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Me and my Twin Shadow: Meet 'American Idol' finalist Alejandro Aranda's surprising hero

I certainly never expected to see George Lewis Jr. — aka esoteric indie/chillwave/funk artist Twin Shadow — on a mainstream show like American Idol. But when finalist Alejandro Aranda, the humble dishwasher who’s already drawn raves from Stevie Nicks and Ben Harper and has been described as a “genius” by the judges, brought Twin Shadow on Sunday’s top five show for his “heroes” dedication (a segment in which the other contestants predictably paid tribute to relatives), it made perfect sense. After all, Alejandro, who records music under the name Scarypoolparty, is one of the most unique and eccentric contestants in Idol history, and certainly the only one who’d ever receive a positive review in Pitchfork. And it turns out that Twin Shadow set Alejandro on his unlikely Idol path, when he discovered Alejandro’s raw talent via social media and became his musical mentor and benefactor.

“George not only believed in me, but he pushed me to get my songs out there. He believed in me so much,” Alejandro said. “Everything that I needed to create music, he just gave it to me, and he didn’t expect anything other than for me to make music.” When Alejandro thought about giving up on his dream, Twin Shadow encouraged him to keep going … although he surely never expected that one day Alejandro would repay the favor by giving him a career boost of his own, via some major TV exposure.

“I was honored to have Alejandro call me on for their ‘heroes’ segment. This kid blew my mind the second I saw him, almost five years ago,” Twin Shadow posted in an Instagram video with Alejandro and colleague Wynn Bennett on Sunday. “I was lucky enough to have him in the live touring band for a year. With @whoiswynn and @scarypoolparty flanking me onstage I felt stronger than I had in years. Their musicality and ability to push the songs to the edge is a blessing to me. Again, I am so proud of ‘Hondo,’ he is the sure bet and it don’t surprise me none that he’s done as well as he has. Please show your support by listening to his songs and supporting the amazing career he is about to have. I don’t need to tell you that, he already has your attention.”

The top five contestants all performed three times Sunday: songs picked by adviser Bobby Bones, Elton John songs, and hero dedications. And while most of them seemed to have already plateaued, giving lazy and safe performances that were in no way worthy of the season’s penultimate episode, Alejandro peaked at just the right moment — especially with the aptly titled jazz/prog/classical/soul/pop/fusion original he sang for Twin Shadow, “Blesser.” At this point, Alejandro has done more originals in one season than any other Idol contestant ever, and I am more than ready to buy his EP featuring this stunning track alongside “Out Loud,” “Cholo Love,” “Ten Years,” and “Poison.” He did his hero proud tonight, and he demonstrated what George Lewis Jr. saw in him all those years ago.

As much as I would love to see Alejandro win Season 17, I almost think he’d be better off losing, because no coronation single the Idol powers-that-be might give him could ever be as cool or on-brand for him as “Blesser.” But he could win — because at the end of Sunday’s episode, he was voted through to the top three competing in next week’s grand finale, along with good ole Southern boy Laine Hardy and “the next Kelly Clarkson,” Madison Vandenburg. Will America get behind Alejandro the indie oddball, or go with the other two more obvious, less Twin-Shadowy finalists? Will viewers party with a Hardy, or hit up the Scarypoolparty? That remains to be seen, but as judge Luke Bryan advised Alejandro, he better “wrap his head around being a ginormous star.” And maybe he can take Twin Shadow on tour with him next time.

These were the other performances of the night:

BOBBY BONES’S PICKS

Wade Cota, “You Are the Best Thing”

Wade is nothing if not honest, and he made it clear he wasn’t thrilled about being forced to cover Ray LaMontagne, since he’d already performed a LaMontagne song this season. I think Bobby was trying to do Wade a favor by throwing him a softball instead of a curveball, and Wade came across as ornery and ungrateful. Anyway, the ballad was a good fit for Wade’s one-octave rasp, but he seemed tired and uninspired. This was not the best thing. (WATCH HERE)

Laci Kaye Booth, “The House That Built Me”

Laci has true grit and a compelling story of family strife, so I thought this steely Miranda Lambert ode to resilience would be a big moment for her. It wasn’t. While she somewhat effectively told the story through her huge, sad, Keane-painting eyes, some of the sadness seemed to stem from her recent near-elimination. She already seemed defeated, and since confidence had been an issue for her all season long — before she was saved last week — she didn’t seem to have any fight left in her. (WATCH HERE)

Alejandro Aranda, “No Woman No Cry”

This was the weakest of Alejandro’s three Sunday performance — it was a little too beach-bummy and SNL’s “The Mellow Show” for my tastes — but he did put his own stamp on Bob Marley’s reggae classic, which is something only a true artist can do. Luckily for him, though, there was more greatness to come.

