On the American Idol Season 21 premiere, a soft-spoken Hawaiian singer-songwriter named Iam Tongi barely made it through his emotional audition. The 18-year-old’s biggest supporter and inspiration, his musician dad, had died just two months earlier, and the staggering loss had made Iam consider quitting music altogether — until his mother signed him up for Idol. When Iam sweetly and sincerely sang James Blunt’s “Monsters” (which Blunt wrote for his own seriously ill father in 2019) in front of the judges that fateful day, it was a moment that Lionel Richie said had the potential to “fracture some souls.”
That raw performance became Season 21’s most viral moment after it aired in February, with a combined 45 million views on YouTube and Facebook, immediately establishing Iam as this year’s frontrunner and fan favorite. And Iam maintained that frontrunner status right up until Sunday’s Idol finale, when, after the live coast-to-coast vote, he beat out country crooners Megan Danielle and Colin Stough to become the show’s newly crowned champion.
And in a full-circle moment that was arguably even more memorable than the finale’s actual winner announcement, on Sunday Iam and James Blunt actually teamed up for a soul-fracturing “Monsters” duet. Once again, Iam’s tears flowed. James was weepy too, as were the judges, and even Blunt’s fellow finale guest performer, face-tattooed country rebel Jelly Roll, was sobbing as he watched.
Iam’s victory was hardly a shocker, given his massive and unstoppable popularity. On last week’s top five show, judge Katy Perry had even boldly predicted that Iam would become the next American Idol. All season long, the judges had marveled at the adoring studio audience’s screams for Iam week after week, and this week, during his hometown visit in Kahuka, Hawaii, Iam performed for a whopping 14,000 fans at the Turtle Bay Resort. (It should be noted that Iam is now the first contestant from Hawaii to ever win the show. Hawaiian-born Idol alumnus Jasmine Trias, who made it all the way to third place in Season 3, was even in Sunday’s finale audience to cheer him on.)
However, considering how well male country singers usually fare on Idol, it was a bit of a surprise that, after Sunday’s first round of 13 million real-time votes, Colin Stough placed third. When all three finalists performed songs by guest mentor Keith Urban plus hometown dedications Sunday, the young and green Colin did seem to choke under the finale-night pressure. Megan’s renditions of Urban’s “God Whispered Your Name” and Journey’s “Faithfully” earned standing ovations for what Lionel called her “natural BBQ-sauce abilities,” and Iam’s “Making Memories of Us” (which judge Luke Bryan declared “one of my favorite performances of the year”) and cover of Kolohe Kai’s “Cool Down” of course had the audience wildly chanting his name. Conversely, Colin was nervous and pitchy on Keith’s “Stupid Boy,” although he was much more solid on his second song, Chris Stapleton’s “Either Way.” Regardless, Colin had no professional experience before trying out for Idol, so he should be very proud of his third-place finish. “It’s been a pleasure seeing how you’ve grown. You’ve come so far,” Luke told Colin.
Iam and Megan then performed their potential coronation singles: Megan’s “Dream Girl,” which was co-written by Season 17 finalist Laci Kaye Booth, and Iam’s “I’ll Be Seeing You,” which was penned by Season 18’s Francisco Martin. Of the two, Iam got the better song, but at this point, it was clear that Iam could have been given, say, “No Boundaries” or “This Is My Now” and he still would have easily prevailed.
Other highlights of Sunday’s performance-packed, three-hour finale included top 12 diva Nutsa dueting with international pop sensation Kylie Minogue, the totally robbed Wé Ani joining fierce forces with Jazmine Sullivan, Zachariah Smith teaming with REO Speedwagon’s Kevin Cronin, Lucy Love joining T-Boz and Chilli for a lively medley of TLC hits, Megan reuniting with Lauren Daigle (who’d surprised Megan during her audition), and Katy generously dueting with Haven Madison on Haven’s own excellent original, “I Still Need You.” But the most heartwarming celebrity duet of the night — aside from Iam and James Blunt’s “Monsters,” of course — had to be the “The Impossible Dream,” by beloved alumni Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken.
Exactly 20 years ago, 38 million viewers tuned in to witness Ruben win American Idol Season 2, on the highest-rated single episode in Idol history, and both Ruben and Clay went on to massive success. Obviously, Idol doesn’t pull those sort of circa-2003 numbers anymore (no television show does, in this streaming age), but it’s quite possible that Iam and Megan will become another iconic Idol twosome, with record deals and radio hits of their own. Right before Tom dimmed the lights and host Ryan Seacrest announced Iam’s win, Katy imagined Iam’s dad, as well as Megan’s dear departed grandfather “Paw-Paw” (whose presence and influence were also felt throughout Season 21), holding hands in Heaven and watching Sunday’s finale together. And whatever happens next, both contestants definitely made their late father figures proud tonight.
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