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A 'disaster'? 'American Idol' finale gets off to rough start

Lyndsey Parker

Sunday was a big night on American Idol, as the final three (country singers Gabby Barrett and Caleb Lee Hutchinson, and indie troubadour Maddie Poppe) competed to become the 16th Idol — singing encore songs, hometown dedications, and “winning” singles.

I put that word in quotation marks, however, as that coronation-song round, which kicked off the night, was far from winning. It was what judge Katy Perry — finally applying some Simon Cowell-style tough love in the season’s penultimate episode — called a “disaster.” At one point, Katy even yelled at the top three to “wake up,” and all three judges noted that the contestants seemed uncomfortable with the unfamiliar, untested material. (It might’ve helped if these coronation songs had actually been good. Just sayin’.)

Thankfully, things picked up in the second and third rounds … especially when the VOCAL LEGEND Steve Perry showed up to play honorary fourth judge. (Can he please be an official judge next year?) This finale may not have had Jurnee, but it had Journey, so I didn’t stop believin’. And Katy didn’t stop believin’, either.

In fact, at night’s end, Katy did something almost unprecedented … and actually revealed which contestant she’s voting for. (“They didn’t say I wasn’t allowed to! I’m playing within the rules. Use your voice if you have one,” Katy told Yahoo Entertainment after the show.)

CORONATION SONGS

Caleb Lee Hutchinson, “Johnny Cash Heart”
This soothing tune, co-written by Rascal Flatts’s Jay DeMarcus, boasted the perfect vintage vibe for Caleb, and it would be a great deep cut on his forthcoming album. But a winning single? NO. It was an underwhelming start to the show, and the conspiracy theorist in me suspected that the Idol brass sabotaged Gabby’s toughest competitor by saddling him with something so forgettable. Furthermore, the laid-back Caleb didn’t perform it like a champion. Mentor Bobby Bones had sympathy for Caleb (and for the other two contestants), but he pointed out that Caleb had flubbed the lyrics. Katy, meanwhile, declared this Caleb’s “weakest performance of the season.”

Gabby Barrett, “Rivers Deep”
This stomping gospel/country ballad, co-penned by X Factor alumnus Ella Henderson, was more typical coronation fare, but it was barely as good as “No Boundaries” or “This Is My Now.” Gabby tackled it with her usual technical flawlessness, but she seemed blank-eyed and, like Caleb, disconnected from the piece. Her personality was muted and wooden. “I think you guys are just getting your bearings with these songs,” Katy sighed.

Maddie Poppe, “Going Going Gone”
This was the best song of the bunch, written by hitmakers Mitch Allan, Lindy Robbins, and Best New Artist Grammy nominee Julia Michaels. The rollicking, Mumfordian ditty had a triumph-of-the-spirit feel that the other two songs lacked, plus some country flavor to persuade on-the-fence Caleb and Gabby fans, and it was so Phillips Phillips-y (right down to its title, similar to P-Squared’s “Gone, Gone, Gone”), I experienced flashbacks to the Season 11 finale. Maddie seemed like the winner to me. That being said, this was hardly her strongest performance.

ENCORE SONGS

Caleb Lee Hutchinson, “Don’t Close Your Eyes” by Keith Whitley
Caleb redeemed himself with this stoic and tender performance (Katy called it a “light-year’s’ difference”) of a song that clearly resonated more deeply with him. Lionel Richie called Caleb’s voice “solid as a rock,” but this was still too down tempo and relaxed to compete with a spitfire like Gabby or a maverick like Maddie. I think he should have encored with “When Doves Cry.”

Gabby Barrett, “Little Red Wagon” by Miranda Lambert
I’ve always preferred Gabby in outlaw-cowgirl mode than when she’s an Underwoodian balladeer, so I approved this song choice. Leather-sheathed, sassy Gabby’s boisterous call-and-response performance brought some much-needed energy to Sunday’s proceedings, and she finally seemed to be having fun. (She even almost cracked herself up at one point.) “There she is!” Katy exclaimed.

Maddie Poppe, “Don’t Ever Let Your Children Grow Up” (original)
Original songs were more prominent that ever this Idol season; in fact, this Sunday’s episode featured original reprises by also-ran contestants Catie Turner (“21st Century Machine”), Harper Grace (“Yard Sale”), Jonny Brenns (“Blue Jeans”), and Michelle Sussett (“I’m a Dreamer”). But Maddie’s self-penned Hollywood Week tearjerker was truly magical — “quintessential Maddie Poppe,” as Luke Bryan put it — so it was wonderful to hear it in a more formal, star-making setting, complete with a sea of waving glow sticks. Could this be her coronation single instead, please?

HOMETOWN SONGS

Caleb Lee Hutchinson, “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash
Hey, he really does have a Johnny Cash heart! Lionel called this Caleb’s “comfort zone” and “wheelhouse,” but I’m not sure if that was a compliment — Lionel may have been saying that Caleb had played it too safe. This was my favorite “Caleb Cash” performance of the night, but as his last impression on voters, it wasn’t quite enough to earn him a win.

Gabby Barrett, “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey
There certainly isn’t a more triumphant anthem than this, or a more ambitious showcase for Gabby’s mighty pipes. But between Glee, The Sopranos, and the Idol Season 8 concert tour, I didn’t really need to hear another version of it. (Couldn’t Gabby have done the underrated Escape cut “Stone in Love” instead?) She sounded too nasal and reedy — she’s no Steve Perry; but then again, who is? — but I appreciated her rocker-chick hairography and air guitar. And the Steve Perry was in the audience and seemed to approve, so as far as I’m concerned, Gabby won tonight.

Maddie Poppe, “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac
I knew this performance would be magical ad bittersweet, and that I’d be a sobbing puddle by the song’s end. Her vocal was pristine, her authenticity was undeniable, and her maturity level was miles above the other two. Even her nearly chipping a tooth on the microphone couldn’t ruin her moment. “I’m voting for you,” Katy announced boldly. After this tour de force, Maddie should win by a … wait for it … landslide.

So now it’s prediction time. Is Gabby still a lock for the win, or will she and Caleb split the country vote, allowing Katy to get her way as Maddie pulls off an upset? My guess is the former scenario, but my hope is for the latter. Either way, I predict Caleb will have to settle for third place.

See you Monday, when Kieran dims the lights and we find out.

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