The show sadly stops for 'American Idol' darling Kelsie Dolin: 'You've already won the competition'

Monday brought the final round of American Idol Season 20's Hollywood Week, the Showstoppers Challenge, when the 59 remaining hopefuls took the stage with a full live band in front of a live audience. They then faced Final Judgment — the tension-filled segment previously known to diehard Idol fans as the "Green Mile" — as one by one, they took that harrowing walk into the judges' deliberation room to find out if they had made the top 24.

As is always the case with Final Judgment, it was a night of tough goodbyes. Among those leaving the competition were Douglas Mills Jr. (not a surprise, considering his struggle during Sunday's Duets Challenge), mom-to-be/comeback queen Sam Moss, former Miss America Betty Maxwell, gospel singer Dontrell Briggs (who made the egregious error of trying to do Lionel Richie's Hello" in front of Lionel Richie), country teens Dakota Haden and Ryleigh Madison, raspy rocker Jordan Chase, and purple-haired Cuban-American dynamo Yoli Mayor. (The latter was forced to do a sudden-death sing-off in the judging room against Ava Maybee — presumably, because they both have altos and Manic Panic hair? — and lost).

However, none of these final judgments were as shocking as the "bittersweet farewell" to underdog Kelsie Dolin, who was just beginning to come into her own and seemed poised to be this season's surprise breakout star — the sort of contestant that American Idol is supposed to be all about.

Kelsie’s first audition was one of the most tear-jerking moments of Season 20. (Lionel in fact said it "messed him up completely.") A shy, small-town Southerner who had a traumatic childhood due to her mother's drug addiction and was raised by her grandparents, Kelsie had never sung in public before Idol. She only auditioned to pay tribute to her grandmother, who died in 2021, and she had zero confidence in her vocal skills, despite clearly being a natural. Luke Bryan even told her, "Do you know how many bad notes you hit? Zero. You have this pure, beautiful voice that’s never been challenged, never been pushed, never been lifted up and loved on."

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Kelsie was a nervous wreck in Hollywood at first, so terrified to perform at the Orpheum Theatre that she was almost shaking too hard to even hold her microphone. And she was still doubting herself during round two, the Duets Challenge, requiring multiple pep talks from both her singing partner and judge Katy Perry (who called her a "diamond in the rough"). But every time Kelsie opened her mouth to sing, the voice of a pop star came out. After she surprisingly nailed her Sunday duet, a verklempt Lionel told her, "I thought you wouldn't rise to the occasion. You were scared. But what you did tonight, you worked through it. Who the heck are you now?" And Katy told Kelsie, "I think you found something you can build on for the rest of your life because you finally believe in yourself. We see your future."

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"I want to make it to the top 24 for myself. I kind of want to prove myself wrong," Kelsie declared Monday before her Showstoppers performance of Lewis Capaldi's "Before You Go," which received a standing ovation from the judges. "I know I'm coming out of the shell — it's scary, but it's good as well."

When Kelsie sang Monday, it was like witnessing her evolution almost in real-time. She was already clearly much more confident and self-possessed, with a fire in her eyes that had never been there before. "The best thing we saw was that light come on inside of you," Lionel told her, calling her Season 20's "angel in residence." But shockingly, the judges opted not to put Kelsie through to the top 24. The sympathetic edit and story arc she'd received all season made it seem like she was being primed for greatness, and I do think she had that potential — as did many Idol fans, who took to Twitter to protest the judges' heartbreaking decision.

This is pure CRAP! I like the judges, but they have such a bad habit of letting the best go! Kelsie deserved so much more!

— Nichole (@Deepfried_ditz) April 5, 2022

sigh sorry but you just destroyed #AmericanIdol again no just not buying it Kelsie is the only real one left. i hope american idol crashes and burns. they do this every year and it always sucks it has gone down hill since the first auditions . actually since kelly clarkson

— ☂️The Pragmatic Party 🦬🌎⌛♻🎗🧬🐳🦉🐸🐝🌞🦅⚖ (@tim39941098) April 5, 2022

HOW COULD THEY NOT PUT THROUGH KELSIE!? She’s the most precious. #AmericanIdol

— Brian Jacobson (@brianhasfun) April 5, 2022

Are you serious, They are letting kelsie go, She was good #AmericanIdol .

