With the American Idol Season 20 finale just one week away, the judges fittingly described Sunday’s fiercely competitive top five show as a “slugfest.” It seemed like any of these five talented singers had the potential to follow in the cowgirl-booted footsteps of Season 4 winner and guest mentor Carrie Underwood, but it was still a shock when alt-rock troubadour Fritz Hager and powerhouse Nicolina Bozzo, both seeming frontrunners, were eliminated at the end of the night.
And no one was more shocked than Leah Marlene, who literally dropped to the floor upon learning that she’d bypassed Fritz and Nicolina to the finals. But while Leah was richly deserving — I think she gave the best overall performance of the night — I’d actually predicted that Fritz would win the whole show.
Although judge Luke Bryan once doubted Fritz and didn’t even want to put him through to Hollywood, Fritz’s quick growth this season was impressive, and he was soon being hailed as either the next Phillip Phillips (due to his strummy singer-songwriter style) or the next Alejandro Aranda (like Alejandro, Fritz often took chances by doing original songs, and those risks always paid off). Katy Perry had compared the “effortlessly cool” and “consistently amazing” Fritz to indie hipsters like Bright Eyes and Bon Iver, and this week she even said he looked like he was in the Strokes or Ramones. Perhaps it was the fact that Fritz didn’t perform originals this week that was his undoing.
On Sunday, the top five contestants performed twice — Carrie Underwood songs, plus another song of their own choosing — and while Fritz’s Carrie tune, her obscure “I Wanna Remember” duet with Needtobreathe, was a cool choice that fit his folksy style, it didn’t quite pack the emotional punch of his own “The Ocean” or “All My Friends.” Fritz went with “Youngblood” by boy band 5 Seconds of Summer for his second number, and he ditched his guitar for the first time this season, so perhaps he simply was too off-brand tonight. But considering that Fritz’s previously released independent EP went to No. 1 on iTunes just two weeks ago, it seems he has a bright-eyed future, regardless of his Idol defeat.
Based solely on this week’s performances, Nicolina’s elimination was even more surprising. The only classic Idol power-belter left in the competition, this diva delivered an absolutely epic, next-level rendition of Carrie’s big and blustery “Blown Away,” complete with a wind machine and cape that would impress even Stevie Nicks. “Everyone is great tonight, obviously, but I feel like you always come and you're like, ‘Can I use some wind? Can I have a cape? Give me some smoke. Give me some fire!’ You are looking for the whole package,” raved Katy. Nicolina followed that tour de force with an elegant, passionate, 100-percent-connected version of her idol Adele’s “All I Ask,” which Lionel Richie called “an American Idol treasured moment.” So, this seemed like a strange literal high note for Nicolina to go out on. But the judges assured her, as they had assured Fritz, that her career was just getting started. “Stay in this pocket. Whatever it is that you are doing the last three or four [performances], this is your lane,” Lionel promised her.
Of course, contrarians and conspiracy theorists will probably argue that this week’s Carrie Underwood theme favored the two country singers who advanced to the finale, Noah Thompson and Huntergirl — particularly the latter, the country golden girl who received the series’ first-ever platinum ticket. Huntergirl has certainly been hyped as The Next Carrie Underwood, or at least The Next Gabby Barrett, since episode one, and while I have always seen her commercial appeal, I never thought she had superstar potential (as opposed to, say, Branson matinee potential). This week, Huntergirl did “bring the sass” on Carrie’s uptempo “Undo It” — a performance that Katy described as a “party” — but her strong, strutting performance didn’t exactly come with a strong vocal.
I actually saw more potential when Huntergirl did Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush,” which showcased a little-seen tender, less brassy side of her personality. This was sweet and sincere, and she looked gorgeously glowed-up as well. “I've got a girl crush,” Katy purred. “You really are flipping into star mode, and it looks good on you,” added Luke. I think if Huntergirl taps more into her vulnerability like this, she could crush the competition next week.
As for Huntergirl’s country competitor Noah, last week he tested positive for COVID-19 and had to perform remotely from his hotel room, and while he had recovered enough to perform live in studio this week, he still wasn’t well enough to travel to Vegas in the interim for an in-person mentoring session with Carrie. The poor guy had to meet with Carrie via Zoom. Ironically, the inexperienced Noah had a breakthrough moment last Sunday because he was more comfortable playing acoustic in his hotel room, and once he was back on the main stage this week doing Carrie’s “So Small,” he seemed very out of his element. He valiantly tried to work the stage/crowd and reach for those power notes, but the song was not a good fit.
Noah was clearly more in his comfort zone during his stripped-down second song, “Working Man” by Larry Fleet. “You on a guitar with a stool is enough to hold any room in any world that you're in,” noted Luke. “What makes you so appealing is that you're real. You're actually a real person. On top of that, you have the ability to tell stories. You're believable,” said Lionel.
But it’s very possible Huntergirl and Noah could cancel each other out in next week’s finale vote and clear the way for the above-mentioned Leah — especially if Leah keeps playing to Idol’s Gen X/Boomer base and sticks with ‘80s power ballads, as she did this week. (Her dad did play in Honeymoon Suite, after all, so she's got the pedigree!) She smartly skirted the rules Sunday, and for her Carrie song did the Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand by You” (a song Carrie once performed on an “Idol Gives Back” charity special). While I wasn’t crazy about the radical arrangement and phrasing that took too many liberties with the melody, it was an effective showcase for Leah's pretty vibrato and endearing personality.
It was Leah’s totally expected and totally thrilling cover of Journey’s “Separate Ways” that really separated her from the pack, however, and proved that she is the most versatile singer of this season (or certainly of the top three). From the Pepto-pink pantsuit to the rock-star range, this was most definitely an American Idol treasured moment. All that was missing was Kris Pooley’s house band miming along on air-instruments in a dockside alley. “I want to see you and Steve Perry just going back and forth, back and forth. Way to educate the young'uns on a song from the '80s and just give it new breath and great life. And it was amazing to see your teeth, because lately you've done some ballads, but you're like, ‘I'm going to do a ballad and I'm going to show my fangs.’ I loved it,” proclaimed Katy.
Tune in next week, when all the fangs come out and the slugfest reaches a whole other level of intensity in the Season 20 finale. In the meantime, we can just be a little sad that Fritz, Nicolina, and Idol have gone their separate ways.
Read more from Yahoo Entertainment: