As American Idol Season 19’s top 24 shows continued apace Monday, charming crooner Beane was paired with classical crossover superstar Josh Groban during the celebrity duets round, and it was a match made in theatrical pop heaven. The two belted “Angels” by British showman Robbie Williams, and while I would have preferred it if they’d performed Robbie’s bonkers rollerdisco banger “Rock DJ” instead, I did appreciate Beane’s more subtle attempt to flip the script of this historically conservative program. And so did Josh, who happily encouraged Beane to be himself onstage.
“I am so blessed. I have so many pillars: family, wonderful friends, my boyfriend, just stunning people that are constantly lifting you up,” gushed Beane, when Josh asked him if he had anyone in mind for his “Angels” dedication. While Beane hadn’t yet brought up his sexuality on the show, he had discussed it in a recent press interview, so his brief onscreen mention of a “boyfriend” almost seemed like an afterthought. But then as Beane prepared to perform, he told Josh, with a glint in his eye: “In a small moment of maybe defiance to the norm, I guess, I’m just going to switch the word ‘she’ out for ‘he.’ And we’re gonna let it rock.”
While a pronoun swap in a song might seem like no big deal, on a show like Idol it was still significant, even in 2021. It wasn’t until Season 13 that Idol even featured an openly gay contestant discussing her sexuality on the air: MK Nobilette, who memorably serenaded her girlfriend with John Legend’s “All of Me” and made it to 10th place. MK might have opened doors for other queer contestants like Season 16’s Jurnee and Ada Vox and Season 17’s Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon and Uché, but before that, contestants either came out after their Idol runs (Clay Aiken being the most famous example of that), or simply avoided talking about their personal lives on the show. Adam Lambert addressed speculation that he was gay in a Rolling Stone cover story that ran one month after he placed second on Idol in 2009 (it was the top-selling Rolling Stone issue of that year) and no doubt kicked open doors as well… but as recently as 2016, that same magazine wrote: “Gay, lesbian, and transgender performers have won Grammys, Oscars, and topped the charts, but they will never win American Idol.” (Last year, Just Sam in fact became the series’ first queer champion, though she didn’t directly acknowledge her sexuality until she conducted an interview with the New York Post right after her win.)
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Anyway, my point is… even Beane singing, “He offers me protection” on Idol was a bold move, especially so early in the competition, on a night that determined who will advance to the top 16. But as he told On the Pulsehin, coming out improved his own songwriting, and in his original love songs inspired by his boyfriend, he always uses the pronouns “he” and “him.” So, there was no reason to assume that Beane had just covered the Jessica Simpson version of “Angels” instead of Robbie’s this Monday. As judge Lionel Richie told Beane: “You made us turn around on every note to say, ‘Hey, I’m here.’ And we noticed exactly what you were doing.”
And what Beane did was pretty awesome. “I’m going to take some of that Josh Groban spice and put it in the Beane soup, and we’re servin’ it up, honey!” he proclaimed. And, well, I was eating it up and hankering for more. Beane was already my favorite male contestant of Season 19, but when he held his own next to a stupendous master-class vocalist like Groban, I was even more enthusiastically on board.
I also really enjoyed Beane’s loungey, slowed-down solo performance of Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” — that was when I got my Beane rollerdisco fix, albeit more of a Couples’ Skate version — which he smoothly trilled while rocking some diamond-dust eye shadow (literal glints in his eyes!) and punk plaid pants, giving me all those Jake Shears/Neil Tennant/Brendon Urie vibes. Judge Katy Perry was impressed with Beane’s “thoughtful” arrangement on that left-field number, and she told him, “I would sign you. I think you have incredible artistic vision … I would invest in you any day!” Katy doesn’t have her own record label, yet, but hopefully someone will sign Beane after this, because he took a potentially viewer-alienating risk this Monday. But even if he doesn’t win Idol’s Hollywood Records contract this season, he performed this week on his own terms, and whenever and however his album does come out, I’ll be in line to buy it.
