Judges struggle to save one of two favorites on shocking ‘American Idol’ night

This Sunday was the last Season 17 episode on which the American Idol judges could use the Judges’ Save (basically their one get-out-of-jail-free card) to rescue a contestant from elimination. And while Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan did use the Save on an extremely gifted singer, they used it at the expense of another great talent, thus making the moment very bittersweet for all. One of the themes Sunday was “Woodstock Songs,” and frankly, this result was nearly as disastrous as Woodstock ’99 or this summer’s possibly-cancelled Woodstock 50.

Yes, there was a time when I had all my hopes riding on a Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon/Laci Kaye Booth finale, which surely would have been thrilling. Jeremiah no doubt possessed the season’s most gorgeous and elastic voice (he’d even earned comparisons to Freddie Mercury and praise from Sir Elton John) and had one of the most heartstring-tugging backstories, and Laci was always a true artist, taking risks with countrified remakes of Blink-182 and Cheap Trick songs.

Both contestants deserved spots in the top four. But, as it turned out, they both landed in the bottom two. And only one of them would make the top five.

The judges knew right away they would use the Save, of course. But they struggled when Ryan Seacrest — barking at them as the seconds left in the episode ticked away and the credits started to roll — demanded a decision. A stressed-out Katy eventually announce Laci’s name... although no reason or explanation was given.

To be honest, I can see why both contestants were in jeopardy this week. Jeremiah did seem uncharacteristically disconnected during his first performance. Given his religious background — he’s the openly gay son of a judgmental pastor, with whom he’s rebuilding his relationship — I expected more pathos and heartbreak from his “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” once famously performed at Woodstock ‘69 by Joan Baez. It should have been more of a poignant breakout moment. But still, it was a performance that I assumed would play well with conservative voters.

Additionally, Jeremiah’s Showstoppers song, “Somewhere” from the West Side Story, started off shakily. But in the end, it was magical, and that should have redeemed him. This second performance had all the raw emotion and connection that Jeremiah’s Woodstock performance lacked. He transformed the Broadway ballad into a hopeful-but-heartbreaking outsider anthem, and I was awestruck.

As for Laci, unfortunately she was smothered by the loud, over-the-top production of both her numbers (and by her even more over-the-top Dee Snider hair extensions). Her airy, smoky voice does sound like if Janis Joplin and one of the Bee Gees had a baby, so I expected greatness from her “To Love Somebody” cover — but she would have fared better with something stripped-down and vulnerable, like last week’s “Love of My Life,” instead of the obnoxious Branson arrangement she was saddled with.

Her second song, Journey’s “Open Arms,” was incredibly ambitious — even she acknowledged that she’s “not a belter” — so it was impossible not to compare it to Steve Perry’s majestic, multi-octave original. But she still put her own stamp on the song and turned it into a classic-country weeper.

However, given their respective track records, both Jeremiah and Laci still seemed like frontrunners to me. So, this result is disheartening. Season 17 will lose some of its magic without Jeremiah’s goosies-inducing performances, and Laci’s chances of making it to the end now seem slim. (Only one Judges’ Save recipient, Season 11’s Jessica Sanchez, has ever made it to the finale; she ultimately placed second.) But let’s take a look at the other four singers’ performances, and try to predict who indeed will win the show in just two weeks’ time.

WOODSTOCK SONGS

Madison Vandenburg, “Piece of My Heart”

As usual, I couldn’t fault Madison vocally here. But I was not buying her as a rock star, despite Katy telling Madison she “showed her teeth” and Lionel raving, “You brought us attitude tonight!” The electric guitar felt like a prop, the jumpsuit seemed like ‘70s cosplay, and there was no Janis grit to or element of danger throughout. And again, there was that bizarre smiling, when the lyrics to this song are actually desperate and pained. Madison is a powerhouse pop singer, but she’s no Janis Joplin, and she’s no Crystal Bowersox or Haley Reinhart either.

