America, we have been on a journey this spring that has taken us to places of joy, darkness and absolute horror. And that winding path has led to this Sunday (May 19) night.
But enough about the Game of Thrones finale. Who’s wants to bother tuning in to that frippery, anyway, when there’s the THREE-HOUR American Idol finale to marvel at? Glue your eyes to your TV sets and laptops, kiddos, because you’ve got three standing contestants in the forms of Alejandro Aranda, Laine Hardy and Madison VanDenburg. Each one, we’re informed by host Ryan Seacrest, will sing two songs before learning who is eliminated from the Top 3. Then the final two will perform one last number before a winner is crowned.
How to fill the rest of the time, though? Not even Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan can stretch their kid-gloves critiques out that long. Nay, children — as has happened in many years past, Idol is rolling out a cast of thousands to sing and dance before your very eyes. Strangely, though, not on that list of performers is last season’s winner, Maddie Poppe. More on that in a bit.
Laine Hardy, “Home” (Marc Broussard)
Mentor Bobby Bones is still hanging around the set and tells us that “Home” is a swampy rock song, which I guess makes sense as a pick for “Bayou Boy” Laine. As it turns out, Laine went back to his hometown over the past week and performed the tune with fellow Louisiana native Marc Broussard himself. Ain’t that a kick in the shorts? Back here at Idol Ground Zero, Laine whips through the tune without really giving us too much in the way of vocal fireworks. The judges at this point aren’t even offering critiques; they’re just kind of slobbering general praise into their mics.
Madison VanDenburg, “Shallow” (Bradley Cooper & Lady Gaga)
Gang, I’m just gonna come out and say it: Madison really shouldn’t win. She’s 17 and still has a lot to learn about controlling her vocals and aiming the notes for the hoop as opposed to just the rim. Top 3 seems good for her. Idol champion? Not this time, doll. Anyway, “Shallow” is a big gamble for Madison. The chart-topping, award-collector of a ballad is still fresh in the entire world’s mind, so she needs to hit every note perfectly — which, she somewhat does. Just somewhat.
Alejandro Aranda, “Millennial Love” (Original)
It’s more original music from multi-talented Alejandro. Houston, we have a problem, though; this song sounds like it was hastily written over the previous commercial break. The lyrics are minimal and the melody is a snooze. Alejandro, I already gave you my allotted 10 text votes for the night. Now you’re just making me look like an ass. Katy mumbles something about never letting anyone water Alejandro’s talent down. And when Ryan asks him what “Millennial Love” is about, he answers that too many people care more about their phones than other people. These here are crazy times.
Laine Hardy, “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” (Hank Williams)
As is Idol tradition, the Top 3 are all shuttled back to their hometowns to get their glory. In Laine’s case, he visits with his family and makes a pit stop at the Governor’s mansion, where Laine Hardy Day is dedicated to him. You hear that, Hallmark? “Jambalaya (On The Bayou)” is about as on-the-nose as you can get with a Laine Hardy song choice, but what do I know? I’m just a guy traveling through an American Idol world tonight. Katy announces that this whole time she’s wanted fellow judge Luke to take her fishing, but now she’d rather cast Laine’s rod into the water. Or something along those lines.
Suddenly, last season’s winner, Maddie Poppe — who we last saw a month ago on Disney Night — is on stage doing a boring rendition of “A Whole New World” with previous runner-up/boyfriend Caleb Lee Hutchinson. There was recently a bit of kerfuffle in the press over Idol’s lack of promotion for her then-upcoming album on that evening. Her appearance here on the finale almost seems like an afterthought, as, during a night full of performers, Maddie is, um, not performing. She’s just standing there awkwardly while Ryan mentions that her LP Whirlwind was released two days ago. I have a sinking feeling this is the last time we’ll ever see Poppe on this show. Life is a wicked dream-crusher.
Madison VanDenburg, “Breakaway” (Kelly Clarkson)
There’s a quick video montage of Madison jetting back to her high school in New York state, where she is properly feted. By the way, did I say Laine doing “Jambalaya” was on-the-nose? Because Madison, who’s been compared to Kelly Clarkson since her audition, is doing a Kelly Clarkson song. Again, she keeps tackling these well-known pop tunes by artists with big voices, and all it makes me want to do is hear the original. Not a good sign for tonight’s outcome. We’ve only got one more performance before someone is cut.
