The American Idol finale featured all-star performances, touching hometown visits — and a new winner to be crowned after a country showdown.
Before Season 20 wrapped on Sunday night, the final three contestants – Leah Marlene, Huntergirl and Noah Thompson – each made their final pleas for America’s voice during the three-hour show, which was broadcast live from coast to coast. They first sang Bruce Springsteen songs before each singing an original they recorded while on Idol.
As usual, judges Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie chimed in to offer criticism – but by this final stage of the competition it was clear all three contestants were ready to spread their wings.
Here’s what happened, including the winners.
Leah Marlene brings Katy Perry to tears with the original song “Flowers.”
Leah Marlene opened the show with the Springsteen hit “Born in the USA”.
The 20-year-old college dropout from Normal, Illinois proved once again that she can nail the times by rocking out and accompanying herself on guitar.
“What big boots you’ve stepped in,” Richie exclaimed.
Perry said Marlene was “the whole package”.
“You won, period, end of story for me,” she added.
‘American Idol’: Nicolina delivers the show’s ‘cherished moment’…then is shockingly eliminated
Marlene later took the stage again and sang her original song “Flowers”, which she recently released.
The inspiration for the song came from a challenging time for Marlene’s mental health, the contestant said on social media. Although her mental health is much better, Marlene hopes the song will bring strength to those going through similar experiences
At the end of the haunting performance, Marlene and Perry were both in tears as the crowd chanted “Leah.”
“The crowd won’t lie to you,” Richie said. “Properties to Your Songwriting Side.”
Perry said she “fell apart in a really good way.”
“I’m so blessed to be here, a part of this show that is really making a difference and changing lives,” she added. “This song is so beautiful and will change other people’s lives.”
Bryan agreed that “Flowers” was “just gorgeous.”
“What a ride you must be,” he said. “I’m so happy for you and you have every right to have those feelings now.”
‘Are you alright?’:Katy Perry fidgets as Ariel on Disney Night of American Idol and falls over in a chair
Huntergirl goes from star to supernova
Next, Huntergirl performed “Dancing in the Dark” in a sparkling silver blazer and skirt. As a country singer, Huntergirl predictably beat the Springsteen classic.
“You feel well. This is your stage,” Perry told her. “You did that and more. I don’t think you’re a star. I think you’re a supernova.”
Bryan praised the contestant’s song choices, while Richie added that Huntergirl certainly has the look. “You own the stage now,” Richie continued. “You are in charge of your own career now, and my dear, you have a career.”
Huntergirl then sang her original song “Redbird” which is also available for streaming. In the song, Huntergirl sings about finding hope in a dark time.
Bryan held back tears while giving his feedback, praising the contestant for her songwriting talent.
Luke Bryan wants to ‘cry ugly’ after an autistic singer’s inspirational audition for “American Idol”
“Forget the numbers for now,” Richie said, also praising Huntergirl’s volunteer work with veterans. “Your heart is in the right place. May you prosper as long as possible.”
Perry said Huntergirl was doing “something special”.
“Music is therapy for a lot of people,” she added. “And sometimes it’s our own therapy.”
Noah Thompson takes artistry to the next level
Springsteen’s catalog was also spot on for Noah Thompson. The country singer sang Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.”
“We’ve got a long way to go before the first audition, mate,” Bryan said.
Richie said Thompson’s newly developed stage presence takes his singing to the next level.
“You have what is now your stage persona,” he said. “That’s what you call an artist. You have now entered this wonderful period of your life.”
Perry said Thompson sang her favorite Springsteen song.
“You just rushed in and captured every heart in America singing this song,” she said. “You’re just a good guy from Kentucky who could win ‘American Idol.’ “
‘American Idol’: Katy Perry wants an ‘extra therapy session’ after Noah Thompson covered for her ex John Mayer
Thompson then performed the song he had recently recorded and released entitled “One Day Tonight”.
Perry continued to burst into tears, reflecting on how far the Kentucky construction worker has come.
“I’ll just keep my handkerchief in the palm of my hand,” she said. “Do not stop dreaming. There is a plan for you and your life.”
Richie said Thompson made people “fall in love” with him on the show — and will continue to do so long after the season is over.
‘American Idol’: Noah Thompson gives his ‘best’ performance as he sings from COVID quarantine
Nicolina plays with Sara Bareilles, Christian Guardino teams up with Michael Bublé
In typical “Idol” finale fashion, the episode was also packed with filler performances as viewers waited on the edge of their seats for the results of the live national election.
The top 10 contestants performed various duets with other acclaimed singers. Fritz Hager, who retired last week, took the stage with James Arthur for a soulful rendition of Arthur’s Can I Be Him.
Nicolina, who was also eliminated just before the final last week, sang with Sara Bareilles on Bareille’s “She Used to Be Mine”. (Nicolina sang the song for her first audition, which racked up 2.1 million views on Youtube.)
Christian Guardino gave a breathtaking performance of Charlie Chaplin’s song “Smile” with one of his musical heroes, Michael Bublé.
Another outstanding duet came from Marlene and Perry. The pair sang Perry’s hit “Firework” after playing footage of Marlene singing the song as a young child, in a heartwarming come-full-circle moment.
‘American Idol’: The formerly homeless singer stuns Katy Perry with her own song
The last two deliver the last international match
About an hour into the show, host Ryan Seacrest announced the singer who finished third: Marlene. That means Huntergirl and Thompson would each sing back in the top 2 in the final round of American voting.
For his final song, Thompson reworked the Rhianna song “Stay,” which he sang during Hollywood Week. The pop ballad was a curveball for Thompson, but he gave the song a rough spin and received a standing ovation from the judges.
“First of all, how dare you wear that suit,” Perry teased. “I’m so glad you chose this song.”
‘American Idol’ judges reveal their ‘broken heart’ over Kenedi Anderson but optimistic for the top 14
In another moment that comes full circle, Huntergirl sang “Riot” by Rascal Flatts, which she sang in her first audition.
“I’m going to call you Slayer because I see a woman up there now,” Perry said.
Bryan said the candidate’s future “flashed right before my eyes” – and it’s looking bright.
“We as judges are so proud to just be able to say that we have actually been a part of your journey to this wonderful point in your career,” said Richie.
Every ‘American Idol’ winner Coronation song, from worst to best
And the winner is…
After 16 million votes, Seacrest announced that Thompson had won the show.
“My heart is beating out of my chest,” said the understated singer. “That’s crazy.”
From working construction jobs to winning “American Idol,” Thompson proved that dreams do come true, at least for some.