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Carrie on: The ‘American Idol’ top 5 take on Underwood’s legacy

Lyndsey Parker

With The Voice now recruiting two of the most successful American Idol alumni, Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson, to be coaches next season, Idol made a bid to reclaim (read: cling to) its superstar legacy this Sunday by inviting Grammy-winning, 65 million-selling winner Carrie Underwood to mentor the top five. The contestants even sang songs from the Carrie catalog. “We’re proud to have the most successful Idol in the show’s history back tonight,” host Ryan Seacrest bragged.

But there is only one Carrie Underwood. (No, not even her supposed mini-me, Gabby Barrett, can compare.) This sad fact was evidenced by four of the five contestants’ lackluster Carrie covers; really, the night’s best Carrie song was when the Season 4 champ herself returned to the Idol stage in glitter-painted clown tears to belt her new single “Cry Pretty.”

However, it’s been obvious since Gabby’s audition (with a Carrie song) that the show’s powers-that-be want her to win. And watching Gabby tell Carrie, “I started singing country music because of you”; Carrie respond with, “I see a lot of myself in you, but I was not as good as you are at your age”; and judge Luke Bryan describe Gabby as “Carrie Underwood reincarnated”… well, none of that was subtle.

And the Idol brass may get their wish: At the end of the evening, after 20 million real-time votes were tallied, Gabby indeed made the top three (yes, three, not the usual two) heading into next week’s finale, along with Caleb Lee Hutchinson and, in a bit of a pleasant surprise, Maddie Poppe. (Will Gabby and Caleb ironically split the country vote, opening the door to a Maddie victory? Well, that didn’t happen in Season 10 with Scott McCreery, Lauren Alaina, and rocker Haley Reinhart, but that’s my hope for next week.)

In addition to performing Carrie covers Sunday, the top five also made Mother’s Day dedications — complete with mom-bonding moments so touching, they inspired some non-pretty-crying. And the contestants all fared much better. With these second songs, even eliminated singers Cade Foehner and Michael J. Woodward did their mamas proud.

CARRIE UNDERWOOD SONGS

Michael J. Woodard, “Flat on the Floor”
Michael promised he was going to “bring a lot of sassafras,” and he was his usual charismatic self. But the vibe here was cornball, and the quirky qualities of his voice were muffled. He would’ve been better on an emotional, gospel-tinged number like “Jesus Take the Wheel” or “Temporary Home.”

Gabby Barrett, “Last Name”
This segment felt like such a contrived torch-passing moment for “Carrie Underwood’s No. 1 fan.” Gabby’s upbeat, feisty performance had lots of sassafras, but it was a Carrie tribute act. It was, well, “Carrie Underwood reincarnated.” I still crave more originality from Gabby, but I doubt I’ll see it on the finale.

Cade Foehner, “Undo It”
This uptempo stomper was a good fit for Cade’s Southern rock style, but Cade had lost his mojo. (He also seemed to have lost some of his vocal power; I could hear the wear and tear tonight.) This was a workmanlike, bar-band performance, but hardly the breakout he needed to get to the finale.

Caleb Lee Hutchinson, “So Small”
Caleb’s recordable, identifiable baritone sounded pleasant, but it was a comedown after last week’s game-changing “When Doves Cry.” If he’d played guitar, his performance would’ve had more edge and depth; he appeared lost without it. “I think that some people on the show are already physically outperforming you. … You’ve got to flap those wings a little bit harder when it comes to working the crowd,” Katy Perry told him, in one of her rare constructive critiques of the night. (Side note: The judges claimed they were going to be tougher this week. They lied.)

Maddie Poppe, “I Told You So”
This was the only Carrie cover that was at a Carrie-level, the only one that felt fresh, and the only one that earned a standing ovation. Maddie’s sweet storytelling style made every word ache with longing, and she gave off an old-school-meets-new-school country vibe a la Kacey Musgraves or Margo Price. “I just want to hear a record of yours, real quick, so whatever happens, just put it out!” gushed Katy. I hope the “whatever” that happens is Maddie winning in eight days’ time.

MOTHER’S DAY SONGS

Gabby Barrett, “I Have Nothing”
Whitney Houston’s desperate breakup ballad was an odd choice, lyrically, for a Mother’s Day theme, but Gabby impressively navigated every massive power note. “I don’t even want America to hear my voice speak of that, so I’m shutting up,” joked an astounded Luke.

Cade Foehner, “Simple Man” (ELIMINATED)
Cade was back in his element on this smoldering Skynyrd classic, which worked with his even-raspier-than-usual rasp and raw sex appeal. If he had been this good on his first song, he may have survived. “For all of you out there who have missed late ’60s, early ’70s, that was it,” Lionel Richie declared.

Michael J. Woodard, “Still I Rise” (ELIMINATED)
Michael went back to his churchy roots — fittingly, after bonding with his mom — on this Yolanda Adams gospel tune. It was earnest, passionate, the real deal. The judges were on their feet, and Michael’s mother was in tears. “You’re anointed,” Katy told him. Michael went out on a high note with this Sunday best.

Caleb Lee Hutchinson, “Stars in Alabama”
With his trusty six-string back in hand and a pedal-steel player behind him, Caleb crooned this vintage-sounding Jamey Johnson tune with tons of heart and grit. This twangy effort had all the substance that his blank-eyed Carrie cover had lacked. “It’s so fun hearing you in your wheelhouse, doing a song that’s tailor-made for you,” Luke said.

Maddie Poppe, “God Only Knows”
Maddie tackled “the mother of Beach Boys songs,” starkly accompanied by a lone piano, gripping her mic stand close to her chest, and staring straight into the camera (and straight through to viewers’ souls). At the end, everyone was choked up — including Maddie herself (which Luke called “very endearing”) — and Lionel was bursting with “papa pride.” God only knows what the finale would’ve been like without a singular, stellar talent like Maddie.

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