Throughout the “American Idol” Season 17 finale Sunday night, the winner seemed almost too obvious, especially when Alejandro Aranda, the 24-year-old singer-songwriter from Pomona, Calif., performed an original track called “Out Loud.” At the end, the studio audience screamed and cheered so loudly that it nearly drowned out the judges.
“We love you, buddy. Thanks for changing our lives,” Luke Bryan told Aranda when the crowd finally settled down. If that sounds hyperbolic, earlier in the episode, Lionel Richie said, “Every once in a while, something comes along that captivates your imagination, your soul and you know that what you’re looking at is the next level of something amazing.” Katy Perry went with, “It has been such a pleasure to live in the same lifetime as you.”
These reactions were markedly different from how they treated Laine Hardy, the 18-year-old musician from Livingston, La. Though the judges offered praise and complimented his song choices (Perry said if he worked hard, in five years, he could be “one of the biggest stars on this planet”), they also just joked around a lot, suggesting he should trademark the phrases “Party With the Hardy” and “Bayou Boy.”
But then, Aranda and Hardy, the final two, took the stage as host Ryan Seacrest announced the fan-voted champion and winner of a recording contract: “The American Idol 2019 is. . . Laine Hardy!”
The result was somewhat shocking — Aranda, a producer favorite whose singing was deemed “otherworldly” and “holy,” appeared destined to win. His audition video on the “Idol” YouTube channel was titled “Alejandro Aranda AMAZING Full Audition Leaves Judges Speechless.” (It has 10.4 million views.) Stevie Nicks wrote a Facebook post that said his songs made her cry. He was called the front-runner by websites that specialize in predicting winners of televised competitions. So how did he lose?
Fans have many theories, but one possible explanation may have accidentally arrived from Perry, in her second year as a judge since the reality singing show moved from Fox to ABC. After Aranda performed a tune he wrote called “Tonight,” Perry had some thoughts.
“Look, I love being on ‘American Idol,’ ” Perry said. “But of course, some would say in the past, ‘American Idol’ — you know, it’s been a bit of a karaoke show. Not anymore. When people like you come on, you bring original music. You bring artistry, and you make the stakes even higher.”
It’s true that Aranda became a standout as he performed more original music than anyone else this season. (Typically, the finalists stick to cover songs.) In his first audition, Aranda confessed he had no formal music training and only started writing songs a few years ago, when he was tired of working in warehouses. Then he rendered the judges practically speechless as he displayed dazzling guitar and piano skills, crooning tracks called “Out Loud” and “Cholo Love.”
“I just feel like I’m in the presence of greatness,” Bryan said, barely able to get the words out. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
While Aranda earned a ton of fans throughout the season, many of whom were angry he didn’t win, Perry’s “karaoke” comment inadvertently brought up a possible reason he didn’t bring home the victory.
After all, at its core, “American Idol” is mostly a karaoke show. And that’s what works! The series has certainly evolved since its launch in 2002, as producers eventually allowed contestants to play their own instruments and sing original music. But “Idol” took off as a phenomenon partly because fans were eager to see contestants put new spins on past and current hits.
Aranda played plenty of covers over the season, from Coldplay to Post Malone to Drake. But he was most comfortable when he was singing something he wrote himself; even Seacrest called it “unprecedented” that Aranda sang four original songs in the finale. Incidentally, that’s when the live voting for the winner took place — Hardy performed Marc Broussard’s “Home,” Hank Williams’s “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me” and duetted with country star Jon Pardi on “Dirt On My Boots” and “Night Shift.”
So, maybe some viewers at home preferred songs they knew. And speaking of familiarity, that could be another explanation for Hardy’s surprise victory. This was his second stint on “Idol” — he tried out in Season 16 and was cut relatively early on. Then he returned to auditions this season, allegedly just to help his friend as her guitarist. Somehow, the judges persuaded him to try out one more time.
Hardy belted out The Band’s song “The Weight,” and Perry, Bryan and Richie were captivated. Apparently, in the year after his “Idol” rejection, he built up a lot of confidence.
“He got good,” Perry said. As they held out the golden ticket to Hollywood, Perry said the magic words, which would eventually prove prophetic: “You could win this one. You really could.”