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American Idol is back, friends! Hey, remember last season when Laine Hardy won? Neither does this show! That intro is basically like, “Laine Hardy won, BUT DID YOU SEE ALEJANDRO ARANDA?” Apparently, he is being credited for changing this entire show. I’m not saying Alejandro wasn’t good and probably deserved to win season 17, but if I were Laine Hardy, I’d have some notes. Also, American Idol is out here talking about how Alejandro has brought a different type of artist to Idol auditions, and yet, the singers standing in front of returning judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan all feel pretty much the same from past seasons. That’s not a knock by any means, it’s just, like, let’s cool our jets with the reinvention nonsense.

Case in point: Idol is still clinging on to the notion that people want to see bad auditions. The season 18 premiere has some real doozies, including a screechy rock guy who gets Katy to sing some All-American Rejects with him, and a Russian-born actress with big vocals and no control, who also brings the coolest sidekick we’ve seen walk through the audition room in a while. The one interesting rejection belongs to Canadian singer Saveria, who sounds just as good as a lot of other contestants who get put through to the next round, but Luke and Lionel don’t emotionally connect. Katy fights for her but ultimately loses. A weird “no” but okay, boys. Regardless, with the sentiments of Valentine’s Day still in our hearts, let’s focus on the people who do earn a trip to Hollywood, as our judges and the Idol bus criss-cross through the country. To, as Katy so aptly puts it, the “oval of judgment!”

Doug Kiker, 27, Mobile, Ala.
“Bless the Broken Road” by Rascal Flatts
Well, this is a way to kick things off. Doug is a garbage collector with absolutely zero experience performing in front of anyone, except whoever has caught him singing while riding the back of his garbage truck. Once the judges learn this, Lionel has Ryan take this dude outside and perform in front of a crowd for the first time, which seems terrifying and not at all helpful, but sure. When Doug comes back and finally starts his audition, you can tell he has some pipes but doesn’t really know how to use them. It’s Luke who decides to get on the piano and give Doug a quick lesson in staying on key, and friends, I think Luke Bryan is a genius? Doug sounds insanely better with Luke accompanying him and he earns a ticket to Hollywood. We’ll see how he holds up in the intensity of what’s to come, but hey, you never know.

Camryn Leigh Smith, 16, Acworth, Ga.
“Big White Room” by Jessie J
The teens are back! Camryn, who has more experience singing in church than with secular stuff, could pass as a teenage Katy Perry in both looks and talent. Camryn strums along to this Jessie J song on her guitar and makes everything look and sound insanely easy. At 16, she already has a ton of vocal control. Lionel tells her that she’s proof there is something out there better than last season (again, poor Laine!). I guess she gives them all hope that there’s a reason to continue to do this show aside from collecting what are surely monster paychecks. “Another lost angel has joined the flock,” Katy says as this church-going gal heads to Hollywood.

Francisco Martin, 18, San Francisco, Calif.
“Alaska” by Maggie Rogers
Has a human being ever been as nervous as pre-law student Francisco Martin? And it’s not just in front of the judges, it’s everywhere, all the time. His nerves definitely inform the first half of his rendition of this Maggie Rogers tune, but then the song allows him to really open up his vocals and he’s great. Luke has chills and tells him to drop out of college, while Katy declares him “top 10 material” which means nothing at this point in the competition, but I’m sure it’s nice to hear anyway. Luke had even written down the word “winner” on his paper during the audition. The only thing really stopping this kid will be himself. Maybe he should take up meditation or something before taking on Hollywood Week?

Nick Merico, 23, Woodland Hills, Calif.
“You Say” by Lauren Daigle
Well, well, well, our judges are doling out a little tough love with their golden tickets this season. Potential heart-throb material Nick Merico arrives at the auditions after winning a ticket last season but having to back out of Hollywood Week for personal reasons. He saunters in, tries to be a little flirty, plays his audition song on the piano, and generally has the air of someone who knows he’ll be moving forward. The judges are not having it. They still love his voice and agree that Nick’s “dreamy,” but Katy calls out his ego. “We don’t tolerate that,” she tells him. Lionel takes it a step further: He actually tells Nick he’s terrible and will never make it in a sort of “break him down to build him back up” situation. It’s awkward as hell and there’s only a 47 percent chance it had any effect on him. We’ll see if he makes any attitude adjustments in the next round.

Arthur Gunn, 21, Wichita, Kan.
“Girl From the North Country” by Bob Dylan // “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” by Creedence Clearwater Revival
This is the kind of audition we deserve! Arthur Gunn — his stage name — grew up in Nepal, but moved to Wichita, Kan., to live with family after graduating high school in pursuit of his musical dreams. I don’t know what I was expecting when Arthur opened up his mouth, but certainly not the emotional, gritty, haunting voice he has. The judges are blown away, but Lionel asks him to sing a second song to get a feel for his range. Arthur easily jumps into CCR, and with Katy’s request that he keep eye contact with the judges, makes an even bigger impact. The judges can’t give this kid — who, by the way, just rolled up to the Idol tour bus in Wichita with his guitar to nab an audition — his golden ticket fast enough. Please don’t ruin him, Hollywood Week Group Rounds.

Louis Knight, 19, Philadelphia, Pa.
“Change” by Louis Knight
Oh, the judges are excited by Louis. This English-born singer-songwriter has the heart-throb qualities of that Nick guy but without the ego. He’s a sensitive soul, and he has potential as a songwriter, as evidenced by the original he performs, written about his best friend who died by suicide. On top of that, he has a pretty voice and nails some great runs. Katy and Lionel are very much on board with Louis, but Luke is over on the end of the judges’ table just gushing. He says that Louis “might be the biggest star we’ve ever had on Idol,” and thankfully everyone else in the room is like, “that seems excessive.” Louis is great, but this is day one, ya know?

Meghan Fitton, 23, Foxborough, Mass.
“Love Where You’re At” by Allen Stone
Bachelor Nation, assemble! One of your diehard members is now a contestant on American Idol. Meghan is obsessed with The Bachelor and since that show is also on ABC, it’s totally cool for her to talk about it ad nauseam. She loves it for the happy ending, and I wonder if maybe we’re watching a different show? Regardless, when she finally gets to singing, she shows off a very cool tone and a grittiness that makes the judges go insane. Katy wants her to “smooth out” her performance, but Luke has zero notes. And then they call up Chris Harrison who is just waiting by the phone to give Meghan her ticket to Hollywood. Synergy!

Just Sam, 20, Harlem, N.Y.
“You Say” by Lauren Daigle // “Rise Up” by Andra Day
Just in case you were worried that American Idol was really trying to change things, they have saved the weepiest audition for last. Sam, who sings on the New York subway to make money, is auditioning today to make her grandmother, who raised her, proud. She’s shy and nervous but has a true storyteller’s voice. She stops and starts several times, and even starts to cry because of the pressure. After the judges give her a big hug and a pep talk, she kicks things off with her subway spiel to make herself more comfortable and then launches into her second song. She definitely has some kinks to work out, but there’s a lot of potential. Just Sam will surely be making us cry in Hollywood. Such things to look forward to!

And that’s round one of auditions, kids. It’s way too early to tell who’s going to last in this competition, but how are we feeling about this crop of contestants?

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American Idol

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.

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