Over 20 years of American Idol, there’s been a lot to celebrate, from O.G. success stories like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood — still two of music’s brightest stars — to season 16 third-place finisher Gabby Barrett currently dominating country radio and making a name for the ABC iteration of the talent contest.
So on Monday night, atop Tommie Hollywood at the rooftop Desert 5 Spot lounge, the current Idol guard gathered to do just that: celebrate two decades of confetti-showering pop coronations with the all-star judging panel of Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie, as well as showrunner Megan Michaels, ABC Entertainment president Craig Erwich and the newly christened top 14 singers of season 20.
Sounderground caught up with Perry at the event to talk about how the current crop of contestants can use the show and this national platform to make their music dreams come true, just like Kelly and Carrie before them.
“We live in a much different world in the music industry than we did when this thing started,” she says. “So I think, really, this show is about mentorship and momentum. It’s the two M’s. You get the mentorship, you take the advice – because we’re not just talking to hear ourselves speak. We’re literally trying to give you very specific, real advice for the real world out there that you can take and apply in real time and then use this whole launch as momentum to whatever you want to do. Because it’s really not always about winning, but if you can place high – in the top 10, in the top 20 – just hustle your way and launch off of this.”
Perry also referenced all the hopefuls who haven’t even made it past auditions (even Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott, pop singer Tori Kelly and country star Maren Morris, among others, were once rejected by the show) and how everyone who tries out is still part of the Idol family. “They came under our roof, they ate our food, we discovered them, and we will be a part of their biography forever,” she says. “Because we saw something special and we encouraged it and we drew it out.”
Speaking of the Idol family, showrunner Michaels — who started on the show fresh out of college, back in season 2 — talks about how former contestants remember their time fondly on the show and are eager to return, including for the upcoming May 2 reunion episode, featuring notable alumni Ruben Studdard, Jordin Sparks, Lauren Alaina, Scotty McCreery, David Cook, Kris Allen, Laine Hardy, Laci Kaye Booth, Maddie Poppe, Caleb Lee Hutchinson, Willie Spence and Grace Kinstler.
“This is like high school for some people,” she says. “Apparently Jordin Sparks a couple of days ago was looking through some old photos of her from Idol, and she was like, ‘This is my yearbook. I never had high school.’ … Once people feel like they’re part of this family, it’s always nostalgic and happy to come back, good memories.”
For Perry, part of the job includes the inevitable cuts, like she, Bryan and Richie had to do to whittle the field down to 14 on Monday. But “eventually, we’ll have to get to one, so it only gets harder.”
“It’s hard to say, ‘No, you didn’t make it to American Idol — now sing!’ And then commercial break. And then you’re done – and literally, you’re done on this show. But … no one’s getting out of it besides one person, so get used to the Band-Aid getting ripped off.
“And truly, honestly, that’s the real world,” she adds. “That’s the real music industry. It’s not ever going to be as intense, as concentrated and sometimes not even as kind or constructive in the real music industry. We’re kind of like the Montessori style. We’re a Montessori mom. We let them figure it out.”
Spoken like a true mom.
Season 20 of American Idol is airing now on ABC on Sundays and Mondays at 8 p.m. ET.