And the winner of 'American Idol' Season 18 is…

Lyndsey ParkerEditor in Chief, Yahoo Music
Yahoo Music

It was a far cry from the glory days when Ryan Seacrest crowned Kelly Clarkson the first American Idol amid a storm of confetti 18 years ago, or the peak Season 10 finale, when Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and even U2’s Bono and the Edge performed live. But Sunday’s American Idol episode was, as Ryan put it, “one for the history books,” when Just Sam was declared this year’s winner during the series’ first-ever at-home finale.

It was an emotional night for the hard-luck Harlem subway singer, who unlike her fellow contestants — who returned home to their families after production was suspended this season due to coronavirus concerns — had to quarantine alone, far away from her beloved grandma. At one point, the loneliness and stress had even driven her to break down in sobs on the air. But she had nothing but happy tears this Sunday, as she cradled an iPad in her arms, FaceTiming with her elated grandmother back home.

“My dreams have come true… thank you so much, America,” said a shocked Sam. “I would have never, ever, ever expected this. Thank you, thank you, thank you for voting for me.”

“You're never going to go back to singing on the subway — unless you want to go and just, like, do it for fun,” said judge Katy Perry. “Your life has changed.”

Of course, the event was bound to be an anticlimactic end to this rushed, coronavirus-derailed season, with the contestants being whittled down from seven to five to two to one in the course of Sunday’s couple of hours. (The first two contestants to be eliminated at the top of show, based on their lackluster performances last week, were singer-songwriters and former frontrunners Louis Knight and Julia Gargano — both of whom probably would have fared better during a normal season, when they would have had time to evolve, as well as play their own originals.)

But after Just Sam and her fellow surviving finalists Arthur Gunn (who placed second), Dillon James, Francisco Martin, and Jonny West — all male singer-songwriters who seemingly canceled themselves out in the voting — competed one last time for America’s (or at least East Coast America’s) real-time online votes, Idol producers did their best to throw the best damn Zoom party they could under the circumstances. Along with performances by the judges, the finale featured several virtual superstar collaborations, by Rascal Flatts (with lovable garbage man Doug Kiker, who showed off his new teeth), Lauren Daigle (with Just Sam), and Cynthia Erivo (singing an Aretha Franklin tribute with the top 11).

Just Sam and the other finalists also joined the judges and Idol alumni Ruben Studdard, Fantasia, Kellie Pickler, Katharine McPhee, Jordin Sparks, Lauren Alaina, Phillip Phillips, Laine Hardy, and Alejandro Aranda for a “We Are the World” performance to commemorate the anniversary of that USA for Africa charity single, which judge Lionel Richie co-wrote 35 years ago with Michael Jackson. I’d like to take a moment to point out that I first put this idea in Lionel’s head when I interviewed him at an Idol press event back in February — something he of course failed to mention on Sunday’s telecast. But hey, I am glad he heeded the advice, because it was a nice, feel-good moment.

Anyway, for their final performances, the top five were asked to pick the song they would “celebrate with when this crisis is over.” This understandably led to most of them going with bouncy, uptempo numbers — which, frustratingly, didn’t showcase most of them at their best or create the sort of finale breakout that they needed during such a close race. This would have been the night to do a heart-on-sleeve ballad, so the celebratory theme was probably why some of them ultimately fell short of making the top two.

For their second attempts, each contestant performed his or her prospective debut single. However, with the exception of one contestant, these were not originals but “familiar songs from the show that struck a chord with the fans early on.” No traditional coronation single for Just Sam may hurt her chances for a career after the show (we all remember what a launching pad “Home” was for Season 11 winner Phillip Phillips), but at least this segment gave all five contestants the opportunity to properly throw down the gauntlet. 

Let’s look at the top five’s performances, and assess whether the right singer won:

Dillon James

Dillon had a good night; I actually thought he was going to win. His first cover, Eric Clapton’s “Change the World,” had an authentic Jackson Maine vibe and a CMT sheen of professionalism. Katy called it “effortless” and one of Dillon’s best performances of the season; Lionel said it was “absolutely stellar”; and Luke Bryan told him, “It just felt real, real natural, it felt like the right song, the right key, the right delivery. You are exactly where you need to be in life right now.”

