The more things change, the more they stay the same, right? The old saying certainly applies to American Idol’s Hollywood Week in season 18. The beloved obstacle on the road to the Idol crown is getting a bit of a makeover with new rounds and twists, but you best believe it is the same high-stakes, messy drama, trim-the-fat-filled stage we have come to know and love. Stars will still be made, dreams will still be crushed, and the world spins madly on.
The first round of Hollywood Week gets a big revamp: The judges want to see all 167 contestants who received golden tickets in the audition round perform solo right at the top. Idol is calling it the Genre Challenge because each contestant gets to pick which genre they want to perform in — meaning it’ll be much easier to size up their closest competition — but I think a better name might be Let’s See What Hell We Hath Wrought. Some singers rise to the occasion, and some suggest that maybe they shouldn't have been there at all.
Let’s take a look at some of the highlights from each genre group and see who are some of the lucky ones to survive Hollywood Week Round One:
This group is stacked. In one line up for elimination alone we have both Julia Gargano, the pianist who sang an original in her audition, and Arthur Gunn, the wunderkind who arrived at Idol from Nepal by way of Kansas. Julia does a killer version of Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke,” and sounds even better than before, if possible. Arthur takes on “Hard to Handle” by Otis Redding and, guys, once he finishes, the judges stand up and ask him to play more. It’s a party. After his audition, I was a little worried he might have trouble connecting to a big audience, but Arthur completely dispels those worries with this performance. Watching this from the audience would make me nervous.
Both Julia Gargano and Arthur Gunn make the first round cut. Unfortunately, we say goodbye to Marna Michele, who did a Lady Gaga ballad in her audition, and does a nice rendition of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” here, but honestly, I’m surprised she’s in this genre and not pop. Is that choice what did her in?
Later, we see three guys in this genre who have all given me chills at one time or another. There’s the most nervous kid on the planet, Francisco Martin, who still expresses some serious self-doubt even after his stellar audition (he did Maggie Rogers’ “Alaska”). Once he’s on stage and gets into “Hold Back the River,” though, you’d have no idea. He’s confident and his voice soars. There’s also Mr. Margie Mays, Jonny West, who does “Someone You Loved” on the piano and reminds us that he’s not just a good boyfriend. And rounding out that group is Katy Perry’s appointed “country Post Malone,” Dillon James. He seems much more relaxed here in Hollywood, reminding us that he’s beyond grateful to be getting a second chance on life after battling drug and alcohol addiction. His performance of Billy Joel’s “Vienna” doesn’t pack as big of a punch as his audition did, but he should be fine. And he is! Dillion James, Francisco Martin, and Jonny West all make it through to the next round.
Unsurprisingly, this is the biggest group of the night. The first round up of pop artists includes Louis Knight, the 19-year-old English heartthrob, who gives a less-than-impressive performance of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” He’s totally phoning this in, but is surely too good to let go this early. Definitely not phoning it in is Robert Taylor, who sings a version of “Natural Woman” so good (okay, Luke points out one missed note, but still) and so emotional that it clears my skin. Genavieve Linkowski also returns for her second Hollywood Week, and her performance of “You Are the Reason” is 300 times better than her Michael Bolton audition, and the judges take notice of her growth.
In the first pop group eliminations, Louis Knight, Robert Taylor, and Genavieve Linkowski all survive, along with some other familiar faces including sparkly ray of sunshine Demi Rae and Katy Perry superfan Geena.
In the second pop group, we get several singers we know from their auditions: There’s Kay Genyse who, you may recall, only won her golden ticket after Katy had her perform in front of a crowd out on the street, and she proves here she is much more of a performer than a vocalist; Shannon Gibbons, who wowed with “I’d Rather Go Blind” in her audition, does so again with Kodaline’s “All I Want”; and Lauren Spencer-Smith, the teen from Canada who sounds so polished it is insane she’s so young, who does a little Kelly Clarkson for us this round. These three are all joined by a new face, Bilaal Avaz, and I have a very serious question: Where has this angel been hiding? Bilaal comes from a strict Muslim upbringing, couldn’t even listen to music growing up, and just makes everyone cry (including his family there to support!) with Demi Lovato’s “Stone Cold.” Just, like, more Bilaal please!