Laine Hardy, “I Don’t Need No Doctor”

Conversely, Laine has become quite a convincing rock star this season, and he chose his song wisely. The performance wasn’t his best — I prefer him when he goes crazy and is in “party with a Hardy” mode, which this midtempo bar-band tune didn’t allow. (Side note: Casey Abrams injected a lot more life into it when he sang it as his Season 10 audition.) Still, Joe Cocker was right in Laine’s lane. The man knowns his brand. “You continue, week after week, to pick the right songs for you,” assured Luke. However, Katy said, “I think you’ve figured this chess game out; now is the time to scare yourself,” advising Laine to take some chances. My guess is Laine will not take that advice.

Alejandro Aranda, “White Rabbit”

Alejandro has never shied away from risks — and while some risks have paid off (“One Dance”) and others haven’t (“Under Pressure”),” I was loving this spooky, gothic-industrial take on Jefferson Airplane’s psychedelic classic. This was so Nine Inch Nails/Tool, I felt like it was inspired by Woodstock ’94. It made me want to affix a giant lightbulb to my head and flail in some Green Day mud. At the same time, this sounded very modern — which couldn’t be said of any of the other Woodstock performances tonight. Luke compared this “rock star EDM” moment to Pink Floyd, and Katy likened this “unique, individual performance” to Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, telling Alejandro, “I think your heroes will be proud.” This was my favorite performance of the night.

Wade Cota, “With a Little Help From My Friends”

I’ve criticized Wade for his on-the-nose song choices before (George Ezra, Randy Newman, Hozier, Ray LaMontagne), but after he fumbled so disastrously trying to channel Freddie Mercury last week, I suppose I can’t blame him for going with the obvious Joe Cocker. This was practically a Joe Cocker tribute act, but at least it worked for his limited rasp. However, when Katy declared this the best performance of the night so far, and Luke said Wade “elevated the game,” I started to wonder… were these crazy judges on some psychedelic ‘60s drugs? Go ask Alice, I guess.

SHOWSTOPPERS

Madison Vandenberg, “I Surrender”

OK, this was more Madison’s speed. Madison is more of a baby Celine than a baby Janis. Madison clearly took this Showstoppers theme seriously, but my one complaint about this performance was that it was so old-fashioned — it was like a moment from Seasons 1-3, and Madison, largely due to her mother-of-the-bride styling, seemed like she was 70 years old, not 17. But she slayed this vocal, showcasing new parts of her already amazing voice (Luke called it a “cry”).

Alejandro Aranda, “Poison”

Alejandro took another shocking risk by doing one of his originals, acoustically, while the other contestants were doing go-for-broke power ballads. But this was the perfect showstopping song for him. It was pretty, delicate, and the work of a real auteur. “I pray America truly understands how hard that was to do,” said Luke. Katy seemed more optimistic about how America would react, saying, “How interesting will it be when you change American Idol… by winning American Idol?” I actually don’t think Alejandro is going to win — he’s too polarizing — but I am pleasantly surprised that he still pulled in votes.

Wade Cota, “Through the Valley”

I appreciated Wade’s Johnny Cash-as-undertaker vibe on this Shawn James song. Luke in fact called this Wade’s “Johnny Cash moment.” There’s a darkness and melancholy to Wade that, on the right songs, is undeniably compelling, and this was absolutely the right song for him. It was his coolest, strongest performance to date. “You may be 27, but that voice is a thousand years old,” marveled Katy. I’d actually listen to an entire album of murder ballads from this guy. I just don’t think, based on his inconsistent body of work all season, that he should win.

Laine Hardy, “Johnny B. Goode”

More like Laine be good, amirite? This was good, not great — but the producers made the golden boy already look like the Season 17 champion, thanks to flashy, finale-style production with his name literally in wall-sized lights behind him. That and Laine’s newly learned Elvis-the-pelvis gyrations have probably already clinched him a spot in the season’s actual finale. It’s a done deal. Get ready to party with a Hardy on May 19.

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