“American Idol” Season 18 Finale Recap: The Winner Is… The Final 5 perform, and a winner is crowned.

This is it, people! After quite the rollercoaster of a season, memorably propelled by the coronavirus pandemic that resulted in American Idol season 18 airing “at-home” episodes, it’s time to crown a new winner. It’s quite remarkable that this will be the 18th winner.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Before a winner is announced, there’s a lot that needs to happen. First up are the results from last week’s votes.

Host Ryan Seacrest announces at the top of the show which five finalists have advanced to the finale. And here they are: Jonny West, Arthur Gunn, Francisco Martin and Just Sam.

This means Julia Gargano and Louis Knight have been eliminated.

Revisiting my predictions, I only got one wrong. I predicted that Julia would stay and Dillon would go. I will say, though, that I’m not surprised by this outcome. I even said at the time, “With Francisco and Dillon rising up, could that come at the expense of Julia, who ends up getting cut?” That’s exactly what happened.

Before moving on to the finale performances, I have to bring up Katy Perry. Instead of elaborate costumes, she’s in a daisy dress. I think we all were expecting something more, but there is meaning behind this particular dress–it’s the name of her new single.

Now it’s time for Round 1 of the finale.

Dillon James (“Change the World” by Eric Clapton)
Last week, Dillon finally proved why he’s still in the competition. I still think either Julia or Louis should have his Final 5 spot. But as we’ve seen in previous seasons, sometimes last-minute momentum can really help some of these contestants out. His rendition of “Change the World” is really pleasant, with a very nice and clear voice coming through. I don’t know if it’s worthy of winning, but we’ll see what happens with his second performance.

Francisco Martin (“Adore You” by Harry Styles)
It’s not surprising that Francisco is going with a song by someone like Harry Styles because Francisco has likely courted the same type of fan base. Could that propel him to the win? I never expected him to be in the finale, so maybe it will. His voice sounds really good on “Adore You.”

Ryan Seacrest mentions that American Idol has been renewed for another season, which ABC made official this past week. Even though I’ve been really impressed by these “at-home” episodes, I’m looking forward to the show moving back into the studio. I do wonder, though, if the auditions (presumably being filmed in the fall of this year) will be altered in any way to ensure everyone’s safety, depending on what kind of rules/guidelines are in place at that point.

Just Sam (“Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You) ” by Kelly Clarkson)
Just Sam, the best singer this season, is taking on the best winner in the history of the series–the Idol Queen herself, Kelly Clarkson! That’s a bold move right there. And she more than delivers! The arrangement isn’t quite the pop/rock sound of the original, which is completely fine because that’s not Just Sam. What she does with this song is fantastic. Just listen to those top-notch, pitch-perfect vocals. No other singer this season can compete with her talent. I have no idea if she’ll win (nowadays, guys tend to be favored to win, after all), but she 100% deserves to take the title.

Arthur Gunn (“I Don’t Want to Be” by Gavin DeGraw)
I’m sure I’m not the only Idol superfan who associates this song with Bo Bice back in season 4. Arthur’s rendition is also great; his voice suits the style really well. It’s such a fun song, and you can tell Arthur is having fun with it. And I have to say that he does a great job with stage presence in this performance, moving around and looking into the various cameras in the room.

Jonny West (“You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” by James & Bobby Purify)
Like all the other finalists tonight, Jonny also delivers really strong vocals. And that’s why this competition seems to be so wide-open right now. I don’t know if I’m just making this up, but I’ve had this feeling for quite a while now that Jonny is the producers’ favorite this season.

Now it’s time for Round 2.

Ryan checks in with mentor Bobby Bones, who give comments on each contestant before their respective Round 2 performances. I said it last week, and I’ll say it again tonight: is Bobby even mentoring anymore? Is he working with the contestants off-camera at all? If not, what’s the point of having him on the show anymore? If he is, why aren’t we seeing it on the show?

The Final 5 will be revisiting a song they performed earlier in the season. And it’s this song that will be their winning single should they win. It’s only the second time in Idol history that the winner’s single is a cover (the first was Lee DeWyze’s “Beautiful Day” in season 9).

With the producers putting all their focus on the remote shows, did they just not have time to hire some songwriters to pen original tunes for the contestants? I know they don’t normally have to get five originals, but it is a little disappointing nonetheless. No matter how good or bad the coronation songs are, it’s one of those Idol staples that I always look forward to. Here’s hoping season 19 brings back the originals.

Dillon James (“The Times They are A-Changin'” by Bob Dylan)
It’s been said numerous times by judges and fans over the years that song choice is critical. Dillon has chosen two fantastic songs for the finale. And it certainly helps a lot that his voice is really strong on both. I don’t think he should win–you all know my feelings on that front–but I have to give him props for what he’s accomplished during these final two weeks of the season.

Francisco Martin (“Alaska” by Maggie Rogers)
I’m not completely sure if I’ve heard this song before; I probably have, but I just don’t know. Regardless, Francisco knocks it out of the park vocally. Should this really be his winning single, though? Eh. But if the track is released digitally should he win, I’ll buy it.

Just Sam (“Rise Up” by Andra Day)
Oh my god! Can we just crown Just Sam as the winner already? As soon as the first couple notes come out of her mouth and I realize what song it is, I’m just getting all the feels. It’s the absolutely perfect song for her to sing as her final song of the season. The message fits perfectly for her story. She sings the hell out of it. I’ll say it again: she deserves to win.

