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'American Idol' contestants wear goggles in show of solidarity for blind contestant

Lyndsey Parker

The Group Rounds of American Idol Hollywood Week are typically known for the sort of reality-TV cattiness than can only come from forcing sleep-deprived drama queens (and kings) to spend hours together in close quarters, practicing step-touch choreography to a Shawn Mendes song under the critical eye of Katharine McPhee’s stage mother. Those bad vibes can make for admittedly good TV. But this Sunday, as Idol Season 17’s Hollywood Week commenced, we got some unexpected feel-good entertainment from Unexpected Vibe — a group comprising contestants Dimitrius Graham, William Oliver Jr., Assata Renay, and blind teenager Shayy — when Shayy’s groupmates wore blackout goggles onstage in solidarity.

Shayy only went blind last year and is still struggling to adapt, which made group rehearsals difficult for her when it came to picking up the choreography and especially reading/remembering the lyrics to Unexpected Vibe’s assigned song, the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.” But thanks to the support of her new Idol friends, Shayy didn’t just manage to soldier through the performance, but was actually the standout contestant of the entire nicely harmonized number. William later explained the goggles’ meaning to the judges, saying he, Assata, and Dimitrius wore them so they “could be in perspective with [Shayy]. … We could not have done this without wearing these glasses.”

Softie judge Lionel Richie was particularly moved by the gesture, rushing onstage to hug the singers and marveling, “Every time you think you know just about everything and you’ve seen everything, you come on a show like this and you just remind us of what God’s gift really looks like.”

That doesn’t mean night one of Hollywood Week — which actually took place in Hollywood-adjacent Downtown L.A., at the Orpheum Theatre — was drama-free. There seemed to be some sort of Idol Flu going around, which had judge Katy Perry sneezing into snot-rags and self-remedying with oil of oregano; a sweaty Eddie Island vomiting right before he hit the stage for his solo performance (“The last thing you wanna do is throw up on Katy Perry!”); and a truly sick Nate Walker being carted off to the ER by paramedics (you’ll have to tune in Monday to find out how that cliffhanger is resolved).

There were also some early eliminations of contestants who’d previously received generous screentime — including crazy chicken lady/Seacrest stan Courtney Penry, robotic overachiever Peach Martine, drill sergeant Landon Knowlton, quirky country kid Colby Swift (though he did receive the parting gift of judge Luke Bryan’s own size 12D boots), clogger Zeb Spencer, Laine Hardy’s pal Ashton Gill, Billy Dean-mentored country ingenue Chloe Channell, and even Unexpected Vibe’s own William. I was especially disappointed to witness the departures of perky Latina country crooner Jade Flores, whose Ronstadt-reminiscent take on “Unchained Melody” had showcased immense potential, and openly gay Israeli immigrant Jorgie, whose lovely original song “Heaven” and triumphant backstory had been made him a standout of last week’s auditions.

However, the two cuts that went the deepest were 27-year-old widow Lauren Engle and 15-year-old Ethan Payne, the Make-a-Wish kid with cystic fibrosis who’d once dueted with his idol, Luke. “I cannot believe I’m the one having to do this,” Luke lamented as he delivered the latter bad news, seeming almost as devastated as the teary-eyed Ethan himself.

These were my favorite ones-to-watch successful Sunday performances, which not only secured advancement to the next round, but could possibly lead to slots in the top 24 semifinals:

Laci Kaye Booth, 23: “Natural Woman”

Doing a countrified version of the Aretha Franklin/Carole King classic that put Kelly Clarkson on the Idol map, Laci sounded like a natural woman and a natural-born star. A standing ovation from the judges ensued.

Alejandro Aranda, 24: “Sorry” 

Any doubters who thought the judges were laying it on too thick when they declared this multi-instrumentalist a “genius” should now see what all the fuss is about. Not only is Stevie Nicks a big fan, but Alejandro’s advanced musicianship and creativity on this haunting Justin Bieber cover was marvelous to behold. If he can conquer his confidence issues, he could — as Katy predicted — “take this whole thing.”

Madison Vanderburg, 16: “Already Gone”

The “next Kelly Clarkson” was very smart to do a Kelly Clarkson song. And she nailed it. What a huge voice for such a young girl.

Margie Mays, 25: “Lay Me Down”

She’s still a nervous spaz who comes across like this season’s answer to potentially annoying screwball comedienne Catie Turner. She is right to worry that she won’t be taken seriously. But when Margie belted this solemn Sam Smith ballad, she was seriously good. This was solid.

Logan Johnson, 20: “Sensible Heart”

The recovering addict, celebrating his 10th month of sobriety during Hollywood Week, delivered such a pretty and poignant rendition of this City and Colour song that when he finished there was a stunned, pregnant pause in the Orpheum before the audience erupted. Hopefully the pressure of the competition won’t get to Logan while he’s in such a delicate state, and he can continue to funnel his emotions into lovely performances like this.

Eddie Island, 25: “I Will Follow You Into the Dark”

He managed to not throw up on Katy, and he also managed to have Katy enthusiastically singing along to his compelling Death Cab for Cutie cover. This was a siiiiick performance, not a sick one.

Laine Hardy, 18: “She Talks to Angels”

Last year’s fallen frontrunner is much more confident than he was in Season 16 — it’s amazing what a difference some new merch and new teeth can make — and it really showed during his husky performance of a perfectly chosen Black Crowes ballad.

Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon, 25: “Beautiful”

Jeremiah has “very little to go back to,” as he is leaving his father’s church, where he has worked as a janitor, because his family can’t/won’t accept that he is gay. Therefore, he heartbreakingly explained that this Carole King number was the “biggest performance of my life” so far. This guy deserves to be on stages surrounded by people who adore him, not scrubbing toilets for judgmental jerks. This was exquisite. Jeremiah just might be my favorite this season. I see more “biggest performances” in his future.

Nate Walker, 18: “I Believe in You and Me”

Nate late struggled in groups due to his above-mentioned mystery illness, but his solo performance showcased him at his healthy best. It was a like a cabaret one-man show. “Walker showed up, y’all,” said Luke. “Walker never left!” corrected Katy. (Side note: The “other Walker,” redhead piano kid Walker Burroughs, also did well.)

Dimitrius Graham, 27: “Wind Beneath My Wings”

I forgave the cheesy, maudlin song choice, because Dimitrius was serenading his mother via FaceTime on his (cracked) phone while she was in the hospital awaiting surgery. Katy absolutely lost it (more tissues were needed), and I did too. Dimitrius later revealed that his mom’s operation was a success and thanked the judges for their prayers. Man, Idol is bringing all the feels this season.

Wade Cota, 27: “Litost”

The Satchmo-voiced singer-songwriter was fantastic on this rough-hewn X Ambassadors tune, as seen above. “Turn him up!” Lionel cheered. However, during the Groups Rounds he had to write crib-notes of the lyrics to “California Dreamin’” on his arm (who doesn’t know that song???) and he still forgot the words. Wade surely wouldn’t have made it through to Monday if he hadn’t fortunately already wowed the panel with his flub-free solo.

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