American Idol 5th Judge: Miracle Crash Survivor Learns to Talk Again, Gets Second Chance at Dream

Original songs and miracle comebacks punctuated the third week of auditions as “American Idol” rolled on.

Oh, and we got another Normandy situation, if you’ll recall last year’s contestant who came in with a squeaky speaking voice only to belt out Tina Turner in a full-throated baritone. It happened again with a new contestant who had such a different singing voice to her speaking voice, you’d swear it wasn’t the same person.

In the original song territory, we got two great ones with mixed returns on the quality of the person singing it. One brought in a top-notch country track that we could see on the radio today, filled with so much heart. The other one was giving us Meghan Trainor vibes for its pop catchiness, clever lyrics and danceability. It’s exciting to see artists fully baked getting the chance to be themselves.

And then there was the young woman who came in and decided to show who she was by doing a cover song on the piano. But not just any song, she took on Lionel Richie’s “Hello” and left his jaw hanging in the wind.

Throw in a neurodivergent musical prodigy with perfect pitch who delivered another original song and a young man who recovered from a horrific accident that left him needing to relearn how to walk and talk and the night was not short on inspiration or tears, either. This season of “Idol” seems to have tears and talent in equal measure!

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 each week. 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.

This collection of performances were all so overly theatrical and over-the-top in their delivery that even the strong, impressive voices were just such a mismatch for this show and this dream. But we’re ready to start casting for “Broadway Idol” so these talented kids can have a direct connection to where they should be taking their talents. And we’re not talking about something like “Grease: You’re the One That I Want!” It’s not about casting a single show or single role, but about finding the next generation of Broadway stars. PBS tried it a few years ago and the networks are gun-shy after “Grease,” but wouldn’t it be fun to see all that ham and theatricality on a weekly show like this?

Results: Not right for this

(“All Night Long,” Lionel Richie – 27, Burbank, CA) We got a hint as to how this came to happen with Bre’s job as a dueling pianist. Lionel was already next to her on the piano belting out his tune after a commercial break, so we could only guess they were recreating her vocation. Unfortunately for Bre, her voice perhaps paled even more next to Lionel’s on his own classic. Aside from that, though, there was no way hers was going to be strong enough to make a legitimate run on this show. It was a little too warbly and pitchy for us. The duet was a lot of fun, though, with Lionel really hamming it up. And apparently the overall experience was stronger than what we saw because she made it!

Results: Y, Y, Y

(“Cold as Ice,” Foreigner – 22, Nashville, TN) There was something interesting happening with Mikey — and it wasn’t that his mom gigs with him as his pianist. He’s got a good voice and a great range and plenty of volume, but it sounded a bit nasally and in his head. There was an unexpected thinness to his voice even as he was bellowing admirably that crazy Foreigner range. The panel was unsure what to do with him, too, with Katy chalking that up to him not revealing anything about his own artistry in that note-for-note cover. There was definitely something that felt hollow. Maybe it was too performative, with no real substance behind his intent as a singer, which is what Katy was missing.

Results: Y, N, N

(“Don’t Call Me,” Keelin – 24, New York, NY) As a pop bop this is it. We loved all the spoken elements and the whole vibe and energy of the track. Unfortunately, the only weak spot in it was Keelin’s voice. She was giving us great pop songwriter vibes, but maybe for now writing songs for other people. She needs to put in more work on her voice to make sure she can still hit the note while performing her choreography and moves. The whole thing was so orchestrated, from each vocal moment to the backing track to every move she made. It was just the voice that was missing that same level of polish and preparation. She’s clearly got talent, but can she rise up?

Results: Y, Y, N

(“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” Elton John – 20, Vancouver, BC) She got the honor of appearing just after that disastrous musical theater montage of kids who couldn’t shake all that training to calm the f— down for this type of show. Could Emma? Katy warns her right away she needs to be able to set that aside and bring a different side of herself to this stage. She definitely slipped into some of those habits as she performed, but there is no denying the range and power of her voice. Plus, there was some interesting character in it, especially early on. Her vibrato could calm down a bit and not be so … theatrical. Luke challenged her to sing “Happy Birthday” but ultimately to strip the vibrato out entirely, which she was able to do and nail the pitch. If this is the direction she wants to go, it proves she can be taught and find her way. The voice is already there.

Results: Y, Y, Y

(“Predicament,” Adin Boyer – 22, Lake Forest, CA) Adin came on in part to push forward representation for neurodiversity. On top of that, he has perfect pitch and is a bit of a musical prodigy. He opened up about his sensory issues that can lead to meltdowns if he hears a loud noise, for example. But he developed a coping mechanism where he now focuses to try and identify the pitch of the loud noise, which allows him to navigate that chasm. He was on track to become a concert pianist, but a Coldplay concert — and his pitch ID trick — refocused him onto the singer-songwriter track.

He came with a very unusual original song that had unique intonation, syncopation and rhythm throughout. His classical training definitely rides in his voice, but there’s a hint of musical theater in his phrasing and writing. It results in a wholly unique auditory experience as he brings all of these influences into the singer-songwriter realm. We were feeling all over the place through this piece, but never less than fully fascinated. It’ll be interesting to see if he can rein in some of his excesses as a singer and connect.

