Quarantined contestant Just Sam breaks down on 'American Idol': 'I just wish I had, like, one person here'


Following last weekend’s historic American Idol at-home top 20 show, this Sunday the top 10 were revealed, and it should have been a celebratory occasion when Just Sam made it through based on last week’s tallied 36 million votes. But unlike her fellow contestants — who returned home to self-quarantine with their families after production was suspended due to coronavirus concerns — Just Sam stayed behind, alone, in Hollywood. So she received her good news in total isolation, in some sort of nondescript corporate housing, with no relatives or friends standing on the sidelines with glitter-glued cardboard signs to cheer her on or smother her in congratulatory hugs. Therefore, this remote results announcement was bittersweet, and almost downright devastating to witness.

“I just wish I had, like, one person here,” Just Sam moaned, breaking down in sobs and covering her face with her hands, as all of America’s hearts shattered for her.

Just Sam reacts to 'American Idol' results while self-isolating far from home. (Photo: ABC)
Just Sam reacts to 'American Idol' results while self-isolating far from home. (Photo: ABC)

“I wish we were there next to you,” host Ryan Seacrest said helplessly from his L.A. living room, actually physically reaching out to his desk-side video monitor as if to offer Sam a virtual embrace. “It’s so hard to be giving these results and then not be able to be there next to you, you know?”

Just Sam later explained that she had made the difficult but admirable and responsible decision to self-isolate in California, rather than return to the Harlem projects, where she lives with her grandmother, and risk getting her grandmother sick. She admitted to feeling lonely, and to missing Harlem (“Don’t tell nobody,” she laughed), but she appeared to be staying positive and strong. “I don’t have much, just my two suitcases that I packed about two months ago. I have my Bible that I sleep next to every night,” she said. “Even though I don’t have much, I have those things, and it helps.”

Something else that helped lift Sam’s spirits Sunday was, at judge Katy Perry’s insistence, a FaceTime call to inform her grandma of the exciting top 10 results. (“This is going to be the best news of her week!” said Katy.) Sam’s gleaming smile instantly returned when she heard her grandmother’s encouraging voice, and the judges and Ryan were smiling right along with her. Just Sam declared that everything she’s doing on Idol is for her grandma, saying, “I want her to be proud of me, and I did it! I made it.”

Just Sam then performed a sweet-and-simple yet majestic cover of the recently departed Bill Withers’s “Grandma’s Hands,” and she had the judges in their homes — and everyone watching American Idol at home — falling in love with her all over again. Katy said the performance reminded her of being in church, while judge Luke Bryan praised Sam’s “top-to-bottom richness and how your voice holds up and all levels of your range.”

Just Sam’s poignant song choice was fitting not only because she’d once said that the only time she ever feels safe is when her grandmother hugs her, but because Sunday’s top 10 theme was “Songs Inspired by Home.” And the night brought many more feels, starting when Season 11 champ Phillip Phillips cold-opened the episode with a quarantined acoustic version of his coronation song, “Home,” the most successful Idol single of all time. (This was a homecoming of sorts for Phillip, too, as he was once embroiled in a legal battle with the Idol brass.)

But there were more bittersweet moments to come, since, with several of this season’s competitive episodes trimmed from ABC’s schedule due to coronavirus-related production delays, 10 of the top 20 contestants had to be eliminated in a single night. And interestingly, despite producers’ obvious pushing of Season 18’s crop of teenage pop divas, not one of those girls advanced via the public vote.

Instead, America voted for eight singer-songwriters (six of them male; the only male troubadours to not make it through were Franklin Boone and Nick Merico), plus Just Sam and, unsurprisingly, the one straight-up country singer in the entire top 20, Grace Leer. I suspect that this season’s unavoidable home-performance format hindered all of those pop girls (Faith Becnel, Cyniah Elise, Kimmy Gabriela, Aliana Jester, Makayla Phillips, Lauren Spencer-Smith, and Olivia Ximines) as well as eliminated soulman DeWayne Crocker Jr.; let’s face it, it’s much easier to sing in a bedroom or backyard if you’re Arthur Gunn or Louis Knight than if you’re trying to pull off an Ariana Grande or James Brown showstopper.

However, Katy, Luke, and Lionel Richie had a one-time use-it-or-lose-it Judges’ Save in play this week, and they did indeed decide to use it — on the pop teen with arguably the most potential, Makayla, whom Katy said could “give the rest of top 10 a run for their money” if she picks the right songs. Based on my personal musical tastes, I would have given the Save to Franklin, but I think the judges made the right call in order to have a more well-rounded top 11. However, that top 11 will become a top seven in just one week’s time, so we will see how long this season’s one great pop hope can survive.

There were the other 10 performances of the night:

Louis Knight (Narberth, Pa.), “In My Place”

This felt very in Louis’s comfort zone. Maybe too in his zone. It was safe, and it at times felt like a Coldplay tribute band number but without Chris Martin’s sense of urgency. (A lack of fire has been Louis’s problem all season.) Katy said the performance pulled at her heartstrings, but Luke complained that he “wasn’t completely blown away.” Lionel just wisely advised Louis to work the camera as much as possible. Louis is this season’s designated heartthrob (producers slipped in a little fangirl clip from a smitten viewer at home, but notably didn’t do that for any other contestant this week), so if he makes the top seven over superior performers, it’ll be because the camera adores him.