— Nicholas_Sye (@NicholasSye1) April 5, 2022

I AM SO MAD!!! But i am so happy how much she improved in Hollywood week!!

— jasmine. 🚀🏀 | she/her | (@ajbuddy) April 5, 2022

Still, Katy mused, "I think she got what she came for," and Lionel told Kelsie, "As far as we're concerned, you've already won the competition." And Kelsie didn't do her Green Mile retreat in defeat, instead strutting into the sunset like a champion. "I feel like I have something I didn’t have coming here. I feel a lot better about myself," she declared. "Before American Idol, I didn't talk to nobody. I put it in my head that they were all judging me on the way I acted or the way I looked. I cared too much about what people and the audience were thinking about me. I don't give two craps now! … I think American Idol changed my life. I think the Kelsie before American Idol was very closed-up and shy and beat herself down. I'm just grateful. I want people who might not believe in themselves to know that if you just take a little step… then you can do anything you want to."

Your #AmericanIdol journey has touched so many people. @kelsiedolin We might not see you in the next round, but your light shining brighter than ever. Just know that you’ve made an impact on all of us.

— Lionel Richie (@LionelRichie) April 5, 2022

Of course, this is a talent-packed season, so the 24 singers who advanced earned their spots. (Well, most of them, anyway.) Let's assess this year's crop, before they move on to the next round in Hawaii…

Leah Marlene

I've been a fan of this lovable oddball since the beginning, but I don’t think Larkin Poe's blues-rocker "She’s a Self-Made Man" was the best choice for Leah. I'm sure she chose it for her ‘80s-rocker dad, who was in the audience. (How are we just finding out now that her father is Derry Grehan from Honeymoon Suite?). And the way she "twinned" the topline vocal melody with her guitar notes was kind of neat. But she lost some of her winsome charm here. "You definitely were the guitar queen, and I was hoping for more vocal queen," Katy gently scolded her. But at least Leah is versatile, so I'm looking forward to what she does next.

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Jay Copeland

I never quite understood why Jay received one of this season's three coveted platinum tickets. I've always thought he was too overcooked, too melodramatic, with a lot of bad habits that the judges gave other contestants grief for but somehow ignored or excused in his case. Jay's wailing "Jar of Hearts" didn’t change this opinion for me — and it seems this week, the judges were finally starting to doubt Jay too. Luke wanted him to "trim that vibrato just a hair," and Katy even said, "I don’t remember him being so Broadway!" (I do.) Later, Katy told Jay, "You're almost a perfect singer, but sometimes perfection doesn't win over feeling. … Just keep it a little bit dirtier, a little more soulful." Jay quit grad school to audition for Idol, so I hope he doesn't come to regret that decision. I have a feeling if he makes it to the live shows, voters won't connect with him.

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Nicolina Bozzo

Nicolina made the brilliant choice to pull back on the all-too-familiar chorus of Adele's oft-covered "Rolling in the Deep," making it whispery and hushed and suddenly fresh-sounding. The result gave the judges chills. This woman is definitely a Season 20 frontrunner due to her powerful pipes alone, but this week, she also displayed artistry. And she had probably the fastest Final Judgment segment in Idol history, when Katy simply told her, "No need to even sit down. Welcome to the top 24!"

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Emyrson Flora

Emyrson is only 16, but she showed a lot of sophistication on her unexpectedly sultry cover of Kehlani’s "Honey." Lionel loved her “texture and tone,” and Luke said, "She's got a little star thing going on." I am intrigued to see what Emyrson does next; I think she has layers we haven't even seen yet.

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Katyrah Love

We didn't see a lot of Katyrah in Hollywood, which makes no sense, because she's clearly a star. Every time we see her, she lights up the screen; Ryan Seacrest even made her an honorary commentator, and Luke called her personality "infectious." Her performance of "Sweet Thing" by Rufus & Chaka Khan was a bit old-fashioned — I think she's cooler and sassier than this — but she nailed the high notes like a true diva. "You sing like Whitney … and Whitney’s the GOAT," raved Katy. I hope Katyrah gets a more generous edit in Hawaii.

