‘American Idol’ top 20 first-ever ‘remote’ show: who shined, who didn’t

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These challenging times call for creative measures to pull off a show like ABC’s “American Idol.”

The show for 17 seasons lived off cheering audiences, live bands and dramatic lighting.

But all that has been removed thanks to this pandemic.

What's left is the top 20 "Idol" contestants singing from their homes.
To even the playing field, "Idol" sent the same technical equipment to each singer and gave each person comparable amounts of time with the live (remote) band to rehearse and arrange their songs. They were given professional hair and makeup advice from "Idol" experts.

Each singer received comparable camera angles but they were limited in their ability to move around.

While the show ultimately worked and none of the singers pulled off a genuinely bad performance, the lack of a live audience was palpable at times.

Some singers worked the backyard with beautiful vistas. Others opted for garages, living rooms or bedrooms.

I have a feeling the guys will dominate the top votes (e.g. Dillon James, Francisco Martin, Arthur Gunn, Jonny West) and the judges are going to have to save some of the pop/R&B ladies to get them in the top 10. (A few were too interchangeable and will easily fall by the wayside. And while I like Atlanta’s Cyniah Elise, she has no realistic chance of making it to the next round.)

My guess of what the top 10 will be in no particular order: Arthur Gunn, Jonny West, Just Sam, Sophia James, Grace Leer, Dillon James, Makayla Phillips, Julia Gargano, Francisco Martin with the final slot either Louis Knight or Jovin Webb.

Given that the producers had  just two hours to squeeze in 20 performances, this episode was packed with music and judges’ comments were kept thankfully brief.

Katy Perry, despite wearing an absurd “hand sanitizer” outfit, provided consistently constructive feedback. Luke Bryan did so a couple of times. Lionel Richie, as usual, was utterly useless as a judge, praising everyone as a potential superstar.

Voting is available until 9 a.m. EST Monday. There are three ways to vote: the American Idol phone app, AmericanIdol.com, and texting the contestant's number to 21523. Ten votes per contestant per method.

Kimmy Gabriela, "Leave Me Lonely," Ariana Grande feat. Macy Gray. She does her take outside in her backyard with plenty of flowers dangling around her. She brings on the drama and sounds clean. She is solid but seems oddly unmemorable. Katy: "You've done a little character evolution since we've been apart in Hawaii. I felt that you are starting to know who you are ... This is a way to introduce yourself as Kimmy Gabriela." Luke Bryan likes how she navigates the voice. Grade: B

Jovin Webb, "With a Little Help With My Friends," Joe Cocker. A bracing performance with tons of energy. Luke calls him a special talent. Lionel said he has an instant identity. Katy said he's in a garage but he has "texture galore"in his voice and "separated himself even with the same equipment" as everyone else. Grade: A-minus

Franklin Boone, "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," Tears for Fears. This is an odd arrangement but Franklin emotes well. I'm not sure this would generate many votes. Luke loves it and says it's top 10 worthy. Grade: B/B-plus

Olivia Ximines, "bad guy," Billie Eilish. This is a high-risk song given that it's less about the vocals and entirely on her presentation. She tries her best to throw off enough attitude to make it work. It works okay but feels more stagey than authentic. (She's only 16!) Katy likes how she got to hear the quality of her voice even more. Luke said he likes how she brings the show. Grade: B

Louis Knight, "If the World Was Ending," JP Saxe featuring Julia Michaels. This environment works well for a singer-songwriter type like Louis. He hits a home run with this one. Luke loves the song choice because it gave "us a clear glimpse of you can be as an artist." Lionel loves the "cry" in his voice. Katy said he can get a bit nasally. Grade: B-plus/A-minus

Makayla Phillips, "Greedy," Ariana Grande. I noted a couple of off notes but I loved how she sold the song, better in some ways than Kimmy's too-smooth performance. Lionel lauded her professionalism. Katy wasn't as thrilled with the song choice. Grade: A-minus

