The American Idol Season 21 top five became the top three Sunday, which means we now know who will be competing in next week’s grand finale. And, unsurprisingly, among those three is Iam Tongi. The soft-spoken Hawaiian singer-songwriter has been a frontrunner and fan favorite ever since he dedicated his grief-stricken audition of James Blunt’s weeper “Monsters” to his recently departed father; that raw performance remains Season 21’s most viral moment, with more than 15 million YouTube views and nearly 30 million Facebook views since it first aired on ABC.
Early on, the American Idol judges predicted that Iam would go far. But on Sunday, Katy Perry boldly went off-script and, as her castmate Luke Bryan said incredulously, “just put it out there!” — by already declaring Iam this season’s champion.
Iam had just warbled “Father and Son,” his second of two Disney Night performances (apparently the 1970 Cat Stevens classic technically qualified as a Disney song, due to its inclusion on the Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 soundtrack). And this latest dad dedication had expectedly packed another emotional wallop. The fact that Iam was performing it on Mother’s Day — with his recently widowed mom, who signed him up for Idol, in attendance — was truly special. “My friend, this is magical for you. This is a time when all the stars align,” judge Lionel Richie told the 18-year-old troubadour.
And that’s when Katy spoke up, loud and clear.
“To add to that, I believe it’s written in the stars. I don’t believe in coincidences,” she stated emphatically, her eyes glowing through the mask of her Disney-themed Elastigirl cosplay. ‘I know your name’s ‘Iam,’ but when I see your name written, I see ‘I. Am… the next American Idol.’”
While Lionel and Luke seemed a bit startled that Katy was so blatantly playing favorites, neither of them protested or disagreed with her, exactly. Earlier in the evening, after Iam’s first performance, all three judges were similarly effusive. Lionel called Iam a “master storyteller” whose “dreams have come true,” and Katy called him a “superstar.” Iam’s first song choice, “Lava” from the Disney short of same title, may not have been as well-known as some of the other tunes of the night, but the beloved crooner probably could have sung “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee (An Actor’s Life for Me)” from Pinocchio and received a standing ovation. The Hawaiian-born Iam explained that it was important for him “to represent and make my people proud,” and that he most certainly did. As Luke marveled, “People just gravitate to you. I’ve never seen a room light up like this. It’s very special.”
So, will Katy’s audacious Iam prediction come true next week, or do either of Season 21’s other two finalists have any chance of pulling off an upset? All we know right now is Sunday’s two just-eliminated powerhouse singers, Wé Ani and Zachariah Smith, won’t be getting that chance.
Wé, a veteran of The Voice, was definitely this season’s most diverse contestant. Just a few weeks ago, she was bringing the fire on a rock ‘n’ soul remake of Etta James’s “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” and Miley Cyrus’s disco mashup “Edge of Midnight”; this week, she belted Miley’s pre-Bangerz-makeover, triumph-of-the-spirit anthem “The Climb” and Idina Menzel’s Frozen II power ballad “Into the Unknown” with equal ease. Wé was also this season’s most consistent contestant: As Luke told her Sunday, “I don’t think you’ve hit a bad note all year. You’ve just answered the call week after week.” But Luke also told her, “Congratulations on making it to Disney night — enjoy the night,” which seemed like a goodbye. Katy’s comment — “You got to the top. This is the top. … You’re a master of your craft now!” — also seemed like a vague kiss-off. And Lionel seemed worried, practically begging America to vote for Wé. Sadly, Idol viewers do tend to reward underdog contestants with more of a clear improvement arc, like the inexperienced Colin Stough, over dependable performers who just don’t offer that element of surprise. So, maybe the judges realized that someone who’d peaked early in the season simply had nowhere else to go — except home.
As for Zachariah, he was the only contestant who didn’t sing a ballad Sunday, at a crucial point in the competition when ballads usually pluck heartstrings and garner votes. That may have been his undoing, because despite his talent and undeniable likability — this week, Lionel called him “the entertainer’s entertainer” and “walking sunshine” — his showboating shtick made him hard to connect with or take seriously at times. Zach’s Disney Night performances of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” (which host Ryan Seacrest claimed was the first Lion King song ever sung on Idol, bizarrely forgetting Jennifer Hudson’s iconic “Circle of Life”) and the Rascal Flatts version of Tom Cochrane’s Cars-popularized “Life Is a Highway” were fun. But… they were fluff. Perhaps if Zach had tapped into his more solemn side — a side viewers only briefly glimpsed Sunday, when he tearily dedicated this week’s performances to his proud, verklempt mom in the audience — he might have survived.