Julia Gargano (Staten Island, N.Y.), “New York State of Mind”

This was a masterclass performance. At first I thought it was odd for this piano girl to cover the Piano Man and not, well, play a piano — but Julia didn’t need one. She had Judy Garland/Lady Gaga-level show-woman-ship, feisty attitude, and a voice to match. “I’m speechless. That might be my favorite performance of the year so far. Twelve out of 10! What a moment of elegance and maturity and grace and beauty,” raved Luke.

Jovin Webb (Baton Rouge, La.), “Voodoo”

Jovin is just the coolest. I was totally vibing with his swampy, sexy, groovy, grown-ass-man performance, which showcased his usual swagger and what Lionel called his “instant identity.” I wasn’t sure he’d make it through this week, and I am so glad he did. But it should be noted that Jovin made it through with a popular Beatles/Joe Cocker classic, and I fear voters won’t similarly connect with his Allen Stone cover this week. But Lionel called this performance “magic,” Luke said it was Jovin’s best vocal yet, and Katy told him, “I was at a bar in NOLA having an extra-dirty martini while you were singing.” So I raise a martini glass to Jovin and hope for the best.

Grace Leer (Danville, Calif.), “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”

This nostalgic song choice and Grace’s classy, Cline-ish delivery gave me many warm fuzzies; there was something so soothing about Grace’s delivery and demeanor. Also, thankfully what Katy described as that “big and bold” voice, which had been missing last week, was on full display this week. “You just showed America you have a big, big, big, big voice,” proclaimed Luke. She is style, she is Grace, and she is definitely making the top seven.

Jonny West (Studio City, Calif.), “Faithfully”

I love me some Journey, but I wasn’t thrilled with this mawkish song choice for Jonny, who’s always given me more of an indie-artist vibe and surprisingly didn’t do much to make this ‘80s prom ballad his own. The whole performance felt off-brand to me. But I bet Middle America will eat this up. The judges certainly did — especially Katy, who gushed, “That was so beautiful and so magical. … You’ve got me on the Alejandro [Aranda] level now.”

Sophia James (Long Beach, Calif.), “In My Room”

OK, I loved this song choice. To see Sophia crooning this teenage symphony to God, in her actual childhood bedroom, captured and conjured all the Pet Sounds innocence I craved. This was spell-binding. “It was so upper-echelon. … You really brought it with that interpretation of that song,” Katy raved. “You are a wonderful vocalist. I found myself immersed in emotion,” said Luke.

Arthur Gunn (Wichita, Kan.), “Take Me Home, Country Roads”

Arthur continued to surprise and delight me with yet another unexpected song choice with a twist. I would have never expected a reggae remake of a John Denver hit to work, but Arthur is such a bright and creative spirit that it totally did. I admire how he keeps taking chances — and how it keeps paying off. “What a classic song to take on, and way to put your spin on it. … That really showcased you in perfect way,” said Luke. “That’s all the way to a hit record for you. I loved what you did,” added Lionel.

Dillon James (Bakersfield, Calif.), “Yesterday”

I really like Dillon, but this unfortunately fell flat for me. “Yesterday” is one of the Beatles’ most iconic, beloved, and oft-covered songs, and while Dillon tried to do his own thing with it, the result felt lightweight and passionless. “I wanted to you give a little bit of breath to it. It felt very metronome. … You’re such an artist that needs to paint beyond the lines with your voice,” griped Katy. Luke agreed and added that the performance felt rushed. Luckily for him, Dillon is a contestant who — like Louis — can rely on his heartthrob appeal (he certainly knows how to work the camera), because I don’t think his performance alone will be enough to save him this week.

Francisco Martin (Daly City, Calif.), “Falling Like the Stars”

Francisco, who has grappled with nerves all season, confessed that his anxiety levels have skyrocketed during the pandemic because his mother is a frontline nurse. I think his rawness and honesty will resonate with viewers — but he didn’t actually seem that jittery here. His heartfelt performance in fact reminded me a bit of the above-mentioned Phillip Phillips. Francisco made the pregnant and hormonal Katy weep, and Luke told him, “You really know how to get all the emotions out of a song. If I was a little hormonal, I’d be crying right now!”

Makayla Phillips (Temecula, Calif.), “The House That Built Me”

Given a second chance via the Judges’ Save, Makayla wisely ditched the precocious, try-hard jazz-handsiness that probably put off a lot of voters last week, and she delivered a solid and unfussy vocal of a popular country ballad — proving that she deserved to survive at least another week. “That’s why we fought for you and saved you,” said Luke. “I felt like you were singing directly to me. It was an intimate performance. You took our constructive criticism from last week,” said Katy.

Sadly, it will probably be too little, too late for Makayla, and I predict that she will be one of the four singers cut next week. The other three will likely be Jovin, Louis, and Dillon, though it’s possible that the latter two may coast on their heartthrob appeal and knock out someone who gave a technically stronger performance this Sunday. Regardless, next Sunday is going to be a night of tough goodbyes. But it’ll still provide the feel-good home entertainment America needs right now, with the top seven giving Mother’s Day- and Disney-themed performances. See you then.

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Originally published