No matter who ended up in the winner’s circle after Sunday night’s (May 17) two-hour American Idol finale, they were destined to make history as the first champ to celebrate from the comfort of their own home. Not by choice of course, by due to the way the 18th season of the beloved singing competition had to completely change things up mid-way due to the COVID-19 lockdown.
And, like all aspects of the show since everyone was sent home, the coronation was… different, with host Ryan Seacrest calling the action from his garage instead of the big stage in Hollywood, judges Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie dialing in from their homes and the contestants making their final push surrounded by their adoring families/makeshift stage crew.
After a cut from seven to five and then the top two, the season’s most inspiring singer, Just Sam, 21, shook her head in disbelief when Seacrest read her name as she celebrated alone in quarantine while holding an iPad tuned to her elated grandmother cheering her on from afar. Dressed in an appropriately glittery gold jacket and regal red shirt, the dumb-struck subway singer said, “my dreams have come true… I would have never ever, ever expected this.”
The heart-warming win by Just Sam capped a show that began with the elimination of semi-finalists Julia Gargano and Louis Knight before America got one last look at the top five, with two performances from each that proved why they’d all earned their spot.
Spiritual cowboy Dillon James, 26, of Bakersfield, California, took a rough road to the finale, but his country-infused cover of Eric Clapton’s “Change the World,’ set amid a garden of candles in his family’s backyard, deserved to be in the final five; he returned later for a smoldering ramble through Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’.”
San Francisco’s Francisco Martin, 19, borrowed a page from another reality singing vet, Harry Styles, with his cover of the X Factor alum’s ‘ “Adore You”; he came back with an urgent acoustic version of Maggie Rogers’ “Alaska.”
Harlem’s Just Sam, went from singing on a subway to becoming the only woman to make it to the top five, capping her only-on-Idol journey to become the seventh female winner in show history following a technicolor, powerful run through original Idol superstar Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”; her second selection was Andra Day’s moving “Rise Up,” which clearly helped seal the deal.
From Nepal to Wichita, Kansas, and then Idol finale, the night’s second-place finisher Arthur Gunn, 22, proved he deserved all the “rock star” praise with a gritty rip of Gavin DeGraw’s “I Don’t Want To Be”; he then nailed a moody, wholly-original take on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain.”
The last of the top five to perform was Jonny West, who blossomed from a shy wallflower to a confident crooner, working his keyboard for James & Bobby Purify’s soul pop nugget “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down”; his second bid rolled the dice with his sensual soul/rap original, “Makin’ Love.”
As expected, Sunday’s show was more muted than past Idol finales, but producers tried to give it that some of that familiar sheen with a pared-down series of guest performances that included the TV debut of Perry’s new single “Daisies.” As promised, the performance mixed a classic Idol vibe — it began with Perry backed by a digital rendering of the show’s logo — with some cutting-edge technology that transported the barefoot expectant mom into a digital cartoon house that shifted and split apart all around her, landing her back on the holographic Idol stage at song’s end.
Knowing people might be mixing up cocktails at home during the quarantine, Bryan put on his best Hawaiian shirt for a virtual performance with his band of the good times boogie “One Margarita.” Rascal Flatts teamed with season 18 audition favorite garbage man Doug Kiker for “Bless The Broken Road.”
Other performers included Oscar nominee Cynthia Erivo and the top 11 singing a medley of Aretha Franklin songs and two-time Idol auditioner Lauren Daigle and Just Sam teaming up for Daigle’s moving hit “You Say.”
The finale ended with Richie’s first TV performance in 35 years of the 1985 charity anthem he co-wrote with Michael Jackson, “We Are The World.” Joined by his fellow judges, winner Just Sam and all-star group of Idol alumi — Alejandro Aranda aka Scarypoolparty, Fantasia, Gabby Barrett, Jordin Sparks, Katharine McPhee, Kellie Pickler, Laine Hardy, Lauren Alaina, Phillip Phillips, Ruben Studdard and Scotty McCreery — the reboot featured the singer’s faces projected onto some of the nation’s most iconic vistas.
It wasn’t the Idol anyone signed up for nearly a year go, but season 18 brought it all back home with the elevation of a singer whose American anthem of determination and grit is just the kind of fairytale ending we could all use right about now.
Check out Just Sam’s two final Idol performances below.