No safe Haven: Conflicting advice leads to frontrunner's downfall on 'American Idol' top 26 night (2023)

On Sunday, the American Idol Season 21 contestants performed for America’s votes for the first time, with the first half of this year’s supersized batch of 26 semifinalists doing songs of their choice at Disney’s Hawaiian resort Aulani. They were mentored by singer-songwriter Allen Stone — who, I will say in a quick aside, must have some dirt on some Idol executive, because he and his music are on the show all the time, and he’s always treated like Bono or Mick Jagger by the staff and contestants. But anyway, while Allen may not be totally A-list, he did dole out some rock-star-level good advice Sunday… except when it came to (former?) frontrunner Haven Madison, who then received even worse conflicting advice from the judges. And sadly, this could all be her undoing.

Sixteen-year-old Haven, the talented singer-songwriter daughter of Jason Roy from the Grammy-nominated Christian band Building 429, stunned at her audition with “15,” one of the best originals ever from an Idol contestant. (I was already predicting that she’d win the whole show and release “15” as her coronation single.) Then, in Hollywood, she proved “15” was no fluke with another excellent and emotional original inspired by her struggling brother, “Still Need You.” Like Maddie Poppe or Alejandro Aranda before her, she mostly excelled on her own material, but during the Showstoppers round she pulled off Sia’s big power ballad “Bird Set Free” and had Luke predicting that this true artist would go “very, very, very far” — not just on Idol, but in the music business in general. But this week, when Haven was “torn” between Olivia Rodrigo’s ballad “Traitor” or the more upbeat and off-brand “The Middle” by Zedd and Maren Morris, Allen advised the latter. This was mistake.

Haven admitted that she was scared to take this risk, and while the spunky teen looked the part of the pop star, this pop bop did not well with her voice. She didn’t sound or look comfortable on the Aulani stage, and sometimes she even seemed to be shouting the song. But the judges were, to use Haven’s word, torn, and they gave her contradictory advice that will probably confuse her even more going forward — if she even gets to go forward, that is.

Katy Perry criticized Haven’s more amateurish tendencies, saying diplomatically, “I think sometimes… youthful things. You have an incredible youthful vibe to you and I want you to hold onto that, but I just want more. I want more notes and control.” That was sound advice. But then Luke argued, “I want to you embody youthfulness! Because that’s what you are. We’ve seen you at the piano, really polished and really pro. … I would have loved for you to just turn this into a teenybopper, own-the-beach, Hawaiian teenfest.” And Lionel Richie oddly agreed with Luke, telling Haven, “It’s OK to play!”

All right… so, which is it? Should Haven be more controlled and mature and stick to ballads, or should she goof around like a teenybopper? I say the former; I recall a conversation I had with Season 7’s Brooke White, when she warned that any time a contestant decides to just “have fun,” that’s the week they ended up going home. Hopefully Haven will be a safe Haven this week, but I fear she’s lost her status as someone that both the judges and myself assumed was “top 10 material.” So, if she survives and makes it to the top 20, the show’s judges and mentors need to get on the page about her, stat.

These were the other dozen performances from Sunday:

Elise Kristine, “Holding Out for a Hero”

Allen couldn’t find fault with Elise’s pristine power-vocals, understandably, but he did advise her to experiment more with movement and “ground herself in the joy of performance.” And while the judges praised Elise’s efforts (“I didn’t smell one ounce of fear on you,” Katy told her), I thought her performance seemed actress-y and try-hard. Still, Allen was so impressed that he actually told Elise, “I don’t think that’s Bonnie Tyler’s song anymore,” and he was right: Elise was clearly doing Adam Lambert’s boot-stomping, glam-rock, High Drama version. I just didn’t think she delivered the drama all that convincingly.

Oliver Steele, “Better Together”

(Video) No safe Haven: Conflicting advice leads to frontrunner's downfall on 'American Idol' top 26 night

Doing a Jack Johnson tune in Jack’s native state was a smart power-move. “Way to know your audience!” Katy grinned. Oliver’s performance was a bit laid-back, especially after Elise’s blustery number, but Katy appreciated that he went with “a cool song that isn’t going to bash us over the head,” and I can’t say the dude doesn’t know his audience or his brand. “It felt like you were your own artist,” said Luke, while Lionel told Oliver, “What you showed us tonight was your vocal identity.”