Results: Y, Y, Y

(“You Know I’m No Good,” Amy WInehouse / “Bennie and the Jets,” Elton John – 25, Roseville, California) This was an interesting one as Sara is a young mother of three who doesn’t consider herself a musician and couldn’t even say if this was her dream or not. She immediately did not have Katy on her side. Despite a solid enough karaoke cover of Amy Winehouse, Katy still wasn’t impressed. Sara said she’d originally planned the Elton John but changed it due to her voice. Katy pushed her into him anyway.

She remained an enigma, but at least this song pushed her into more of her voice and she’s really got something there. She must be one of those natural talents who has no idea the gift she has. She’s clearly never even tried to work it out, but the raw materials are so there. If she decides she really wants this and pushes herself, she could get exciting fast. The panel, other than Luke, remained on the fence about her but ultimately put her through — so she needs to decide if this is what she wants. We hope she does so we can see what might blossom.

Results: N, Y, Y

(“Golden Eyes,” Tanner Charles – 20, Broken Arrow, OK) In a cute gesture for his girlfriend, Tanner wrote an original song to perform in honor of her upcoming birthday. It was a very sweet song that sounded very contemporary. Tanner has a nice tone to his voice, but he needs to reach deeper into his chest when he sings to round out his sound and give it that extra punch of power. He’s definitely got that unassuming swoon-worthy vibe to him that tends to do quite well on this show. If he can grow more into his full voice and connect like this to cover songs, he could have a good run on this journey.

Results: Y, Y, Y

(“Something to Write About,” Preston Duffee – 21, Hartsville, SC) Preston lost his mother to suicide a few years back, leading to temporary homelessness for him and his sister. His mother struggled with bipolar and depression and couldn’t overcome her mental struggles, but Preston honored her story and memory by sharing it before presenting an original song that touched on his whole life.

Honestly, this was one of the best original country songs we’ve ever heard on a reality show. It had all the pieces to make it a hit from clever wordplay to a beautiful throughline with strong imagery and a sense of faith. We also loved the unique rhythm and phrasing employed throughout to keep you on your toes and listening. There was a humility in the lyrics that spoke to who Preston is and how the hardships of life have shaped him into who he is. This was a masterful way to introduce himself not only to the judges, but to the world.

Results: Y, Y, Y

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or has had thoughts of harming themselves or taking their own life, get help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (just dial 988) provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress.

(“Bless the Broken Road,” Rascal Flatts – 21, Raeford, NC) Elijah has recovered from a horrific car accident just after his high school graduation where he said he had to learn to walk and talk all over again. 79 days and 10 surgeries later — and after flatlining nine times — Elijah is ready to chase his dream of singing. There was even video footage of him trying to sing from his hospital bed, hoping he could still do it. He even shared that his mother had signed up for “Idol” before the accident and he had his ID number and was ready to go when suddenly he wasn’t.

His recovery must have been truly remarkable, because just these few years later (the accident was June 2019), he has so much power and rich texture in his voice, that had you not known, you’d have never guessed he’d ever endured such a thing. He put a lot of soul into this piece, slowing it down at times to emphasize certain words or phrases. There’s a beautifully full tone there, but we found ourselves wondering if he’d be able to stand out among some of the more unique artists already seen.

The judges were thinking of the late “Idol” runner-up Willie Spence (who tragically died in a car accident last year) in his vocal, but we aren’t quite ready to go there yet. We could get there, but he’s got to take us on that ride.

Results: Y, Y, Y

(“Anyone,” Demi Lovato – 23, Harlem, NY) Wé comes in with this high-pitched mousey speaking voice — we’ve seen this before on “Idol” — and then is able to drop it way down low to belt out a genuine and heartfelt take on one of the most emotional songs of the last decade. This song is so hard to nail even Demi doesn’t always get it, but Wé was effortless in selling not only the incredible power and range, but the heartache and aching loneliness. This was a stunning performance. She has such a great personality on top of all of that talent, she should be a lot of fun to watch.

Results: Y, Y, Y

(“If It Hadn’t Been for Love,” The Steeldrivers – 21, Armorel, AR) Marybeth put a bit of her own “barbecue sauce,” as Lionel would put it, on this track and every choice she made only enhanced the overall experience. This was such an artistic performance, we felt every bit of who she is and where she sees herself as an artist from this one moment. Her voice has a great character to it with cracks and breaks throughout but a lot of power and range. It’s an interesting voice that makes you want to marinate on it more. We love a memorable and unexpected vocal performance!

Results: Y, Y, Y

(“Hello,” Lionel Richie – 20, Los Angeles, CA) First of all, the nerve to come up and sing one of the judges’ songs in front of that judge, and then for that song to be this one where there is absolutely nowhere to hide, Olivia has nerves of steel. Either that, or she just had that much confidence because she knows how good she is. This was an incredibly tasteful and powerful interpretation of Lionel’s classic. It was as perfectly suited for her soaring vocals as when Lionel sings it. She sang it like she wrote it, which is really what it’s all about. Even Lionel had to get on his feet for this one.

Results: Y, Y, Y

“American Idol” continues Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

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