American Idol Finale 5th Judge: Did HunterGirl, Leah Marlene, or Noah Thompson Win?

We know we’ve seen various alums throughout the season, but it’s still a little surprising that they didn’t book much beyond Carrie Underwood for this 20th season finale of “American Idol” — and then she went ahead and had to cancel due to a Covid exposure within her group.

All that hype, and we don’t even get to see the franchise’s biggest music star (sorry, Kelly, it was close!) perform?

Even without Carrie, there were plenty of superstar performers, including “Idol” alum Gabby Barret (with Cade Foehner). She was joined on the night by Flo Rida, Earth Wind & Fire, Deana Carter, Ben Platt, Tai Verdes, Sara Bareilles, Thomas Rhett, James Arthur, Michael Bublé, and Melissa Etheridge.

To keep things exciting as the night progressed, the Top 3 were set to perform multiple times. And after the first two rounds, a live snapshot of the voting results at that moment will both determine and eliminate the third-place finisher. That’s one way to keep people invested in voting early and as often as they can for their favorites.

After an exciting season, it was all down to HunterGirl, Leah Marle and Noah Thompson. One would get cut halfway through the night and one would be crowned the Season 20 winner. Did you get it right?

Fair warning, since I’m safe at home, I’m probably going to be a little harsher than my colleagues Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan. But I might be nicer, too. Maybe.

And just for fun, I’m going to rank the performances from worst to first to see who my favorites are in each round. That way I can see who’s the best and then see if you get it right with your votes – i.e., agree with me.


(“Cover Me,” Bruce Springsteen – 20, Normal, IL) Bruce’s catalog doesn’t lend itself to big vocal moments because that’s just not the kind of artist he is, but Leah still managed to find a few moments to milk a moment and find a sweet note to play with. It was cool seeing her rock out with the guitar up there, looking and sounding more and more like a real pro with each round. Clearly all the audience support is giving her a huge boost of confidence, as she’s grown the most of anyone in the competition from her stage presence to her style and everything else.

(“Dancing in the Dark,” Bruce Springsteen – 23, Winchester, TN) Every time, her voice is just so radio ready; these live performances could be studio recordings. It’s incredible how pure and clean her voice is. Throughout this piece, HunterGirl managed to find moments to punch it and other moments to just live in the moment. At the end, she gave us a breathy delivery we’ve not heard from her on those final few lines, and it was everything. She really is the total package and ready to take music by storm.

(“I’m on Fire,” Bruce Springsteen – 20, Louisa, KY) Bruce is a perfect fit for what Noah does naturally, but he took it to a whole ‘nother level with this intimate and transfixing performance. Noah on the center of the stage with a mic stand and that’s all we needed. He caressed those early verses and had our souls, he hit those soaring (yet gente) high notes and then put emphasis on the backend to build an emotional bridge to our hearts. This was an unexpectedly powerful performance. It felt like Noah had lived every line. Easily this was his strongest moment of the season!

(“Red Bird,” HunterGirl – 23, Winchester, TN) Another great song, written with a personal connection for HunterGirl. As we said before, she is so radio ready and so is this song. She’s ready to step off this stage and into Nashville and be accepted (hopefully) with open arms. The vocal performance was just a bit shaky at times, but you could hear her heart and how much the message of the lyrics meant to her. Her hometown was so touching, and she showed her heart in the work she does with veterans, HunterGirl remains one of the most impressive people to ever come through the “Idol” machine.

(“One Day Tonight,” Noah Thompson – 20, Louisa, KY) Noah is such a sweet and humble human being, and his friend Arthur is the angel he didn’t know he needed. His hometown visit definitely hit all the feels ahead of this performance. While this was a great song, Noah seemed to be underperforming it just a bit. It’s a habit he’s fallen into in the past, as if his confidence leaves his voice a little timid and even shaky. This is a huge stage and already a number one hit, so he just needs to take that final step and own that he has earned this whole experience. No matter what happens here, though, we have a feeling country music is ready to embrace his authenticity, heart and talent.

(Flowers,” Leah Marlene – 20, Normal, IL) On the verge of losing it entirely, Leah kept it together just enough to get through this original song she wrote to her past self. It’s a beautiful song with such a strong message for anyone who feels trapped in a situation where they’re spirit is wilting. Just believe in yourself, grow and bloom and be you and your greatness will break through. Life is worth taking a chance on yourself, believing in yourself, fighting for yourself. This was a great breakthrough kind of moment for her as an artist truly sharing her art.

After two rounds, it was time to cut one dream short of the big confetti moment at the end of the show. And as much as we’ve been rooting for her all season long — and she is so ready for this — we couldn’t help but think that maybe it was HunterGirl who was going to fall short.