Arthur Gunn (“Have You Ever Seen the Rain” by Creedence Clearwater Revival)
Is this a different arrangement? It doesn’t sound anything like the “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” that I’m familiar with. Sometimes changing it up works, sometimes it doesn’t. I’m going to be honest: the arrangement really confuses me and I just can’t get over that. It isn’t until the end that I start liking it. This doesn’t take away from how superbly talented he’s been all season, of course. But I’m just not sure about this one.

Jonny West (“Makin’ Love” by Jonny West)
This actually is an original song. Since Jonny performed it earlier this season, it’s eligible for this round. I wonder how it’ll play with viewers. Everyone else is doing a cover while Jonny’s got an original. Will that help him stand out from the pack? Will it hurt him since we’re more familiar with the other songs? For me, I’ll remember most of the other performances far more than this one. Obviously, this shows who he is as an artist. But the song is just fine, nothing more than that. Maybe I need to hear it a few more times to get a better sense of it.

We’re just over an hour into the two-hour finale, and the contestants have done all they can do to win our votes. It’s completely out of their hands now.

My Favorites of the Night
Just Sam (Round 1 & 2), Arthur Gunn (Round 1)

The Weakest of the Night
Arthur Gunn (Round 2), Jonny West (Round 2)

Who I Voted For
Just Sam (30 votes)

Winner Prediction
Just Sam

To fill out the rest of the time before the winner is announced, we’ll be treated to a bunch of guest performances by all sorts of artists. It’s time to sit back and just have some fun.

Ryan mentions that we will be able to download the winner’s single tomorrow. I wonder if the track will be the audio of what we heard on air or if they’re actually recording it separately for the single.

After a video recap of the season, Luke Bryan performs “One Margarita.” It’s a really fun song, and it’s the perfect summer song as we head into these warmer months.

Former contestant Douglas Kiker, who was cut during Hollywood Week this year, performs “Bless the Broken Road” with Rascal Flatts. I have to say, it feels so good to hear this song on American Idol again. It’s this show and this song that introduced me to the band. If you recall, Carrie Underwood performed “Bless the Broken Road” back in season 4, then reprised it with Rascal Flatts at the finale. From then on, I’ve been a big fan of this band. Gary LeVox’s voice is fantastic–one of the best male country voices out there.

Here’s some big news. Ryan announces that Laci Kaye Booth, who was a contestant last year before being eliminated a week before the finale, has signed a record deal with Big Machine/19 Recordings. That’s amazing! Good for her!

Ryan reveals that the winner will be featured in a 35th anniversary revival of We Are the World” with Lionel Richie and a bunch of past contestants.

Just Sam performs “You Say” with Lauren Daigle. This is by far one of the best songs to come out in recent years. (The first time I heard it, I thought it was Adele’s voice.) Hearing Just Sam and Lauren perform this together…wow! Do you have chills? (Fun fact: Lauren Daigle is one of those Idol¬†early-round rejects who made it big.)

Katy Perry performs “Daisies.” See, that’s why she wore a daisy dress. The green screen animation effects all around Katy are really cool here.

After a family-centered video package on the Final 5, Cynthia Erivo pays tribute to Aretha Franklin by singing “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You),” “Rock Steady” and “Chain of Fools” with the Top 11. Can’t go wrong with some Aretha. I’m lip-singing along to these iconic hits by the Queen of Soul.

Time for some results…

The first person in the Top 2 is…Arthur Gunn.

The second person in the Top 2 is…Just Sam!

I am sitting here with my mouth open and absolutely stunned–in a good way, of course. I can’t believe that both of my favorites this season have made it to the Top 2! I am beyond excited. You’re not here in the room with me, but just know that I’m super happy right now and can’t believe it’s come to this.

That means Dillon James, Francisco Martin and Jonny West have been eliminated.

The moment has come. It’s time to crown the 18th American Idol winner.

Will it be Just Sam or Arthur Gunn? Both have earned it. Both are the two best contestants this season.

The winner of American Idol season 18 is…Just Sam!!!

The runner-up is Arthur Gunn.

Oh. My. God! The excitement I’m feeling can’t be summed up in words. Again, I can’t believe my number one favorite the entire season has won! Just Sam is one of the most deserving Idol winners ever. She will go down as one of my favorite winners. I wish nothing but the best for her as she begins her music career. I will be downloading her single “Rise Up” tomorrow.

The finale ends with Lionel Richie’s revival of “We Are the World,” featuring Lionel himself; winner Just Sam; the rest of the Final 5; and former contestants Ruben Studdard, Fantasia, Katharine McPhee, Kellie Pickler, Jordin Sparks, Lauren Alaina, Scotty McCreery, Phillip Phillips, Laine Hardy, Alejandro Aranda and Gabby Barrett. I’m getting emotional during this performance. I don’t know if it’s the song itself or my feelings over Just Sam’s win–likely both. It’s the perfect song to revive right now. And it’s a beautiful song to end the season, especially with this outcome.

I do want to add something else about Just Sam. I mentioned two or three weeks ago that she reminds me a lot of season 3 winner Fantasia. They have similar styles, both in appearance and musically, and they’ve both had rough times in life. I would love to see the two of them duet someday. Maybe they can stop by Idol next season when the show’s back in the studio.

The main downside to these remote episodes is that we don’t get to experience Just Sam’s win on the big stage in front of an audience. Those are always some of the best and most iconic moments in Idol history. But it is what is.

Well, as you can tell, I’m so happy. This is the outcome we deserved. There’s not a lot of good news out there right now, so I’m relishing this moment right now for multiple reasons.

American Idol is over, but season 19 is coming next year. I hope I will see you then.

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Image: ABC

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