It may not be the way we thought we’d get here, but nevertheless, we’ve reached the finale of American Idol season 18. Our winner will be announced… tonight. It seems insane, since going into this thing we still have a Top 7, but we’re rolling with it. Let’s talk business first. The Top 7 will be cut down to a Top 5 based on last week’s votes. The Top 5 artists will each get two performances — one a celebratory song and one a repeat performance of a song that will become their debut single if they win — before a live vote determines which contestant gets to set off that confetti cannon production sent to the homes of the finalists (but what of the unused confetti cannons?!) Let’s discuss the performances, shall we?
Dillon James // “Change the World” by Eric Clapton
Dillon will NOT be making that same “Yesterday” mistake again. This is a great song choice, combining both his overall vibe with a reminder of how powerful his chest voice is. In fact, Katy Perry calls it “one of [his] best performances all season long” because of how effortless Dillon makes it seem. Luke Bryan, too, calls the entire performance “real natural” — it just feels like a great fit all the way through. This is the Dillon who wowed us in the auditions.
Francisco Martin // “Adore You” by Harry Styles
If Francisco wins this thing it’ll be great not just because he’s easily one of the best in this season’s crop of singers, but also because Luke Bryan predicted it in Francisco’s audition and that is hilarious. The kid has a real shot, especially when his performances continue to be so full of confidence. The way he emotes shows zero signs of hesitancy. He’s grown so much as a performer over the course of this season.
Just Sam // “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” by Kelly Clarkson
Listen, if you’re going to channel the energy of anyone here in the American Idol finale, it should be the original Idol herself, Kelly Clarkson. Sam radiates so much joy when she performs big anthems like this one, so it’s always a welcome choice. Her vocals weren’t really the star of this performance — they were great, but I was waiting for the power to go up a notch — but she’s so engaging and charming it’s hard not to get lost in her performance.
Arthur Gunn // “I Don’t Want to Be” by Gavin DeGraw
Arthur’s insane Idol journey has led him here all the way to the Top 5. He’s not wasting this moment and holy hell, does he rock out during this song. Let’s be honest: Has Arthur ever had a bad vocal performance throughout this thing? It’s not the easiest song to connect to emotionally, but Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan love that Arthur just completely let us into his world with that performance. Katy says Arthur is “leaving it all on [his] living room floor,” which is exactly what you need to do to win this thing.
Jonny West // “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” by James & Bobby Purify
This is a cool song choice — did you expect anything different from the coolest of cool guys on Idol this season? But it does get a bit repetitive by the end. Lionel loves that he can take any song and make it his own, Luke is beyond impressed at how professional Jonny’s performances feel, and Katy can’t get over how effortless Jonny’s vocals are.
Dillon James // “The Times They Are A-Changin'” by Bob Dylan
This is a great pick for Dillon’s repeat performance. It shows off his power, it allows him to connect emotionally, and honestly, this song hits harder in this specific moment in time. Dillon sang this song in Hawaii, and all the judges note a marked difference not just in Dillon’s vocals, but in his confidence level. He’s a much more assured singer now.
Francisco Martin // “Alaska” by Maggie Rogers
Obviously, I wanted a repeat performance of “Teenage Dream” but THIS WILL DO. It’s a great choice because it allows Francisco to show off his full range while also giving us the emotion we love seeing from him. Katy calls it “an elevated performance” as compared to the last time he performed this, and Lionel applauds Francisco for being “a model student” and taking in all of their notes throughout the season to grow as an artist.
Just Sam // “Rise Up” by Andra Day
I mean, was there any other choice for Sam’s repeat performance? We fell in love with Sam because of the way she makes us feel whenever she sings, and this song is brimming with emotion. More importantly, this song is not an easy vocal, so Sam nailing “Rise Up” like this reminds us of her technical talent. It’s the perfect finale song for her and she sounds even better on it than the last time we heard her.
Arthur Gunn // “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” by Creedence Clearwater Revival
When Arthur first took this CCR classic and performed his own arrangement during Hollywood Week, it was a huge risk. Taking this song and making it his own here in the finale, however, is the smartest choice Arthur could’ve made. Of course, it shows off his great vocals, but what it really puts on display one last time is Arthur’s artistry. Both Luke and Lionel don’t hesitate to call Arthur “a star.”
Jonny West // “Makin’ Love” by Jonny West
Jonny West choosing one of his originals for this round is the right choice not only because it feels authentic to him as an artist, but as Katy points out, this song will be Jonny’s debut single if he wins, so why wouldn’t you pick one of your own songs? This kid is smart! More than that, Luke calls the song “radio-ready” and Lionel praises Jonny’s skills as a songwriter. All of the judges continually remind Jonny that he’ll have a career in music no matter how this plays out.
With the competition portion of the evening over, we can move on to the numerous performances to make this finale a little more celebratory. It kicks off with Luke Bryan blessing us all with a new drinking song, “One Margarita,” which, let’s be honest, so many of us could use right now. Idol also brings back Douglas Kiker — the fan-favorite garbage man who was eventually cut during Hollywood Week — to sing “Bless the Broken Road” with Rascal Flatts. Speaking of memorable auditions, Just Sam gets to re-do her audition song “You Say” (which, you’ll remember, she couldn’t get through before breaking down into tears), but this time with Miss Lauren Daigle herself.
Katy Perry also performs her new single, “Daises,” with some cool special effects and the perfect haircut. That’s followed up by an Aretha Franklin tribute from Tony-award winner Cynthia Erivo, who is accompanied by this season’s Top 11. I could listen to it for hours, but we have to get to some business. The business.
First up, Ryan Seacrest narrows down the competition to the Top 2: We have to say goodbye to Dillon James, Francisco Martin, and Jonny West because season 18 has come down to Arthur Gunn versus Just Sam.
And the season 18 winner is… Just Sam! YOU GUYS. She has her grandmother on video chat for the announcement and her grandmother is wearing a Just Sam t-shirt. It is just too adorable.
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But the party’s not over, folks! Before closing out this truly wild season, Idol is giving us one last performance: Lionel Richie brings back his “We Are the World” anthem (written with Michael Jackson), this time joined not only by our newly crowned American Idol winner and Lionel’s fellow judges, but lots of Idol alums including Ruben Studdard, Katharine McPhee, Fantasia Barrino, Jordin Sparks, Phillip Phillips, Lauren Alaina, Laine Hardy, and Alejandro Aranda. Everyone’s projected on buildings and landmarks all over the world because yes, this season can get weirder. And with that, we’re out. It’s been a ride. How’s everyone feeling now that we’re on the other side?