it was the perfect song choice. Lionel takes it a step further and tells her that she made that song her own. That’s a huge compliment. 


Faith Becnel, Destrehan, La. // “River” by Bishop Briggs

Throughout the season, Faith’s been known for her personality as much as her vibrato, but with this performance, she gave us a glimpse at a new Faith: Luke tells her that this was the best he’s ever heard this song performed on Idol and that Faith really “showed us that [she] can hit some big-time notes.” Meanwhile, Katy is extremely pleased to see that her note about Faith’s vibrato taking over too often was incorporated into this performance — she’s “never heard [Faith] belt like that in a song.” It wasn’t Faith’s most engaging performance to-date and I wonder if in the mix of these 20 artists it’ll be enough to make her stand out. 

Nick Merico, Woodland Hills, Calif. // “Hey There Delilah” by The Plain White T’s

Wow, what a miracle: Nick made this song, dare I say, enjoyable? He strips the song down so it’s just him and his piano and that really works in his favor. Luke wishes Nick dug in a little bit more, but Katy is really wowed by the performance. Because of the intimacy of the situation, she could finally “hear the subtleties of [his] voice and how beautiful it is.” For her, it’s one of Nick’s best performances to-date. She’s not wrong! It’s not a showstopper, but Nick’s vocals sound great and he really connects emotionally in a believable way. He’s been hit-or-miss throughout the season, and this feels like a hit. 

Lauren Spencer-Smith, Vancouver Island, British Columbia // “Mamma Knows Best” by Jessie J

Our little Canadian teen is bringing some attitude to Remote American Idol, I see. Also: She’s still rocking the insane pony, which is something I can always get on board with. Jessie J songs aren’t easy to do, but Lauren makes this look effortless. The judges are excited to see just how much she’s grown as a performer since Hawaii. Lionel thought her “attitude was on point” and Katy loves that she is continuing to “grow as a star.” One benefit to losing the live crowds, as Luke points out, is that now they really get to zero in on the “nuances” in the vocals, and he thinks Lauren’s voice is just getting “better and better.” So, I’d say, they really liked it, guys.

Cyniah Elise, Jonesboro, Ga. // “Warrior” by Demi Lovato

It seems crazy to think that this season’s Top 10 wouldn’t include Cyniah Elise, right? She’s been a standout since we first met her, especially amongst the Teen Girl Gaggle. This certainly isn’t the best Cyniah performance — or song choice — but the control she has over her vocals is insane. Admittedly, I, too, was making the “Stanky Luke Face,” which I guess is a hashtag now? What a world. Luke tells Cyniah that she is easily “one of the best singers of the competition,” and although Katy was impressed, she still thinks Cyniah can push herself even further as an artist and performer. Let’s see if she gets the chance in the Top 10.

Credit: ABC

Francisco Martin, Daly City, Calif. // “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry

Excuse me, people, I need to go figure out how to procure Francisco’s version of this song immediately. IT IS SO GOOD. It is, obviously, a huge risk to take on the judges’ songs and play around with the arrangement, but it really pays off for Francisco. It starts off sultry and quiet on the guitar and then amps up to show off his power. Every choice he makes here is the right one. Katy approves — although would’ve liked Francisco to return to the quiet beginning in the end, but admits she’s being overly critical because it's her own song — and Luke tells him that he has “the magic.” This is easily a standout performance amongst the 20 we’re getting tonight.

Sophia James, Long Beach, Calif. // “Burning” by Maggie Rogers

Well, after all that talk about changing Sophia Wackerman’s last name, she finally does it, and it ushers in a whole new attitude for the singer-songwriter. Luke calls her “sneaky good” and it’s true, she is so unassuming and the power behind her voice feels effortless, so you forget how talented she is. Luke’s also right to point out that her playing the piano — she’s standing up while playing — is extremely distracting in this performance. She didn’t need it. Katy sums the whole thing up nicely when she tells Sophia that the performance was, simply, “pleasing.” Sophia always feels authentic, and this was no different.

DeWayne Crocker, Jr., Castle Rock, Co. // “I Got You (I Feel Good)” by James Brown

It’s a huge risk to do a James Brown song on Idol, and it's especially risky when you don’t have that live crowd to really play off of — this song begs for that. Although there are some great parts in DeWayne’s performance here — um, his cutie kids dancing along and yes, that end run is unreal — all the judges agree that to do James Brown justice, you need his grit and his growl. Katy wishes it was just a little bit “dirtier.” Still, it’s pretty incredible that even while performing alone in his living room DeWayne is really able to project so much energy. It’s a fun one for sure.

Dillon James, Bakersfield, Calif. // “Let It Be Me” by Ray LaMontagne

First of all, I’m really digging the country hipster vibe Dillon has set up in his backyard. Second of all, Dillon’s vocals sound great and professional, per usual. He’s selected more emotionally-charged songs in the past, but he couldn't really do any wrong at this point. It would be surprising if he didn’t make it into the Top 10 next week. All the judges speak to him as if he doesn’t even really need this show — he already has everything he needs to be a star. It’s “all what you make of it,” Katy says. He’s so “believable” as an artist, Lionel says, and that’s what will take him far.

Arthur Gunn, Wichita, Kan. // “Lovin’ Machine” by Wynonie Harris

Arthur has ditched his guitar and gotten himself a nice little haircut for this Top 20 performance, excuse me, jam session. Isn’t this such a party? The judges are up on their feet and dancing along. Arthur still seems shy with the camera, but Lionel actually thinks that is his “secret weapon” because he really draws the audience in before blowing them away. His vocals are great, as always, and this is a great song choice to show us a different side of himself and his artistry. Luke thinks that once Arthur realizes just how good he is and how much natural talent he has, he’ll be unstoppable. 

Julia Gargano, Staten Island, N.Y. // “Human” by Christina Perri

This is a great song choice for Julia because it immediately reminds us of her big range, her power, and the way she uses her voice to emote. Lionel calls her “a stylist” and commends her for knowing exactly what kind of artist she is and being able to perform to her strengths. Katy’s loved Julia since her original song audition and thinks she is one of the few in this group who really “check[s] all the boxes.” Luke is mainly just stressed over how America is going to vote for just 10 of these contestants when he thinks they just saw “five superstars in a row.” It’s going to be a tough choice. Are people into Julia’s heartfelt singer-songwriter vibe?

Grace Leer, San Ramon, Calif. // “Cry” by Faith Hill

Although I still find it frustrating that we have a parade of teen girls on this season and Grace Leer and Lauren Mascitti were left to duke it out for one spot when they were both deserving, I'm very happy to have Grace Leer in our Top 20. We need some old school country like this. Sure, as Luke points out, the first half of this song lacks some of the confidence Grace has shown us before, but it truly picks up in the second half. She nails some huge notes and really makes you feel it (my first tear up of the night, how appropriate!). Lionel also felt the emotion coming through there and Katy loved the dynamics throughout. Grace is a bit of fresh air in this competition, but we’ll see if she’s done enough to continue on. 

Just Sam, Los Angeles, Calif. // “I Believe” by Fantasia Barrino

Sam decided to stick it out in California, so she’s coming to us from her apartment living room. Per usual, she sounds great. It still remains to be seen just what kind of artist she’d want to be when all of this is over, but until then, the judges remain inspired and moved by her story. Luke also points to tremendous technical growth. “You own every aspect of your range from top to bottom,” and that isn’t something every contestant can claim. It’ll be interesting to see what songs Just Sam chooses should she continue on. 

Jonny West, Los Angeles, Calif. // “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong

Jonny West, you guys. He surprises every time he performs, so, like the judges, I hope he sticks around for a while. The high end of his range is gorgeous and he easily navigates from his head voice to his chest voice. Luke could see him taking his career on so many different paths, that’s how talented he is. Lionel echoes that sentiment: He tells Jonny that he has “a vocal arsenal” and “musical chops” that are going to take him far. Katy thinks this set up really plays to Jonny’s advantage because the more intimate space allows the subtleties in his voice to really come through. His is one of Katy’s “top two performances” of the evening. 

Only half of these singers are making it through. Who are you voting for? Who are the shoe-ins? It's time to talk Top 10.

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