Sunday on American Idol, Katy Perry declared that no one makes it out of the audition room with a Golden Ticket in hand just because of a sob story. “No sympathy votes!” she insisted.
This was a dubious claim, of course, considering just how frequently the tears flow on Idol; some recent confessional auditions have felt like therapy sessions, and soft-hearted judge Lionel Richie has already blown through his handkerchief budget for Season 21, with one more week of auditions still to go.
However, when Sunday’s final contestant, 22-year-old struggling single mom Fire Wilmore, arrived with her adorable toddler daughter Maja in tow, her hard-luck tale really wasn’t enough to sway the judges. And that was the saddest story of all — although, in typical Idol fashion, this turned out to be a story with a cliffhanging “to be continued” twist.
“My life is kind of a crazy story, honestly,” Fire said Sunday, opening up about how she was taken away at a young age from her drug-addicted mother, placed in state custody under the Indian Child Welfare Act, and, according to her own account, was “this young little Indian girl who’d been dirty because I didn’t have parents to care of me. My life really sucked.”
At age 18, Fire unexpectedly found herself “pregnant and alone,” and she explained, “I didn’t want to see [Maja] struggle. I didn’t want her to live the life I’d had in any way, shape, or form.” Fire currently works as a stripper to provide for her child — “The world’s not designed for single moms to be successful, so I did what I had to do,” she said matter-of-factly — but she told the judges that she wants “to do better. I need to get away from dancing. I need to do this for me. I need to do this for my daughter.”
Before her audition, Fire and Maja tossed coins in a fountain and wished that Idol would give Fire the big break that would help her turn their lives around. But that dream was dashed after Fire sang Bruno Mars’s “Talking to the Moon” and didn’t quite live up to her red-hot stage name.
“Gosh. I just wanted your voice to be more,” sighed Luke Bryan. “Vocally, it wasn’t as good as I was hoping for.”
“There wasn’t enough fire there,” said a disappointed Katy. “But I appreciate that you want it.”
It was unclear exactly what was holding Fire back. Maybe she wanted this too much, so she crumbled under the pressure. Maybe she just couldn’t let herself be totally vulnerable on television, after a lifetime of having to stay strong and keep her guard up for self-protection. The judges actually tried to coach Fire to bring more fire to her performance (“I think you just need to be pushed,” Lionel said nicely), and while she took their direction well, there was still a disconnect. So, Lionel and Luke just couldn’t say yes to Hollywood.
“It’s not fair, but that’s what life is,” shrugged Lionel.
Katy then started pep-talking Fire, who was clearly trying to hold back her bitter tears, telling her. “It’s going to be OK. It is. There’s always beauty. There’s always light in the darkness.” But when 4-year-old Maja, who’d been playing next to the audition room’s wall display of shiny Golden Tickets, wandered over and excitedly handed her mom one of those tickets, the humiliated Fire had to tell her bluntly, “No. Go put it back.” And, well, that was pretty heartbreaking.
While Katy (mostly) stayed true to her word and did not give Fire a “sympathy vote” (or a Golden Ticket), she did tell Fire, “You don’t deserve three no’s. … You’ve got something there; I just think it hasn’t been worked out enough. So, I’ve got a little something for you: We’re going to in Nashville in a month. And that’s where we’re going to give you a second chance. That’s when you’re going to show us where the fire is. OK? … You’ve got one month.”
So, this wasn’t quite the triumph-of-the-spirit, tied-with-a neat-little-bow happy ending that viewers usually expect at the end of every feel-good Idol episode. Of course, it was probably all a made-for-TV setup; I’m not even sure if Fire told her whole story, since the fan site Idol Chatter reports that she works for the Humane Society, was once a E2 Private in the U.S. Army, and was recently accepted to her “dream school,” the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts. Regardless, I imagine that Fire will earn some votes — sympathy or otherwise — from the judges when her do-over Nashville audition airs next week.
“I’m not just someone who’d been through a lot of stuff. I’m working hard, and I need it,” Fire declared Sunday as she exited the audition room with Maja, vowing to work on her craft. “I need to change my life.”
