American Idol Season 19 has seemed more like a season of This Is Us, with buckets of tears shed weekly by the viewers and judges alike — especially by softie judge Lionel Richie, who weeps so readily you’d almost think some crew member just out of frame was chopping onions, Benihana-style, on his judging desk. But Sunday’s final auditions episode was the season’s most heartstring-yanking and Kleenex-soaking yet.
We met a shy autistic teen (Jackson Snelling, who sadly didn’t get a Golden Ticket, but was invited to come back next year) croon an original ballad about his late father, with a chorus that lamented, “Daddy’s never coming home.” We met a sweet hard-luck teen who was working to repair his relationship with his ex-con dad. There was a kindly big brother singing an original about his sister's struggles with anxiety; a bullied small-town boy suffering a crisis of confidence; a desperate homeless single mother; and another young mom whose toddler daughter recently almost died of liver failure before receiving a miracle organ transplant. It was a lot. If it weren’t for the fact that these contestants had the talent to back up their sad backstories, pouring their passion and pain into their performances, this all would’ve felt manipulative, exploitive, and even a bit icky.
Think you know American Idol? Test your at-home trivia chops in augmented reality with a round of 'Guess the Idol':
But the sobbiest sob story, and the most moving on a night packed with heightened emotion, came from Brianna Collichio. The petite and plucky 15-year-old was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at birth and given a life expectancy of 36 years maximum, and she’d actually collapsed from an infection and undergone emergency surgery the night before she was supposed to try out for Idol. Thankfully, her sister’s viral TikTok campaign to have the audition rescheduled was successful. Now, standing in front of Katy Perry, Luke Bryan, and Lionel, a recovered and resilient Brianna explained that while cystic fibrosis usually causes lung scarring that makes singing impossible, she can still belt without even a tinge of raspiness. (She has actually been beating the medical odds by performing publicly since age 6, even singing the national anthem for an audience of 70,000 New York Jets fans when she was just 11 years old.)
There was a rawness and brittleness to Brianna’s audition of Alessia Cara’s bosy-positive empowerment anthem “Scars to Your Beautiful,” but in a completely appealing way — Brianna is one tough cookie, a badass with a streetwise tomboy energy, and her performance was believable and relatable. “I have faith. If I didn’t have faith, I wouldn’t be right now,” she stated stoically. The judges had faith too, with Lionel praising the “texture” and “high end” of Brianna’s voice and Katy calling her a “walking miracle.”
I’m concerned if Brianna will be able to physically handle the rigors of Hollywood Week — which can be a grueling experience for even the healthiest contestants — but she’s handled much worse, obviously, and she’s a fighter. She deserves a shot, and when all three judges told her yes, it didn’t at all feel like a sympathy vote. “With the pressure that you’ve had to overcome, you just knocked it out of the park,” Luke told her proudly. “You give people hope, and people need a lot of hope right now. … I think you’re going to grow right before our eyes,” said Katy.
These were the other contestants who received Golden Tickets on Season 19’s final emotional audition night, who’ll be joining Brianna in Hollywood next Sunday:
Madison Watkins, 25: “Your Little Girl”
This Arkansas daddy’s girl warbled an original that she wrote about her supportive father. It was a sweet sentiment, but a bit light and trite; it felt like a school recital. I’d like to hear Madison, who is one of the older hopefuls this season, dig into some weightier, more mature material. But Lionel called her a “package of sunshine,” while Luke told her she “lights up a room” and Katy described her as “fresh-off-the-bus, Britney-Spears-movie, hope-in-a-bottle positivity … what we look for on American Idol.” I suppose the show does seem some lightness to balance out all those heartbreak stories, but I didn’t glean much substance from this syrupy audition.
Ava August, 15: Untitled original song
This Katy superfan had one of those rounded-vowel indie voices, but her throatiness and the richness of her tone — what Lionel called an “old-soul sound, but fresh” — kept her from seeming like a gimmick. Katy called Ava “very special.”
Liv Grace Blue, 17: “I Kissed a Girl”
More Katy fangirling ensued with Liv, who did a Hotel Café-style acoustic rendition of a Katy classic. I wouldn’t have chosen this problematic tune, which even Katy has distanced herself from in recent years, for any contestant, let alone a 17-year-old. But I did appreciate Liv’s earthy, husky voice. Katy told her, “I see some of myself in you.”
Deshawn Congalves, 19: “Everything Must Change”
This marching-band tuba player, who has overcome being born to a 13-year-old mother and an incarcerated father to become straight-A scholar, delivered a Nina Simone piano tour de force that felt like it should've been part of the Grammys ceremony simultaneously airing on CBS instead. This was dramatic, intense, and sublime. The judges were floored. “Man, that was powerful. I needed you today. … I don’t know where you came from, but I know that God saw fit to put you in front of us,” Lionel marveled. “It was magic. You can still feel it right now in the air. … We are so excited to work with you,” said a breathless Katy.
Tryzdin Grubbs, 15: “Before You Go”/“Nobody”
Tryzdin, who’s been bullied by the jocks in his sports-obsessed community throughout his adolescence, understandably struggled with his confidence as he sang his first song, a Lewis Capaldi cover. The poor kid could barely even open his eyes. But he sounded like a damn recording. His voice just had a sheen to it. After Lionel warned him, “Fear can be your worst enemy,” Tryzdin got a second chance, and when he covered another heart-on-flannel-sleeve British troubadour, James Arthur, he was much better, this time making direct eye contact with the judges and feeling what he was singing. He even got a little sassy towards the end. While I think the judges have been too lax and hand-holding this season, generously allowing for (or even requesting) do-overs and coaching not-ready-for-prime-time singers through their auditions, in this case I was impressed by how immediately Tryzdin handled the pressure and took direction. “You bring that attitude and that vocal style to this table, and you got fireworks,” Lionel advised, after hearing Tryzdin’s second attempt.
Andrea Valles, 23: “Landslide”/“Dance Monkey”
This vibey coffeehouse quirky-girl admittedly didn’t deliver the most spectacular vocal of the night. “I kind of got lost in a daydream listening to your voice, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. … It was kind of linear,” shrugged Katy. But Andrea exhibited a certain sparkle and star quality; the judges compared her to Gwen Stefani, Rita Ora, and Madonna, and as Luke noted, “We are in the star-finding business.” And when Andrea rallied hard by singing a second song — unsolicited, in this instance — the judges were impressed by her fighting spirit.
Zachary D’Onofrio, 29: “Golden Slumbers”/“Falling”
The “Sinatra Boy” guy who slow-danced in the audition room with Katy in 2018 returned. And this time he had a new partner: his girlfriend, Idol top 10 finalist Catie Turner, whom he met during Season 16’s Hollywood Week. (Love was really in the Idol air that year — top two finalists Maddie Poppe and Caleb Lee Hutchinson started dating that season and are still going strong, while the top five’s Gabby Barrett and Cade Foehner married in 2019 and welcomed a daughter this past January.) Zach’s Beatles cover was solid, but it was when Catie adorkably dueted with him on Harry Styles’s “Falling” that the sparks really flew. (“You’re with the right Catie this time,” Katy quipped.) I’m not sure if Zach can go it alone this season. But if they ever reboot Can You Duet?, I’ve love for him and Catie to give that talent show a try.
Colin Jamieson, 22: “Six Feet Under”
Mullet-man Colin showed up for his audition with his pop-punk best friend, Danny Falco, with whom he’d once been in a semi-successful boy band called Kik-it. Danny’s affected wannabe-metal-rocker vocal tics (on a Fray cover, no less) had unsurprisingly elicited three no’s. But Colin, who had his own bothersome vocal habits (mainly a whole lot of weird, gulpy breathiness), surprisingly earned three yeses. I don’t think Colin will make it far on Idol, but he shared a lot of onscreen bromance chemistry with Danny. So, I wouldn’t mind if ABC gave these guys their own wacky sitcom, much like the one that used to star Kik-it’s tourmates, Big Time Rush.
Vahhley, 23: “One Moment in Time”
This homeless single mother, who's been living in a shelter with her toddler son for the past eight months, seemed to be pinning a lot — maybe too much — on her Idol audition, hoping that the show could turn everything around for her struggling family. (Her father is currently experiencing homelessness as well.) Vahhley seemed so desperate and fragile, almost to the point where the psyched herself out and sabotaged her own teary performance. But as Luke astutely observed, she’s really more of a storyteller, the sort of singer who can viscerally connect to a lyric, than a traditional Whitney-style belter. With more suitable song choices, Vahhley could prove to be a diamond in the rough.
Wyatt Pike, 19: “Best for You”
This Park City singer-songwriter dedicated his sweet, sincere original to his little sister Hazel, who has anxiety. His rhythmic finger-picking was giving me Alejandro Aranda vibes, and his heartthrob appeal reminded me of last season’s Louis Knight or Jonny West. (Or even Francisco Martin, whose younger brother Kiko actually unsuccessfully auditioned this week.) Katy called Wyatt an “immense talent,” Lionel compared him to James Taylor, and Luke raved, “I want more! … I think you’re totally cool, totally unique, totally in your own world and in your own lane. I’m excited you’re here.”
Althea Grace, 21: “Saturday Morning”
And the auditions ended with a triumph-over-tragedy story to rival Brianna’s, as Althea revealed that eight months ago her daughter, who was 11 months old at the time, suddenly went into complete liver failure and was given only a few days to live. Thankfully, a last-minute liver transplant saved her daughter’s life, and now here was Althea, singing a song she’d written in the hospital during that every-parent’s-nightmare ordeal. All of the judges, especially new mom Katy, were deeply moved, though they didn’t think Althea brought quote enough fire and confidence to her performance. Ultimately, it was Althea’s delicate and twinkling vocals, which Lionel compared to Steve Nicks and described as a “cut-through voice,” that secured her the final Golden Ticket of Season 19.
Read more from Yahoo Entertainment: