American Idol had a completely new look when it kicked off its Top 20 on Sunday. For the first time in the show's 18 season run, the competition went remote as contestants performed from their own houses all across the country amid the coronavirus pandemic. Along with that, the judges, including Katy Perry and her hand sanitizer outfit, were also in their respective homes.
With such a drastic change, the impact on the contestants was definitely felt. On a conference call with PopCulture.com and other members of the media, many of the finalists explained the adjustments that needed to be made and the mental switch in performing at home after previously playing in front of a crowd of a thousand people in Hawaii. "It's definitely different," said Makayla Phillips, who sang "Greedy" by Ariana Grande. "A little bit rough because we all joined wanting to perform on the big stage but it's been really incredible nonetheless." Johnny West, who closed the show with a beautiful rendition of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World," downplayed the transition to performing at home, but did note that it was "a change of pace" going from Hawaii to his own living room but that the show must go on, "Your job as an entertainer or performer is to just connect with people through whatever means you have available to you."
Grace Leer, who earned the final spot in the Top 20, definitely felt a little difference in moving from the Hawaii round to singing remotely, calling the experience at Aulani Resort a "paradise" being able to perform on the beach. "It's a challenge for all of us, it's making us grow better as artists and to learn to capture that whatever way we can," Leer explained after playing Faith Hill's "Cry" in her backyard on Sunday. "We are all on the same playing field. We all are at home and we don't have the live audience, but it's something, for me, mentally I had to tap into and it's still singing and doing what I love. You can take everything away, but if it's just me and my guitar, I'm happy."
After winning over the judges with his voice, earning some high praise from Luke Bryan who called his singing "stellar," Louis Knight echoed a similar sentiment as Leer in saying it was tough getting that taste of performing to a large audience in Hawaii but then having it taken away. "Being up on that stage and using that energy from that amazing crowd was unreal," Knight shared. "No matter what, we're all at home and everyone put on an incredible performance. It was amazing to see… the end of the day, we were performing into iPhones and you just have to connect to everyone out there at home."
In playing at home, perhaps the most important change was ensuring that each contestant made the right song choice. While this is always an important part of the competition, not having the crowd's energy to feed off of or the backing of the band, being able to connect with the audience and the judges who are all at home was as important as ever.
"With everything going on, the people on the front line, the doctors… the people who have had to become instant heroes for people around them," began Julia Gargano, a New York native who performed "Human" by Christina Perry. "I sang 'Human' because I was thinking of all of them and for what they really are, taking on these big roles. That one went out to them."
Faith Becnel, who wowed in her rendition of Bishop Briggs' "River," said there was definitely an initial freak out when the announcement to perform at home was made after realizing they had to do everything from their own house. She said that setting everything up was a big task, but was pleased with the "learning experience." The Louisiana native opted to stick with her original song she had planned feeling that it still applied and was able to bring a new look to the competition.
"It was cool to be able to really show America a different side of my voice and to show them I can do the things [the judges] mentioned I need to work on… I think I've learned a lot through this experience," Becnel said. Some even got creative in their at-home setup, leaving Easter eggs in the backdrop — like Francisco Martin, who said viewers may not have noticed that the third image behind him was the Golden Ticket he earned in Oregon that he had framed. "That audition means the most to me because that's where I was at my lowest and super insecure… it was just super memorable for me," he said.
The Top 20 will see their fates revealed on Sunday as the group will be cut in half to form the Top 10. Before that, though, the participants will get to perform one more time. Voting for the Top 20 came to a close on Monday morning.