Sunday on American Idol, the top 12 semifinalists sang Academy Award-nominated songs, with only nine advancing via the public’s real-time East Coast vote. Singer-songwriter Hunter Metts seemed primed to go for the Oscar gold with his well-chosen cover of “Falling Slowly” (even if was I hoping he’d do Elliott Smith’s “Miss Misery” instead), the Swell Season’s gorgeous Once winner which was first winningly performed on Idol by Kris Allen in Season 8. And until Hunter’s final line, everything was working wonderfully — the autumnal postcard-pretty stage backdrop, the stately cellist accompaniment, Hunter’s awards-ceremony suit, the fragility and sweetness and simplicity of it all. It was all so magical that by the time he flubbed a couple of words at the end, he’d done more than enough to charm the viewers and judges.

And yet, Hunter completely crumbled post-performance, so embarrassed and so furious with himself that the judges had to spend an uncomfortable amount of air time comforting and pep-talking him (which obviously cut into the critique time allotted for all of the contestants who followed), assuring him that this little mistake was a fleeting and forgivable one.

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“Hunter! Perfection is an illusion. It's an illusion. It doesn't matter. That shows that you are human and vulnerable. And everybody relates to that. And it's amazing. It's emotion; that's what music is. It's a lot of pressure, but it's not about perfection, it's about resonating with people — and you just did. Listen, Hunter: You connected with us. You kept your eyes and heart open. You were so connected that you forgot where you were, and that is perfect,” said Katy Perry as Hunter, seemingly not believing her, continued to cry.

“I don't even know what happened at the end, but listen — I didn't care. You did no wrong. You could do no wrong in that moment,” Luke Bryan insisted, even stating that despite the flub, this was Hunter’s greatest performance to date. Lionel Richie attempted to defuse the situation by sharing his own amusing and in retrospect iconic concert horror stories about forgetting the lyrics to “Hello” or falling off the stage. But weepy, self-flagellating Hunter still appeared inconsolable. “Hunter, what is going through your mind right now?” host Ryan Seacrest asked him, to which he replied with a pained expression and frog-lumped throat, “I just wish I didn't mess up.”

While my heart went out to perfectionist Hunter (“I can tell you care,” Ryan told him sympathetically), as a longtime Idol viewer and reporter, I had mixed feelings about this emotional display. For one, this was indeed a minor offense; I’ve certainly seen much worse fumbles on Idol. (Remember that time in Season 7 when Brooke White stopped her song and started over? She had a pretty good sense of humor about that much more glaring gaffe.) Hunter could have easily shrugged off this incident and it would have been quickly forgotten, but instead he drew attention to it — while (unintentionally) shifting attention away from the other contestants — and made it seem a lot worse than it actually was.

Additionally, while I appreciated the judges’ kindness and empathy, it bordered on coddling. This was not the sort of thing Simon Cowell would have tolerated, and part of me wished that Katy, Luke, and Lionel had told Hunter to suck it up, shake it off, and move on. The whole situation made me wonder if a fragile spirit like Hunter is truly ready for a live-televised competition on which anything can go awry, or for the music industry itself, since — as Lionel humorously pointed out — there’s really no such thing as a “perfect” performance.

So, as I said, at the end of the evening, three contestants were voted off, and as Ryan sent one singer after another to safety, it ultimately came down to Hunter, Ava August, Beane, and Madison Watkins. Hunter looked very nervous, and I was wondering if he’d soon be sobbing all over again. But apparently he garnered enough sympathy from voters — or simply did an incredible enough job with “Falling Slowly,” despite his misgivings — to make it to the top nine. (I bet you he wasn’t even in the actual bottom four.) But the competition is only going to get fiercer from this point on, so hopefully Hunter will listen to what the judges had to say this Sunday and let their words of encouragement sink in, rather than listen to his inner self-sabotaging voice.

As for the night’s three actual eliminees, Beane and Madison's exit was not surprising, since they only made it into the top 12 after the judges saved them last week. Madison went out on a literal high note, deciding to just go for it and tackling some Whitney Houston — but despite Lionel telling her she “stepped into that batter's box” and Katy saying she gave an “A-level performance” and “looked like an icon,” it still wasn’t enough. Beane was my Season 19 favorite, but while his cover of the Dirty Dancing hit “Time of My Life” started off with a cool, creative acoustic arrangement, it unfortunately devolved into dated wedding-band shlock, thus ensuring his doom. The Beanie baby got put in a corner tonight.

