I called this season’s American Idol Top 14 the strongest field of competitors in years, just a month ago, but on the dawn of finale night, it seems I may have spoken too soon. This isn’t all the contestants’ fault, necessarily. This extremely truncated season robbed these singers the opportunity to develop into more mature artists, comfortable on the Idol stage. Over the years, we’ve been privileged to witness singers’ transformations, from aspiring auditioners, to bona fide stars. But now, growth arcs are gone, and we’ve barely gotten to know these kids.
We’re left with three (blonde, white) performers who still have so much room to improve. We have Caleb Lee Hutchinson, the blandest of bland country guys, Maddie Poppe, an acoustic singer-songwriter with cool musical taste, and country queen Gabby Barrett, whom Vulture’s Louis Virtel affectionately called “Very Underwood.”
My American Idol partner-in-crime, Jonathan Yu, has joined me to share who should win this 16th season of Idol and our favorite performance of the season.
Jonathan Amores on Who Should Win: Maddie Poppe
Maddie Poppe has such an excellent gift: She is able to uncover the soul of a song and imbue a performance with genuine emotion and moving vulnerability. She has delivered the most consistently delightful performances, leaning into her crystal-clear vocals and multi-instrumented abilities. It’s as if each week, she reveals a new song from her personal concert set-list full of eclectic song choices from Simon and Garfunkle’s “Homeward Bound” to Melanie’s “Brand New Key.”
Speaking of song choice, I think Maddie deserves the crown based on one night alone. Top 10 Night was Disney night and I was hoping that these contestants would pick bold, out-of-the-box songs, like “Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat” or “When She Loved Me.” Instead, we sat through expectedly banal performances of “The Circle of Life” and “Colors of the Wind.” Maddie, however, stood out with a ukulele-fied “Bare Necessities.” For that audacious song choice alone, Maddie Poppe should win American Idol.
I think that Gabby will actually win the season, and I wouldn’t be upset if that happened. She would be a worthy winner and I’m sure ABC would be thrilled with an Underwood-lite champion. Just as long as it’s not yet another White Guy With Guitar winner.
Jonathan Yu, On Who Should Win: Gabby Barrett
The odds are supposedly in her favor to become just the 6th woman to win American Idol in 16 seasons, and for good reason. This girl can SANG. She already commands the stage like a seasoned performer with incredible control over her voice. Her repertoire of audition songs maybe seem to overlap entirely with Carrie Underwood’s discography, but I actually think that the combination of nasal and grit in her voice is more effective on songs that lean more soulful – her rendition of “Ain’t No Way” by Aretha Franklin from Hollywood Week is probably my favorite bit of singing from the entire competition.
Here’s to hoping that she pulls out a showstopper performance this week, more in the veins of “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” than “I Hope You Dance.” To be honest, though, I will be almost just as happy if Maddie “Consistent” Poppe gets the crown. Just please, dear God, not Caleb.
Jonathan Amores, On His Favorite Performance: Michelle Sussett’s “Remember Me”
When recalling this season’s performances, a handful have stood out. In terms of pure vocals, I’d choose Jurnee’s gorgeous Showcase performance of “Never Enough.” For sheer joy and surprise, I’d choose Michael J. Woodard’s “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret. Instead, I chose a performance that embodies this new era of Disneyfied American Idol: Michelle Sussett’s “Remember Me,” the Oscar-winning song from Coco.
Michelle was far from the best vocalist, but she had the strongest stage presence. She knew how to work a room, electrify an audience, and perform. The judges continually urged Michelle to sing in both English and Spanish (Michelle is originally from Venezuela), and in this performance, she delivers in spades. There’s so much joy in this performance and she lights up the stage from the first note, sprinkling in just the right amount of theatrics. Michelle had a rough run on Idol, but she left the competition on a high note.
Jonathan Yu, On His Favorite Performance: Ada Vox’s “Feeling Good”
There were many performances that I considered picking for my favorite performance of the season – Jurnee’s “Never Enough,” Dennis Lorenzo’s “This Woman’s Work,” or Michael J. Woodard’s “Beauty and the Beast” come to mind, but in the end, I decided to pick Ada Vox’s “Feeling Good.” She may have peaked a bit early with this performance, but it will forever be one of the most important performances on Idol ever for me.
I thought I had seen it all with Idol, but a drag queen crushing her competition unapologetically in a semifinals round, bringing Katy Perry literally to her knees, still brought a tear to my eyes. The song fit her over-the-top vocals (that range!!) and persona (that braid!!) perfectly. Even if she never quite lived up to expectations the rest of the season, I am still thankful that Idol gave a platform for a performer such as her. ❤