'American Idol' fan-favorite's heartbreaking early elimination

Lovable Alabama garbage man Doug Kiker had the breakout moment of this American Idol season so far, racking up a whopping 53 million video views on Facebook alone (and reaching more that 200 million people worldwide) for his humble audition of Rascal Flatts’ “Bless the Broken Road.” But it was the end of the very short road for the fan favorite’s Idol run this Monday, when he was cut during the first day of Hollywood Week. 

I’m not surprised that Doug couldn’t quite cut it in Hollywood. Although he thoroughly charmed every single person at L.A.’s Orpheum Theater with his gummy grin, sweet demeanor, and declarations like “I’m starting to become the person I want to be,” he had literally no singing or performance experience, and it showed. A man who didn’t even know the meanings of the words “range” or “warm up,” and couldn’t stay in the right key during Monday’s a cappella, mostly shouted performance of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” just wouldn’t be able to compete with Season 18’s more ready-for-prime-time players.

Doug took the news well and seemed grateful just for the opportunity. “I could’ve sung better, but I messed up. but I think I did pretty well for it being my first time on the stage,” he said. But even though this wasn’t his time, it was still sad to see him go, because he’s the kind of standup guy that Idol viewers root for.

Other standouts from this season’s initial crop of 167 contestants who made an early exit were Bachelor fangirl Meghan Fitton; arthrogryposis survivor Marna Michele; Kay Genyse (the “extra” girl that Katy had ordered to sing on the street for her golden ticket, who showed up in Hollywood wearing some sort of plastic Thanksgiving centerpiece on her head); and, most disappointingly, high-heeled showman Gilberto Rivera, who apparently waxed his chest for nothing.

A few other fan favorites who seemed to be MIA were Mosean Wilson, Zack Dobbins, Danny La Rota, Ren Patrick, Rozzo, Franklin Boone, Jahzan, Jordan Moyes, and Kat Luna and her Space Cowboy… but hopefully we will see more of them on Hollywood Week day two.

The odds may have been stacked against Doug, but everyone faced new challenges in Hollywood, because the game had changed. It was “Hollywood Week like you’ve never seen it before,” as Ryan Seacrest dramatically intoned, because for the first time in Idol history, all of the contestants had to pick a genre bracket — Rock, Pop, R&B, Soul, Country, or the somewhat vague categorization Singer-Songwriter — thus declaring right from the get-go what sort of artists they want to be. It may have seemed like a huge advantage for the contestants to be able to stick to their respective genre of choice, but many of them didn’t choose wisely. Some seemed to undergoing various identity crises, and way to many of them shoehorned themselves into the crowded “Pop” category. 

Standouts in the Singer-Songwriter group included Juliana Gargano, with her Carole King-ish piano cover of Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke”; Arthur Gunn’s growly, gravelly, gritty “Hard to Handle,” which judge Lionel Richie compared to Bob Marley; sleeper contestant Adam Curry (not to be confused with the ‘90s MTV VJ, of course), whose all-too-brief rendition of the 1975’s “Somebody Else” was praised for its “artistry” and “legitimacy”; Francisco Martin harnessing all his nervous energy to create a sense of urgency during James Bay’s “Hold Back the River”; rappy jokester Jonny West showing his more serious balladeer side on “Someone You Loved”; and Dillon James, a.k.a. the “spritual cowboy” and “country Post Malone,” putting his rough-hewn Americana spin on Billy Joel’s “Vienna.” (Why Dillon didn’t choose to be in the Country category is beyond me, but that was one of the night’s many head-scratchers.)

The Pop group kicked off with Louis Knight, the British expat that Luke Bryan once predicted would be the biggest star to come from Idol — and again, this categorization was puzzling. Why wasn’t he classifying himself as a “singer-songwriter,” when he first auditioned with an original song he wrote? Anyway, that was the least of Louis’s worries. While his rendition of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was more successful than Doug’s (he’s such a dreamy heartthrob, Katy Perry described his entrance as a “Harry Styles on X Factor moment”), and he did enough to prove he is capable of changing up a classic, Katy noted that his tepid, hesitant performance lacked “fire.” 

However, Louis charmed his way through, as did another Pop contestant who seemed a better fit for the Singer-Songwriter group, Genavieve Linkowksi, who crooned Calum Scott’s “You Are the Reason.” Also making the grade were Shannon Gibbons, who’d I’d pegged as more of a “Rock” type, with a soulful and intense version of Kodaline’s “All I Want.” (Side note: Just like rock music gets cut from the Grammys and every awards show, we saw none of the performances from the Rock category tonight.)

