‘American Idol’ top 12 recap: Paula Abdul is back!

"American Idol" top 12 featured Cassandra Coleman on the first live show of the year April 12, 2021. (ABC/Eric McCandless)
"American Idol" top 12 featured Cassandra Coleman on the first live show of the year April 12, 2021. (ABC/Eric McCandless)

Credit: ABC

Credit: ABC

Luke Bryan got COVID; comebackers from season 18; Wyatt Pike drops out

It was an oddly eventful Monday night for “American Idol.”

Luke Bryan got COVID-19 so the producers decided to pump some nostalgia into the water by bringing back Paula Abdul to sub for the country singer. Abdul was on the show its first nine seasons with Ryan Seacrest and during their reunion, they kibitzed a bit in the opening minutes. Ryan even brought Randy Jackson in via FaceTime for a minute.

Over two hours, not surprisingly, she was a nearly non-stop praise machine. And she made a joke or two about Simon Cowell. It was truly like old times! (One almost negative comment was directed at Alyssa Wray’s pick of “Greatest Love of All,” telling her to sing a song that will allow her to shine, implying that this was a cruddy song choice. It was a cruddy song choice.)

Another surprise with no explanation: top 16 singer-songwriter Wyatt Pike unexpectedly dropped out.

Seacrest then named singers in semi-random order, some who were automatically in the top 10 and five who had to sing for their lives for two remaining slots.

Weirdly, some singers didn’t get judge commentary early on. It was as if the producers were worried about time given that this was the first live show of the year.

But by the fifth singer, they decided to let the judges gab away. Sometimes, Ryan let one judge speak, sometimes two, sometimes all three. Even Luke Bryan emailed or texted a few useless comments from wherever he’s quarantined. This is also the stage where Lionel becomes increasingly repetitive and pointless in his commentary. And he didn’t disappoint tonight.

Overall, the night was packed with lots of okay, largely forgettable performances and nothing jaw-droppingly bad. At the same time, nothing transcendent happened either, with the exception of Beane, who has been getting better and better yet found himself in the bottom five.

Two other favorites of mine also landed in the bottom: Madison Watkins and Graham DeFranco.

The judges only had two slots left so Madison and Beane got them. Graham performed well but ended up with nothing, poor guy.

My ranking of the top 15:

1. Beane 2. Ava 3. Madison 4. Graham 5. Cassandra 6. Willie 7. Casey 8. Grace 9. Caleb 10. DeShawn 11. Chayce 12. Hunter 13. Alanis 14. Alyssa 15. Colin

Casey Bishop (”House of the Rising Sun” the Animals) - Channeling a bit of Grace Slick, she does an even moodier version of this 1960s classic rocker. It’s not half bad.

Grade: B-plus

DeShawn Goncalves (”Higher Ground” Stevie Wonder) - This song suits him better than the Nina Simone song the day before, and his vocals are strong, if not quite Wonder-ful. He also feels wooden on stage. I’m surprised he made the top 10.

Grade: B/B-plus


Cassandra Coleman (”Light On” Maggie Rogers) - She has one of my favorite voices in the competition. She looks more comfortable on stage than ever before. All the flaws in her voice make her that much more compelling. And she moved around on the stage for the first time.

Grade B-plus/A-minus

Caleb Kennedy (”Nowhere” original song) - It’s not a badly written song and he moves around comfortably minus the guitar. He even dispensed with his ubiquitous ball cap. His facial expressions are kind of deadpan to the point of opaque. But again, he’s the only country guy left so that helps him garner those votes.

Grade: B

Ava August (”Love of My Life” Queen) - This is her most controlled performance to date. Just a lot of trembling notes and subtle transitions without a single big moment. Yet it works because Ava knows how to tell a story on stage. Katy Perry said it felt world class, elegant and graceful. Paula said she’s speechless, which is just fine.

Grade: A-minus

Chayce Beckham (“What Brings Life Also Kills” Kolton Moore & the Clever Few) - This song is a generic bore. My brain wandered off. I was waiting for it to end. He is purely competent as always but terrible song pick.

Grade: B-minus

Alyssa Wray (”Greatest Love of All” Whitney Houston) - I’m liking her less and less. She doesn’t feel remotely modern. Singing this 35-year-old song does her no favors. It’s pleasant at best, over-stylized karaoke at worst.

Grade: C-plus

Willie Spence (”Diamonds” Rihanna) - He is back again with his audition song, this time with a live band. It’s fine. He brings maximum intensity and draws the judges to their feet. It’s his signature tune now. Why not? Personally, I wish he would stretch himself more.

Judges: Katy likes his cool look.

Grade: B-plus

Grace Kinstler (”Dangerous Woman” Ariana Grande) - Smart move to pick a modern pop song. But she goes oddly off-key partway through. She ends with her usual big notes. It’s a mixed bag.

Judges: Lionel calls it an “oh my god” moment.

Grade: B-plus

Hunter Metts (”I Can’t Make You Love Me” Bonnie Raitt) - A minor surprise he made it over Graham DeFranco. He is definitely a pretty boy in comparison. His lack of stage presence apparently didn’t stop the voters from giving him love. This is adequate and entirely predictable.

Judges: Paula gurgled about how his tone is great and then complimented the entire group as if she’s never heard such amazing talent in her entire life.

Grade: B/B-plus

Five singers had to sing for their lives and sat in the “danger zone.”

Colin Jamieson (”Waves” Dean Lewis) - He is a lot better when he’s serious and doesn’t wear that silly grin on his face, but the silly grin comes back two-thirds through the song. This song works well with his poppy voice. Will he be saved? Given who else is in the bottom five, no.

Judges: Lionel said to ignore what everyone thinks about him. (Huh? Did he read my recap?) Then he blabbers on pointlessly. Katy said he is high energy and fun. “You found your voice. You found your spirit. You found yourself.” Paula said she enjoyed watching him because of his passion.

Grade: B

Madison Watkins (”Hotline Bling” Drake) - I am stunned she didn’t make it into the top 10 vote getters. She jazzes this Drake classic up and puts on her own stamp with vocal confidence and power. I am certain she will get saved by the judges. It would be criminal not to do so but doesn’t bode well for her future on the show.

Judges: Lionel said he loves her personality. Katy said she has a bright light and her good karma will pay off eventually. Paula thinks she’s extraordinary.

Grade: A-minus

Beane (”Grow As We Go” Ben Platt) - Another shocking omission by the voters. I am liking him more every time I see him. This was absolutely beautiful. He will have to be saved!

Judges: Lionel said he looks confident and has grown into his artistry.

Grade: A

Alanis Sophia (”Heart Attack” Demi Lovato) - She is a decent vocalist with a passable pop persona. But maybe the “Idol” voters aren’t really into this type of sound now. This felt a little shouty at points and she misses a couple of notes. I don’t think this will save her.

Judges: Lionel said she was sometimes thinking about her notes and wasn’t “in” the performance. Paula said she has a tenacity and fire within her but repeats Lionel’s critique about staying present.

Grade: B

Graham DeFranco (”Cover Me Up” Jason Isbell) - Graham is superb. I’m dismayed he didn’t get enough votes to make the top 10. He ends up being the man left out with only two out of five slots open.

Judges: Lionel said nothing much of anything notable as he is wont to do at this stage of the competition. Katy said his artistry and confidence has grown. “You are a pilot but you’ve finally taken flight yourself.” Paula found his voice comforting like “dripping butter, so smooth.”

Grade: A-minus

In the end, the judges by unanimous consensus picked Madison and Beane to be the 11th and 12th in the top 12.

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