Aliana Jester, "Run to You," Whitney Houston. This feels super old-fashioned and doing a Houston classic was not a smart move. She has a good voice and hits some big notes but it isn't the type of performance that will propel her into the top 10. Katy likes the dynamics and passion but wants her to lean in a bit more. Grade: B

Faith Becnel, "River," Bishop Briggs. She has left no impression on me up to this point and has probably been given the least amount of airtime. She needed to really stand out to get any votes. This doesn't quite do it. Grade: B/B-plus

Nick Merico, "Hey There Delilah," Plain White T's. His preening personality annoys me but this is almost tolerable. Luke wants him to "dig in" a little more. Katy got to hear the subtleties of his voice and thought it was one of his better performances. Grade: B

Lauren Spencer Smith, "Mamma Knows Best," Jessie J. Another teen vocal phenom. It feels very talent show-esque. Will she break through? I don't think so. Katy said she is growing even in quarantine. Luke said her voice gets better and better. Grade: B

Cyniah Elise, "Warrior," Demi Levato. After two Ariana Grande songs and a Jessie J, now we get Demi. She is a skilled vocalist, well beyond her years. She brings some stage presence without a stage. Luke said she needs to better connect. Lionel said she makes it look so effortless and has "the voice of life." Katy said now is the time to evolve more as an artist and work the camera more.  Grade: B-plus

Francisco Martin, "Teenage Dream," Katy Perry. He is top 10 guaranteed. He blends Phillip Phillips swagger with David Archuleta cuteness. And he somehow makes a Katy Perry song work in his favor. Katy wished he could have brought it down just a bit near the end to bookmark the beginning. Luke said he has the magic. Grade: A

Sophia James (formerly Sophia Wackerman), "Burning," Maggie Rogers. She has great vocal dexterity, a sultry look and charisma that even shines in her living room. Katy said she is evolving. Luke said she's "sneaky good" but he said looking down at her piano might have distracted her from connecting with the camera. Grade: A

Dewayne Crocker Jr., "I Got You (I Feel Good)," James Brown. This is a song that desperately needed an audience. He has his little kids dancing at least but it wasn't the same. Terrible song choice under the circumstances. Luke said it was too slick. Even Lionel said it lacked the growl. Katy said it lacked grit and the proper dirty dirty. Grade: B-minus

Dillon James, "Let It Be Me," Ray Lamontagne. He has an interesting bluesy voice and this was an on-point song pick for him. And the backdrop was great. Lionel said he looks like a "world-class artist." He is a likely top 10 pick. Grade: A/A-minus

Arthur Gunn, "Lovin' Machine," Wynonie Harris. He is so coolly distinctive in an old-school way and has a lock on the top 10. This was great fun and would have been even better before a live audience. He isn't good at looking at the camera but Joe Cocker wasn't either. Katy also noticed the camera issue while Lionel said his "shyness is your secret weapon." Grade: A/A-minus

Julia Gargano, "Human," Christina Perri. She has a lovely lower register that sets her apart but I'm not sure this improves upon the original. I suspect the judges will have to "save" her to get her in the top 10. Lionel loved her style.  Katy is a huge fan. Grade: B/B-plus

Grace Leer, "Cry," Faith Hill. She's the  only country female left and that gives her a major advantage over her peers. She also got extra publicity by being the last person aboard and given America's vote to make it into the top 20. This is a so-so song pick that might hamper her. After a blah opening, she does end strong, demonstrating her chops. Katy liked how big it got to the end. Luke agreed with me and said it started slow. Grade: B

Just Sam, "I Believe," Fantasia. She picked Fantasia's winning song from 16 years ago. Fantasia brought me to tears when she sang it. Unfortunately, this one just falls flat. Disappointing. But she will make the top 10 based on her past performances. Grade: C-plus

Jonny West, "What a Wonderful World," Louis Armstrong. He changes the arrangement, taking a high risk. It mostly works, though I would have preferred a different song from him. He has a wonderful voice regardless. Luke said he heard 10 deviations of a music career. Katy said it was moving and emotional. Grade: B-plus

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