American Idol viewers could have been forgiven for mistaking Sunday’s top seven episode for a rerun from 2020. That was the historic, doomed year when the coronavirus derailed Season 18; all of the locked-down contestants had to perform from home; and winner Just Sam was crowned remotely celebrating alone in her hotel suite. This week, viewers must’ve gotten déjà vu when two semifinalists, Fritz Hager and Noah Thompson, tested positive for COVID and could not participate in Sunday’s live broadcast.
While Fritz was fortunate that his two rehearsals from the previous day had been captured on tape, Noah had to perform his two songs (one viral TikTok hit and one Mother’s Day dedication) acoustically from the quarantined safety his hotel room. However, while the two poor guys seemed a little rough — Noah said the situation “sucked” but he was “getting through it,” and Fritz joked that was “kind of in a prison” and “ready to get back on that stage” — in some ways, this was a blessing in disguise. Fritz proved just what a professional he is, because his filmed rehearsals were excellent enough to air in prime time. And the stripped-down setting worked so well for Noah, his Sunday performances actually might not have been as compelling or effective if they’d taken place on the big main stage.
Fritz was at risk in another way: He chose to sing not one but two originals, clearly positioning himself the Alejandro Aranda of Season 20. His pre-taped first song, “All My Friends,” was not just a cursory run-through; it was in fact so rousing and anthemic that judge Luke Bryan raved, “Thank God we videotaped rehearsal” and called this a “rock star moment.” Fritz’s second original, an ethereal ballad for his grandmother titled “The Ocean,” was even described my Katy Perry as “a combination of Bright Eyes and James Taylor” and “one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard about Grandma in general.” If this is how Fritz can perform when he’s not a full-strength, it’s pretty likely he’ll make it to the finale.
As for Noah, his two songs, “Painted Blue” by Sunday Best and “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac, truly benefitted from such an intimate setting, because he spare production put all the focus on his rough-hewn vocals and tender delivery. “American Idol is so good at finding stars, whether they’re on the stage or whether they’re sitting in a hotel room with COVID. … When you go to record your first record, you probably need to build a mobile studio in that room, because the right vibes are happening in there.” remarked Luke. Lionel Richie added, “I don’t know what has happened here. I’m not going to wish you any bad luck, but when you’re sick, you’re sounding a lot better — the believability, the growl in your voice, that texture.”
So, in the end, Noah and Fritz not being able to perform live in the studio had no bearing on their fate Sunday, as both of them advanced once the coast-to-coast live voting results were revealed by Ryan Seacrest at the end of the night. Also making the top five were Nicolina, Huntergirl, and Leah Marlene, which meant this was the end for Jay Copeland and Christian Guardino. I think Jay was felled by his too-safe and old-fashioned song choices, Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” and Boyz II Men’s “A Song for Mama”; while I’d assumed Christian’s decision to go gospel with Smokie Norful’s “Dear God” would score him some votes, his shouty rendition of Justin Bieber’s “Lonely” did him no favors.
Leah was genuinely electric doing BØRNS’s glam-pop stomper “Electric Love,” an exuberant performance with an elastic vocal that was just like the captured lighting in a bottle mentioned in the song. Lionel praised her use of the stage, telling her, “Movement is everything. Performing is what it’s all about.” Leah then flipped the script and showcased her softer, subtler side with the Nashville cast’s “Sanctuary,” proving that she’s the most versatile contestant in the top five. “Your sound, your storytelling performance, you found that place. You found your center. That is exactly who your artistry is. You can take that for the rest of your life and make the greatest career ever,” Lionel predicted.
Huntergirl chose widely with her songs tonight. She’s always done feisty breakup anthems well, and that was the case with Tate McRae’s “You Broke Me First.” Katy called her “such a natural” and told her, “You are becoming the artist that you dream of.” Huntergirl’s vocals were not nearly as strong or solid on Season 10 runner-up Lauren Alaina’s “Like My Mother Does,” but the sentimental tune and its connection to Idol history obviously charmed voters.
Nicolina certainly went with a song with an Idol history — Heart’s “Alone,” which was Carrie Underwood’s breakout moment in Season 4 — but she freshened it up with a risky yet interesting and ultimately smart decision to go hushed and fragile In the chorus, pulling back and drawing the listener in. Lionel told her, “You’re a star in control. You got it. It’s there.” She then did “Light in a Hallway” by Pentatonix, and somehow managed to harness the power of all five of that a cappella group’s nuanced voices. “That performance was absolutely flawless. It just feels like this is your stage and everyone’s here to see you. Both performances have been A++,” said Katy. With Jay and Christian now out of the running, Nicolina is now the last power-belter standing this season, so she very well could win this thing too.
American Idol returns with the top five next Sunday, and then the following week, on May 22, it will crown a winner. Until then, here’s wishing good health for Fritz, Noah, and everyone else on the show.
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