Whether Fire’s segment was rigged or not, the rest of Sunday’s penultimate auditions episode was rather contradictory — because the judges weren’t nearly as tough on several other singers that, frankly, didn’t bring any more than Fire did. It was frustrating to watch the panel give some very green singers a green light, while seemingly arbitrarily sending others away. Suffice to say, a few “sympathy votes” were indeed cast on Sunday. Here’s how the rest of the night panned out:
Mariah Faith, 21: “Whenever You Come Around”/“I Can’t Make You Love Me”
This earth mama reminded me a bit of Season 9’s Crystal Bowersox — not just because of the blonde dreadlocks and hippie threads, but also because of her birdlike, crystalline tone. I thought Mariah’s first performance, dedicated to her beloved late stepfather, was more than enough to earn a Golden Ticket, but puzzlingly, Katy thought Mariah was “playing it a little safe” and said she needed to hear Mariah’s “inner lion” roar. Upon Katy’s request, Mariah did the Bonnie Raitt tearjerker, and while she was nervous to be put on the spot, she made the judges love her indeed. “I had chills the whole time. You are just on the edge of greatness. It doesn’t matter if you hit a ‘wrong’ note — it’s still right,” said Luke. Katy praised Mariah’s “natural cry,” calling it “one of the most interesting voices this season.” And Lionel told Mariah, “Your potential could take you all the way.” In fact, the judges did such a 180 that they even invited Mariah to open for the contestants who made it all the way last year — Season 20’s top two, Noah Thompson and Huntergirl — in concert the very next night.
Nailyah Serenity, 22: “Oh My Man”
I didn’t expect this jeweled-eyed hippie girl to cover the almighty Barbra Streisand — which Katy called an “incredible choice” — but she absolutely owned it. I loved how this class act didn’t over-sing and brought what Lionel called a “Nina thing, an Ella thing” to the song. “You straddled it with your own flair. You gave it this contemporary vibe. It was surprising,” gasped Katy. I think it’s written in the stars for this astrological-chart-reader, Katy’s proud “Scorpio sister,” to become a star in Hollywood.
Kayleigh Clark, 17: “The Dance”/ “I Surrender”
This sweet Mississippi farmgirl had an undistinctive voice, and her school-recital-level performance was bland and blank-eyed. “It’s a bit quiet. I need more. … You do have a beautiful voice, but for some reason, it’s not filling the room,” an underwhelmed Katy told Kayleigh. Lionel thought Kayleigh eventually “got there” on her requested second song, and Luke bizarrely thought Kayleigh could make the top 10 if she “really, really dug in.” But I agreed with Katy, who said no. I’m getting pretty tired of the judges hand-holding, aggressively coaching, and giving second chances to all these pitchy, nervous contestants who are so clearly not ready for prime time. They could have at least told Kayleigh to come back in a month! But who knows, maybe Kayleigh will surprise doubters like Katy and myself.
Tori Green, 20: “Cry Pretty”
OK, this gospel belter’s voice really did fill up the room! I was therefore baffled when Luke, whom Katy jokingly accused of having “unrealistic expectations” for Season 21, thought Tori’s Carrie Underwood cover was “stiff” and unemotional. Luckily for Tori, Lionel and Katy appreciated her mighty lung power, but Luke completely contradicted himself by saying no to Tori after giving the much stiffer Kayleigh such an enthusiastic yes.
PJAE, 23: “Mirror”
This Oklahoma belter was bullied a child for being overweight and flamboyant; he turned to food for comfort, and weighed 400 pounds by the time he graduated from high school. Now 150 pounds lighter and infinitely more confident, PJAE poured all of his pain into his elegant and soulful Madison Ryann Ward cover. “I’ve been saying a lot of no’s this year to get to someone like you. We were dealing with some singers coming in that really weren’t really putting the emotional connection in there. You just slayed all of that,” marveled Luke. “This was the first time today that I’ve felt a wave of chills so naturally. It was so beautiful, so effortless, so angelic, emotional, sad, and painful,” raved Katy. And Lionel told PJAE, “Your journey has started. … I think this is the beginning of something really amazing for you.”