With Wé and Zachariah out of the running, that leaves two small-town country crooners, Megan Danielle and Colin Stough, competing against Iam for live coast-to-coast votes on next Sunday’s three-hour Season 21 finale. It’s likely that Megan and Colin will split the country voting base, and now that we know James Blunt will be one of the finale’s guest performers, we can all presume that a planned Blunt/Tongi “Monsters” duet will bring all the feels — and all the votes — for Iam. But Megan and Colin could be advantaged by the presence of next week’s guest mentor, former Idol judge and country star Keith Urban. And anything could happen, because let’s face it, there have been some surprising Idol finale results during the past two decades.
Speaking of which, among next week’s other just-announced finale performers will be Season 2 power duo Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken, along with superstars Kylie Minogue, TLC, Ellie Goulding, Jazmine Sullivan, Jelly Roll, Lauren Daigle, Pitbull, and REO Speedwagon’s Kevin Cronin. So, to quote Cronin, I’m just going to keep on lovin’ American Idol until this season’s end. But before that, here are the rest of Sunday’s Disney Night performances:
This proud mama’s boy first stood out this season when he yelled, “I love my mom!” onstage, and while Lionel cringed at the supposed uncoolness of that move and advised him never to do that again, it clearly endeared Colin to America. So, it was a full-circle moment when he performed on a Mother’s Day episode accompanied by his mother, who, like Iam’s mom, signed him up for the show in the first place. Colin has always excelled when he has stepped outside the country box, and his cover of Sheryl Crow’s “Real Gone” from Cars was no exception. This was the most professional and confident I’d ever seen him — his performance would not have been out of place at last week’s ACM Awards — and he transformed Sheryl’s song into a country-rock barnstormer. He even looked like a superstar in his Man in Black western-wear with that Cars-style sign spelling out his name in chrome. No contestant of Season 21, not even fellow small-town dreamer Megan, has experienced more growth than this kid. The judges were all stunned. “We’ve been wanting you to get real comfortable all year. … That was your most let-loose, have fun [performance],” said Luke. “You finally did exactly what we’ve been wanting, and it looked so good on you,” said Katy.
Colin had a really good night; if there was any lingering doubt that he wasn’t Idol material, those doubts were effectively silenced this week. After his first high-octane number, he stripped things back for a folksy acoustic take on the Lumineers’ “Nobody Knows” from Pete’s Dragon, and Katy said it was “another one of those” life-changing moments, just like his “Dancing on My Own” breakthrough a few weeks ago. While Luke said Colin had “crushed” the first song, he pointed out, “It is really hard to step out here with a guitar and hold the room. … Sometimes it takes people years to develop that craft.” Lionel also praised Colin’s “God-given” stage presence, saying, “You just walk onstage, and you step into your light.”
Bebe Rexha’s divalicious tour de force “You Can’t Stop the Girl,” from Maleficent, was a departure for this raspy country girl, but in a ballgown fit for a Disney princess, Megan delivered a magical performance that could have taken place on the Oscars stage. She was elegant, sophisticated, and a true star, and she showcased parts of her voice that I don’t think the judges or even Megan herself knew she had. “Do you have any idea how much you’ve grown? … Your voice has gone to another level,” gushed Lionel. “This is the most you’ve ever stretched your vocals. You were competing with all of the big ones this time. You weren’t just a country girl with a gritty alto voice — you were giving us vox,” said Katy.
Megan leaned back into her country grit for Brandi Carlile’s “Carried Me With You” from Onward, and the result had a lot of character and heart. This felt like a vintage, archival Opry performance — I instantly remembered guest judge Ed Sheeran’s astute comment from last week, when he said watching Megan was like watching a “classic singer from the ‘60s.” Luke told Megan, “You’re so effortless, so natural. You’re always in the pocket. You’ve just got it. God gave it to you when you were born.” Katy agreed that Megan’s superstar identity was preordained, telling the young singer, “I think you just need to accept it.”
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