Lights, camera, “American Idol”!
The singing competition returned Sunday, with the top 12 contestants, decked out in red-carpet glam, performing Oscar-nominated songs in honor of next week’s Academy Awards.
Fans voted during the emotional two-hour episode, which aired live coast-to-coast. At the end of the show, host Ryan Seacrest revealed which nine singers were voted into the next round. Tomorrow, former “Idol” contestants will sing for the chance to be voted into this season’s competition, rounding out the top 10.
The episode also saw the return of judge Luke Bryan, who sat out of last Monday’s episode after testing positive for COVID-19. He was temporarily replaced by OG “Idol” judge Paula Abdul, who gave feedback alongside mainstay judges Katy Perry and Lionel Richie.
Here’s everything that went down.
Grace Kinstler, 20, kicked off the show with a bouncy performance of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” from the film “Despicable Me 2.” Though the college student drew praise for her voice and confidence, the judges encouraged her to choose songs that represent who she wants to be as an artist.
“You can sing anything, but what are you gonna say?” asked Perry, who, in a past episode, told Kinstler her strong suit lies with classic songs.
Bryan said Kinstler already has “all that confidence” and “all of that vocal ability.” Now, he told her to “lock into who you are as an artist.”
The 15-year-old high school student, whose elegance and old soul once earned a comparison to Judy Garland, put her classic sound to use on “City of Stars” from the film “La La Land.”
Bryan complimented August’s ability to exude “mature moments on stage and these elegant moments that portray you far beyond your age.”
Perry agreed, but added that she also wants to see August embrace her youthfulness in her performances.
“I just wanted you to move and take the mic off and just become ethereal and fluid,” the judge said.
Rocking a cowboy hat, Caleb Kennedy, 16, performed Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” from the film “Honeysuckle Rose,” accompanying himself on the guitar.
Richie predicted big things for the country-singing high school student. “If you keep this up, you’ll be on the road for a very long time,” he said.
Perry complimented Kennedy’s “authentic grit,” and Bryan said Kennedy gave his best performance yet.
“You just laid that thing down from A to Z, and it was done perfectly,” Bryan added. “Great job.”
Hunter Metts, 22, gave a dreamy rendition of “Falling Slowly” (originally performed by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) from the film “Once.” But not everything about the performance went according to plan, with the software developer seeming to fumble the final words of the song.
Metts was visibly upset after the mishap, walking away from the mic and turning his back to the audience. As the contestant broke down in tears, the judges provided support, with Perry telling him that “perfection is an illusion.”
“Hunter, that was the best performance you have ever given,” she said. “That shows that you are a human and vulnerable, and everybody relates to that, and it’s amazing. It’s emotion. That’s what music is.”
She added: “You were so connected that you forgot where you were, and that is perfect.”
Richie shared a story of a time when he forgot the lyrics during a live performance of his classic song “Hello.”
“I thought it was the worst night of my life. The crowd loved it,” he said. “If you had not done that, it was called a perfect run. Now that you did that, it was absolutely a perfect run.”
The judges opened up about the emotional moment post-show, with Perry saying during a virtual Q&A that social media can lead contestants to doubt themselves.
“They read those dang comments, and that is none of their business, and I think it gets into their heads,” she said. “That pressure mounts, and it’s a real emotional thing for them right now.”
Richie added that Metts’ vulnerability was “the greatest part of the show.”
“Let me tell you what a ‘perfect’ performance is. It’s when you get the crowd to pay attention to what you just did, no matter what you do,” Richie said. “He forgot the lyrics and showed some emotion. If he never sang another note and just started crying for the rest of the song, it still wins. It just works.”
Madison Watkins, 25, who was saved by the judges last week after not earning enough votes, was ready to prove she belongs in the competition with Whitney Houston’s “Run to You” from the 1987 film “The Bodyguard.”
“Way to give America something to think about this week,” Bryan said.
Perry said the hair model gave an “A-level performance.”
Heavy machine operator Chayce Beckham, 24, gave a rugged performance of “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” by Bryan Adams.
“The second half of that song you found yourself,” said Richie. “No matter what happens, give us all of you from now on. You’ve got the power. You’ve got the voice. Make it happen.”
Beane, who, like Watkins, was also saved by the judges last week after falling short in America’s vote, sang “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes from “Dirty Dancing.”
Perry complimented the 23-year-old wedding singer on his dance moves as well as his voice.
“I think you are ready for the stage and to go on tour,” she said. “I hope America thinks that as well.”
College student Alyssa Wray, who said she hopes to win an Oscar someday in addition to “Idol,” put her theatrical belt to use on “This is Me” from the 2017 film “The Greatest Showman,” earning a standing ovation from all three judges.
Richie praised the 19-year-old for waiting until the end of the song to show off her powerful voice and range.
“You are a subtle force,” he said. “The fact that you held it, and you were subtle in your movements, when you finally delivered we were all cheering.”
College student Deshawn Goncalves, 20, showed a more classic side of his voice with Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were.”
Bryan called his performance “absolutely beautiful.”
“It felt like I was in some time capsule,” he continued. “You did exactly what you need to do in my opinion to get America behind you.”
High school student Casey Bishop has wowed the judges in past weeks by jamming out to classic rock songs. But the high school student decided to show a different side of herself on Sunday, singing Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz.”
Perry told the 16-year-old that she proved she “can do anything.”
“It’s all inside of you, and it’s so beautiful,” she added. “I think she may be the frontrunner.”
Richie also complimented the teen on her range. “Rock to ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,'” he said. “It’s just unbelievable.”
Cassandra Coleman has consistently impressed with her haunting, ethereal voice. But the 24-year-old coffee shop manager revealed in her intro segment that she’s received harsh comments about her singing online.
Despite what internet trolls may say, Coleman gave a powerful performance of Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall” from the James Bond film “Spectre,” bringing all three judges to their feet.
Richie told her “it’s amazing what you’re doing,” while Bryan said Coleman delivered “some of the most amazing stuff I’ve ever heard on this show.”
Perry encouraged Coleman not to sweat the haters. “Never forget that you are not what the world thinks of you,” she said. “You are what you think of you.
Caretaker Willie Spence, 21, closed the show with Cynthia Erivo’s “Stand Up” from the film “Harriet.”
Richie called the powerful performance a “religious experience.”
“You taught me to never use the word ‘frontrunner’ again until the whole show is done,” Bryan added.
Who went home?
In the end, Watkins, Beane and August didn’t get enough votes to move on, after Metts earned the final spot.
“Ava was surprising to me,” Perry told USA TODAY during a virtual post-show Q&A, adding that she wished Beane played guitar longer in his performance and that Watkins “looked like a star.”
“But I just think, you don’t have to be in the top 10 to make something of this moment,” she continued. “This is a launching pad.”
“Idol” continues Monday (8 EST).
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