It may just have been for one night only, but magic has been restored to the Idol-dome mere weeks before it’ll sputter out its final high note and die. A radiant Kelly Clarkson, “all knocked up and nostalgic,” returned Thursday to guest-judge the Season 15 hopefuls and absolutely shatter the audience with her new single, “Piece By Piece.” The Season 1 winner’s constant pregnancy asides, random encouraging outbursts, and overall candor made American Idol feel like a living, breathing thing again – and as one-time guest judge Posh Spice would say, “it was beautiful, just beautiful.” Kelly was a throwback in every way, standing up for real, undeniable talent while providing constructive criticism for the disposable teen try-hards. Plus, after the best performance of the season by miles and miles, she practically handed off her crown to this season’s undeniable MVP: 22-year-old Mississippi call rep La'Porsha Renae. “If you don’t win, I don’t understand,” Kelly challenged voters and producers alike to do the right thing. “I love everyone here, but you’re SO blessed.” The fans have finally had a chance to vote, so it’s a swift top-of-the-show goodbye to beaming lothario Manny Torres, suspenders enthusiast Thomas Stringfellow, “mountain girl” Jeneve Rose Mitchell, and spacey mother hen Jenn Blosil. I noticed Jenn’s mom and dad stuck around to cheer for everyone else, which was even classier than their daughter’s bedazzled eyebrows Wednesday night. Cheers to the fallen, and here’s my ranking of the top 10, from drippy to diamonds: Gianna Isabella, Beyoncé’s “Listen” Girl, please. Beyoncé? I’ll let J.Lo take over. “Hi, sweetie pie. Okay, so now we’re INTO it. Now it gets serious. NOT your best performance ever.” Kelly offered the 15-year-old some actual advice: Try not to focus on hitting every note technically, and instead just let go. “I’m sweating,” she added. Tristan McIntosh, Dan + Shay’s “Nothin’ Like You” It’s only fitting that this beautiful robot’s dream Idol is vocal A.I. extraordinaire Jessica Sanchez from Season 11. Sadly, Tristan can’t match her hero in perfect pitch or confidence onstage. Kelly suggested she find a song she can get lost in, maybe something a lot less wordy. “I feel like you could be heartbreaking to watch.” Lee Jean, Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” Even if he doesn’t win, just knowing he inspired someone to keep the dream alive would be perfect for Lee. Spoken like a true 10th-place finisher? He’s just totally out of his league up there, and as Harry pointed out, there’s already a MacKenzie doing folksy singer-songwriter tunes, so…. Avalon Young, Shawn Mendes’ “Stiches” Avalon made a bold move claiming Justin Guarini as her personal fave, but no worries: Kelly still thinks she’s super-cool. “I don’t generally like the songs you sing, but I love them when you sing them,” she offered. My thoughts exactly, though tonight’s more melodic tune exposed an iffy vocal we don’t usually hear on Avalon’s more conversational song choices. The judges agreed she looked nervous to start and loosened up halfway through. I’m thinking if she would’ve landed a placement in the A.L. (After La'Porsha) chunk of the evening, the good vibes alone would have rendered Avalon’s funk nonexistent. Olivia Rox, Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally” Only a 17-year-old could claim ownership of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” with a straight face. The smiley blonde Katharine McPhee fan bottomed out with an unlucky slot at the beginning of the show, but at least her vocals were strong on a song voters are sure to recognize. All the judges agreed that slowing down the arrangement at the beginning (Olivia’s idea) was a tasteful move. J.Lo recommended she hit her “boom” notes really hard. “As an artist, I would…” she trailed off, almost as if this were a hypothetical. Dalton Rapattoni, Plain White T’s’ “Hey There Delilah” I cannot stand this cheese-fest song and watching Dalton’s skunk-like hair and intentionally smudged eyeliner up close as he turned it into what Keith Urban called “an electric barnyard” was almost excruciating. But it technically sounded fine, and the Farewell Season favorite won brownie points for the way he gushed about Season 7 winner David Cook. Having good taste in former Idols goes a long way with me, even if you are a little annoying. I also love that Dalton’s whole family went to bed upset after Chris Daughtry’s Season 5 elimination. That one still hurts! MacKenzie Bourg, Ed Sheeran’s “I See Fire” He had to be honest: American Idol was kind of his mom’s thing. The illustrious William Hung and his bangin’ antics were what drew the then-11-year-old basketball player to plop down with his mama on the reg and become a full-fledged reality TV devotee. Here’s hoping there’s a stripped-down, guitar-driven rendition of “She Bangs” in his future. Kelly Clarkson’s ‘bout-to-pop baby boy was doing major flips after tonight’s Ed Sheeran cover, which the judges agreed was “chill.” But can his vibe resonate alongside the powerhouses forever? Sorry, forever is a stretch. Until April? Trent Harmon, Sam Smith’s “Like I Can” I think I’ve been underestimating the 24-year-old farmer, who used to sing David Archuleta’s version of “Imagine” to the cows. He crackles with a MIKA-esque self-contained energy that’s very appealing considering he can legitimately wail with a huge range. Kelly recommended Trent use his falsetto more, which Harry Connick Jr. (crushing hard on the original Idol the whole night, and who can blame him) took as an invitation to squeak into his mic for extra attention. He’d like Trent and LaPorsha to wage a Battle of the Runs so that Idol loyalists have more ice skating triple axels to ooh and ahh at each week. What’s the harm in that? Get your harm on, Trent! Sonika Vaid, Evanescence’s “Bring Me To Life” Riding high on the fumes of La'Porsha’s blowout (“It gave you more balls!” raved Kelly), Sonika went for broke, channeling a darker, sassier version of her Lil’ Miss Bookworm persona for a hard-pounding solo. It might have seemed more forced earlier in the show, so I’m glad she sang when she did and she should probably just go ahead and follow Miss Thang every week. “If you wake up, we have a real competition on our hands,” predicted J.Lo. Ahhhh. Yes, please! I’m dying for the last few weeks of Idol to stay this exciting! LaPorsha Renae, Rihanna’s “Diamonds” In that vein, I think what made me so overcome about La'Porsha’s segment wasn’t necessarily her vocal prowess on a current song (though she definitely needed that marketability bump in the eyes of producers); it was the triple-whammy of an emotionally driven intro, the song itself, and most importantly the raging fanfare that followed. The crowd didn’t die down for a full minute, almost as if they were both making up for lost time and cheering their faces off in case Idol never again delivers a moment like this. And to be honest, based on the lackluster season so far — it might not. I’m just so glad this happened. I’ll be watching this one on YouTube for years.
Idol airs on Thursdays only from now until April 7 — and after tonight’s vocal swell, I’m thinking it might even be good! All we need is Kelly Clarkson around every week. Seriously, FaceTime her or something. Idol needs this.