As for the rest of Monday, it was, like the previous evening’s episode, briskly paced — with 24 musical numbers crammed into two hours, as this second batch of 12 contestants performed one solo number and one celebrity duet each. Next week, eight singers — four from the bracket that competed on Easter Sunday, and four from Monday — will be eliminated, based on the first public vote of the season. And in the exasperated words of Lionel Richie: “All I want to know is, what is America going to do?” This show was arguably even more competitive than Sunday’s, and Beane was hardly the only standout. But let’s assess the other 11 performances and try to figure it all out.
Singing first is almost always the kiss of death on Idol, especially on a night packed with this many performances, but hopefully Jason did enough here to leave a lasting impression in voters’ minds. Katy even said these were the two best top 24 performances she’d seen so far, which was a high praise after Sunday’s excellent episode. Mr. Warrior certainly came out fighting on the Weeknd’s “Call Out My Name” as he fell to the floor and just wailed. (It was a mic-drop/knee-drop that reminded me of Bilal’s scene-stealing “Beautiful Ones” on the 2016 BET Awards’ Prince tribute, and I loved it.) This was a genius song choice, modern but with that old-school-entertainer vibe that Jason does so well. (“That was as much old-school as new-school as your school,” Lionel later raved.) Jason’s duet with PJ Morton on a Quiet Stormy remake of my favorite Bee Gees song, “How Deep Is Your Love,” also went deep. Jason was clearly going for it, knowing this might be his last shot after competing on The Voice and then alienating regular singing-show viewers with his bad attitude on The Four. And I was totally rooting for him, totally buying into his made-for-TV redemption storyline. “I love how you leave it out there every time. It’s just good old-fashioned gettin’ sweaty ‘n’ dirty and entertaining,” said judge Luke Bryan.
Madison is such a shining star, it’s puzzling to me that she has received such a severe edit this season. It was especially puzzling when Luke, after witnessing Madison’s vivacious version of Justin Bieber’s “Holy,” implied that her “striking” image and abilities as a “natural entertainer” had actually placed her at an disadvantage this season because they “overshadowed” her voice. That made zero sense on a show that constantly praises contestants for their charisma or “sparkle.” Anyway, Madison sparkled tonight, even when sharing the stage with her idol and hair twin, Tori Kelly, doing what Tori confessed was the toughest song in her catalog, Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You ‘Bout a Thing.” Madison admitted she was “terrified” to duet with Tori, and I did see some of that nervousness on her face — but I didn’t hear it in her voice. Katy even described their performance as “vocal Olympics,” and this time, Katy meant that in a good way. Madison is probably in danger due to her lack of previous screentime, but if she gets voted off, she can take solace in the fact that she’s already made it further on Idol than Tori ever did (Tori was cut by the judges on Season 9’s Green Mile episode) — and Tori has managed to do all right for herself.
This country rebel started off strong on Chris Stapleton’s “I Was Wrong”… and then everything just went wrong. She was serving smoky Alannah Myles realness at first, but when went she went for that big power note, she missed it by a country mile. Ouch. Hannah stayed confident and didn’t let her mistake show on her face, but it certainly showed on the dismayed judges’ faces. (ABC, please give a raise to whichever camera person quickly cut to that Katy reaction shot.) Hannah fared better on her Jason Aldean duet of “She’s Country,” which could totally be her theme song. “She knows how to come in and take over a room,” Jason said of the inexperienced but swaggering performer. Katy noted that there were “a couple of things that didn’t hit the bullseye” during Hannah’s solo number, and Luke told Hannah, “Once your talent catches up with this little star that you are, it’s gonna be so fun to watch.” That sort of sounded like a preemptive goodbye, but Hannah might coast through on her personality and the loyalty of the country audience this week.
