'I'm just so shook right now!': Shocking cuts on first live results show of 'American Idol' Season 21

'American Idol' judge Katy Perry is
'American Idol' judge Katy Perry is "shook" after the top 20 results are announced, (Photo: ABC)

Sunday, on the first live combination competitive/results show of American Idol Season 21, ABC threw what host-with-the-most Ryan Seacrest called a big “three-hour party” on the show’s big, shiny new set. But by the end of the third hour — once Ryan had summoned one semifinalist after another to perform, as the top 26 were whittled down to the top 20 — the party was over for six sidelined singers. Those eliminees included two of my personal favorites, plus two that I was certain would be among America’s favorites.

One of those two upsets was theater diva extraordinaire Emma Busse. Last week, Emma delivered a master-class Sam Smith cover that had judge Katy Perry raving about her ability to sing “all those hidden colors between all those colors of rainbow, those notes we don’t even know exist” and had Lionel Richie gasping, “I was trying to imagine, how did you manage to pull that phrase off with human vocal cords? How did you put those two notes together and make a run out of this?” Apparently America’s non-expert voters did not fully comprehend or appreciate Emma’s technical skills, because she definitely deserved to move forward.

Emme Busse and PJAE are among the six talented singers cut on 'American Idol' Season 21's top 20 night. (Photo: ABC)
Emme Busse and PJAE are among the six talented singers cut on 'American Idol' Season 21's top 20 night. (Photo: ABC)

Sunday’s other shocking reject was Elijah McCormick, who was not only a Platinum Ticket holder, but the only Platinum Ticket contestant that had actually been picked by America in the first place, via a fan vote conducted during the recent American Music Awards. Elijah’s backstory of surviving a serious car crash and his triumphant attitude after overcoming that adversity also seemed to resonate with viewers. I suspect his downfall was twofold. He performed first, in what old-school Idol viewers have long called the “death spot,” during the top 26 round. And he also sang a light and frothy throwaway tune, Chris Janson’s “Good Vibes,” that seemed chosen more to please last week’s daiquiri-sipping live audience in Hawaii than to impress landlocked viewers with his actual vocal ability.

Among the other four eliminated contestants who didn’t get to sing Sunday was another under-appreciated vocal technician, Elise Kristine (who also performed in the disadvantaged first slot on her top 26 episode), and three of this season’s biggest risk-taking mavericks — Malik Heard, Dawson Wayne, and PJAE — who all rolled the dice last week with their daring respective Paramore, Billie Eilish, and Jill Scott covers. I had feared, and grudgingly predicted, that Malik and Dawson would not advance, but had hoped I was wrong and that America would give them a shot. Without those two, as well as vivacious showman PJAE and the aforementioned stunner Emma, Season 21 won’t be nearly as exciting as it could have been.

Elijah McCormick, Dawson Wayne, and Malik Heard are among the six talented singers cut on 'American Idol' Season 21's top 20 night. (Photo: ABC)
Elijah McCormick, Dawson Wayne, and Malik Heard are among the six talented singers cut on 'American Idol' Season 21's top 20 night. (Photo: ABC)

It should be noted that PJAE and Malik were the two contestants who inspired the judges to make the semifinals a super-sized top 26 this year instead of the usual top 24, after their Final Judgment sing-off resulted in a tie. Another interesting observation: With Elijah exiting the competition, Tyson Venegas is now the only surviving Platinum Ticket contestant in the just-announced top 20 (Kaylin Hedges plateaued during Hollywood Week, and seeming frontrunner Cam Amen was shockingly sent home during the Showstoppers week). And judging by Tyson’s Season 21 inconsistent track record so far — and this week’s pitchy performance — it’s unlikely that he’ll make it all the way to the finale like last year’s Platinum darling, Huntergirl.

Thankfully, some of the top 20 surviving performers did live up to their early promise Sunday. But on what will surely be an even more brutal episode, on Monday, eight more of these contestants will go home after Sunday’s overnight vote. So, let’s assess the top 20 performances, and then make some (grudging) predictions for the top 12.

