American Idol has had its share of what people nowadays deridingly call “nepo-babies.” Last season, we had Ava Maybee, the daughter of Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, and Zaréh, daughter of Idol Season 4 top eight finalist Nadia Turner. This season, we’ve already had Haven Madison (whose father, Jason Roy, fronts Grammy-nominated Christian band Building 429); Lyric Medeiros (daughter of adult contemporary crooner Glenn “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love for You” Medeiros); Cay Aliese (daughter of late America’s Got Talent/The Voice contestant Nolan Neal); and McKayla Stacey, who was “literally born into Idol” when her dad, Season 6 finalist Phil Stacey, tried out for the show while her mom was giving birth to her.
But Season 23 definitely saved the biggest second-generation superstar for last, when 22-year-old Kaya Stewart arrived Sunday with her Rock & Roll Hall of Famer father, Dave Stewart.
Yes, the Dave Stewart. “My dad was in a band called the Eurythmics,” Kaya mentioned casually, as if the Eurythmics were some obscure, underground act. Dave Stewart is a new wave legend!
But Dave has always just been “Dad” to Kaya. “When I was born, my dad was on tour, and I was going to shows when I was still in my mom’s tummy,” she stated. “The musician’s lifestyle is something that’s just been part of my life. There was never a question of what I wanted to do with my life. [Music] was always going to be what I was going to do.”
When the elder Stewart showed up Sunday to accompany his rising singer-songwriter daughter on guitar, he claimed that his Idol appearance was “more difficult than being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame,” and he did seem genuinely, even kind of adorably nervous. But Dave actually has several past ties to the show. American Idol’s creator and original executive producer, Simon Fuller, has managed Eurythmics frontwoman Annie Lennox for many years; Dave was in a considerably shorter-lived and less successful duo, the semi-fictional TV band Platinum Weird, with former Idol judge Kara DioGuardi; and current Idol judge Lionel Richie was inducted into the Rock Hall’s Class of 2022 alongside Eurythmics. (I will take a moment here to note that the TV talent competition Dave created, NBC’s Songland, absolutely should have been renewed for a third season. Perhaps ABC can reboot that show as well.)
Center Idol judge Katy Perry understandably pointed out that Kaya is a nepo-baby (although she didn’t use that actual rude term, of course), flat-out asking Kaya: “With all your different opportunities and connections and stuff, how did you even land on American Idol?” Kaya claimed that she came to Idol, which Lionel claimed is “now a creative destination for artists,” to showcase her original music. OK, then.
All healthy skepticism aside, I must admit that Kaya’s original, “This Tattoo,” was impressive — although she did have the advantage of co-writing it with her father, whose strong track record includes not only many Eurythmics classics but also massive hits like Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” Shakespears Sister’s “Stay,” and No Doubt’s “Underneath It All.” But Kaya didn’t just inherit her dad’s talent — she had a pretty, sparkling vocal tone that was all her own (albeit influenced by her dad’s musical partner and her childhood mentor, the above-mentioned Lennox).
Lionel said Kaya “slayed” her audition, and Luke Bryan told her, “You can tell that you’ve grown up around the stage, on the stage.” Katy did warn Kaya that she and her fellow judges would “probably be a bit more nitpicky” with her and would “push her to her limit — and probably past it,” specifically because Kaya had so much more experience that most of the series’ green, untrained newbies. But Kaya was totally fine with with the judges going hard on her, so this sister will soon be doin’ it for herself, without her dad, in Hollywood. Her sweet Idol dreams are made of this.
Sunday was the final night of Season 23 auditions, and while none of the contestants came to the show with as famous a father or as long a résumé as Kaya’s, some of them will surely give her some stiff competition during Hollywood Week nonetheless. Here’s how the rest of the might went:
Kaeyra: 21: “Cold”
This daughter of Polish immigrant parents (and a piano-teacher mom) delivered a super-soulful version of Chris Stapleton’s slow-burning ballad that had Luke giving her a standing ovation and marveling, “I wasn’t expecting that —you don’t sound like anybody else!” Katy loved Kaeyra’s “cool vibrato,” but wanted to hear Kaeyra do faster material. Lionel agreed that if Kaeyra, who’s accustomed to singing standards at her local steakhouse job four nights a week, could apply her deep, rich, sultry vocals to other material, then she’ll have “all the range to [be] an artist.”
Elise Kristine, 18: “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman”
As Elise belted the song that really put Kelly Clarkson on the Idol map, it was hard to believe her claim that she had not sung since she was 3 years old. She did seem slightly out of practice, getting sharp and shouty at times, but clearly the musical muscle memory from her toddlerhood just needs a bit more flexing. The girl’s a natural. Katy even called her “the next big thing.”
Sarah Mac, 24: “Stone Cold”
This bar-band rocker, who plays in an acoustic duo with her boyfriend, definitely had a big voice… but maybe not big enough for this mighty Demi Lovato song, because her pitch went off the rails a few times. However, the feisty redhead had the charisma and confidence to compensate for her technical flaws. “That’s how you that!” raved Lionel.
Jayna Elise, 22: “Who Wants to Live Forever”
Talk about a big song! But Jayna, who like Kaya and Kaeyra was raised in a musical family, was definitely able to handle it, technically, with some creative, jazzy phrasing and dynamics. The one area where Jayna was lacking, however, was personality — she didn’t really give the Queen power ballad the attack and attitude it needed and warranted. Hopefully some time in Hollywood will help her come out of her shell.
