American Idol Season 19’s performance-packed, two-night Showstoppers round commenced Sunday, as Hollywood Week’s 64 remaining hopefuls sang with the show’s in-house live band for the first time and then faced their Final Judgment. Forty contestants had to be culled before next week’s top 24 round, and one of this week’s first Showstoppers cuts was definitely the deepest — when the show stopped for singer-songwriter Murphy. And it just so happened to be his 28th birthday.
I thought Murphy — a bookish old soul with a harrowing backstory that involved being born half-blind, losing both his parents at a young age, and busking around the country for three years in an attempt to find himself — was a compelling figure the first time he humbly shuffled into the audition room a few weeks ago, especially when he followed up his Bill Withers cover with his Croce-esque original folk tune, “The Painted Man.” I never quite understood why the judges, especially Katy Perry, were always so on-the-fence about Murphy, when he was clearly one of the most unique artists of the season. As he prepared to hopefully win over the doubting panel with another self-penned song about self-love,“Am I Still Mine?,” well-meaning mentor Bobby Bones advised him to make better eye contact with his audience. Awkward. Bobby probably felt pretty embarrassed when Murphy then mentioned not only his partial blindness, but the specific ocular issues that he’d been dealing with in Hollywood.
“My vision is substantially worse than the average person,” Murphy explained. “My right eye is gone and my left eye is going, due to a form of degeneration. I’m expected to lose sight at maybe mid-thirties. And this [American Idol] experience, while wonderful, is trying on that part of my life. The stage lights, they’re so bright, so it’s a lot to take in. … In that moment, I know that I’m damaging my eye, hurting it, and I can feel the pain.”
Still, Murphy soldiered on this Sunday beneath the Dolby Theatre’s potentially literally blinding lights and made an obvious effort to connect with the judges. Later, he told them that his Showstoppers performance was his “birthday wish,” saying, “Getting to be on that stage, it felt like I was at home, getting to sing a song that made me feel like I could share something beautiful with someone.”
But seemed that only Lionel Richie, who was Zooming in from home due to a potential COVID exposure, appreciated Murphy’s performance (albeit remotely). Luke Bryan and Katy were the ones to deliver Murphy’s rejection in person. At first Katy commended Murphy’s performance, and he wore a hopeful, mile-wide smile. But as Katy then advised Murphy to get more experience (um, as in… more experience than making a living as a traveling musician for three whole years?), the glow drained from his face, and he clutched protectively at his chest, almost as if he’d been wounded. His birthday celebration was over. This was the show’s typical bait-and-switch approach —when contestants are about to receive good news, it’s always preceded by a harsh critique; when it’s bad news, they’re set up for a fall with fake praise — and it was, frankly, uncool.
Murphy was clearly disappointed, but he remained his stoic self. “I wanted to hear a yes, but I also wanted to hear a no if it was honest,” he said. “I’m alive, and I’m here, and I’m well. What ‘no’ can ruin that?” However, he did tell the judges, “I only wish I could have shown you what I had for the next round.” I wish he could have shown it too. I think the judges made a mistake here.
Overall, I was annoyed, if hardly surprised, by the way the judges handled Final Judgment. You’d think after Funke Lagoke fainted during last week’s Duets Challenge — when she thought Lionel was about to deliver bad news (as it turned out, he was about to tell Funke she’d made it to the next round) — that the judges would be more direct and would quit misleading contestants. But, no. (At least Luke was honest about this made-for-TV tactic. After Luke deceptively began what turned out to be a positive critique of Graham DeFranco with “unfortunately,” he admitted, “The ‘unfortunately’ was designed to freak you out!” A stressed but relieved Graham let Luke know the fakeout had worked.)