Katy Perry reacts to the top 20 results. (Photo: ABC)
Katy Perry reacts to the top 20 results. (Photo: ABC)

Zachariah Smith, “I Want to Know What Love Is”

Considering that theatrical performers like Emma, Dawson, PJAE, and Malik all went home in one fell swoop this week, I was worried that Zach, the showiest of Season 21’s showboaters, would be polarizing. The judges called him “crazy” last week, after all. But it turned out that America is just crazy for this big kid. I did miss his kooky, ritzy-glitzy persona this week — as did Katy — but I understood why Zachariah wanted to dedicate a more serious song to his small town of Amory, Miss., which is rallying around him and in need of a morale boost after recently being hit by a devastating tornado. Plus, Foreigner's nostalgic power ballad showcased Zachariah’s often-overlooked big pipes, and it’s the sort of schmaltzy song that mainstream viewers of a certain age tend to love. I do hope we get another big Zach attack next week, though, because we all know this guy ain’t going nowhere: The judges even predicted he’ll make the top 10.

Matt Wilson, “Say You Won’t Let Go”

Romantic wedding/prom songs are Matt’s stock-in-trade, so this James Arthur weeper was a smart choice. But this week, Matt seemed more like a full-fledged pop star, not just a nice wedding singer. Katy loved the rapidly blossoming heartthrob’s “effervescent and contagious joy” and how he “flowingly” utilized the set’s potentially intimidating big new stage. And Lionel told Matt, “What you gave us this time was some attitude! … Enjoy this ride, my friend.”

Nailyah Serenity, “Baby Love”

I was worried that this dynamite diva would be an underdog due to her relative lack of screentime this season, so I was pleased that she made enough of an impression, burning up the screen every time she had the chance, to scrape through to the top 20. She certainly burned up the stage tonight, bringing that Tina Turner/Nikka Costa rock ‘n’ soul energy and what Katy called “full stankface” on this 1977 Mother’s Finest barnstormer. Katy told her, “You are an artist through and through, and that’s what’s going to separate you.” Luke joked to Nailyah, a horoscope expert, “I’m no astrologer, but I can spot a star when I see one!” And Lionel warned that the next contestant (spoiler alert: Warren Peay) should be “afraid” to follow Nailyah’s tour de force. That poor dude.

Warren Peay, “Up There Down Here”

Warren is not a performer at Nailyah’s level — yet — but on what Luke called a “world-class song choice” by Zach Williams, while rocking a relatively glamorous fluffy beard blowout, he did seem transformed. He roused the crowd during that clap-along coda, and brought all the Skynyrd/Band/Allmans vibes. He also further connected with America by sharing his past struggles with alcoholism. “I love that you’re authentic, and it’s so great to hear more of your story. … Thanks for being vulnerable,” Katy said warmly. Lionel praised Warren for realizing, “If you just let go and let God, everything else fall into place; it’s so beautiful that God led you here to us.” And Luke seemed certain that Warren was on the right path, merely advising him, “Just stay you, and America will speak.”

Kaeyra, “Bruises”

I was also worried that America would not quite get this power-belting pop-rock princess, so I was again pleased to see another diva make the grade. I guess I underestimated America’s appreciation for women with big voices and big personalities — and I wasn’t totally wrong, as evidenced by Emma’s shocking elimination. But I suspect Nailyah, Kaeyra, and (here’s another spoiler) Mariah Faith siphoned off Emma’s votes. Anyway, the judges loved Kaeyra’s surprise factor tonight on this fierce and fiery piano version of Lewis Capaldi’s breakup ballad. Katy said Kaeyra’s “A+” performance “just smacked me across the face,” and Luke called it “really, really powerful,” “really, really professional,” and “a breakout moment in the making.”

Mariah Faith, “Cry to Me”

More girl power! This season’s bellbottomed “soulful country singer” transcended the old-fashioned Solomon Burke blues number to deliver a bold, fresh powerhouse performance that Katy called “a little honky-tonk, kind of a country party,” but also “a little bit Bonnie Raitt.” Lionel raved, “Old song, new-school presentation — I’m loving it!” I do agree with Katy that Mariah should mix it up and “strike a balance going forward” with some more “heartstring-tugging” serious performances, but this was a fun way for Mariah to come bursting out of the gate.

Iam Tongi, “The Winner Takes It All”

I did not expect a radical remake of a strident ABBA song from this gentle, soft-spoken island troubadour — but man, this totally worked. He made it his own, and it was magical, perfectly poignant. Iam really could be the winner that takes it all this season. “This is called The Iam Tongi Show now. … Watching you become a star feels like watching a Disney movie,” gushed Katy. “God gave you the magic, buddy,” said Luke. The usually loquacious and vivacious Lionel was just stunned into silence — but that silence spoke volumes.

