‘American Idol’ is back — and still in it to win it!

Lyndsey Parker
Yahoo Music

Oh, American Idol. I can’t quit you. And I’m surprised how much I missed you. Some people wait a lifetime — or, well, two years — for a moment like this.

So, two years ago, I thought it was all over. Fox canceled Idol after 15 seasons. I put my Adam Lambert T-shirt in a drawer, deleted Idol from my DVR schedule, and figured I’d just have to settle for episodes of The Voice and, um, The Four. But now, Idol is back. It’s on a new network, ABC, with three new superstar judges — Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan — but, surprisingly, it’s the same old show I’ve always known, loved, and blogged.

No, not even the slightly icky presence of under-fire host Ryan Seacrest can squelch my good vibes — which kicked in Sunday, as soon as I heard Carrie Underwood’s inspirational “it could happen to you” speech in the cold open of Idol’s reboot premiere.

And here’s why: Despite the hype surrounding Idol’s new powerhouse panel (and Katy’s powerhouse paycheck), the show is still all about the contestants. Sure, the judges got their TV moments — like when one awkward dude kissed Katy and liked it, or when the judges goofed off in frizzy Richie wigs. (The Lionel jokes on this show practically write themselves. It’s only a matter of time before some contestant tells him, “Hello! It’s me you’re looking for!”) And the judges were tough when necessary, telling one overconfident, under-pitch singer, “You’re not a pop star” and “That voice isn’t going to work for records.” But most of the time, the focus was on what Katy called an “abundance of riches” — aka, some very talented contestants.

Yep, Idol was never broke, so ABC didn’t fix it. In fact, within five minutes, Katy, Lionel, and Luke were seated at their desk, under that familiar blue oval logo with its nostalgic Kaufmann font, and the auditions were underway.

Kieran, dim the lights. THIS is American Idol.

Catie Turner, 17: “21st Century Machine”
Idol certainly came back with a bang, not a whimper, didn’t it? This spazzy, spunky spitfire barreled into the audition room announcing, “I don’t drink coffee or caffeine — this is just pure adrenaline!” Yikes. I would’ve expected her to be a joke contestant, but then I remembered that William Hung types aren’t welcome on this show anymore. So her original tune was actually thoughtful, serious stuff, like an older Grace VanderWaal or a younger Hotel Café-era Katy Perry. “You’re a spectacular songwriter. I like where your mind’s at,” Katy told her. Lionel said, “I’m fascinated with your brain.” I was fascinated as well.

Ron Bultongez, 22: “Let It Go”
“What’s more American than to come to America to follow your American dream and end up on American Idol?” said this Congolese immigrant. Ron’s energy was the opposite of Catie’s, with a deep, sweet sadness that drew me in. His storyteller voice was fragile, raw, and gloriously imperfect. Lionel and Katy hemmed and hawed, but I’m thrilled they listened to Luke (who called Ron “daggone inspiring” and “what this country is about”) and reconsidered. Maybe Katy was just afraid to get feels at first. Ron’s the real deal.

Maddie Poppe, 20: “Rainbow Connection”
What’s even more American than Ron Bultongez’s American dream? Maddie yodeling a Paul Williams-penned Muppets classic. I’ve always been such a sucker for this song, and now I’m a sucker for Maddie’s pretty, syrupy voice too. Oh, the feels.

Harper Grace, 16: “Yard Sale”/“Young, Dumb & Broke”
What’s more American than Maddie and Muppets? This gutsy gal, who — after going viral with the “worst national anthem performance ever” (this was before Fergie, mind you) at age 11 — dared to perform her own country anthem on Idol. Side note: The media/Twitterverse really didn’t need to be so harsh to an ELEVEN-YEAR-OLD. But the grown-up Grace was much improved. Katy and Lionel even praised her songwriting skills. America loves a good redemption story.

Layla Spring, 16: “Who’s Loving You”
Honestly, I was more charmed by Layla’s adorable 7-year-old sister, Dyxie. (So were the judges: They gave her a golden ticket for her to return in eight years.) Layla had some bad habits — namely her fussy ad libs and runs — that probably would have disqualified her if Dyxie hadn’t already charmed the panel. Katy even admitted “there’s a lot better singers out there,” but somehow Layla made it through. I think Dyxie has a better shot in 2026.

Noah Davis, 18: “Stay”
What’s the best American dream ever? Noah’s dream of spending his Idol winnings on an alpaca farm. That’s a solid retirement plan. But I hope Noah doesn’t retire anytime soon, because the piano man’s cabaret cover of Rihanna’s tearjerker ballad was exquisite. His voice was as soft and gentle as, well, an alpaca… or a wig.

Alyssa Raghu, 15: “Almost Is Never Enough”
Alyssa’s jazzy voice was on a grand Ariana Grande level here. Such maturity! Such poise! “All of my hairs on my legs just grew an inch and a half,” exclaimed an impressed Katy. All my hairs were standing on end. I have to agree with the judges’ prediction: Alyssa is a lock for the top 10.

Zach D’Onofrio, 17: “The Way You Look Tonight”
Ladies and gentlemen, meet the John Stevens of Season 16. Despite singing for less than a year, never auditioning for anything before, and possessing a squeaky speaking voice, this Harry Potter look-alike had the old-school/old-soul Sinatra shtick down. He even persuaded Katy to slow-dance with him. “America is going to freak,” Luke proclaimed.

Dennis Lorenzo, 26: “Unaware”
This laid-back singer-songwriter took all the pain from his rough Philly childhood and poured it into his soulful, stunning Allen Stone cover (the song the last winner, Trent Harmon, tried out with, FYI). He was vulnerable and tender, with such a calming presence. “You’re why I signed up for this,” said Luke. SO MANY FEELS. American Idol is back, dawg.

Nico Bones, 21: “I Eat Worms”
I don’t usually review reject auditioners, and I know I said Idol was no longer airing “bad” auditions. But this was a badass audition. This Johnny Thunders clone with the Robert Smith lipstick, Billie Joe Armstrong guyliner, portable Vox amp, and raging hangover cranked out a killer garage-rock cover of a children’s classic that should be this season’s coronation song. Clearly Nico is already through to Hollywood, in his own gutter-punk way. Check out his band here, and come back Monday for more feels, as Idol worms its way back into our hearts.

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