Formerly cocky pretty-boy Nick Merico, who seemed “scared to death” and newly humbled after Lionel harshly criticized his audition; second-chancer and Jonny West’s girlfriend Margie Mays, who tried to prove she’s a “serious artist” with Christina Aguilera’s “The Voice Within” (I actually think her crisp, Pickler-esque lilt would’ve work better for the Country category); 16-year-old Lauren Spencer-Smith, who did a surprisingly passionate and connected cover of original Idol Kelly Clarkson’s “Because of You”; and another teen prodigy, Kimmy Gabriela. I thought Kimmy rendered A Great Big World’s “Say Something” near-unrecognizable with all her runs, and Luke said it was “a little busy,” but Katy was so wowed she actually jumped up and shouted, “the show is over!” OK, then.

Oh, but it wasn’t over. Far from it. My favorite performance in the Pop category was by Robert Taylor. Robert recently came out as gay and was subsequently ostracized by much of his religious family, so for him to go on national TV and made a bold statement with an exuberant, joyful cover of  “You Make Me Feel Like a (Natural Woman)” — almost entirely in falsetto — was a mic-drop moment. 

I was also a big fan of 19-year-old Bilaal Avaz, whose first audition was bizarrely never shown. Bilaal came out of nowhere with a compelling backstory (he was raised in a strict Muslim family and wasn’t even allowed to listen to music growing up, but now his parents are his biggest fans) and a gorgeous, tasteful cover of Demi Lovato’s “Stone Cold.” Where have producers been hiding this guy? (Oh, and speaking of hiding, Geena Fontanella, Olivia Ximenes, and Demi Rae also all advanced, but we didn’t see their “Genre Challenge” solos.)

The first R&B contestants to go through were a pair of 17-year-olds, Cyniah Elise and Makayla Phillips — although neither were as good as they had been at their auditions, due to poor song choice. (Adele’s “All I Ask” was an over-ambitious pick for Cyniah, who strained and was sharp in parts, while Makayla disappointingly held back during “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” failing to bring the sort of unhinged desperation that once earned Season 3 contestant Jennifer Hudson an Oscar.) But Lionel adored Cyniah, and Luke declared Makayla “the next Ariana daggone Grande,” nonetheless.

New York subway singer Just Sam gave the breakout R&B performance of the night with an effortlessly majestic “Hearts Ain’t Gonna Lie,” bringing her lucky tip box with her and inspiring the judges to stuff it with $20 bills by the end. Her gratitude and humility may endear her to America as much as her voice — hearts ain’t gonna lie, they’re going to flutter every time this likable lady sings. 

Also making the R&B cut, though their performances weren’t shown, were Travis Finlay, Jordan Jones, and Elyjuh Rene. Another side note: Elyjuh was actually a totally robbed Team Pharrell contestant on The Voice Season 7, and it frustrates me that he’s gotten zero screentime on Idol, which doesn’t bode well for his chances.

As mentioned, Doug was eliminated from the Country competition, but Lauren Mascitti breezed through with “Brown Eyes Blue,” a perfect song choice for her honey-sweet old-school voice. Another country crooner, former American Juniors hopeful Grace Leer, also went retro with “Unchained Melody.” (Yet another side note: I thought it was highly amusing when Grace asked the judges if they knew the song. Back in the Simon Cowell era, “Unchained Melody” seemed to be on Idol every damn week!) And recovering addict Hannah Prestridge delivered a broken-down, broken-hearted performance of Miranda Lambert’s “Over You” with a certain rawness and “realness” that caught Luke’s attention. “There’s definitely a story there,” mused Katy.

And finally, rounding out the Soul category were Amber Fielder, showing up three weeks after giving birth (and giving up her baby for adoption), singing a tender and beautiful “Rise Up”; Sofia Wackerman dedicating “Let It Be” to her late mother, singer Naomi Star; and one of my favorites of the whole season, the fiery Jovin Webb, absolutely slaying “Make It Rain.”

On Sunday, Hollywood Week continues apace, but there will be more surprises and format switch-up. While the Group Round has been a 17-season staple of this series, the challenge is being replaced this season with duets. Will there me more of less drama as the contestants pair off? Will sparks fly and love bloom at the Orpheum like it’s an episode of ABC’s new spinoff The Bachelor: Listen to Your Heart? Watch this space.