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The night’s only shocking elimination was presumed frontrunner Ava August. I thought La La Land’s “City of Stars” was a smart choice for the teen warbler, but I think she might have suffered from a mini-identity crisis throughout the season, resulting in a disconnect with viewers. Her last two numbers had a stuffy music-conservatory vibe — including this one, performed in an updo and yellow Emma Stone frock — but she was criticized last week when she acted her age during a bouncy Anne-Marie pop tune. In the weeks before that, she looked like Folklore-era Taylor Swift and covered Joni Mitchell or performed her own indie-rock originals. Maybe Ava still needs to figure out what sort of “package artist” she wants to be; she is only 15, after all. But I disappointed to learn that she won’t be figuring it out on Idol.

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That being said, the cause of any Season 19 contestant’s identity crisis on this show might the judges’ annoyingly contradictory advice. Sometimes, the judges will tell the singers to switch things up; other times, like this week, they’ll warn the contestants to “not take these crazy chances,” stick with “classic” songs, and stay in their respective lanes. Katy especially has been a stickler for that last bit of play-it-safe advice, which is odd coming from a pop maverick whose entire career has been based on reinvention. But maybe in some cases — like with Grace Kinstler, who I thought might go home this week after taking an ill-advised risk — Katy is correct.

Below are the performances from the advancing top nine. On Monday, in what Ryan has called “biggest shakeup in Idol history,” a batch of finalists from last year, who never got to perform on the main Idol stage due to COVID, will compete — with America voting one of them through to this season’s semifinals, thus rounding out the top 10. This “comeback” twist irks me, especially that I now know Ava would have made this season’s top 10 under normal circumstances. But, it is what it is. See you Monday.

Grace Kinstler, “Happy”

Katy had repeatedly advised Grace, arguably the best ballad-belter in the top 12 besides Willie Spence, to stick with “timeless, classic songs.” But then, in a week when she could have slayed just about any Diane Warren power-ballad or James Bond theme, she bafflingly went with an uptempo Pharrell Williams bop. Although she explained, “I'm trying to take this advice and bring this song into my lane,” the result was Vegas-lounge cheese and strangely personality-free, albeit sung technically well. This almost seemed like voluntary forfeit or abdication of Grace’s diva throne, and the judges were frustrated. “I'm just thinking about what kind of record you're going to make after American Idol. I know it's going to sound good. But what kind of artist, that's what I'm trying to tap into. Who are you as an artist? You can sing anything, but what are you going to say?” griped Katy. “More identity is what we're looking for,” agreed Lionel. “We're going to start challenging you to really lock in to who you are as an artist. I love hearing your voice, week-in, week-out, and I don't want it to go away,” warned Luke.

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Caleb Kennedy, “On the Road Again”

Season 19’s resident country outlaw took on the Redheaded Stranger, and I felt like I was watching the Academy of Country Music Awards ceremony airing simultaneously on CBS. (Side note: Luke won the ACM Entertainer of the Year award in absentia Sunday, remotely accepting the honor from a “super-secret location” in Los Angeles from former Idol judge Keith Urban.) This kid Caleb’s a natural. No, this wasn’t exactly a massive, cinematic ballad, but it showcased a playful side of the usually stoic singer — and it’s only a lack of personality that could hold Caleb back in the competition, so this was a strategic song choice. “If you keep this up, you'll be on the road for a very long time,” said Lionel with a smile. Katy called this performance “authentic” and “entertainment.” And Luke raved, “That, in my opinion, was your best from top-to-bottom performance I've seen you do, because you picked the right song. … You just laid that thing down from A to Z, and it was done perfectly.”

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Chayce Beckham, “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You”

I found this adult-contemporary number sleepy and dreary. I wish Chayce had picked something with more grit and edge — or at least done the David Cook thing, and grit-ified and edge-ified the schmaltzy Bryan Adams prom song. But I guess the judges really do want contestants to play it safe this season, because Katy was certain that Chayce’s serenade would be a hit with lady viewers, and — perhaps related to that prediction — Luke declared Chayce “the frontrunner in this thing.” Luke might be right. Chayce played right to the show’s core demographic.

