What a strange new world it is here on American Idol Hollywood Week. The dreaded Group Round is no more! Can you even believe it? Instead, taking its place is The Voice Battle Rounds, oh sorry, I mean, Duets. Honestly, I feel great about this change. As Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan point out, no one can hide in a duet. In groups of four or five, people only have to learn a small section of the song (people still completely bombed that small section, but still), in a duet, an artist is completely exposed. It’ll give the judges a much better picture of each person up on stage. And since both contestants are on the chopping block, it’s just as dramatic as the group round. Let’s duet!
The first duet is mind-blowing in theory. Louis Knight and Francisco Martin, of the young singer-songwriter heartthrob committee, decide that rather than being rivals (since they tick a lot of the same boxes), they’re going to team up and bless us all with their rendition of The Script’s “Breakeven.” Once again, Francisco remains the most nervous human being I’ve ever come across in my life. They sound great together in their initial rehearsals, but as the actual performance draws closer, Francisco loses it. And by “it” I mean the lyrics. Louis sounds great on this song, but Francisco nearly implodes. Fortunately, they’ve both done enough in the past to earn a free pass from the judges and both guys move on to the next round.
The next few duos aren’t so lucky, and we get a whole slew of cases in which only one duet partner makes it through: Franklin Boone (our School of Rock teacher) and Jordan Moyes try out “Use Somebody,” but Jordan gets the big ol’ cut. Lauren Mascitti (Nashville queen) and Leon Majcen give us a classic country duet with Johnny Cash and June Carter’s “Jackson” ... but only Lauren survives. In a big surprise, after Cameron Havens and Ren Patrick finish their version of “Shallow” (how many times will we hear this throughout the season, guys?), the judges tell Ren they just didn’t believe her and cut her loose. That one hits hard.
As the duets reveal, some frontrunners begin to shrink when standing up against a fellow competitor. That’s exactly what happens when country duo Hannah Prestridge, who battled addiction but made it here with her husband’s help, and Grace Leer, our American Juniors alum, get on stage to sing Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart.” Grace is strong and clear and really selling it. In comparison, Hannah seems timid and hesitant. Grace shines here, and because of that she’ll move on, but this is the end of the road for Hannah.
On the other hand, the judges are noticing that some of the pairings are bringing out the best versions of these contestants. I mean, has Nick Merico, the guy who got a dressing down by Lionel about humility in his audition, ever sounded as good as he does while dueting with Jimmy Levy (from the family of clairvoyants) on Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved?” Here he sounds like a serious contender. Both guys move forward.
The same is true for Isa Pena and Olivia Ximines (you’ll remember Olivia as the teen who showed up with her dance team), who have some truly tight harmonies and soar on some great runs when they tackle Pink’s “Try” together. It’s easily the best duet up to that point. Demi Rae and Michael Wingate, who sing Meghan Trainor and John Legend’s “Like I’m Gonna Lose You,” and Jordan Jones and Dewayne Crocker, Jr., who completely crush Allen Stone’s “Unaware,” aren’t so bad either. All six artists are headed to Solos.
There are, of course, some true dumpster fire duets. Shall we talk about Madison Paige and Peyton Aldridge, two country artists who have problems from the start of their partnership? Mainly, Peyton disappears to get changed ... and eat chicken wings from a gas station? I’m offering no context there, it is much better that way. Because of his absence, Madison is left to choose their song on her own. She goes with Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson’s duet, “Don’t You Wanna Stay.” When she finally finds her partner, they agree to an arrangement with the piano, only for Peyton to change his mind and ask to play the guitar at the last minute. There’s obvious confusion when the song starts, and neither of them sounds great. It’s a mess and everyone knows it. Peyton, however, is so upset that he messed things up for his partner, that he pleads with the judges to at least give her another chance. Katy and Lionel are moved by his plea (Luke is cutthroat here and I am into it) and move both of them onto the next round.
Zack Dobbins, our extreme diamond-in-the-rough small town country-rocker, and Courtney Timmons, who waited outside Idol auditions until Ryan Seacrest found her and fast-tracked her to the judges, are not so lucky. These two seem like an odd couple to begin with, and never gel. They change their song choice three times until Courtney asks that they perform Ariana Grande’s “Dangerous Woman.” Zack ... says yes??? He’s uncomfortable with the choice and never recovers from that. He’s defeated before they even step on stage, and once they do, he completely shuts down. He plays the guitar for Courtney, but barely utters a word. She has to cover for him, but can't really do much to save their performance. It’s hard to watch. The judges give them a stern talking to about never, ever giving up on stage, but dismiss them both. Let’s never think about this moment again — it’s too heartbreaking!