So, every performance Sunday seemed to follow the same format. A contestant would deliver what I thought was a fantastic (or at least very solid) performance, and the judges would react with hoots, hollers, and even the occasional standing ovation. But then, the moment that contestant was out of earshot, the judges — particularly “tough mom” Katy, who seems to be angling for the Simon Cowell role this season — would inexplicably rip the contestant to shreds, making me wonder if it was Opposite Day or if we’d even just watched the same performance. Next, the contestant would take what Idol insiders call the “Green Mile” walk to the Final Judgment room, where Katy, Luke, and/or a virtual Lionel would proceed to tell the contestant everything he or she had supposedly done wrong. (The judges’ most common complaints, just to make things more confusing and contradictory, were that the contestants had either tried too hard and done too much, or that they’d held back.) And then, after wasting 10 minutes telling these singers that they weren’t ready for prime time, the judges would do a 180 and inform many of them that they’d made the top 24 anyway. It was frankly exhausting, and more that a bit predictable by the time they’d gotten to the third semifinalist to receive good news, Andrea Valles.
Andrea is actually someone I would’ve sent home; when Katy said “something was not right” about her performance and Lionel described her as “not exactly up to par,” they should have just stuck with that first impression. But there were a few contestants, besides Murphy, who actually were eliminated Sunday, including crooner Anthony Guzman (whose Maroon 5 cover was cornier and shtickier than that time he showed up in a Viking costume), screentime-deprived balladeer Amanda Mena, and old-school country warbler Alex Miller. I always thought Alex was a star who could go far (Luke described him as “hard not to watch”), but he was always so period-piece, so Hee Haw. And when he ignored Luke’s advice to mix things up and cover a modern pop song — and did a 1969 Merle Haggard song instead — I knew he was a goner. However, Alex handled his rejection as classily as Murphy had, and Luke made good on his earlier promise and invited Alex to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. So Alex ended up one of this season’s success stories anyway.
Below are the Sunday singers who did make the top 24. Final Judgment, with all of its irritatingly edited fakeouts, baits, and switches, will continue apace Monday.
Alyssa Ray, “I’m Here”
This season’s One to Watch delivered a spectacular performance that made it seem like she was already at the finale, standing onstage under a confetti shower. She set the bar high for this episode — or so I thought. I was baffled when Katy, who’d just given Alyssa a standing ovation, later griped that this performance was “too much” and “overcompensating” and had too many “vocal gymnastics.” But of course, Alyssa wasn’t going anywhere. And I think Idol voters will disagree with Katy.
Jason Warrior, “Believer”
Doing an Imagine Dragons number was a risk, but Jason made it his own, jazzing it up and giving it some gospel flair while maintaining the song’s stadium-rock edge. He was masterful at building the tension, ramping up to the climactic chorus as he freestyled and dropped to his knees for his big backbent finish. Once again, Katy seemed to appreciate the theatrics in the moment, but soon after complained, “He needs to harness that.” Luke disagreed, arguing, “That’s what you should do when you’re fighting for your life.” I think this Warrior did what he needed to do, and I’m glad he will continue to fight the good fight next week.
Andrea Valles, “Blinding Lights”
Andrea’s Weeknd cover did not air in full, and probably for good reason: the snippet shown was underwhelming, and the ill-advised song choice was not an adequate vocal showcase. She looked like an early-aughts pop star, but I don’t think her stage presence will be enough to get her all the way to the live shows.
Chayce Beckham, “You Should Probably Leave”
I do think Chayce needs to work on his stage presence, but I loved his rough, smoky tone on this Chris Stapleton ballad. He has what is known in the business as a very “recordable” voice. However, Katy thought Chayce’s vocals sounded shot and that his performance was too “linear” and “not his finest moment.” Luke described this as “almost spoken rasp,” which was not a compliment. But Chayce got “one more play” anyway.
Caleb Kennedy, “When You Leave Tonight”
Caleb, by his own admission, is more of a songwriter than a singer, which is why he decided at the last minute, due to a “gut feeling,” to switch his song from a Travis Tritt cover to an original. That strategy didn’t work for poor Murphy, I think it was a smart move for Caleb, because “When You Leave Tonight” was magnificent. This was already his second original song of the season, and this deep-thinking kid could be the country Alejandro Aranda if he keeps it up. Katy bizarrely complained that Caleb “isn’t ready” and that doing his own song was a bad idea; I don’t know what she was hearing. And I have a feeling the judges on Songland would vehemently disagree with her. Anyway, I look forward to hearing more Caleb originals as the season progresses.