Dillon revisited “The Times They Are a-Changin’” for his second act, another smart choice. He just seemed on another plane compared to some of the other contestants’ home performances. “I'm in love with Bob Dylan's version of it, but you have turned it into a Dillon James version, my friend,” said Lionel, while both Katy and Luke agreed that this was a big improvement over the more tentative version Dillon sang at Final Judgment in Hawaii.

Francisco Martin 

Francisco, whose lane seemed cleared for him after Louis’s dismissal, played up the heartthrob angle with his Harry Styles cover, “Adore You.” Maybe that was a smart strategy, and it’s a great song, but this felt a bit lightweight and throwaway for the occasion; Francisco has always fared best with melancholy balladry. But Luke and Lionel praised his confidence, and Katy told him, “I saw you smiling in the screen — I mean, if you can do that to an iPhone, imagine what you will do to a large crowd.”

I preferred Francisco’s Maggie Rogers cover, “Alaska” — it was lovely and tasteful, and he was truly in his element. Katy called it an “elevated version” of his previous attempt, and Lionel and Luke praised Francisco’s surprising evolution over this short season, with Lionel telling him, “You have delivered the goods on graduation day.”

Just Sam

I appreciated that, in a bit of genius foreshadowing, Sam connected her story arc back to the series’ inaugural champ by doing Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger.” (She did Season 3 winner Fantasia’s “Believe” on a previous episode.) But again, this felt too frothy. But Lionel was wowed, exclaiming, “Whoa! Our little girl has grown up,” while Luke called her a “wonderful, blessed singer”

Sam was back in the game with Andra Day’s “Rise Up” — an up-with-people empowerment anthem that has been done way too much on all singing competitions, but became something special again when Sam dug deep to interpret it. “That song is built for you; I’m so glad to get to hear you do it one more time,” said Luke. “You've been such an inspiration, that there are kids out there right now who are trying to figure their lives out. They can relate to where you are and where you've been, and we have been so inspired by your journey. … As far as I'm concerned, you've won in life,” said Lionel. (And then... she won on Idol!)

Arthur Gunn

Gavin DeGraw’s “I Don’t Want to Be” was the most disappointing song choice of the night. Arthur was always my top pick to win Season 18, because he’s always been this year’s song-flipping Alejandro Aranda — but I never wanted or expected him to win with middle-of-the-road, mid-‘oughts dreck like this. This was the first time that he didn’t make a song his own or do something original. But Katy told him he “left it all on the living room floor,” Lionel called it a “mic-drop” moment, and Luke told him he had “moves like Jagger.” Arthur actually might have won instead of Sam, if he’d gone with a different song for this segment.

Thankfully, Arthur’s radical remake of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” (his third version of the season) was just the redemption he needed. This was the creative risk-taker that had fascinated me all season long. Lionel called him an “absolute star,” and Katy said, “I don't know what pill you took for today's performances, but in my own opinion, you took the winning pill, because you came with the last play. It's like you had a last ace up your sleeve. And if you win, I think you should put out that version of the song, because it was tremendous.” Arthur should take Katy’s advice anyway.

Jonny West

James & Bobby Purify’s 1967 funky R&B classic “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” was a curveball song choice, and an extremely cool one. I appreciated the risk, even if Jonny did suck some of the soul out of it with his tepid piano-bar arrangement. But Lionel told him. “You can take any song, any style, and make it your song,” and Luke said, “You navigate these songs like a seasoned 40-year performer. It's just stuff that's not taught. It's given from the man upstairs. And you have it.”

This season was touted as the “singer-songwriter season,” with producers clearly on the hunt for the Next Alejandro — but only Jonny dared to do an original, “Makin’ Love,” for his all-important final performance. Another big risk! But it was damn good song, sexy and funky in a Hall & Oates sort of way. It was a hit when he first did it in the audition room, and it was hit now when he did it in his bedroom. Luke called it “radio-ready,” and Katy gushed, “You know what's so cool about you? You are already thinking about the future right now. … I want, like, Mark Ronson to produce this song. It's got soul.”

Actually, a case could have been made for any of these top five to win, and hopefully they’ll go on to big careers regardless. (I think Arthur might be the most successful of all, following in the footsteps of runners-up like Clay Aiken, Adam Lambert, and, well, Alejandro Aranda.) And hopefully, they’ll all be invited to the show’s big stage when it returns for Season 19 and, presumably, resumes normal production. See you then. Parker out.

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