While that partnership seemed doomed from the start, some are true blessings. There’s Aliana Jester and YZThaSinger, who walk out on stage smiling and immediately the judges tell them they look “like a celebrity couple coming out here.” Aliana’s in a relationship, but the two artists had obvious chemistry from the start, and it certainly shows in their “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” duet. Jovin Webb and Faith Becnel are another pair who make duets look easy. Their version of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” gives me chills. They’re life-long buddies after this, they say. That’s fine as long as they put out some more duets. Landen Starkman and Perrin York, neither of whom we’ve seen up to this point, also get a nice little highlight in the “believable duet” run here. The same goes for Genavieve Linkowski, a contestant who’s done Hollywood Week before and, after losing her sister, is back to hopefully make it to the finals, and her partner Travis Finlay, another returning Idol contestant (they haven’t mentioned this, but Travis was on season 14, FYI). You guys, they sing “The Prayer” and it is magic. It’s effortless and not too showy and it's not surprising that they — and the other six artists mentioned above — make it to the Solos Round.
Now, one would think the contestants who showed up to Hollywood Week with their significant others would have an enormous advantage. One would be wrong. We have two couples at Hollywood Week this year, and the Duets Round isn’t particularly pleasant for either of them. First up is Kat Lopez and Alex Garrido — they sang “Shallow” in their audition, couldn't stop holding hands, and made Katy Perry believe in love again. They perform “You Say” by Lauren Daigle this time and it is ... fine? Kat makes it through, but the judges have no qualms ending Alex’s Idol run. So much for believing in love, right?
The second couple is, of course, returning contestant Margie Mays and her boyfriend Jonny West. Jonny is beside himself with nerves, and it’s Margie, a veteran of Hollywood Week, who has to try and calm him down. It doesn’t really work. Their performance of “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” does not go over well with the judges. Katy says it’s time they focus on their individual dreams because sticking together like this isn’t serving either of them well. They both “are barely moving forward,” she tells them. Yikes.
Don’t worry, there are still lots of great duets to be had: How about the inspired pairings of Dillon James and Evan Kuriga, Lauren Spencer-Smith and Makayla Brownlee, and Kimmy Gabriela and Elyjuh Rene? They all move forward. You guys, the judges are going to have to make some tough cuts really soon. And let’s give a round of applause for Diva Show, the name powerhouse vocalists Cyniah Elise and Makayla Phillips give to their duo. It almost doesn’t happen, but the teens work through their issues and give a performance of “The Prayer” that I’ll be watching on repeat for a long time. Neither overpowers the other, nor do they inundate us with all the runs we know they could do. It’s edited and tasteful and if these two don’t make the finals, something is wrong with the system! Of course, they are both ushered into the next round.
Speaking of being inundated with runs: We need to talk about the fate of roommates and best friends Robert Taylor (still getting goosebumps from his “Natural Woman” performance in the Genre Challenge Round) and Tito Rey. They are obsessed with each other and their partnership, and so don’t really pay much attention to the Idol vocal coaches who tell them to tone down their showy performance that at this point is 97 percent runs. The judges are less-than-enthused. Lionel calls it “vocal gymnastics” which is cool — they showed that they can hit “every possible note there is in the universe” — but that doesn’t exactly make for a great performance. They break up the bromance: Tito Rey is cut, while Robert Taylor is moving forward.
The final duet of the round belongs to Just Sam and Sheniel Maisonet. Just Sam has put so much pressure on herself to perform. This could be life-changing for her. That pressure eventually gets to her and she almost can’t go on. All the fretting is for naught, though: She and Sheniel sing Shawn Mendes’s “Mercy,” tossing a little Spanish in for good measure, and are so, so good. They have great harmonies and a lot of passion. Lionel applauds them for not just singing the song but performing it. They are two contestants the judges see getting better and better every time they step on stage.
Hopefully, that trend holds because tomorrow night we’re moving into the final leg of Hollywood Week: Solos!