Nate Peck, 21: “Lightning Strikes Again”
This mullet-haired ‘80s metal fanatic has the potential to be Season 23’s James Durbin. And while he probably won’t make it as far as the more vocally gifted James (who placed fourth in Season 10), he’ll go down in Idol history as — I’m fairly certain — the first Idol contestant to cover Dokken. He’s definitely the first contestant do a Whitesnake duet with Luke Bryan upon request. (Katy was so into it, she jumped on top of the audition room’s piano, just like the late Tawny Kitaen sprawling across a Jaguar sedan.) Nate knew the “Here I Go Again” lyrics better than Luke did, and he did have a rather stratospheric metal falsetto, so it was nice to see a rocker who wasn’t just some joke audition — even if Katy did warn him to “be careful” about his song picks, lest he become a retro gimmick. Luke actually declared Nate the best rock hopeful of this Idol season.
Mikenley Brown, 17: Love on the Brain”
Like Kaya, Mikenley was accompanied by her guitarist dad and “best friend,” who supported her when she was struggling with bullying and anorexia in middle school. Now in recovery from the eating disorder that put her in hospital multiple times, she’s “following her heart,” and she put her whole heart into her passionate, personality-plus Rihanna cover. Lionel told her, “It’s a victory just for you to be here,” but I could see other Idol victories in this mature-beyond-her-years performer. Katy predicted that Mikenley would at least make the top 24, and Luke told her, “You just got a thing.”
Isaac Brown, 21: “Golden Hour” / “Essence”
This outgoing, instantly likable dude is already through to Hollywood, so to speak, because his “day job” is busking on Hollywood Blvd. He has clearly developed some strong performance skills from fighting for attention/tips among that tourist-trap street’s Michael Jackson and Captain Sparrow impersonators — performance skills that Lionel said that would be Isaac’s “ace in the hole” — but he was, admittedly, more of a showman than singer on his JVKE cover. His second song, by WizKid, wasn’t much more powerful vocally, but his groovy vibe and megawatt smile made him seem like a superstar nonetheless. Lionel called Isaac a “great entertainer” and Katy called him “fun,” so even though Luke thought Isaac’s voice needed work and Katy thought he needed to “capture a little bit more emotion,” he earned there yeses. “I love him, I love him,” Lionel gushed.
Cam Amen, 27: “Hallelujah”
The final Platinum Ticket recipient of the season, this foster care system survivor covered a song I honestly would be happy to never hear on any singing show ever again… yet he somehow put a fresh spin on it. It was a very intimate, informal performance, tapping into the song’s humble, redemptive spirt. Luke called Cam “beautifully unique” and “maybe the best soul singer we’ve ever had,” while Lionel said Cam came to the show via “divine guidance.” Cam broke into tears of joy and relief when he learned he’d received a fast-pass though Hollywood Week’s first round, but I think even without the Platinum Ticket, he’d go far. “You’ve been through a lot, but the rest of your life is waiting for you,” Lionel assured Cam, who at the relatively advanced (for Idol) age of 27 had put his music dreams on hold while taking care his younger siblings.
Sierra Harris, 20: “Barracuda”
While I appreciated this proud rocker chick’s Heart song selection, but she was no Ann Wilson. “‘Barracuda’ is tough to get a read… It’s like a caricature song,” said Luke. Katy then asked Sierra to cover her own equally difficult “Firework,” but the result was still gimmicky karaoke (Sierra even got into rock character by singing into a big prop spoon, which was weird). For whatever reason, the judges thought Sierra’s voice was not “just a party trick” and believed there was a serious side to her, so they reversed their initial “big ol’ cheesy no” and gave her three reluctant yeses. I understood Nate’s nostalgic Gen X appeal, but I’m truly surprised this retro rocker made it through.
Phil Kane, 18: “Osage County”
This small-town dreamer and Belmont University songwriting major’s plaintive original ballad was truly special, eliciting a standing ovation from all three judges. Luke called Phil a “country Jackson Browne,” and Lionel told Phil, “songwriter to songwriter,” that he “checked all the boxes” and his “storytelling voice was perfect.” The song was almost too good for Idol. Katy, who got chills from Phil’s piano performance, earned her whole Season 23 paycheck when she wisely advised this authentic artist to always stay true to himself, saying: “Don’t try and compete with everyone else. Just try to highlight who you already are. Don’t try to be something you’re not.”
Fire Willmore, 22: “Love in the Dark”
In a predictable and anti-climactic resolution to last week’s probably-staged cliffhanger — when Katy gave this struggling single mom a second chance — Fire returned to the Nashville auditions (filmed a month later) sporting a more sophisticated style. Katy said the glowed-up Fire looked “lighter and brighter” before she even sang a note, but I don’t honestly think Fire’s vocals were much improved at all. Katy was still coaching Fire throughout this Adele cover, urging her to fight harder and dig deeper. “You have a good tone in there, but I’m really not sure if it’s going to take it to the next level,” shrugged Lionel. Luke agreed that Fire was “not at all” the ”best singer we’ve seen,” but he appreciated that she’d returned with a “completely different mindset.” I think after all this build-up over the course of two episodes, the judges felt obligated to give Fire three yeses… but I don’t think she’ll make it past day one of Hollywood Week.
Oliver Steele, 25: “In My Life” / “Change the World”
This final Golden Ticket singer of this season also showed up with his musician father — a blues guitarist who was sadly sidelined by a stroke. When Lionel complimented Oliver’s guitar skills and said, “Your dad should be very proud of you,” Oliver started weeping, and there were glimpses of that raw emotion in his heartfelt Beatles cover. But when Papa Steele rolled into the audition room in his wheelchair, beaming, Oliver cried even harder, admitting, “If I had my way, he’d be playing for me.” Katy thought Oliver seemed nervous and distracted during his first song, but when he crooned and strummed the Eric Clapton ballad — a song his father used to perform — with his dad standing next to him leaning on a cane, it was a stronger performance, and a classic Idol moment. Oliver’s dad even sang along, and soon everyone else in the room was crying too.
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