Haven Madison, “Mean Girls”

This was definitely a more mature and polished performance than last week’s actress-y, cutesy effort. “You already had stardust, but now it’s more refined sparkle,” Katy told Haven. Haven should obviously stick to ballads. But on an evening when several other contestants performed strong, memorable originals, I really wish Haven would have done that too — because that’s when she really excels. Katy said this Leanna Crawford cover sounded like something Haven could have written herself, but the song was still too big for this young girl. It got away from her at the end, and Haven was practically shouting the entire last chorus. The effect was unpleasant. But the judges didn’t seem to notice — or maybe this performance just sounded different in that big, cavernous new theater.

Oliver Steele, “Too Soon”

Oliver performed his first original of the season, and it was strong. This guy’s got the goods. “I don’t know why you didn’t show that earlier, but I think you’re growing. It showed off the artist that you are,” said an impressed Katy. “Way to stand up there… and create the mood with an original song. Ten out of 10,” said Luke. “Your talent is on fire!” declared Lionel. Olivier was feeling guilty competing on the show while his father (who was recently hospitalized) is ill at home, but all three judges assured Oliver that he did his dad proud and all the sacrifice would be worth it.

Lucy Love, “Boulders”

I also didn’t know Lucy was a songwriter — and a really good one! Her heartbreaking original, about “addiction and poverty and all of the heavy things, the trials and tribulations,” seemed readymade to be her coronation single. Performed at the studio where I Love Lucy was once filmed, Lucy Love made all of America fall in love with her. “You captured my heart tonight. You can feel your story in that song. Way to show up tonight. That was tremendous,” proclaimed Luke. “You’re the survivor of your story, and you’re not going to just survive your story; you’re gonna thrive,” said Katy.

Hannah Nicolaisen, “Somebody to Love”

I didn’t expect Queen from this pop-rock queen, but Hannah’s such a natural, she even made doing Freddie Mercury look and sound easy. Lionel was impressed by this former competitive volleyball player’s get-in-the-zone athlete’s mentality, and Katy praised this “tomboy who turned into a full-fledged Jennifer Lawrence” for “reminding me that this is your path.” Luke said, “Good for you for branching out there and taking a swing. … Way to really show us another dynamic that you have.”

Olivia Solí, “I Surrender”

Olivia was another old-fashioned balladeer that I thought might slip through the voting cracks, like Emma and Elise, and apparently Katy was concerned about that too, because after Olivia performed Sunday, she signed with relief, “I’m so glad America got this right!” This week, Olivia fought hard to stay in the game. “To have that much power behind you and your voice is sitting on top of that is incredible. You should pat yourself on the back,” said Lionel. “That’s twice you’ve done Celine and brought the house down. You’re just challenging yourself to soar beyond the clouds,” laughed Luke. And Katy added, “You should just sing Celine Dion songs all the time — keep playing the power card!” Perhaps that’s not bad advice.

Marybeth Byrd, “People Pleaser”

I haven’t been the biggest Byrd fan this season, but Marybeth unexpectedly impressed me with her own original this week; I didn’t realize she had that talent, either. This was the first time that I saw Marybeth as a true artist, not just some perky pageant queen. “I don’t know what you said to yourself in the mirror between Hawaii and now, but it worked. … That was so well-written. You finally showed me who Marybeth Byrd is,” said Katy. Lionel called this performance “superstar material,” and Luke gasped, “I did not see that coming down the track. It was a big, big moment for you.”

Michael Williams, “Lose You to Love Me”

This guy’s excessive breathiness is just so distracting to me. Katy just seemed distracted by Michael’s new unflattering hairdo, so much so that she barely said a word about his actual Selena Gomez cover — which was telling. Katy talked so much about this supposed heartthrob’s hair, in fact, that the panel ran out of time to critique his performance, although Luke did claim that Michael “crushed it.” I personally think there are singers that should have taken Michael’s spot in the top 20. We’ll see if his controversial makeover has a Samson-like effect on his top 12 chances.

Paige Anne, “Say Something”

Paige was invited back to the top 26 as a last-minute alternate after Malcolm McDowell’s son, Beckett Rex, mysteriously dropped out. Since then, she’s been working hard to prove she deserves this second chance, and this week, she effectively silenced all doubters with her torchy tour de force. “Congratulations — you earned it. You persevered, and you’re here. Enjoy it,” said Luke. “This is not a consolation prize; this is God’s plan for you,” assured Lionel. “We got it wrong, but guess what? Jesus took the wheel,” Katy admitted of the judges’ initial decision to send Paige home — even going so far as to declare Paige nne, the youngest remaining contestant, the best vocalist of her age group.