Warren Peay, 23: “To the Table”
This South Carolina appliance repairman and worship leader came in “looking the part” (like “Chris Stapleton’s brother,” as Katy put it), and thankfully, he “sounded the part” as well. Luke said Warren’s voice “cut through” and sounded “badass,” and Lionel said Warren sounded “like FM radio” and “about as headed to the top 10 as I’ve heard in my life.” I think the judges have forgotten that, you know, there can only be TEN people in the top 10, because I’ve lost track of how many times they’ve declared a contestant to be “top 10 material” this season. But Warren is the real deal, so hopefully the judges’ fuzzy math will add up for him.
Carina Deangelo, 25: “Good Kisser”
This spicy gal, whose day job is running a meatball company with her mom called My Balls, gave a ballsy and meaty performance of Lake Street Dive’s breakup song. She didn’t even need to bribe the judges with plates of marinara-ladled beef to earn her three yeses. “The one I thing I ask is you bring your plate of balls to Hollywood,” Katy told Carina. I just hope Carina covers (wait for it) Accept’s “Balls to the Wall” this season.
Johnny Knox, 26: “She Don’t”
This “sourdough starter” — he bakes, and he (also unnecessarily) bribed the judges with carbs — had a certain Jack Johnson-on-SNL’s-“The Mellow Show” vibe to him. But he wasn’t boring: There was an unexpected, attention-getting attack to his falsetto, and his original song was solid. “I think you’re only going to get better,” declared Katy. I just hope Johnny covers some (wait for it) Bread this season.
Paige Anne, 16: “What About Us?”
The food theme continued with this sno-cone queen, who attempted to bribe the panel with her signature shaved-ice flavor, Sour Patch Kids. Paige hit no sour notes, but she had a lukewarm start, so Katy understandably froze her out. But eventually, this crushed-ice kid from snowy Idaho crushed her Pink performance and earned two yeses.
Ophrah Kablan, 20: “Baby, I Love You”
This diva picked a challenging Aretha song (is there any such thing as a non-challenging Aretha song?) because, as she explained to the midday-slumping panel, “I’m trying to get y’all out your seats today!” (Maybe the judges weren’t actually fatigued by Sunday’s many so-so singers, and were just in a brain-freeze/food coma after bingeing on all that starch, red meat, sour sugar, and ice.) Anyway, Ophrah accomplished her mission. “I took ‘em to church! They wasn’t ready! I love a good ol’ wood-floor, stomp-your-feet church service, and that’s what we had at American Idol today,” said Ophrah, after her dynamite performance had the judges jumping out their chairs, yelling, “Hallelujah!” and testifying. “You became our salvation, girl!” Lionel cried out thankfully, as a rousing chorus of three yeses rang out.
Kamron Lawson, 21: “Take on Me” / “Truly”
Doing the more recent downtempo, understated MTV Unplugged version of A-Ha’s new wave classic, Kamron hit that Morten Harket high note with ease and oozed sweetness and likability throughout his charming performance. “There’s something about you that’s sparkling at me,” said Katy. Katy was suitably impressed by Kamron’s “big instrument” but thought he “didn’t know how to use it yet,” and Luke thought Kamron had “one of the better falsettos we’ve heard” but was too “tame and safe.” Perhaps Kamron should have done the more spritely original version of “Take on Me,” but instead he decided to try another ‘80s song: Lionel’s own “Truly.” He understandably “choked” at first — even Lionel acknowledged that “Truly” is extremely difficult to sing — but with Lionel’s encouragement, Kamron mostly pulled it off. I personally much preferred his A-ha performance, but the happy end result was the judges decided to “take on” this “truly” talented kid and send him to Hollywood.
Owen Eckhardt, 19:“Something in the Orange”
I liked this untrained, rough-hewn troubadour’s gruff Zach Bryan cover, which reminded me of Devendra Banhart or Sondre Lerche; Katy even said, “Can I be so bold to say there’s little Elvis Presley in there?” Clearly Owen is a natural, because Luke told him, “You’re doing a lot things wrong, but you’re doing a lot of cool things. … So, for some reason, I’m giving you a yes.” I thought there were plenty of right reasons to put Owen through to Hollywood, where I think whatever minor bad habits he has can be easily fixed.
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