We’ve been ready to see Leah Marlene go these past few weeks after she failed to impress us as much as others, but tonight we’ve seen Leah blossom and grow and find her confidence as an artist. HunterGirl came in polished and ready, and we all know voters love a growth story — both Leah and Noah have those.

The first person Ryan sent into the finals of these finals was Noah, which we pretty much expected. If his song was already at number one — and he’s the only one we got those deets about — then he’s clearly got his fans out there.

The fear for HunterGirl at this point was whether or not she and Noah were sharing country music fan votes. It’s such a singular genre, with so many people in it and so many people absolutely not in it, that she’d have a challenge at this point surpassing Leah.

But that’s not what happened at all, and no one was more stunned than HunterGirl to find out she was still in this thing. That means it was the end of the road for Leah Marlene, who oddsmakers were listing as the favorite to win as recently as last week. Looks like it’s an all-country final after all.

(“I Get a Good Feeling,” Flo Rida) We have a feeling this wasn’t a live recording, but it was still a very fun piece to open the show. That said, we found ourselves more mesmerized by the rapid camera work atop the Hotel Roosevelt wondering if it was drone work, and still impressed by how quickly things were moving. Flo sounded great, but as we said, it could well have been a recording. And with the Top 10 relegated to just singing the chorus in .. ahem … chorus, there’s not much more to say. Visually, though it’s a lot of fun (just be careful if you’re super prone to motion sickness as this one moves!).

(“Shining Star/Let’s Groove/September,” Earth, Wind & Fire) Jay meshed great vocally with the band as they brought such a cool groove to the stage. These guys are total legends in what they do and they can still bring the funk like nobody’s business. It was good seeing Jay in his element, too, clearly enjoying the sound and style — and probably the company he was able to share the stage with!

(“Strawberry Wine,” Deana Carter) It was so sweet how Deana got lost in watching Mike perform and forgot to come in at one point. Their partnership was so sweet and their harmonies were fantastic on the chorus. It was a masterful vocal performance by two people who clearly are fans of the other’s music. We’re so happy for Mike that he found his niche on this show and hope he continues and brings his soulfulness into country music.

(“Take Me to the Pilot,” Elton John) This was a bit of and odd song choice and celebrity pairing for Lady K, but she brought all of herself to this performance. Lady K is another one of those transformative stories for “Idol,” having gained so much in stage presence, style and performance through her time on the show. She’s someone you can’t help but root for, and she was clearly enjoying this final encore moment.

(“Pick Me Up/The Good Ones,” Gabby Barrett) Gabby continues to exemplify what happens when you take self belief through the machine that is “American Idol” and emerge on the other side. She’s such a consummate professional as a performer and singer. She was joined on stage by fellow finalist and husband Cade Foehner, and then later by Emyrson Flora for “The Good Ones.” They paired very well on this track, with Emyrson’s more ethereal sound balancing Gabby’s earthier sound. It’s always great to see alums come back who did good.

(“A-O-K,” Tai Verdes) Another song that’s just a lot of fun and high energy, but it was mostly chorus work from the finalists who did join Tai on stage, so there’s not much to say about what they did. He brought a lot of fun energy in a shortened performance that mostly set up “Idol’s” TikTok Duets challenge.

(“A Moment Like This,” Kelly Clarkson) So, because Kelly Clarkson is all over the place on NBC, and a part of “The Voice ” family, is she contractually prohibited from appearing on “Idol”? The fact she didn’t have a few seconds of duet on her own song that started this whole phenomenon 20 seasons ago seems downright criminal. There were some good voices in there, but all in all, this whole bit felt superfluous.

(“She Used to Be Mine,” Sara Bareilles) Nicolina may have fallen short of the finale, but she proved once again what an incredible performer she is. She went toe to toe with Sara on a track that is all pain and emotion in the most beautifully broken way. It was a magical partnership, with so much artistic respect given to the other performer. We’ve always loved how Sara will share the spotlight, but it’s also clear she feels a kinship with this young singer. Here’s hoping Nicolina can still forge a path for herself.

(“Where We Started,” Thomas Rhett f/ Katy Perry) An interesting visual setup on the stage, keeping a separation between Katy and Thomas throughout the song — and we really wanted them to be pushed together. Instead, they made their way down to the stage separately so they could unite down there.It was a great vocal with stunning harmonies and each of them pushing the other vocally.

(“Can I Be Him,” James Arthur) With completely different pitches, Fritz and James beautifully arranged the song to allow each of them moments to shine and set up perfectly balanced harmonies. Fritz remains one of the more interesting and compelling artists we’ve seen on this show. His vibe is so unique and wholly his own and he knows exactly what kind of artist he is. He’s poised to carve his own path into music.