Matt Wilson, “Speechless”

Dedicating this Dan + Shay love song to his new wife — who was sitting in the audience, positively beaming and glowing — helped Matt focus, just as Allen had suggested. The result was an authentic and natural performance from the likable crooner. Katy noticed how Matt’s increased confidence “make the whole room light up” and Lionel said Matt was coming into his own as a well-rounded entertainer, while Luke simply called Matt “a true talent.”

Kaeyra, “Don’t Let Go (Love)”

This searing, soaring En Vogue classic rarely gets covered on singing shows, so it was an interesting choice for a diva like Kaeyra. “That’s gonna slap. … You just sang all the notes; there’s no more notes left!” said an excited Allen, who actually declared this his favorite song selection of the night. Kaeyra’s delivery was a bit old-fashioned — a bit too Idol Season 1, a bit too Alannah Myles circa “Black Velvet” — but she sure oozed confidence. There definitely wasn’t even a fraction of an ounce of fear on this gal. “You just settled in and enjoyed the ride of it. You took your voice and owned that song,” said Lionel. Katy got “frozen stankface” and told Kaeyra, “You’re the whole package. You sound like a star, you look like a star, you move like a star, you dress like a star. You are a star.”

PJAE, “Golden”

PJAE is usually a theatrical belter, so I was surprised that he went with this breezy and swinging Jill Scott neosoul tune. He picked it because it related to its sense of joy and freedom after losing weight and gaining confidence — and he was clearly feeling this song, and feeling himself, in his neon Liquid Sky/Patrick Nagel eyeliner and glittery slash blush. However, I don’t know if “Golden” was the best showcase for what he can do vocally; he only really revved it up at the end, and by then it was almost too late. Katy admitted she “wanted a few more of those PJAE runs,” but Luke liked this “different twist” on PJAE’s style. I think voters might agree more with Katy, so I’m worried for PJAE. He and Haven were the only singers who received less-than-effusive feedback this evening.

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Zachariah Smith, “Lucille”

Good golly! Little Richard rarely gets covered by reality contestants — probably Richard was such an iconoclast, with such a signature style, that any such attempt could easily veer into parody. I was worried that someone as already-over-the-top as Zachariah would push things too far and the result would be a trainwreck… but I knew regardless, “Lucille” would showcase his outsized personality. And this turned out to be a genius song choice. Zachariah delivered another fearless freestyle performance that, according to Allen, had “everything needed to take home the prize.” Luke told Zachariah, “You’re crazy! And stars are crazy — that’s what makes them stars! I can’t take my eyes off of you.” Katy called Zachariah “crazy-talented” and praised him for “educating the kids on Little Richard.” Even host Ryan Seacrest slipped in a good one-liner, saying soon-to-be-former burger-flipper no longer smelled like grill grease, and now “smells like stardom.”

Mariah Faith, “You Should Probably Leave”

I loved the smoke and crackle in what Allen called Mariah’s “so special” voice on this Chris Stapleton ballad. This was a natural yet masterful performance — loose, sultry, and swaggy, yet still wonderfully controlled. Lionel loved Mariah’s “signature rasp,” and Katy told her, “You’ve got that true grit about you. … I think your voice has its own section in this competition.” The judges all advised her to lean into that “Mariah tone” even more. That was good, unanimous advice.

Emma Busse, “Lay Me Down”

Sam Smith gets covered way too much on Idol and The Voice — at the very least, I’d love it if more contestants tackled his Gloria-era bangers instead of his more conservative classic ballads, at this point. So, when Emma stepped up to the mic stand in a column gown looking like Katharine McPhee circa Season 5, I was worried that this would be a dull performance. But the theater-trained Emma is such a superb storyteller and technician that she made it work, and more judging-panel stankfaces ensued. Katy marveled at Emma’s ability to sing “all those hidden colors between all those colors of rainbow, those notes we don’t even know exist.” Luke told Emma, “There was one note you sang out the side of your mouth where I was like, ‘Dang!’” And Lionel gasped, “I was trying to imagine, how did you manage to pull that phrase off with human vocal cords? How did you put those two notes together and make a run out of this?” I don’t know if America’s non-expert voters will appreciate Emma’s technical skills like the judges do, but she definitely deserves to move forward.