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Fritz Hager

This quirky troubadour took a massive risk doing an original — "Inconsequential Love," written for his little sister — but the song meant so much to him that he was willing to go home if it didn't go over well. (Katy noted that "seven times out of 10," originals are contestants' undoing during the Showstoppers round.) To be totally honest, the song was not great, but Fritz's heartfelt delivery sold it — it was very raw, very James Arthur/Sam Fender. Fritz admitted, "I don't think I would be this emotional if I did a cover. … That was the most vulnerable I have been in my entire life." If Fritz can actually apply that sort of passion to cover songs, he could be unstoppable this season.

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Jacob Moran

Jacob tried out for Idol two years ago and was cut in Hollywood Week, so he's at least bested his previous Idol record. But his cover of Lady Gaga’s "Is That Alright?" was barely shown this Monday, and he did flounder in last week's Genre Challenge. So, I question how much farther this old-fashioned balladeer can go in Season 20.

Allegra Miles

Allegra was a top nine finalist on The Voice Season 18, and I think she has the vocal chops and songwriting skills to make the top 10 on Idol as well. But like Jacob, Allegra was the victim of a brief, brutal edit this week, so that doesn't bode well.

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Mike Parker, Elli Rowe

These two made it through during a quick montage, but their Showstoppers performances weren't shown at all; at least Jacob and Allegra got a few seconds each. Again, this was not a good sign. But I recall Mike (another Voice alumnus) in particular being interesting, so watch this space.

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Cameron Whitcomb

Cameron has been one of Season 20's class clowns, although his Sunday Creedence duet with Tristen Gressett proved he can be serious when it really matters. For the Showstoppers episode, he was back to his dorky ways, backflipping during a raucous cover of "It Ain't Me, Babe." I'm honestly surprised such a lightweight performance secured him a spot in the top 24; even Katy called him "kind of a head-scratcher." But Cameron assured the judges that he’ll take the competition seriously from now on.

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Ava Maybee

Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith's pop-rocker daughter showcased her mighty alto voice and amazing Y2K-meets-‘80s fashion sense during her Showstoppers performance of Harry Styles's "Falling"; Katy said it was Ava's best effort yet and described her as "marketable." Then Ava demonstrated her ability to be graceful under pressure when the judges made her duel on the spot with the above-mentioned Yoli Mayor in the judgment room. Ava sexily belted a bluesy version of the Police's "Roxanne" a cappella without missing a beat, proving she is a fierce competitor who’s ready for prime time.

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Sir Blayke

I’ve always thought of Blayke as more of a songwriter than a singer, but his cover of "Honesty" by PinkSweat$ was tasteful and elegant. He may not be the best vocalist of Season 20, but he believed his performance this week was a "great opening and awakening" for him, giving him the confidence that he could "really do this." Lionel appreciated that Blayke didn't over-sing, but Katy wanted "one little notch more" from him. Again, we shall see.

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Tristen Gressett

Tristen worked my last nerve during his unfocused and overwrought audition, but now he has become one of my favorites. He positively sizzled on the Beatles" "Come Together" punctuating the performance with a flat-on-his-back guitar solo but otherwise playing it straight. He gave just the right amount of personality and pizzazz. This "work in progress" admitted that trying to be a "more serious version" of himself was "scarier" than just goofing around, but Lionel told him, "You are turning into the artist you always wanted to be. I didn't want you to be a gimmick. You found your identity." I'm glad Tristen made it through. Season 20 would be a lot less exciting without him.

"Come Together" by @thebeatles 𝘱𝘦𝘳𝘧𝘰𝘳𝘮𝘦𝘥 𝘣𝘺 @tristengressett

𝗪𝗔𝗧𝗖𝗛: https://t.co/yfyLnIVsXB#AmericanIdolpic.twitter.com/86D96b4KDf

— American Idol (@AmericanIdol) April 5, 2022

Christian Guardino

Doing Kings of Leon's swaggering rock anthem "Sex on Fire" was a huge risk for this classy crooner, and Katy recommended that he stick to soul songs in the future. But Christian demonstrated that he can sing anything — and that versatility will help him navigate this competition with ease.

