While singers are allowed to audition for future seasons after they’re voted off, this was different. The comeback contestants who performed Monday were chosen by producers, and it was to make up for the fact that their season in spring 2020 was upended by the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of spending weeks in Los Angeles with producers and vocal coaches and hair and makeup artists, rocking out on a huge stage under bright lights with professional backup musicians, the show went virtual. Contestants were sent home, where they were relegated to performing from their living rooms and backyards in front of iPhones and ring lights.
“These kids didn’t get their big moment in front of the audience,” judge Luke Bryan explained.
“And you know what? We feel like that is kind of unfair,” Katy Perry added. “Plot twist!”
On one hand, the twist makes a lot of sense. Aspiring singers work for years to get a chance on a national platform like “Idol,” and it was no doubt hugely disappointing that the pandemic denied them the full once-in-a-lifetime experience. On the other hand … well. If you took even a brief look at social media leading up to the comeback episode, specifically replies to the official “Idol” Twitter and Instagram accounts, plenty of fans also thought this situation was unfair to the current contestants.
“This isn’t fair to this year’s contestants, someone had to lose a spot in the Top 10.”
“This is so wrong and unfair to the new contestants, the three that went home last night were robbed.”
“This feels like an invalidation to all this year’s top contestants’ hard work from auditions to Hollywood Week.”
“This is a HORRIBLE twist and completely unfair to the contestants of this season. … This is one of the worst things you guys could’ve done, especially this late in the game.”
And many, many more. A portion of viewers were thrilled to see their old favorites again, but many others were furious that the show was shaking things up toward the end of the season when the stakes are high.
They made valid points. It’s the same reason there’s frequently an outcry when other reality series with a competition element, such as “The Bachelor” or “Big Brother,” bring back cast members from past seasons. It may theoretically help the show’s ratings if viewers tune in to see someone they have enjoyed before, or just to witness the drama. But it’s simultaneously frustrating because the contestant already has a clear advantage, given they know all of the tricks from the show from their first appearance.
That’s what worries some fans about “Idol.” Comeback singer Arthur Gunn was Season 18′s runner-up, while Louis Knight made it to the Top 7 — they may not have experienced the big “Idol” stage, but they have built-in fan bases. And “Idol” is all about the fan base, as viewers scramble to vote online for their favorites. (Fans have until April 26 to cast their votes for the comeback contestant, and results will be revealed May 2.)
The show presented the comeback as a 100 percent amazing opportunity. (“I want to say this to you and to all of the alumni coming back in: To make it to this point, you already won,” judge Lionel Richie told Faith Becnel, who placed in the Top 20 last year.) Yet there’s no way producers didn’t know that it would spark controversy. Of course, that is generally the exact point of the polarizing TV twist. A move like this may delight some and enrage others, but at least people will be talking about the show — especially the further the comeback contestant makes it in the competition.
Throughout Monday’s episode, the three judges and show mentor, country radio host and TV personality Bobby Bones, pointed out the evolution of the Season 18 contestants over the past year. Multiple singers grew emotional as they talked about this being their last shot for a big career or how they couldn’t believe they were getting a second chance.
The contestant who provided the best justification for the comeback twist was Olivia Ximines, a 17-year-old singer from Menifee, Calif. After a standout performance during the showcase round last year, where she delighted a live audience and made it through to the Top 20, Ximines was eliminated after the first week of remote shows. She simply wasn’t as comfortable when she wasn’t on a big stage.
“The last time we saw Olivia, she was in her living room … and that’s not where she’s the best,” Bones explained to the camera.
Ximines concurred. “I felt out of place singing at home. I’m more of a stage person,” she said. “I like to be out in the open, I like to have room.”
Sure enough, she dazzled the judges and the (masked and socially distanced) audience Monday with an energetic rendition of “Say Yes” by Michelle Williams featuring Beyoncé́ and Kelly Rowland, and also included a dance interlude. Richie deemed her “amazing” and said she electrified the crowd. Bryan and Perry agreed.
“You weren’t meant to stay in the living room. That wouldn’t have been fair,” Perry said. “I think you’re just meant for the stage, and I hope that’s what America thinks, as well.”