This week’s Thursday March 24 “American Idol” was packed to the gills with emotion, even before a note was sung. The farewells become more forlorn, as only five finalists start the night, and with Steven Van Zandt tutoring in rock power, and Sia being the expert in baring emotion, it was bound to be an unforgettable night, but no one could imagine just how much that became true. The star power was on board with “Idol” topping alumni, David Cook and Katharine McPhee celebrating past glories and new songs of the heart, but it was the current singers coveting the title who truly served up shining moments.
Judges, Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez, and Harry Connick, Jr. came out in tones of “dress black,” marking these weekly evenings as worthy of Sunday best, Ms. Lopez shimmering in sparkle. It seemed like hardly a minute passed before La’Porsha Renae was called first to safety, a send-off to home, and singing center stage again. The joy of McComb, Mississippi went for daring choices in more ways than one, changing her hair to elegant braids and weaves that required her to be awake through the wee hours, and taking on Bon Jovi with “Wanted Dead or Alive” as her selection. Steven Van Zandt stayed in her corner on the choice, and she proved that she could hang as “rock mama,” her soulful tones rising from the smoke. No matter the song, she’s still got it, and the judges agreed. Keith Urban loved that her choice was something none of the panel would think about, and how she brought out the “bluesy side of the song,” with soul and swagger. Jennifer Lopez praised that the performance, along with her adjacent partner, saying it reminded her of Tina Turner, and Harry Connick, Jr. was especially impressed with her “crazy skill” to lower her vibrato to match the song.
Sticking with the southern geographical trend, Mackenzie Bourg was called next, his offering, too, was a bold choice. He selected Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me,” decidedly making it “Mackenzie-ized,” but it seemed to lose energy like a deflated balloon, despite that pleasant tones of his vocals. He showed his musicianship in creating an all-new arrangement, and came through stronger on the chorus, but not quite exuberantly as needed. Jennifer Lopez said she loved the song, and hearing it Mackenzie style, but that it was “not as exciting” as she wanted. Harry noted the much higher energy in the original version as well, asking the audience if they knew the song. Keith Urban was wanted to say . He hated the arrangement, advising that Mackenzie either “go all the way” or strip it down to bare, but that this performance was in the middle, “which is nowhere.” This was one of Bourg’s roughest critiques, especially coming off of his performance of “Billie Jean” last week.
David Cook delivered a new song, “Heartbeat,” that perfectly complemented the feeling of the night, particularly with past “American Idol” winners filling the imagery behind him. The song of shared unity was perfectly fitting. Sonika Vaid, Dalton Rapattoni, and Trent Harmon were up for the vote of the evening. Expectedly, Trent’s name was the one called to safety, and his own hometown trip. He really went with the “rock on vibe,” choosing ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man,” mixing his own brand of soul with its rock drive. The combination was sleek, bluesy, and so addictive. Standing ovations came from Keith and Jennifer, and Harry gave love for the “swampy” song, which Jennifer coined with her own phrase, “fongo” which started its own conversation about sexy talk! The song was so good, Harry reminded Trent that he could stretch it to 10 minutes in concert, and fans would love it. Keith said that it was “so freaking good, a 10 out of 10,” Jennifer told Trent that she was “wishing for this” moment from him.
Harry and host, Ryan Seacrest, had another of their “big hug” moments before back to the serious stuff. The lights dimmed as the host revealed the vote, and it was Dalton who was safe, and Sonika who was departing, still with such a bright career ahead, and a new confidence. One of the things included with her montage was Sia’s assessment that the singer is “the whole package for a commercial artist,” so that’s nothing to cry about. Dalton had difficulty this week, wanting to perform “Seven Nation Army,” but the song never came together, not with Steven Van Zandt and Scott Borchetta, and not in his own rehearsals. He kept the Beach Boys’ beautiful “God Only Knows” in his back pocket, and it was a blessing, because he performed it with pure heart, and a natural ease that everyone felt. It was a song that never even needed his usual “guy liner.” Calling him “salty Dalty” Keith Urban praised his insight that he only had “a minute 30” to reach his audience, relating that the song was “so good.” Jennifer Lopez called the song his “back pocket save,” and said the performance was a big moment. Harry loved the vulnerability, and that it was believable, “like you were just walking around.”
The Idol finalists had fun spending the day at NASCAR, and singing the national anthem, just before Katharine McPhee was a lovely vision in white, singing her signature song, “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” earning ovation from the audience, and all three of the panel!
Sia time finally arrived, and the prolific singer-songwriter indeed shared something special of herself with every single unique soul among the finalists. La’Porsha was first this time, too, and her rehearsal even brought the star that she was “fan-girlin’ hard for” to tears. “Elastic Heart” was so perfectly suited for the singer and this moment, soft, strong, yet still powerful. La’Porsha owned it. Jennifer said that she was having flashbacks to group week, and all that happened with La’Porsha, how she was hanging back, and now to see her as ”a fully realized artist,” being a joy. Harry playfully remarked that he loved hearing her sing “in your head voice,” and Keith agreed that he loved seeing her grow. Ryan asked La’Porsha if she got her special wish with Sia, and yes, it came true, in blue.
Sia challenged Mackenzie to go for the high note in “Titanium,” and he did, not always hitting it, but growing artistically with the effort. Harry reminded that it’s “about the song and the feeling, not about the note,” calling the performance “nice.” Keith was pleased that “you wrote through that moment,” still giving a solid performance, and Jennifer also “loved that Sia made you go for it.” Sia made the stage all her own with her “Cheap Thrills,” mixing dance and song to uniquely bring layers of meaning, along with her singular vocal techniques. She confirmed to Ryan Seacrest that she would be offering herself at Coachella this year, another special announcement.
Trent chose “Chandelier” as his tribute, and Sia disclosed that this was her favorite, as well. The singer who just left cows on the farm weeks back didn’t require much tutoring, in fact, praise came that “you are a star” along with hugs. The song’s composer was moved to tears once more, and the actual performance was spectacular, his big moment of the season, with “my goodness” being the only words that come to mind. Keith Urban simply said “Beautiful,” and that there was “a gorgeous grandeur” to those vocals, making it “exquisite.” “You can do anything,” Jennifer Lopez gushed, while Harry added that the performance was “phenomenal, with such artful technique—100 out of 100, you make [Sia] proud.”
Dalton had the difficult position of closing the night, especially considering the performances of the past weeks, but he delivered the most passionate and powerful performance of his life with “Bird Set Free.” Sia likely deserves much of the credit, forming an instant kinship both artistically and personally, and her sharing of “me, too,” as the Dallas finalist disclosed that he had bipolar disorder. The guards down, they truly connected, and that closeness came through every lyric. The gratitude was so evident, so distinctively personal, that none of his former dramatic touch was necessary– this was purely heart, and his tears at the close carried that message. Jennifer Lopez confirmed to Dalton that “they are cheering for you, for your bravery,” as Harry lavished on that his performance was the most powerful, the perfect match of singer to song, and Keith credited Dalton for how “you push through all your limitations,” to inspire anyone hearing, and this night, he certainly did. America was left soaring.
Next week will pull at the heartstrings even more, as hometown visits have the slots, before the last ever “American Idol” finale. Have tissues handy.