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Alyssa Wray, “This Is Me”

Come on, did we really need to hear another Greatest Showman song? We hear them constantly on Idol and The Voice as it is. Sigh. This was another pageant performance in a rented pageant column gown. Alyssa entered the competition as a bubbly 19-year-old, and everything she has done since, from her styling to her staging to her song choices, has aged her by at least 30 years. What happened that quirky, pink-coiffed, small-town rebel who thrilled everyone with her adorable first audition? But once again, the judges loved this conservative number. Lionel called Alyssa a “subtle force” and said her performance was “absolutely fantastic, right on the money.” Sure, it would have been right on the money in Seasons 1 through 3, but not in Season 19.

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Deshawn Goncalves, “The Way We Were”

For once, Deshawn’s old-fashioned-ness worked in his favor, and for once I wasn’t mad about it. This was classic take on a classic Streisand five-hanky weeper, in a classic white tuxedo, and that classic big finish was ev-er-y-thing. Deshawn understood the drama and pacing of Babs's breakup ballad and he performed it like a master-level thespian. Give his guy his own Oscar now. “That was absolutely beautiful. It was so classy, man. I felt like I was in some time capsule, to a time that I want to just go back to and stay in there forever. I was caught up in the moment. You did exactly what you need to do, in my opinion, to get America behind you,” gushed Luke. Katy even likened Deshawn to a “young Luther Vandross.” Deshawn later revealed that he’d recently received a phone call of encouragement from another Idol contestant once compared to Luther, Season 2 champion Ruben Studdard, and apparently whatever Ruben said worked like a charm.

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Casey Bishop, “Over the Rainbow”

OK, here is one contestant who isn’t afraid to switch things up — and in this case, her risk paid off. I would not have expected the rocker chick who’s covered Motley Crue, Soundgarden, Incubus, and Paramore to do a 1939 Judy Garland song such justice, but she delivered a dramatic and slightly dark interpretation that was very Alanis Morissette-on-MTV Unplugged, very “Uninvited,” very epic, full of smolder and strings. “You can do anything you want. You can sing rock, R&B, standards. You can sing Judy Garland. It's all inside of you,” proclaimed Katy. “Keep us guessing and surprise us,” advised a totally self-contradictory Luke.

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Cassandra Coleman, “Writing’s on the Wall”

This was not the Bond song I would have picked for Cassandra. (Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill” was robbed of its rightful Oscar nomination in 1985, but Adele’s “Skyfall” or Sheena Easton’s “For Your Eyes Only” might have been cool.) However, I love that Cassandra took on a huge, edge-of-theater-seat tour de force and totally pulled it off. This is definitely one contestant who has a distinct identity, even when her vocals occasionally wobble, but I don’t think they wobbled this week. That was why I was so annoyed when Lionel shadily hinted that Cassandra will not win Idol. “You bring us your poise, your positioning onstage. You know what you're doing. But you let go. Enjoy this. Because I've picked the winner already. I know who it is. I have five of them. It's no problem. I know one of them will win. It's amazing what you're doing, though,” he tossed off condescendingly. I don’t know if Cassandra can actually win Season 19, but I don’t think Lionel should count her out of the top five just yet.

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Willie Spencer, “Stand Up”

I am sure Willie tops Lionel’s shortlist of five likely Idol winners. He’s certainly on my list. And this was my favorite Willie performance yet. I was beginning to worry that he’d plateaued, or peaked too soon, after he did Rihanna’s “Diamonds” for a second time last week — but this week, his cover of Cynthia Erivo’s Harriet theme (preceded by a well-earned message of encouragement from Cynthia herself) had all the attitude and edge and stankface and vibe and just plain coolness I’d been craving from him. This was badass! By the time he got to that over-the-top gospel coda, I felt like I was at the Oscars — or at the Season 19 Idol finale. Lionel called this performance a “religious experience,” Katy called it “so powerful,” and Luke joked, “Well, Willie, you taught me to never use the word ‘frontrunner’ again until the whole show is done.”

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