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Judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan, host Ryan Seacrest, and mentor Bobby Bones join EW's What to Watch to discuss the show's evolution, how they deliver bad news with a healthy dose of encouragement, and more, as the ABC singing competition heads into Top 24 performances.

By Gerrad Hall
April 03, 2021 at 10:22 AM EDT
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American Idol has gone through lots of changes over the last 18 years since it first debuted — like its many judges including Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson, Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, Ellen DeGeneres, and more, celebrated the many award-winning stars who got their start on the show (Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson), and endured the rise of competing shows and formats. After ending in 2016 and rebooting in 2018, moving from Fox to ABC, "the spirit of the show, the energy of the show, and the focus of the show" has been reignited, says host Ryan Seacrest, who's been there from the beginning. And he credits current judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan, and mentor Bobby Bones for "[steering] this in a direction that has made it extremely relevant today."

For the latest episode of EW's What to Watch video series (the full interview can be seen above), during a break from filming the next two episodes — Sunday and Monday's All-Star Duets and Solos — to preview those, reflect on this season's batch of singers, and more.

Identifying this season's Top 24 hasn't been easy for the judges, who had to make some tough cuts during Hollywood Week and the Showstopper performances that followed.

"Telling people no is... you never really get used to it," admits Bryan. "We're able to encourage these kids to not let us be the reason that they would ever give up on their music dreams. ... I want everybody to be happy, I don't want to upset anybody and hurt people's feelings — it's just kinda my nature — but sometimes you just have to tell the truth and tell them that wasn't their best performance. They need to hear that. but I think we've done a great job at being really constructive with it."

AMERICAN IDOL
American Idol
| Credit: Eric McCandless/ABC

Perry attributes her ability to dish out thoughtful and moving advice to what she herself been given.

"I think that's probably because I've been to a lot of therapy, so I'm hearing little nuggets from my incredible therapist and probably regurgitating them," the "Firework" singer says. "Lionel is just kind of a born Buddha, and Luke has a wit that is necessary to balance out all the philosophizing and psychological analysis, so it's a really great combination."

"A lot of times people say, 'Well, how did you come up with that?' Just live about 40 years in the business and you'll come up with the same answers too," adds Richie about the tips he shares. "It just takes time to develop that kind of knowledge that you know not only they are going to need but you learn life's lessons along the way too. When you're young and dumb and experimental and you don't know you can kill yourself, that's when you do some of your greatest work, because you don't know that there's a cliff somewhere. And as you get a little older you realize, I gotta be a little calm about this...it's called longevity."

Check out our daily must-see picks — plus news, celeb interviews, trivia, and more — in EW's What to Watch podcast, hosted by Gerrad Hall. 

Bones, host of his own nationally syndicated country music radio show, The Bobby Bones Show, first appeared on season 1 of the show's reboot as a Top 24 guest mentor and was then brought on full time the next season. He uses all of his own personal and professional experience to help guide contestants. Oh, and that fact that he was one on Dancing With the Stars — which he won — also doesn't hurt.

"I had a skill set that helped initially — being a stand-up comedian, being a radio host, being a guy that plays music. I knew these things but I had never known how to do a reality show, I had never known a competition show. So I knew the actual skills to get to the show, but I never knew how to win a TV show until I went on a TV show and won it. So that's a new little tool in the kit," Bones explains. "I go, hey, this is how to actually win the show. You have to do all these things technically right, but here's some strategy. So I think Dancing With the Stars, one, showed how you can win — you don't have to be the actual best, you've got to be the one people root for the most. And a lot of our business is just that."

Hollywood Week was trying — and headline-making — for many of season 19's contestants. One, Funke Lagoke, fainted on the stage of the Dolby Theatre — landing chin first and requiring stitches — just as the judges were about to tell her and duet partner Ronda Felton whether they were moving through to the next round. (They did.) Althea Grace was struggling on multiple levels, worried about her young daughter who was hospitalized back home and also in finding musical chemistry with her duet partner. Perry helped them see how they were an asset to each other, and their performance showed it.

More headlines came because of what happened next, when Perry turned to Richie and Bryan and said, "Can you imagine if Taylor and I work together, what we could do?" referring, of course, to Taylor Swift and their former "feud." Social media lit up with theories that they have something in the works (Perry appeared in Swift's music video for "You Need to Calm Down).

"We have worked together for the good of young girls in that we mended past wounds," Perry says. "I think these days it's cooler to have women support other women across the boards in all fields, especially in music because I think women are held to such an insane standard, they're asked crazy questions that their male counterparts would never be asked. I think if we can support each other and lift each other up and advocate for equality, that's movement forward."

But will that support extend to recording a song together?

"There's always an opportunity for collaboration again with wonderful people," she diplomatically, if not ambiguously, says.

But for now, the focus is on the Top 24 and the All-Star Duets where Idol season 5 runner-up Katherine McPheeJewelBrian McKnight, Ryan Tedder, Josh Groban, Tori Kelly, Jason Aldean, Brandon Boyd, PJ Morton, Joss Stone, Jimmie Allen, and Ben Rector will each perform with two contestants — and they're doing so back in the studio and in front of a small audience comprised of Idol superfans. Seacrest, for one, could not be more excited to be back on the stage after last season moved to virtual shows in the early months of the pandemic.

"For all of us to be in an environment where there's energy, we come alive too. We all feed off of that," he says. "As Katy said in one of the show's recently: We're not going to space, we're not doing surgery, we're not doing real work — we're in show business, it's supposed to be entertainment, it's escapism. So the fun that we have is exponentially more when we're around people. I think the performers feel like performers, obviously, too when they're on stage."

But the pressure is building, as the next rounds of the season are decided by viewers. America will start voting after Sunday and Monday's episodes, and the field will be narrowed to 16 next weekend.

Watch the full interview in the video above, where they reveal who their dream duet partner would be, how they think they'd do as a contestant on the show, and more. American Idol airs Sunday and Monday at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.

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