American Idol is about to crown its first winner of the ABC era. On Sunday night, the three finalists — Carrie Underwood clone Gabby Barrett, country crooner Caleb Lee Hutchinson and quirky guitar popper Maddie Poppe — put on their final performances. This was their last chance to show that they have what it takes to be the president of Idol Nation. The pressure was on. Who delivered, and who was just good?
Caleb started the show with his Idol single, "Johnny Cash Heart." The song is slick country-pop, perfect for Caleb's radio-ready voice. But it wasn't his best performance. He seemed so focused on making sure he nailed it that he didn't leave himself room to feel it. Lionel Richie said "welcome to the business, my friend," congratulating him on charting for the first time. Katy Perry was harder on him, and said it was the weakest performance she'd seen from him. "I really wish you would embody it as Caleb Lee Hutchinson's song," she said. Luke Bryan said he seemed tight, and advised him to relax. An inauspicious start for pride of Dallas, Georgia.
Gabby Barrett was up next, singing her gospel-and-soul inflected single "Rivers Deep." The song shows an Amy Winehouse side we didn't necessarily know she has. She looked great in her cape dress with a wind machine blowing on her. "I see you've got your own fan-handler now," Katy Perry said mischievously. "You've changed." The judges didn't seem to love the song choice, and could tell she was uncomfortable singing a new song. Since Gabby feeds so much on the audience's energy, she wasn't able to give it her all when the crowd didn't respond like they would to a song they knew. She did a good job, but she looked like she was going to cry.
Maddie Poppe went third, singing her song "Going Going Gone." It has the beat of folk-pop hits like "Home" with a lot of studio sheen. She smiled the whole way through it, and the judges observed that she was the most comfortable of the three. She said she was actually the least comfortable, and thanked them for letting her fool them.
Caleb's second round was his encore performance of his best song of the season, "Don't Close Your Eyes" by Keith Whitley. It was a much stronger performance that foregrounded his beautiful voice.
Gabby, too, came back with the energy we need from her. She did Miranda Lambert's "Little Red Wagon." She hammed it up, putting her arm on the guitarist's shoulder and beckoning the crowd to yell "WHAT?" back at her. "There she is," Katy Perry said. She wanted more hair flip, though, and Gabby promised more in her third performance and gave a little preview. It is odd that Gabby speaks with a Southern accent even though she's from Pittsburgh, though.
For her encore, Maddie Poppe flexed and sang a song she wrote, "Don't Let Your Children Grow Up," which she did for the first time back in Hollywood week. That little yodel she does at the end of lines? That's pro level. Maddie's great, man.
Caleb showed his Johnny Cash heart in his final performance, putting on a black suit and an elaborately-stitched western shirt to do "Folsom Prison Blues." I don't buy sweet Caleb singing this murderer's lament, but I do buy him as a guy who loves Johnny Cash. It was a fun, buoyant performance. Coming after Caleb's heartwarming homecoming package, it just felt really good.
For her final song, Gabby did Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" from inside a screensaver while wearing a dress made from an exploded disco ball. She played air guitar. It was pretty great. Steve Perry from Journey was in the audience, which was a fun twist. Katy Perry said he should do the critique. "She was amazing, that's my critique!" he said. He gushed that it was the best version he'd ever heard. She was so excited. Her energy was the complete opposite of where it was after her first performance.
Maddie went straight for the throat of the heart with Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" for her final song. Maddie's original song, sentimental final song choice and and general wholesome elementary school teacher vibe makes her seem like she doesn't want to grow up. But it's all a misdirect. She's got her eye on the prize. Katy Perry, phone in hand, said she was voting for her.
I think the winner of the season will be Gabby Barrett, but Maddie Poppe will have the most successful career outside of Idol. She's a talented songwriter. Maybe she'll win! And Caleb will be fine. They'll all be fine. They're good kids with bright futures, my dudes!
Who do you think will win the popular vote? Did anything you saw tonight change your mind? Vote in our poll!
Voting on AmericanIdol.com goes until 9pm ET on Monday. The season finale airs live Monday, May 21 at 9/8c on ABC.