The contestants are singing for their lives, and a spot in the Top 40.

By Maggie Fremont
Updated March 23, 2020 at 07:00 PM EDT
Eric McCandless/ABC

American Idol

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Welcome to the Solo Round on American Idol, folks. Anyone still left standing after the Genre Challenge Round and Duets Round has one last chance to make their case to Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan as to why they deserve a spot in the American Idol season 18 Top 40. Surviving Hollywood Week wholly intact basically comes down to two factors: First, can you hold your own on the stage with a full band behind you? And second, SONG CHOICE. 

The Solo Rounds get off to a great start, with a whole slew of artists who understand the importance of both of those elements. Kimmy Gabriela, who was hailed as “Top 10 Material” from her very first audition, reminds us that the judges weren’t wrong in using that descriptor when she covers “I’m Here” from The Color Purple. Katy is especially enthused about Kimmy’s song choice (I told you it was important!). 

Meanwhile, Genavieve Linkowski, who was previously cut in the Solo Round the last time she was trying to make her American Idol dreams happen, just wants to make it further than last time. Her performance of Shawn Mendes’ “In My Blood” should allow that to happen. She’s never seemed so connected, both to the song and to her audience, as she does here. Katy loves that they are literally seeing Genavieve’s talent grow “in real time.”

Other artists who really impress in this round — and should easily sail into the Top 40 — include Jovin Webb, who takes on Chris Stapleton’s “Parachute.” Webb hasn’t had a misstep yet. Perrin York’s choice of Lizzo’s “Good as Hell” is deemed a risky one by Luke, but she nails it. And whereas Faith Becnel — who I love more every time I see her perform — has been singing in a band since she was ten and feels at home up there (it shows!), other performers, like Jeb Vonderbruegge, are blown away by the experience of singing with such professionals. In this case, both the stage veterans and newbies do just fine up there.

And then sometimes the band just doesn’t work out altogether, like in Arthur Gunn’s case. He’s decided to go back to the beginning and perform Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” the song that earned him his golden ticket in his audition. This time, however, he wants to play his own arrangement. It’s complicated - too complicated for the band to learn in such a short amount of time. This means that Arthur will be performing with no band — it’s just his voice and his guitar. It’s well worth the risk. The arrangement is very cool and his voice once again shows us that Arthur Gunn is a real force to be reckoned with on this show. His voice also brings Lionel to tears. That’s a powerful voice! In short: You want to be in the room with Arthur when the judges announce which of the three rooms of contestants has been cut; Arthur Gunn isn’t going anywhere.

Of course, not everything goes so smoothly in the Solo Round. A lot of people’s problems here come down to the second factor I mentioned: song choice. For as long as American Idol exists some people will always, always think their original song is the best choice to show off their voice, not realizing that their original song is terrible. That’s the harsh truth! And so we get a montage of people performing original songs. The only artist who makes it through this montage unscathed is Lauren Mascitti, who, hi, hello, is very much a professional down in Nashville. She sings a great country original that she dedicates to her nana, who is there in the audience. It’s a nice moment and a nice, radio-ready song and Lauren will be just fine. And then there are several artists whose originals completely backfire, including: Jimmy Levy, Robert Taylor, Amelia, and Julia Gargano. Those people will have to sweat it out, waiting to find out if they did enough before the Solo Round to make up for that mishap. When will they learn?!

Those who have shown they’ve done enough to earn a spot in the Top 40 will get to celebrate that win in Hawaii. Yes, like last season, the American Idol Top 40 will get to perform one last time in front of a live audience (this was all pre-tapped, people) amidst the sunny skies and clear blue waters of Hawaii. Maybe some of the following contestants will be able to join us: Real-life roommates Sophia Wackerman and Sarah Isen have both made it to the Solo Round despite a disastrous duet after which both of them admitted it was the worst they’ve ever performed together. Sophia really surprises here by choosing “Somewhere” from West Side Story. She’s always been pegged as a singer-songwriter type, but this song shows us that she’s got a powerhouse voice built for ballads, too. The judges have to forget about her duet performance after that. Her roommate Sarah might not be so lucky. She sings Maggie Rogers’s “Leave a Light On” and it leaves something to be desired. Kat Lopez (of Kat Lopez & Alex Garrido fame) also had a less-than-stellar duet round and is looking to redeem herself now. She sings “Always Remember Us This Way” from A Star Is Born and dang if she doesn’t leave it all out on that stage. Will it be enough though?

Two singers who definitely seem to do enough in the Solo Round are Franklin Boone, who is feeling inspired after Alejandro Aranda comes to visit (it’s hilarious how badly Idol wishes Alejandro had won last season). Like Alejandro, Franklin Boone is quiet and introverted. He’s been worried that he might be overshadowed by bigger personalities, but like Alejandro, he wants to stay true to himself. Hopefully, he sticks to that, because he’s such a refreshing artist this season and his cover of “River” by Leon Bridges is magic. 

