By Chaz Lipp

The wild ride that was American Idol Season One (on ABC, Season 16 overall) is coming to an end. It started to become a blur as the three “judges,” Lionel Ritchie, Katy Perry, and Luke Bryan, offered mindless encouragement as several contestants were slashed on a weekly basis. What used to be a marathon has become a sprint. No more time to build a fan base. And yet Maddie Poppe emerged as a true underdog contender. Tonight the winner will be crowned and I could see it going any of the three ways: Poppe, Gabby Barrett, or Caleb Lee Hutchinson.

For what it’s worth, the heretofore lying-through-their-teeth “judges” decided to actually offer some actual criticism for the first time this season. The contestants often looked flat-out confused about the sometimes less-than-positive critiques they were offered. That’s what happens when you blow sunshine up a performer’s rear week after week. Shame on the “judges” for not saying anything helpful until tonight, when it was too late to make any adjustments.

Round 1 – First Single Release

Caleb Lee Hutchinson – “Johnny Cash Heart” (written by James Slater, Jay DeMarcus, Kat Higgins) – The judges’ take: Lionel – “Welcome to the business my friend. Congratulations my friend.” Katy – “I adore you and how far you’ve come. It’s an interesting song for you. I really wish you would embody it as a Caleb Lee Hutchinson song. That was the weakest performance of yours I’ve ever seen.” Luke – “This was the tightest I’ve seen you. You need to loosen up.”

Ah, the first “congratulations, my friend” offered by Lionel – the second-most vapid “judge” (first is the incomparably banal Luke). Katy (who suddenly made good on the hints that she really is this season’s closest Simon Cowell equivalent) pretty much summed it up: this wasn’t Caleb’s shining moment. He started a bar early, he appeared to struggle with the lyrics, and he didn’t really have a handle on the melody. Grade: D+

Gabby Barrett – “Rivers Deep” (written by Andrew Goldstein, Jessica Karpov, Evan Bogart, Emanuel Kiriakou, Ella Henderson)– The judges’ take: Katy – “That was a really cool song. I loved what you did at the end with your voice.” Luke – “I could tell you weren’t comfortable with the song, but at the end you gave us the big voice. Way to battle back at the end.” Lionel – “From now on when you select a song, select it from the stage. Never select from the studio. That’s very important, selection of song.”

No idea what Lionel was trying to say. The contestants were given these songs to release as their first single, were they not? Why all the criticism for “song selection” when there was no choice?

Anyway, this was a weird song that didn’t really do Gabby’s country side any favors. It started off okay then slid into sort of a disco/dance vibe, eventually morphing into some kind of call-and-response type of thing. Gabby wasn’t entirely comfortable with the song, clearly, and it seemed to shake her normally unflappable confidence. Grade: C-

Maddie Poppe – “Going, Going, Gone” (Written by Mitch Allan, Lindy Robbins, Julia Michaels)– The judges’ take: Luke – “In my opinion you felt the most comfortable. Good job on that. I could relax watching you. Way to come out here and giving a solid performance.” Lionel – “To feel comfortable with a song for two weeks. That’s tough. I agree with Luke. You were the most comfortable so far.” Katy – “We’re looking for you to continue to bring your A game in the big leagues. You have a real chance. Once you leave the nest of American Idol, it’s going to be up to you.”

The most seasoned and mature of the top three, Maddie handled this new song with her customary professionalism. It didn’t really feel like a “moment,” not one that stands out in the final competitive night of the season, but it was fine. The song seems like an attempt to capture the vibe of Phil Phillips’ “Home” coronation song. Except not as good. Grade: C+

Round 2 – Favorite past performance

Caleb Lee Hutchinson – “Don’t Close Your Eyes” (Keith Whitley) – The judges’ take: Lionel – “Your voice is as solid as rock. You own it. Congratulations.” Katy – “That was light years difference. I’m really proud of you.” Luke – “You gave us what you’ve been spoiling us with. Your good old voice.”