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Warren Peay, “Set Fire to the Rain”

This was the most interesting song choice of the night. Adele is another overdone artist I usually think contestants should avoid covering… but I’d never heard Adele covered like this. (Katy actually gasped, “Is this Adele?” when Warren started singing.) Warren’s country-rock-blues remake was definitely a textbook make-it-one’s-own Idol moment, and I appreciated the risk, which mostly worked. I do think he should have gone for it and dramatically tossed his cowboy hat into the audience, as Allen had advised (although I did understand his fear of losing his lucky hat); I do wish he’d brought his guitar back; and I do think he could’ve taken it even further and loosened up even more. But I dig this direction for Warren, which Luke “didn’t see coming,” and I hope it continues.

Nailyah Serenity, “Loving You”

Nailyah readily acknowledged that this Minnie Riperton classic, which “put whistle tone on the map,” was “super-risky, because it’s pass or fail.” But she passed with flying colors — twice! — during a performance that Allen said confounded the laws of physics. (Nailyah somehow reached whistle notes that Riperton didn’t in the original.) Katy described Nailyah’s voice as “Olympic,” and Lionel who knew the late Minnie, exclaimed, “What was that? ... You went to the next level. Your voice is Martian-like!” Luke told Nailyah, “You have stardust all over you.” As is the case with superhuman singer Emma, I don’t know if America will appreciate Nailyah’s technical prowess, and just think her high note is a cool but old-fashioned party trick. But I hope she stays, because I’d like to hear her sprinkle her stardust on some more modern material.

Lucy Love, “What’s Love Got to Do With It”

Allen said he was rooting for Lucy, but she seemed to have no bigger advocate than herself, bounding out onstage in a Tina Turner jean jacket and leather mini exuding tons of joy and leggy confidence. The woman is a born performer, as well as a resilient survivor, so she was really able to make Tina’s signature comeback song her own. This was a big moment for Lucy. Luke could tell that “nobody wants it more” than her, and Katy told her, “You leave it all out on the floor, every time, and you have such a beautiful, unique vocal approach to everything you do.” Said Lionel: “Enjoy the stage. That’s where you belong.”

(Video) We are joined in the studio by Chris Morris.

Iam Tongi, “Don’t Let Go”

Of course “hometown hero” Iam got the pimp spot in his home state, doing a “classic island song” by Spawnbreezie to wisely take full advantage of his home court advantage. “I feel like I have to make my island proud,” he said, and that he did. Lionel called this performance “a spiritual experience,” and Katy said Iam’s voice sounded like “vacation.” I must take issue with the fact that the judges claimed that no Hawaiian singer had ever made it this far on American Idol before — unless they’re still obeying ABC executives’ silly orders to pretend like the first 15 Fox seasons never happened, they should note that in Season 3, two Hawaiian-born contestants Camile Velsaco and Jasmine Trias, made the top 10, and Jasmine got all the way to third place! But Iam is already such a clear favorite, he might beat Jasmine’s record this year.

On Monday, the second batch of 13 semifinalists from Season 21 (or, as ABC insists on calling it, “Season 6”) will perform in Hawaii, mentored by Noah Cyrus. Next week, six contestants — three from each of this week’s episodes — will be eliminated via the public vote, so as we look ahead… which of Sunday’s singers are at risk, besides Haven? I do think there’s a risk of overlap between same-lane contestants PJAE, Matt, and Zachariah (with PJAE going home); Kaeyra, Emma, Nailyeh, and Elise (none of them are safe); and Oliver, Iam, and Warren (of those three, Warren’s song choice could backfire on him). But contrary to Luke’s insistence that “America usually gets it right,” we all know from two decades of Idol that that’s totally not the case, so anything could happen. Watch this space, and until then, watch Idol on Monday as well.

Read more from Yahoo Entertainment:

  • 'American Idol' announces shocking, unprecedented Final Judgment: 'We literally made this decision two minutes ago'

  • Young mother Sara Beth quits 'American Idol' following Katy Perry's 'embarrassing' and 'hurtful' 'mom-shaming' remark

  • 'Our country has f***ing failed us!': Katy Perry emotionally reacts to school shooting survivor's story on 'American Idol'

  • 20 years after 'American Idol' launch, Randy Jackson says singing shows are 'too nice': 'There's very little truth being told'

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