(“Smile,” Charlie Chaplin) Michael was clearly having a great time sharing the stage with Christian, and trying to allow the finalist to enjoy that spotlight. Michael’s arms were around Christian just about the entire time the Long Islander was up there with him. We’re not gonna lie, it got a little awkward at times, but that’s not gonna take away from the powerful vocals they both put on display throughout the piece. We even loved the judges making fun of Michael for hanging all over Christian — so we weren’t the only ones a little weirded out by it.

(“I’m the Only One,” Melissa Etheridge) Even all these years later, Melissa still rocks out as hard as she ever did. Noah had his work cut out for him trying to keep up with her energy and passion. It took him about a verse to catch up to the level of performance she was giving, but once they got on the same page, they managed to create a pretty cool duet. It was actually great to see her push him without even trying.

(“You Are,” Lionel Richie) Lionel clearly gets the same joy today that he did when this song first came out. It was the kind of performance you might see at a Vegas residency, with a lot of audience play and just a very smooth, relaxed vocal from Lionel. The Top 10 actually stepped up and each sounded great on their respective lines as we set the stage for Lionel’s big entrance. The whole thing was very charming and clearly a lot of fun.

(“Grow As We Go,” Ben Platt f/ Sara Bareilles) A Sweet and very mellow song, Ben and Sara were (of course) effortless in their delivery. It didn’t create the most exciting moment on stage, but it was nice to see some finalists perform backing vocals to connect it to the show a bit. Is this the piece that replaced what Carrie Underwood would have done?

(“Firework,” Katy Perry) Such an empowering song, and we loved that this performance started with little Leah more than ten years ago before Leah today took over and then Katy came out to join her. The whole thing was so sweet and supportive. Katy was incredibly gracious and generous with her song, giving Leah some of its biggest moments, and even singing a few of its lines directly to the finalist. This was such a sweet moment for them both.

(“I Told You So,” Randy Travis) This duet could hit the charts today and probably do quite well. Luke and HunterGirl harmonized very well together, and the way they both told the story was just beautiful. It was such a polished performance it was as if we’re already in the future with HunterGirl coming back as a special guest to show these young bucks how to do it.

(“Stay,” Rihanna f/ Mikky Ekko – 20, Louisa, KY) Noah could not have chosen a better song from his own journey because it really was a “Showstopper” moment when he dropped a Rihanna jam in Hollywood. It was so unexpected, but he sounded so sincere on the track. And that’s exactly what he did here in his last chance to impress before the Season 20 winner is crowned. His vocals were on point and stronger than ever with that gentle rasp and heartfelt believability. Did he do enough?

(“Riot,” Rascal Flatts – 23, Winchester, TN) HunterGirl gave us a full circle moment to end the night by performing her first audition song again, this time with all the growth of the season and a full band backing her. And we could hear that growth in a voice that was already so polished and clean and radio ready (as we know we’ve said ad nauseum, but seriously — it’s incredible!). We loved the authenticity in her voice and the sweetness of who she is pouring through this performance. It couldn’t be more competitive!

By the end of this night, we knew how decent and genuine both of these artists were as individuals. We’re a little bummed we didn’t get a cool country duet from our Top 2, but there’ll be time for that. No matter what happens, we see a real shot at a career awaiting them both.

But for here and now, it was just about the tightest Top 2 we could have ever imagined. HunterGirl has been our pick to run away with this season for weeks and weeks now, but Noah has been surging these past two or three and he made some really strong choices tonight.

Taking into account that we also know the voting audience at home was paying attention to the duets we did get to see tonight, we’d argue that HunterGirl was much stronger opposite Luke Byran than Noah Thompson was alongside Melissa Etheridge. Not that he was bad, but HunterGirl and Luke created a magical moment with that performance.

For her overall season, her story and her incredible night, our money was on HunterGirl to win this. But based on audience reaction every time he so much as smiled or turned his head, it could well be that Noah’s fan base is bigger than we thought. He was loved by this studio audience, but did that translate to voters at home?

It certainly did. Noah Thompson owes his buddy the biggest hug the next time he sees him as he is the Season 20 winner of “American Idol.”

Maybe don’t wait for your friends to take a chance on you for you. Noah is living proof of what can be accomplished with a little belief — eve if it’s someone else believing in you until you’re ready to believe in yourself.

A testament to the family tightness of this entire Top 10 was the genuine joy they all shared with Noah as they stormed the stage and shared his encore performance and celebration with him.

It was such a heartfelt moment — maybe someday it will settle in for Noah that he actually won because he was shell-shocked from the moment his name was read until the credits finished rolling.

“American Idol” will return in 2023 for Season 21 on ABC.

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