Mary Jo Young
Ed Sheeran’s “Castle on the Hill” was a smart song pick for this spitfire — youthful, hopeful, triumphant, contemporary — but I wish Mary Jo had taken a page from Jason Warrior’s playbook and gone for it and pushed it more. She approached the song too tentatively, so the chorus didn’t have the big payoff I was yearning for. Her inexperience also showed during her duet with Jewel on the mighty and melodramatic “Foolish Games”; this girl is so green, she didn’t even know what it meant to sing in “unison,” and Jewel actually seemed unimpressed during rehearsal. Onstage, Jewel completely drowned Mary Jo out, and their painful unison moment did not work at all, but Mary Jo had a couple standout moments at the end. The judges were much more impressed than Jewel was, with Luke telling Mary Jo, “You were your own artist doing it in your own style, and it really, really worked,” and Lionel stating, “You’re young, you’re fresh, and you represented your generation.” I still question whether this TikTok teen is ready for prime time, but she could be, if she gets the chance to learn and grow.
Chayce’s solo cover of another Ed Sheeran tune, “Afterglow,” wasn’t all that exciting, but it was solid and self-assured and exuded a certain quiet strength. It was during his duet with Brandon Boyd on Incubus’s “Drive” that Chayce surprisingly stepped it up — way, way up. Sure, he didn’t have Brandon’s natural smolder and star quality, but his rough, husky vocals were the perfect complement to Brandon’s crisper, reedier tone, and the song fit him so well, it sounded like his original. I would even say his voice overpowered Brandon’s. Katy was thrilled, comparing Chayce to Alejandro Aranda and predicting Grammys in Chayce’s future. Lionel praised Chayce’s “magical” and “identifiable” rasp, and Luke even described Chayce as “Springsteen-cool.”
This ex-boy band member was giving me Blake Lewis vibes on his effervescent reggae-pop cover of my all-time favorite Bruno Mars song, “Locked Out of Heaven,” but it was a total bummer that the band’s disjointed arrangement cut out the entire “your sex takes me to paradise” section (presumably because that lyric was too PG-13). This weird edit of the ramping-up pre-chorus threw off the energy of the song, and it seemed to momentarily throw Colin off his game. But he did put his teen-heartthrob experience to good use, vamping and ad-libbing and working the crowd like a readymade pop star, and he was also clearly at ease dueting with Tori Kelly on a soaring “Hollow.” Said Katy, “You look like you play 300 shows a year. I was like, ‘Am I at Warped Tour, bro?” Luke loved that Colin was “having fun in the moment” and Lionel loved how Colin “treated the stage like his living room,” but it was odd that none of the judges commented on Colin’s vocals — which were strong, especially considering how much he was moving around.
I was digging Liahona’s tomboy swag, which reminded me of Season 15’s Avalon Young, on her cover of “Just Friends” by Audrey Mika. Liahona had definitely gotten her groove back after her losing her momentum earlier this season. As she prepared to duet with PJ Morton on “Say So,” she knew she had something prove because her previous duet in Hollywood Week had been such a disaster, and she knew it would be a challenge because melancholy, plaintive ballads are not in her comfort zone. But she seemed eager for her redemption and a chance to show she’s “not just a pop artist,” and she rose to the occasion. There were some moments when she seemed awkward and too inside her head, but as Luke put it, her voice was “radio-ready” with “harmonies in and out for days.” Lionel gushed on and on about “your phrases, your note placement, the interaction… and that fact that you are pulling it all off with a karate kick!” Katy believed Liahona “leaned in” and did what she needed to do.