Another artist always staying true to herself is Just Sam. She’s been really feeling the extreme pressure of Hollywood Week and has arrived at the Solo Round with a sore throat and a hoarse voice and is just trying to make it through as best she can. She also takes on “I’m Here” from The Color Purple and it might not be perfect, but she performs the hell out of it. I’m excited to see what she does as she narrows down what kind of artist she wants to be going forward. Just Sam is another person you want to be put into a room with at the end of this round. The judges are obsessed with her.

Things do not go so well for our next group of people, who all get put into the unfortunate “what the hell happened to these people why are they all imploding at the last possible second” cut. These artists include Marcus Tinsley, who completely forgets the words to his song after the first line or so, and Sheniel Maisonet, Talin Everett, Nick Merico, and Ari Saagé who all seem to hit every key except the one they’re supposed to be singing in. After this disheartening run, Katy actually goes backstage to tell people to calm the hell down. The judges can’t believe how bad things are getting. 

To cap this nightmare off, Makayla Brownlee, one of our country-pop teen artists, arrives on stage to sing Kacey Musgraves’s “Rainbow” but immediately starts to look pale and shaky and runs off stage, barely able to carry herself. It turns out, she has a heart condition in which stress can cause seizures. She has to be taken to the hospital to get looked at. Everyone is alarmed.

While they wait for news about Makayla, the judges are treated to a pleasant run of auditions. There’s Camryn Leigh Smith, who nails “Always Remember Us This Way,” Devon Alexander who reminds us he’s still there singing his heart out with “Up to the Mountain,” and Lauren Spencer-Smith who performs Brandi Carlile's “The Joke” even though she had never sung it before, which seems insane given that she completely annihilates it. She’s going to sail past the Top 40 and right into the Top 20, right? RIGHT??

Finally, Makayla Brownlee returns and picks up right where she left off: Making us all cry with her sweet, soft version of “Rainbow.” Seriously, Katy is in tears by the end. It’s a moving performance. She’s followed by two other emotional singers: Dillon James, our emo cowboy, who sings an original and really shows off his falsetto; and Louis Knight, who performs “Hold Me While You Wait” by Lewis Capaldi and completely brings his mother to tears. It’s not a perfect performance, but the judges are 100 percent sold on Louis, so he could really perform anything and he’d be fine.

Not all artists have it so easy, though. Some have to be especially careful of not just how they are performing, but who else has signed up to cover the same song that they’ve selected. There’s no way you won’t be compared to people singing the same song as you, which is what Cyniah Elise, Olivia Ximinies, Yzthasinger, and Geena discover when they all decide to sing Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” I mean, obviously Cyniah blows them all out of the water, but best of luck to the rest of you.

One surprising falter in the Solo Round belongs to Makayla Phillips, who up to this point wowed the judges with her incredible range and power every time she got up on stage. For this round, she wanted to skip her typical ballad and do something more “playful” and so goes with “Cuz I Love You” by Lizzo. The song is still full of some big ol’ notes, but the judges HATE this performance. After Makayla leaves, Katy notes that she’s still in the running but it was by far the worst song she’s picked. That’s a rough way to end your Hollywood Week. 

Speaking of having a rough week, Idol is clearly setting us up for the big split of Margie Mays and Jonny West. There is no way both of these people will be moving forward, it is just not the Idol way. Margie sings “Lost Without You” by Freya Ridings, and honestly, it’s the most emotionally vulnerable she’s sounded thus far in the competition. Katy’s especially pleased to see Margie offering up some real dynamics in her performance. Jonny does an original song, believing it is the best way to tell his story, and you know what, Jonny is back to being Jonny after his poor showing during Duets. Still, these two should prepare for some drama ahead.

And with that, the Solo Round ends. The judges deliberate and eventually split the remaining contestants into three groups, put in three separate rooms. Two of those rooms will comprise the Top 40. One room will be sent home.

Room One contains standouts like Arthur Gunn, Cyniah Elise, Franklin Boone, Lauren Mascitti, Sophia Wackerman, Kimmy Gabriela, Faith Becnel, Francisco Martin, Makayla Phillips, and Jonny West. You want to be in that room. 

Room Two has Margie Mays, Jimmy Levy, Sarah Isen, Kat Lopez, Ari Saagé, and Sheniel Maisonet, among others. This room is much more iffy. 

Finally, in Room Three sits artists including Louis Knight, Dillon James, Just Sam, Jovin Webb, Nick Merico, Amber Fiedler, Demi Rae, Genavieve Linkowski, Bilaal Avaz, Makayla Brownlee, and Robert Taylor. Yeah, okay, you can immediately see which way this is going before the judges even begin to make their fake-out speeches. 

Room One and Room Three are moving on to the Top 40. We’re saying good-bye to the artists in Room Two. Which, yes, means that Jonny West is moving forward, but his girlfriend Margie Mays has reached the end of her Idol journey. He’s much more torn up about it than Margie, who will surely be cheering him on every step of the way. 

Just like that, Hollywood Week is over and we’re headed to paradise, by which I mean both Hawaii and an American Idol that is getting down to business. 

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American Idol

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