Wyatt Pike, “Blame It on Me”
Katy rained all over Wyatt’s George Ezra-soundtracked parade too, although I sort of agreed with her this time. His Mumfordian performance fell flat for me, and I found Wyatt’s constant facial mugging distracting and gimmicky. But he has a certain spark, and he is definitely in his own Season 19 lane, especially now that quirky Murphy is gone. Even Katy eventually called Wyatt a “signature artist.” I’m still interested to see what he can do.
Cassandra Coleman, “Running With the Wolves”
After struggling with her confidence all season, this inexperienced but clearly naturally gifted indie belter delivered her finest performance yet. For the first time, she seemed really present, barefoot and lost in the moment in the best possible way. (She explained that she was trying to tap into the sense of joy and freedom she feels when she sings alone with no one watching.) And while this wasn’t a perfect performance, it was a wholly authentic one. I am concerned that she is too much of a Florence Welch clone, and that she won’t be able to keep it together as the pressure mounts, but I do think she could be a Season 19 dark horse. And I think there might be a showmance blossoming between her and Wyatt, so watch this space.
Beane, “What’s Going On”
I simply adore this man. He’s now officially my favorite male contestant of this season. I didn’t expect this charming, nerdy Mr. Rogers type to take on such a daunting classic song, or to exhibit so much swag while doing it, giving me Jake Shears vibes with a sparkling smile that matched his diamond-dust eye shadow. Overall, Beane just has a certain twinkle to him. And I think he will continue to dazzle the judges and viewers.
Hannah Everhart, “Wrecking Ball”
Hannah looked less like Katy Perry and more like Axl Rose this week, with her bandanna, denim-on-denim, and flat-ironed auburn hair extensions. Odd fashion choices aside, though, she did slay this Miley cover — which was especially impressive since considering that she’d never performed with a live band before. She wasn’t quite in the pocket and she does need to work on her timing, but the raw vocals and the emotional connection were all there. And her badass, almost Axl-like confidence alone was practically enough to earn her a top 24 spot.
Graham DeFranco, “Beautiful War”
I’ve predicted for a while the Graham will not go far in the competition, due to his lack of self-belief and poor Hollywood week showing thus far. But this Kings of Leon cover, dedicated to his father who was just diagnosed with stomach cancer and therefore couldn’t join Graham in Hollywood, was a vast improvement. I still think Graham could get lost in the top 24 shuffle, but we will see.
Alanis Sophia, “Uninvited”
Alanis showed up in a pretty Stephanie Seymour-in-“November Rain” mullet dress, looking like she was already on the top 24 show, and she confidently delivered a bold performance of a power ballad by her namesake. Despite her being named after Ms. Morissette, I’d always had this particular Alanis pegged as a pop girl, based on her polished first audition of a Demi Lovato song. So, this was a pleasant surprise. I’d love to see this Alanis do some Evanescence, Annie Lennox, Tori Amos — or, yes, some Florence and the Machine — next.
Casey Bishop, “She Talks to Angels”
Casey was a bit frantic onstage, seemingly unsure of what to do with her nervous-energy-racked body. But she definitely knew what to do with her voice. The 15-year-old powerhouse reminded me a bit of teen rocker Courtney Hadwin from America’s Got Talent. “She’s gonna compete with Alanis,” Katy annoyingly worried aloud, as if there isn’t room for two (actually quite dissimilar) rocker chicks this season. For dramatic effect, Casey and Alanis were ushered into the Final Judgment room together to jointly receive their verdicts, but I suspect that when this cliffhanger is resolved on Monday’s episode, it’ll be two yeses (after the requisite fakeout from the judges, naturally). See you then.
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