'American Idol': Paula Abdul makes 'nostalgic' return, front-runner shockingly quits show
"American Idol" returned Monday with a familiar face behind the judges' table and a shocking announcement that a frontrunner dropped out of the competition.
Host Ryan Seacrest opened the first live show of the season with the news that 20-year-old college student Wyatt Pike, who consistently wowed the judges with his folksy charm, has left the competition. Seacrest did not provide Pike's reason for leaving "Idol."
But the show must go on.
During the two-hour live show, Seacrest revealed who was safe and who was in danger of going home. The 10 contestants with the most votes secured their spots in the top 12 – but for the bottom five, it was up to Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and guest judge Paula Abdul to decide who among them would earn the last two spots in the competition's next phase.
Abdul, an original judge from when Fox aired the series, said it was "nostalgic" to be back. She temporarily filled in for Luke Bryan, who tested positive for COVID-19.
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"It's insane how talented all of you are," Abdul told the contestants. "I feel like I'm watching the Grammys under the category of best new artist."
Here's what went down:
The first singer of the night to land in the "danger zone" was 22-year-old wedding singer (and former boy-band member) Colin Jamieson. Singing for his "Idol" life, Jamieson rocked out to Dean Lewis' "Waves."
"This brings me right back," said Abdul after his performance. "You put so much passion into your performances that it makes us smile. Your charisma, it’s infectious."
Perry said Jamieson has "grown so much right before our very eyes."
"I really think you found your voice, you found your spirit and you found yourself," she continued.
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The next contestant to wind up in the bottom five was Madison Watkins, who wowed the judges on Sunday with her emotional performance of "Gravity" by Sara Bareilles.
Taking the stage once again, the 26-year-old hair model sang a jazzy version of Drake's "Hotline Bling."
Richie said that Watkins "put it out on the floor tonight."
"It is very clear to me that Madison was singing for the career, your life story, everything," he added. "The competition is also extremely steep this time around, so understand what you delivered tonight couldn’t get any better."
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Watkins quipped back that her mom always says "it’s not over till it’s over."
Abdul agreed and shared advice from her own parent. "You know what my father taught me? 'No is the beginning of a negotiation,' " she said, adding that Watkins' voice "is like an old friend."
Wedding singer Beane, who was praised by the judges on Sunday for his likability, couldn't plant himself among the top 10 vote-getters.
The 23-year-old sang Ben Platt's "Grow As We Go."
"You were so relaxed. You were so calm. You grew into your artistry," Richie said. "You just relaxed into your talent, and that’s all that you can do, my friend."
Abdul said she was "mesmerized," while Perry said she was a "card-carrying Beanie baby fan."
"I’ve loved seeing you grow," Perry continued. "Your evolution has been amazing to watch, and the control on that song was so beautiful."
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College student Alanis Sophia, 19, also found herself in danger of going home. She left it all on the stage with a performance of Demi Lovato's "Heart Attack" that brought Abdul to her feet.
"You have this tenacity, this fire in you," Abdul said. "We can’t keep our eyes off of you."
Richie and Perry commended Sophia for delivering a performance under stressful circumstances.
"I don’t know how you could be dealt that blow and stand on stage and deliver that performance," he said. "You did so well, being dealt that blow of 'no.' "
Perry advised: "Take that fear, that rejection, that 'no' and just let it build and burn and make a great performance and a great artist."
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Aerial survey pilot Graham DeFranco, 27, was the last contestant in the danger zone, putting his rugged, warm voice to use on "Cover Me Up" by Jason Isbell.
"There was a difference of 900 votes between some contestants," said Perry. "You are a pilot, but I think you’ve finally taken flight yourself.”
Abdul compared DeFranco's voice to "dripping butter."
"Your voice is comforting," she added. "It’s so smooth."
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Who went home?
After deliberating during the commercial break, the judges decided to save Watkins and Beane.
"All of you have every right to be so proud of yourselves," Abdul said. "You’re all pretty stellar, and, again, this is probably the toughest season."
The judges opened up about how they reached their unanimous decision post-show.
"We all pretty much agreed with America," Perry told USA TODAY during a virtual Q&A, adding that the judges based their decision to save Watkins and Beane on their performances Monday.
Richie added that it's important singers be able to perform naturally without getting in their heads or "overdoing it."
"And those two (contestants) just naturally came off the stage," he added.
The hair model and wedding singer will join Casey Bishop, Deshawn Goncalves, Cassandra Coleman, Caleb Kennedy, Ava August, Chayce Beckham, Alyssa Wray, Willie Spence, Grace Kinstler and Hunter Metts in the top 12.
"Idol" continues Sunday (8 EST).