Laine Hardy, “Can’t You See”

Bobby chose a song right in frontrunner Laine’s lane, a Marshall Tucker Band Southern-rock staple, so this wasn’t exactly a game changer. And performancewise, it was a bit weak (Katy Perry wanted more “fight,” and Lionel Richie wanted more “attitude”). However, Laine did noticeably step it up vocally, later revealing that he’s been taking vocal lessons. This kid has all the makings of a true Idol, but he needs to be more extra. (WATCH HERE)

Madison Vandenburg, “What About Us”

Conspiracy theorists could claim that Bobby was throwing Madison under the bus by giving her a P!nk song in entirely the wrong key. Normally her vocals sound perfect, but as she tried to push herself this time, she was painfully shrill. And her usual performance issues were still there: a lack of emotional connection, a grating Stepford-child smiley-ness that in no way matched the lyrical content of the pained and pleading power ballad. This wasn’t her best moment.

ELTON JOHN SONGS

Wade Cota, “Rocket Man”

OK, I do not know what was going on here. Wearing a pair of gimmicky rhinestone shades either left behind by Eddie Island or nicked from the prop-filled photo booth at one of the show’s afterparties, Wade did total drunk-uncle karaoke. And his vocal was especially phlegmy. This may have even been worse than his Queen Night performance. Wade no longer seemed to be taking the competition seriously anymore; maybe he was trying to thrown himself under the bus. (WATCH HERE)

Laci Kaye Booth, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”

This was absolutely the wrong song choice for Laci. She could have had a poignant moment with “Daniel,” “Your Song,” or “Tiny Dancer,” but instead she went with the same sort of big-haired, big Branson production that landed her in the bottom two last week. She have looked absolutely fabulous in that sequin-spangled ’70s jumpsuit, but she still looked like she was cosplaying as some Nashvegas star. And the party anthem did nothing to showcase her tender voice. Maybe she was self-sabotaging too. (WATCH HERE)

Alejandro Aranda, “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”

OK, this was the moment, about halfway through the episode, when I thought Alejandro had a lock on making the finale and a good chance of winning the whole thing. It was nice to see him back at the piano, and while he didn’t have a Vandenburgian power voice, he infused every (hardest) word of the heartstring-tugging ballad with pathos and pain. Sad songs say so much, indeed. This was magical and real — no cosplaying here. Lionel predicted that Alejandro would soon be getting a shoutout from Sir Elton himself. (Side note: I really wish last week’s ejected contestant, Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon, whose Elton performance a few weeks ago received praise via Elton’s Instagram, had stuck around long enough to get to do another Elton song this week. Sigh.)

Madison Vandenburg, “Your Song”

There was yet more annoying and disconcerting pageant smiling and an overall lack of subtlety, but there were a few moments when Madison pulled back and demonstrated a better understanding of dynamics. And this was technically much more solid than her P!nk misfire. Katy likened this performance to a burger with extra oozy condiments (“Maybe even some Thousand Island!”) so I guess Madison is Season 17’s new Sauce. Sorry, Alyssa Raghu.

Laine Hardy, “Something About the Way You Look Tonight”

Not to start yet more conspiracy theories, but is Laine getting a more generous wardrobe budget than the other contestants? He always saunters out “looking like whole snack” (those were Luke’s words!) in $4,000 electric boots and mohair suits, while the others all look like they shop at Kohl’s. He’s got the rock-star look and attitude down, but this was not a rock performance. It was pure easy-listening. Laine would have been better off doing a party-Hardy tune like “Saturday,” “Crocodile Rock,” or “The Bitch Is Back.” (WATCH HERE)

HERO DEDICATIONS

Wade Cota, “Hard Luck Woman”

This song, touchingly and tearfully dedicated to his long-suffering mother and standup-guy stepfather, was a smart pick for Wade — the arrangement reminded me of Garth Brooks’s twangy version. But he sounded so rough, his untrained and metal-damaged voice so on the verge of dust that if he’d actually made it to the finale, he probably wouldn’t have been able to sing next week anyway. Wade just ran out of gas, or motivation, this week. (WATCH HERE)

Laci Kaye Booth, “Dreams”

Her unfortunate styling looked like something pulled out of the Coachella section at the Spirit of Halloween costume shop, but otherwise, this was Laci doing what she does best. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late. That being said, Luke said this elegant and ethereal Fleetwood Mac cover was a “complete visual into future of her career.” Let’s hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Laci. (WATCH HERE)

Madison Vandenburg, “To Make you Feel My Love”

For once, Madison actually seemed emotionally connected to what she was singing. Maybe she should have dedicated her performances to her mom every week. This was lovely and understated, with a minimum of massive money notes. Madison could win next week if she gives more mature performances like this. (WATCH HERE)

Laine Hardy, “Hey Jude”

This should have been ore epic than it was — editing this classic Beatles sing-along down to less than two minutes was problematic. Laine did not take a sad song and make it better. But this was competent, and frankly, that’s all the fan favorite really needed to do to coast through to the finale. We will see if he coasts through to the winner’s circle next Sunday. (WATCH HERE)

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