Nutsa, “Un-Break My Heart”

I predicted that Nutsa, despite having so much talent, would go home because America would think she’s, well, too much. But she survived, and this week she heeded Katy’s advice to tone down her trademark Vegas-style razzle-dazzle. I think she over-course-corrected and was a tad snoozy doing this ‘90s Toni Braxton ballad in a column gown (we have a lot of old-fashioned circa-Season 2-style balladeers this year), but the judges all loved Nutsa’s less nutty side. “When I said ‘no glitter,’ what I meant was exactly what you gave tonight — it was sophisticated. You don’t have to do it all. … You can hold the room by just being your powerful Nutsa self,” Katy insisted. “You are the hardest-working person I have ever met on this show. … You are a force to be reckoned with,” said Lionel.

Tyson Venegas, “180”

I liked Tyson's spunky, spritely piano original — it was very Billy Joel, with a dash of Charlie Puth — and Lionel, a man who knows a thing or two about songcraft, called it “a damn good song.” Katy was also impressed, excitedly telling Tyson, “Oh my God, I know who you are now! … I know what you stand for, I know what your values are, I know where your heart is, and therefore I can fall deeper in love with you. … You’re on your way to being an artist.” I don’t, however, think Tyson is on his way to being a great singer, because he hit a few painfully sharp, wonky notes during this performance. “180” is a solid song, but in the future, Tyson should try to write tunes that fit more comfortably with his range.

Megan Danielle, “Holy Water”

Megan has struggled with confidence all season, somehow not realizing how talented she is, no matter how many times the panel heaps her with praise. This week, she finally seemed to believe it, giving her most self-assured and eyes-wide-open performance yet. The judges — especially her biggest supporter, Luke — were thrilled. “That was the best performance I’ve seen you do this season. What is so special about you is nobody sounds anything like you. You are in your own lane,” said Luke. “There’s a confidence that’s just settled in you. … You are good enough. You’ve always been good enough,” declared Katy.

Colin Stough, “Pretty Heart”

Colin is far behind not just many of the top 20, but all six singers who were eliminated Sunday. I think even he would admit this, readily and humbly. But he will probably go far based on his likability alone, and if he goes far enough, he might have the time to, as Lionel put it, “just keep growing” and catch up. Katy urged him to “push yourself vocally and give us a few more notes, because I know you have them into you. … It’s time to shine, because we are on the American Idol top 20 stage.” Luke saw glimmers of growth from Colin this week, but felt frustrated, telling the young and green singer, “For one second you turned on a little more grit and charm, but then you climbed back inside of yourself. You have to give it to us all of the time.” In older, classic Idol seasons when only one contestant was eliminated each week — as opposed to six or eight at a time — Colin would gradually improve and eventually become, as they say in the biz, “top 10 material.” Hopefully he’ll be able take the judges’ comments to heart and be a very fast learner.

Wé Ani, “Skyfall”

The night ended with Wé awaiting her fate alongside her above-mentioned fellow group two contestants, Elijah, Dawson, and Malik. And while Katy looked shocked and said, “I'm just so shook right now!” when Ryan called Wé’s name, I would have been shocked and shook if this petite dynamo hadn’t made the top 20. Wé certainly closed the show in save-the-best-for-last style, delivering an Oscar-worthy rendition of Adele’s bombastic Bond theme. Katy didn’t seem too upset by this result, once Wé was done thoroughly chewing up the new Idol set’s scenery. “There’s so much drama going through my body right now, I need a nap,” Katy quipped. “You’re deserving. … You crush it every night,” Luke told Wé. “I love you. You completely destroyed me when you showed up onstage with a voice that big. The amount of talent you have is undeniable. I’m so happy to have you on this show,” Lionel gushed.

So now, it is time for those dreaded predictions. On Monday, eight contestants — yes, eight, already! — will go home. Ten singers will automatically advance via the public vote, while the remaining 10 will compete for two wild-card spots in the top 12, determined by the judges. With almost half of this batch getting cut, almost anything could happen, Monday. But for various reasons — ranging from running order to song selection to a previous lack of screentime, to of course, imperfect performances — I think Nailyah, Kaeyra, Haven, Olivia, Michael, Tyson, and Colin should definitely have their “save me” songs ready to go. See you then.

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