Alejandro Aranda, “Tonight” (Original)
Alejandro takes the Metro train from Los Angeles back to his hometown of Pomona, where he’s greeted by his niece and nephew. He’s then treated like a king at Ben Harper’s family’s music store, where Ben himself gifts Alejandro with a gorgeous silver guitar once owned by Mavis Staples. Damn. Cherish that thing dearly, buddy.
On stage at the Fox Theater in Pomona, Alejandro is brought to tears by a children’s choir singing one of his original songs to him. Flash forward to the present, where he’s now on the Idol stage, doing original tune “Tonight” on the electric organ. This is a much, much better performance for him than “iPhone Love” or whatever it was called. Katy declares, “It’s been such a pleasure to live in the same lifetime as you.”
Carrie Underwood flits across the stage to sing “Southbound,” and then is gone just as fast. I like to imagine her pulling up to the stage entrance 15 minutes prior and telling her driver, “Just keep the motor runnin’, darlin’.”
ELIMINATED FROM THE TOP 3: There can only be one winner, and it won’t be Madison. She’s given the axe via tonight’s real-time votes. That leaves us with Alejandro and Laine.
However, before we get to the crowning of a winner, there is a literal barrage of hodge podge performances. The most random include Katy Perry and Daddy Yankee doing a remix of a song called “Con Calma,” plus a duet of “Unconditionally” between Katy and Top 5 contestant Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon.
Perhaps the biggest eyebrow-raiser is Montell Jordan belting out his 1995 party staple “This Is How We Do it” on stage (with eliminated oddball Margie Mays) while flanked by a troupe of Katy Perry lookalike dancers doing the worm across the floorboards. It’s a throwback to when we saw Katy herself wriggle her body on the floor during Jake Puliti’s otherwise unmemorable audition over two months ago.
Adam Lambert returns once more this season to belt out his funky new rock jam “New Eyes” in giant black bell bottoms. He and Top 10 contestant Dimitrius Graham then gift us with an abbreviated “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
In the blink of an eye, a flurry of all-star pair-ups zip by: Dan + Shay are joined by Madison for “Speechless”; Laci Kaye Booth covers The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” with Luke Bryan for some reason; Laine accompanies Jon Pardi on “Dirt on My Boots” and “Night Shift”; Wade gets just one chorus of “Africa” in with Weezer; and Alyssa Raghu materializes to do “Good As You” with Kane Brown.
The best pairing of all comes when sweet, sweet Shayy gives us a beautiful rendition of Platinum-selling anthem “Rise Up” with Andra Day. We need a lot more of both of these ladies in our lives, everyone.
Laine Hardy, “Bring It on Home to Me” (Sam Cooke)
Sam Cooke is an absolute R&B legend, and it’s nice to see country boy Laine switching gears and giving some props by tackling “Bring It on Home.” Especially after the video montage featuring the rest of the Top 10 constants, wherein Uché quipped that he’s likely the first black person Laine has ever met. Someone please hand Uché his own talk show or some other platform where he can bombard us with zingers regularly.
Alejandro Aranda, “Out Loud” (Original)
Back in early March, my second Idol recap of Season 17 led with the headline, “Alejandro Aranda Could Win This Season.” On that night, we saw him audition with an original song called “Out Loud,” and he completes this particular sonic journey by performing the same number with an orchestra behind him. Luke thanks Alejandro “for the experience,” while Lionel tells him, “My friend, you are instant identity.” And that, everyone, is that.
THE WINNER IS: Laine Hardy snags the title and the Hollywood Records contract, and promptly launches into his winner’s tune “Flame.” I kind of felt it in my bones that it would go this way, but I won’t be surprised if either of these guys manage to break the Idol curse of, oh, the past decade and carve out decent, Underwood- or Lambert-sized careers.
I did truly feel Alejandro could win this thing, and in a way, maybe he has. Maybe, as Lionel hinted at all season, the talented 24-year-old dishwasher will be the one to steer pop music in a new direction. Or maybe the next time we’ll see him will be during Disney Night next season, where he and Laine are stuck doing a duet cover of “Let It Go.”
Either way, that’s a wrap for this year, friends. Ryan Seacrest promises he and Idol will be back next year, same time, same channel. And likely so will we.