The final night of American Idol auditions has arrived, and so it’s time for the producers to trot the last of the multi-talents, jokesters, be-wigged former contestants (a highlight) and complete oddballs across the screen. It feels like there’s a light at the end of this particular tunnel. But before we can get to Hollywood Week, let’s run down what all happened on the last stops on the Idol bus tour.
Jade Florence is a 22-year-old from Waxahachie, Texas, where Katy and Lionel both admit they’ve never driven through. But I have. Oh, yes, I have. (As has anyone whose ever done a Dallas-to-Austin road trip.) Anyway, Jade is a little too into Katy Perry, as she enthusiastically says she got her nose pierced just like the “California Gurls” singer. At age 13 just like the “California Gurls” singer. (But she wasn’t allowed by her parents to do so, just like the “California Gurls” singer.)
Also, just like Katy, Jade currently has a fiancé, whose name is Jonah. She auditions with her soon-to-be-husband’s favorite song, Deana Carter’s “Strawberry Wine,” which comes off more like “Strawberry Whine.” All three judges like it, though, so what do I know? I’ll just be over here in the corner, piercing my nose at the age of not-quite-13.
The only way to go from there is sideways, so in walks Jacob O’Brien from Oklahoma. He’s 18 and wearing a star-spangled shirt and blue jeans, because America. No, seriously — he sings an original song called “America,” which he wrote because he loves his country. He’s quick to vaguely point out that he “doesn’t love all that’s going on” in these current times, which could be a coin toss either way — but he simply stands and stans for the red, white and blue.
At this point, Katy has an expression on her face that seems to say, “I should have asked for $30 million.” Nevertheless, Jacob persists with his self-penned patriotic tune. It’s as terrible as you’d expect, and thus it’s a no from Katy and fellow judges Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan. Still, Jacob gets the latter to sign his guitar before heading back home.
In New York, we meet Christiaan Padavan from Long Island, the first decent singer of the evening. At 19, he’s very showtunes-meets-Vegas-crooner, and he does wonders with Billy Joel’s “Vienna.” (Side note: Has anyone ever auditioned with Ultravox’s “Vienna” on this show? No? Too edgy? Moving on.)
The judges get wind of the fact Christiaan brought his girlfriend along for the audition ride, so they make her come inside to sing. It’s all very cute, but let’s move this thing along already.
The trademark Idol sob stories this year seem darker than usual. Jacob O’Brien is right: I don’t love all that’s going on right now. Case in point is Ryan Hammond, a 25 year old from Modesto, California who almost died due to botched bypass surgery that left a hole in his stomach where gastric acid was leaking through. Poor guy. Despite this near-fatal incident, Ryan survived, and lost 170 lbs over the course of a year.
Ryan puts the advantages of being the son of a church music director to good use as he belts out Sam Smith’s “Lay Me Down.” Katy calls his performance a miracle, Lionel says he’s just enjoying the show and Luke jokes, “I thought you were gonna burn up a clutch.” See you in Hollywood, sir.
Next up is 16-year-old Chloe Channell from Pace, Florida, who just happens to bring along ‘90s country music mainstay Billy Dean to accompany her on guitar. Now, follow along, kids: Dean’s biggest showing came in 1999 when he featured, along with Alison Krauss, on Kenny Rogers’ “Buy Me A Rose,” which topped Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart and cracked the Top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100. In fact, it was Kenny Rogers who apparently discovered Chloe Channell, and recommended her to Billy Dean for a mentorship. And Lionel, of course, wrote “Lady” for Kenny. Plus, Billy and Lionel already know each other through Kenny. So basically the world woulnd’t turn if without Kenny Rogers.
Given her pedigree, Chloe easily sells her rendition of Keith Urban’s “Stupid Boy” to all three judges, so off she goes to make Uncle Kenny proud in Hollywood.
This brings us to Emma Kleinberg from Bel Air, Maryland, who auditioned for Idol “a long time ago” along with her brother Alex. Neither one made it through, and we discover that later in life, Alex was dealt with bipolar disorder and attempted suicide. He survived, but suffered an anoxic brain injury. “I’m really sad for Old Alex, Alex that I grew up with,” Emma states. “But New Alex is amazing and I’m falling in love with him every day.”
With that, Emma sings Allen Stone’s “American Privilege” and impresses Lionel with her confidence and Katy with her song choice. Away she goes to La La Land.
Also earning golden tickets tonight are Zebulon Spencer, 27, from Dudley Shoals, North Carolina and Nick Merico, 22, from Miami, Florida. Zebulon is a warehouse worker and clogging champ, who prefaces his performance of Muscadine Bloodline’s “Porch Swing Angel” by declaring, “This is how I feel about my woman.”
Meanwhile, Nick was born in Argentina and starred on Nickelodeon series Every Witch Way for four seasons. Luke calls him “hunkasaurus,” Katy launches into overdrive with the flirting and, after he belts out Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” while playing piano, Lionel tells the actor/singer, “If it all goes well, my friend, you could be famous.”
Then there’s Georgie, who, at 18, left behind his conservative family in Israel for a new start in Los Angeles, where he’s been living as an openly gay man. With his peroxided hair, camouflage pants and pink faux fur coat, Georgie, now 23, already makes an impression before he sings. He and his band — wait for it — The Georgies turn out an original song called “Heaven,” which we’re told is a tale of unrequited love about a guy named Jeffrey.
Luke admits he wasn’t sure what to expect from a band called Georgie and the Georgies, but all three judges are equally wowed. Lionel says, “I love what you just did,” and so Georgie is off to make his mark during Hollywood Week.
American Idol’s reigning champion couple — aka last year’s winner Maddie Poppe and runner-up Caleb Lee Hutchinson — return in separate segments, the best of which features Maddie in disguise as gothed-out contestant Lady Mapo. In fact, this is easily the hottest moment of the whole season so far.
Decked out in black everything, Lady Mapo wades into the audition room and tells Lionel, Katy and Luke, “I just feel like last year was really, just boring. It was too American.” Is she reading my mind?
Cue the opening piano chords of “The Rainbow Connection,” and off comes the black wig for the big Maddie Poppe reveal. Bummer. I kinda wish she’d just played it as Lady Mapo the whole way through, but I guess we just can’t scandalize America’s children the way we want to all the time, can we?
Oh, right — Caleb. He comes along to support his longtime friend Jared Sanders for his audition. But that guy crashes and flops in front of the judges, so whatever with that.
This year’s auditions wrap with Jackson Gillies, a 19 year old from Santa Barbara with a chronic skin condition called hidradenitis suppurativa (or HS). Jackson has also been diabetic since he was a toddler. He explains that when he was first diagnosed with HS, he couldn’t walk for two months.
“I sometimes have moments where I think, why me,” Jackson says. “But I don’t let it stop me.” With that, the California teen knocks all three judges out with his soulful rendition of Foy Vance’s “Make It Rain.”
Lionel admits that he woke up thinking he himself had problems, but it was all put into perspective for him after watching Jackson perform. “Every once in awhile, God sends reminders to all of us,” Lionel notes.
And so Jackson is the final contestant we see make it through to Hollywood Week, which kicks off when American Idol returns on Sunday (March 24).