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Noah Thompson

This green country singer's own outside-the-box song choice, Rihanna's "Stay," was actually brilliant. His gruff, groovy delivery reminded me a bit of Phillip Phillips, and the ballad utilized the natural break and cry in his voice — what Luke called his "magical quality" — to full effect. "No one is expecting what comes out of your mouth when you start singing. … You've got to really use that to your advantage," Luke advised.

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Cadence Baker

Cadence started this season so strongly — Luke even once declared her the "potential winner," probably prematurely — but she has struggled in Hollywood. Her cover of Brandi Carlile's "The Story" was wobbly and seemed in too low a key, although she improved once she got to the strident chorus. "Lately when you’ve been coming on stage, you have fear written all over your face," Katy observed. If Cadence can’t get her nerves in check, she's never going to even come close to fulfilling Luke's bold prophecy.

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Huntergirl

I feel that Huntergirl, this season's first platinum ticket recipient, has also been the victim of too much premature hype. Her Monday performance of Ashley McBryde's "Girl Goin' Nowhere" was polished and professional, but she didn’t exactly set the stage on fire. Did Huntergirl peak too soon? We will see if she has another performance in her like her first audition, which had Luke declaring her the best female country vocalist of Season 20.

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Danielle Finn

The judges thought Danielle’s cover of Yebba's "Evergreen" — her first-ever performance with a live band — was "rough" and her worst effort yet. But even Danielle at her worst is pretty damn good. The kid's a natural. "You've got to stay consistent in this game … I personally fought for you so much. I can't do it anymore," Katy warned her. I have a feeling Danielle will prove that she was worth fighting for.

Sage

This Edie Brickell-esque songbird has barely received any screentime this season, even though Lionel once declared her the "total package." I loved her Monday cover of "I Hate This" by Tenille Arts (Katy said she "slayed it"), so I really hope Sage gets a better edit in Hawaii — where this hippie belter will probably feel right at home.

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Kenedi Anderson

The final platinum ticket holder to make it to the top 24, Kenedi was feeling the pressure, and her rendition of Bruno Mars's "Talking to the Moon" wasn’t perfect. ("That was not the time not to slip," Lionel admonished.) But I dug her torchy vibe, sense of dynamics and connection to the yearning lyrics. I think Kenedi did more than enough to earn her place and platinum status.

Scarlet

Scarlet was seeking redemption after her disastrous Duets Challenge — and boy, she got it. Her take on Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know" tapped into all her ferocity and fire. She was positively unhinged as if undergoing an onstage exorcism, ending the song on her knees — it was a lot, but it all worked. Katy, a massive Alanis fan who worked with Jagged Little Pill producer Glen Ballard in her early days, was greatly impressed, saying Scarlet had the "eye of the tiger." (And you're gonna hear her roar. Heh.) Scarlet thought it was one of the best performances she'd ever done, and it was my favorite performance of the night.

Lady K

Lady K is another contestant I wish we'd seen more of in Hollywood Week, but she made up for that lost time with her dynamite interpretation of Etta James's "I'd Rather Go Blind." Luke exclaimed, "She's real!" This was blindingly spectacular.

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Dan Marshall

Katy didn't appreciate this ex-football player's attitude, and I could see why. His cover of Brooks & Dunn’s "Hard Workin' Man" was nothing special, totally corny Branson fare, yet he seemed so smug about it. Luke called him "kind of a goofball," and Katy chuckled, "He thinks he won!" When Dan was forced to do an instant sing-off against Dakota Hayden at the end of the night, his rendition of "What Are You Listening To?" by Chris was a definite improvement, so he should favor maudlin ballads over hokey honky-tonk party songs from here on out. But I still have no idea why Dan got a shot over more interesting and likable singers like Kelsie Dolin or Sam Moss.

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