Ava is the youngest contestant of Season 19, something the judges and producers never let viewers forget. But in all fairness, it would be easy to forget that she’s only 15, especially after her next-level performances this week. Ava’s exquisite cover of Olivia Rodrigo’s “Driver’s License” — obviously a perfect song for her age, the times, and her singer-songwriter style — made it seem like she was the one who wrote it, and her storytelling delivery was just conversational enough without compromising her vocal range. She was giving me Folklore/Evermore/cottage-core vibes, and the judges, their shocked faces looked like living GIFs, were stage-whispering “wow-wow-wow-wow” throughout, right up until that heart-in-throat ending. Equally stunning was Ava’s Josh Groban duet on Joni Mitchell’s iconic “Both Sides, Now” — a tall order for a singer of any age, let alone one who’s hardly old enough to relate to the song’s reflective, stock-taking mood. But Ava sang like a woman, not a girl, who’s truly lived, and she earned comparisons to Judy Garland from Luke and the title of “Queen” from Katy. Just as Celine Dion once sang “The Prayer” with an 18-year-old Josh Groban at the 1999 Grammy Awards and a star was born, it felt like Josh was paying it forward by giving Ava this lovely, career-launching moment.
I wish Caleb, a self-admittedly shy 16-year-old who considers himself more of a songwriter than singer, wouldn’t always hide half of his face in the long shadow of a baseball-cap brim, which made it hard for me to connect with his workmanlike cover of the Allmans’ “Midnight Rider” this week. A confessional budding songwriting great like Caleb needs to burn holes through the camera lens when he performs (and needs to perform more originals, which is when he really comes to life). Luke said Caleb’s solo song was a better showcase than his “Flyover States” duet with Jason Aldean, but I thought Caleb brought good energy to that second performance, surprisingly because he was willing to ditch his “crutch” — his guitar, that is — and work the stage more. I think the more Caleb pushes himself out of his comfort zone, the more of a threat he will be in this competition. All the raw talent is there. As Katy noted, he is always “authentically himself,” and as Lionel put it, he is “possessed by a very old, seasoned country man.”
Season 15 winner Trent Harmon had his big breakthrough moment (and gave one of the best Idol performances of all time) with Sia’s “Chandelier,” and I wondered what an introspective troubadour like Hunter would be able to bring to such a huge, intense song. To be perfectly honest, I think the power ballad was way too big for him, even though I respected his Alison Krauss-esque bluegrass spin on it. His delicate voice and vulnerability are usually his greatest strengths, but he also seemed lost and overwhelmed during his duet with Jewel on “Who Will Save Your Soul”; Katy pointed out the “fear in his eyes.” This was disappointing, given Hunter’s immense potential. But the judges seemed confident that he would get another chance to show what he can really do, and I hope they were right. “The beauty of you is if you have a great night, an OK night, or not a great night, you still have such an undeniable-sounding voice that you can always count on,” Luke assured Hunter. “On a bad day you sound just like yourself, so you can’t mess this up,” added Lionel.
Someone who was definitely not overwhelmed or fearful this evening was this petite powerhouse, who had the judges and even her fellow contestants headbanging in earnest as she operatically wailed Paramore’s “Decode.” This was a powerful and believable rock performance, and most importantly, it felt youthful and relevant, not like a nostalgia exercise aimed at Gen X and Boomer viewers. And when this teen rock goddess dueted with Brandon Boyd on Incubus’s “Wish You Were Here,” Brandon almost seemed intimidated by her, calling her a “natural frontperson” and letting her own the centerstage. Katy thought Casey could have taken it even further and advised her to “make the stage her bitch” and “sing with teeth” next time. If Casey does push it further, I think she’ll push herself all the way to the end — and make the finale stage her bitch.
So now, it is prediction time. I think the contestants from this batch most likely to go home are Jason (mainly because of his “death spot” placement), Madison (because of her lack of screentime), Beane (because of homophobia, sadly), and either Mary Jo, Hannah, or Hunter (because they stumbled and struggled the most). But I don’t think anyone, except Ava and Casey, are totally safe. We’ll have to wait until this coming Sunday to learn the results from this week’s two-part top 24 round, but regardless of who advances to the top 16, with a talent-packed season like this one, we are in for a world of hurt and some emotional early goodbyes.
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