Caleb has revealed himself to have very little range as a vocalist and as a performer in general. But staying right in his comfort zone, he worked this song exactly as he needed to. This was a good example of pretty much exactly what has carried Caleb throughout the season. I would’ve preferred an encore of his one surprise, Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” Grade: B

Gabby Barrett – “Little Red Wagon” (Miranda Lambert) – The judges’ take: Katy – “There she is. That was awesome. Next time you wear fringe I want to see it move.” Luke – “I don’t want to see you guys tighten up on us. Let it out.” Lionel – “Ain’t comfortable wonderful? The wonderful part is that you’re owning the stage.”

Gabby has developed this weird, predatorial-looking stance when she performs – sort of leaning forward and to one side, with an ultra-serious look on her face, and a lot of forced swagger. When she did this earlier in the season she was a powder-keg of energy, racing around the stage and kicking and jumping. Here she dials it back far enough to reveal that the song doesn’t really challenge her vocally. But this is the only of her three songs that demonstrates her stated desire to be a C&W singer. Grade: C+

Maddie Poppe – “Don’t Ever Let Your Children Grow Up” (original song) – The judges’ take: Luke – “I was happy to hear that again. It was quintessential Maddie Poppe.” Lionel – “Welcome back. You have to love you. You have to like everything you do on this stage. That was very comfortable.” Katy – “I love that you took a risk. You wanted to show off that you’re a fully fledged artist. At least the world knows you’re as authentic as heck.”

Bold move to choose an original song, one only hear briefly during Hollywood week. It was clearly a statement of personal artistry that, for those paying any attention (which is hopefully a lot), demonstrates an ability to do more than offer cover versions. Nice, heartfelt song, and a solid vocal to go with it. Grade: B+

Group performance – Harper Grace “Yard Sale” – Johnny Brenns – “Blue Jeans” – Michelle Sussett – “I’m a Dreamer” – Catie Turner – “21st Century Machine”

Why tonight for this showcase of the eliminated contestants? This should’ve been saved for the finale. And why kill Maddie’s momentum after performer her original song by trying to showcase the also-rans as songwriters too??

Round 3 – Hometown dedications

Caleb Lee Hutchinson – Dallas, Georgia – “Folsom Prison Blues” (Johnny Cash) – Lionel – “It’s always wonderful when Caleb Cash stops by to see us. Now you’re in your wheelhouse. That is your wheelhouse. You were just convincing as hell.” Katy – “You’re a big deal. That was so fun. I loved watching what you just performed.” Luke – “It just makes me want to tell you congratulations. You made this all happen.”

Smart choice, spirited performance. Caleb saved his best for last. His seldom-heard higher range emerges during the final verses, along with a welcome growl in his voice, suggesting there’s more potential to Caleb than we’ve even heard. Grade: B+

Gabby Barrett – Pittsburgh, PA – “Don’t Stop Believin’” (Journey) – The judges’ take: Katy – “I can’t believe that Steve Perry of Journey is watching you sing Don’t Stop Believin’.” Luke – “I’ve always thought Gabby was one of the best singers I’ve ever heard and she proves it.”

Country singer? This wasn’t a smart way to make your final statement of purpose. As an easy, singalong crowd-pleaser, this song should almost be banned from these types of competition. If anything, over the course of three performances, Gabby has revealed that she doesn’t really know what she wants to be despite her claims to the contrary. This would go over like gangbusters at a karaoke contest or if performed at a wedding. But a winning American Idol performance? No. Grade: C

Maddie Poppe – Clarksville, Iowa – “Landslide” (Fleetwood Mac) – The judges’ take: Luke – “That’s why I signed up for this. Thanks for inspiring me.” Lionel – “You’ve done a great job my dear.” Katy – “I’m voting for you.”

Best endorsement ever: Katy using her cell phone to cast votes for Maddie. Over the course of the season, no one has shown more consistent growth as a confident performer, nor stayed truer to a clear vision of who they are. And by consistently choosing classic songs by classic artists, this one included, Maddie helped cement a fan base that goes beyond the youngest viewers. This one was of a piece with last week’s “God Only Knows,” a strong vocal that shows just how good someone can be without prowling around the stage or otherwise showboating. Grade: A

Not gonna make a prediction, because this is a tight race. But hoping Maddie takes it.

Chaz Lipp

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