Leah Marlene, Noah Thompson and HunterGirl are the top three finalists of American Idol Season 20. (Photo: ABC/Eric McCandless)
A star was born in the United States on Sunday as the Springsteen finale of American Idol season 20 reached its climax as Kentucky construction worker Noah Thompson won the Idol title. That result came as a bit of a surprise considering that country rock regular HunterGirl has been crowned Golden Girl this year since judge Luke Bryan personally presented her with the show’s first-ever coveted platinum ticket. Meanwhile, Noah – who had no vocal training or professional experience – had only tried out for the show because colleague Arthur had secretly signed him up. (“He wasn’t born to work with us,” Arthur told the judges at the season 20 premiere, delivering an impassioned speech that made it seem like he was also auditioning … to become Noah’s manager or publicist. )
Viewers apparently agreed with Arthur, or at least connected to Noah’s classic underdog idol storyline. But second-place HunterGirl and third-place indie troubadour Leah Marlene definitely gave Noah some tough competition on Sunday. Each of the three contestants could have been this season’s boss based on their past performances.
The three-hour finale kicked off with the ultimate all-American rock ‘n’ roll idol Bruce Springsteen’s best three songs (an idol first), and although I would have loved to see this season’s country/American/indie singers To One Interestingly, while throwing a shot at a Nebraska or Born to Run track, they all went with Born in the USA tunes. Leah chose the least obvious song, “Cover Me,” and while it was a sexy, confident performance that leaned heavily on that ’80s stadium rock, she did so well with last week’s covers of Journey and Pretenders judges Lionel Richie seemed to think the left field choice would hurt her, warning her, “I’m telling you, it’s important: song choice is everything now. Familiarity – you want the audience to sing along with you.” Lionel nevertheless assured Leah that while “Cover Me” is “not that familiar,” “Cover Me” “made it her song anyway,” and Katy Perry thought it was “such a groove” and called Leah “the whole package”. But then Katy said to Leah in what appeared to be a diplomatic kiss, “Just the amount of growth you’ve made in such a short amount of time, you’ve won, period — end of story.”
The story goes on
Apparently, it was the end of Leah’s run on Idol, but her story is really just beginning. In the second round, the top three performed their original debut singles – ironically, songs all of America would be unfamiliar with – and this was Leah’s time to shine. Leah’s moody folk-pop ballad “Flowers” was a wistful ode to her past self, and it was definitely the hottest of the night’s originals, exuding Mirage-era Fleetwood Mac vibes. It was a really connected, sweet performance, and an admittedly “overwhelmed” Leah broke down in tears as the excited studio audience rallied around her.
“The crowd will not lie. If they start singing like that, you’ve hit on something, my child. Props to your songwriting side,” Lionel announced. “This song is so beautiful and will change the lives of so many other people. You are a brilliant ambassador,” Katy said. Katy and Leah later teamed up for a duet of Katy’s “Firework,” a song Leah once performed adorably acoustically when she was 9 years old. So in a way, Leah really won when her childhood dreams came true.
After the second round, Ryan Seacrest announced his third-place finish for the season, and then it was down to the two country crooners — giving longtime Idol viewers like me flashbacks to the Scotty McCreery/Lauren Alaina season 10 finale (when the Hipster runaway Haley Reinhart took third place, but went on to have a great indie career.) As for the other two Bruce songs in this year’s finale, HunterGirl went with what is probably the most obvious Born in the USA anthem, “Dancing in the Dark.” ” in front. It was her usual goodtime girl shtick – fun but easy, not exactly taking chances or reinventing any wheels. However, the audience ate it up, as did the judges, who had fired for them all season. “You’re really having fun with it. you play with everyone You feel well. This is your stage. You really brought that electricity with you. … I don’t think you’re a star; I think you’re a supernova,” Katy gushed, while Lionel told HunterGirl, “The fact is, you own the stage now. My dear, you have a career.”
Scratchy Everyman Noah was already the finalist most likely to benefit from the Bruce treatment, but he made the best picks, delivering a smoldering rendition of Katy’s favorite Springsteen song “I’m on Fire.” Lionel nicknamed it “Noah Springsteen” and Katy gushed, “So many people have fallen in love with this song and used it as their first dance song. I think you just rushed in and captured every heart in America singing this song.”
In the group of originals, however, HunterGirl came out on top. Noah’s single “One Day Tonight” sounded modern, albeit generic and mid-paced and just way too confident. It definitely wasn’t the best showcase for his sultry, hoarse tone. But it charted before Sunday’s finale even aired, so I guess that was a good sign. “You are about to do something really big. Don’t stop dreaming. There’s a plan for you in your life,” Katy told him.
Meanwhile, HunterGirl’s “Red Bird” was just what she needed to split the country’s voting bloc and potentially steal the championship from Noah. “Red birds were a big thing for my family,” she explained. “It means when you see a red bird, someone is watching out for you.” The sentimental, CW Network-themed ballad carried all the sentiment, even if it didn’t quite square with HunterGirl’s screaming performance. (Actually, I would have loved to hear Leah sing that.) Even the normally stoic Luke burst into tears and reached for the tissues.
With the top two seemingly going head-to-head now, HunterGirl and Noah ended the vote by repeating songs from earlier in the season. HunterGirl’s Redux of Rascal Flatts’ “Riot” was thoroughly enjoyable, but it wasn’t quite the moment for Noah’s last song — and that’s when Noah took the clear lead with his encore of Rihanna’s “Stay.” When he launched this unconventional selection of songs at the Showstoppers Round weeks ago, it was not only the first time that I really noticed the green country singer, but also one of the best and most interesting performances of the entire season. Revisiting Stay now, looking tidy and handsome in a smart suit, it seemed like Noah’s time had come. He looked and sounded like an idol. “That was one of my favorite songs you sang all season. I’m so glad you chose this. And the growth! You hit quite a few notes from last time until tonight,” Katy exclaimed. “When you played that earlier in the season, I knew we knew you had something. You just proved it even more,” Luke said.
And the rest was idol history.
Along with the aforementioned Katy/Leah duet, Luke and HunterGirl sang Randy Travis’ “I Told You So,” and Noah sang “Only One” with Melissa Etheridge and did a solid job, though amusingly he didn’t seem to know who Melissa was was. But Sunday’s oversized finale allowed other contestants to shine alongside the top three, starting with the top 10 who performed “Good Feeling” with Flo Rida on the roof of the Hotel Roosevelt on Hollywood Blvd. performed, and then all the guest star duets. Other highlights included Earth Wind & Fire and Jay Copeland’s lively EW&F medley, James Arthur and Fritz Hager’s “Can I Be Him”, Ben Platt and Lady K’s fiery “Take Me to the Pilot”, Michael Bublé’s and Christian Guardino’s magical and emotional “Smile” and an amazing “She Used to Be Mine” by Sara Bareilles and Nicolina Bozzo, who should get every Broadway casting agent to call Nicolina’s number first thing Monday morning.
Judging from Sunday’s talented finale, many of this season’s top 10 have what it takes to launch credible careers. In the meantime, the casting for the 21st season of “American Idol” is already open. So see you next year when the search for The Next Noah Thompson begins. Parker out.
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