Bilaal Avaz, Shannon Gibbons, and Lauren Spencer-Smith all proceed, but Kay Genyse gets the ice-cold brush off.
The final round of pop gives us Margie Mays, as she tries to make her second Idol run more successful than the first. Her “The Voice Within” is definitely an improvement from her audition, which left the judges wanting more of an emotional connection. This group also has Nick Merico, who you probably remember as the guy Lionel Richie gave a stern talking to about his attitude and lack of humility. He’s back, never removing his overcoat, puzzlingly, with a new outlook on things. Lionel really did a number on him! He still doesn’t blow the judges away, but there’s no need for a dressing down this time, so that’s nice. He’s also up against Kimmy Gabriela, who annihilates “Say Something” with a falsetto so good it causes Katy Perry to start walking out the door because she thinks “the show’s over” after that.
There’s still a lot of show left, but Kimmy Gabriela certainly remains in the running, along with Nick Merico and Margie Mays.
This is a smaller group, but it’s loaded with frontrunners. There’s Cyniah Elise, a teenager from Atlanta who should pretty much be signed to a record label like five minutes ago. She sings Adele’s “All I Ask” to perfection, plus she is a legit star up on stage. Will this season come down to the battle of the teens? Right after Cyniah is another 17-year-old belter, Makayla Phillips, who gets up on stage to take on “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” which normally I’d advise all people to steer clear of in Hollywood Week. But Makayla has nothing to fear; she’s even better than I remember. The R&B group is bringing its A+ game tonight. That trend does not stop with Just Sam, our busker from Harlem who is doing this for her grandmother. Just Sam was good in her audition, but definitely nervous. All of that is gone on the Hollywood Stage. Just Sam is a real contender. Plus, the judges are putting $20 bills in the little busker box she keeps on stage to put her at ease. She’s already a winner.
Cyniah Elise, Makayla Phillips, and Just Sam easily make it through to the next round. I suspect we’ll be seeing those three a lot.
To be honest, I thought we’d have a much bigger country contingent in this first round, but instead we get just three country female artists, all shoe-ins to get pushed forward in the competition. They are: Lauren Mascitti, the Nashville pro (she’s engaged to Shawn Kemp, remember?), who goes old-school country with “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”; Hannah Prestridge, who initially auditioned with her husband but was the only one of the two to make it through, and who radiates the same emotion and pain through her vocals that she did when we first met her; and Grace Leer, the former American Juniors contestant, who performs “Unchained Melody” to remind the judges that she’s going for a classic country vibe. Leer isn’t as moving as she was in her audition, but she’s still easily a top country female. Lauren Mascitti, Hannah Prestridge, and Grace Leer unsurprisingly make the cut here.
This! Is! My! Genre! Some of my favorite auditioners show up in this group. First, there’s Amber Fiedler, who delivered her baby just three weeks prior to this, and still through all the emotional turmoil she must be feeling gives a truly effortless performance of “Rise Up” by Andra Day. She’s followed by Sophia Wackerman, who is following in her late mother’s footsteps, and so sings “Let It Be” at the piano. It’s emotional and technically great, and it earns her a standing ovation from the judges. Plus, Jovin Webb, who auditioned back in the second episode with a version of “Whipping Post” that haunts me to this day, returns with another powerful performance, this time with Ed Sheeran’s “Make It Rain.”
Finally, the first round of Hollywood Week ends with a performance from the singer who gave us our first audition: Doug Kiker, the singing garbageman. You can see this has been an extraordinary learning experience for him, and the pressure to move forward and change his family’s life is overwhelming. He’s the only one (that we see, anyway) to perform this round a cappella, which means that during his performance of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” he continually goes off-key. He has the raw talent but needs some serious coaching to be up to the standards of the other singers he’s competing against. In the end, the judges send Doug Kiker home, along with Gilberto Rivera and Meghan Fitton, while Amber Fiedler, Sophia Wackerman, and Jovin Webb all get to move forward to the next round.
And so goes the Genre Challenge round of Hollywood Week. Who knows what tricks and treats the next few rounds have in store? As long as it doesn’t involve anymore talk of Luke Bryan’s manscaping issues, I am ready.
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