Five Years In, What Do Judges Katy, Lionel and Luke Know That They Didn’t Realize When They Began Their ‘Idol’ Jobs?

A post-American Idol live show tradition that stretches back years resumed Sunday (May 8) night after a three-year COVID gap, with Billboard once again sitting down exclusively with Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan – the judges who have been deciding contestants’ fates since 2018.


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It was a chilly Los Angeles night in the parking lot outside Stage 36, home to Idol since 2002, when each judge sat down separately to chat – this time, about what they know after five years in the judges’ chairs that they didn’t know when they began their current jobs.

“The job is really just a disguise for mentorship and also lottery ticket giving,” Perry said while wrapped up in a jacket to stay warm. “It’s really about utilizing all of the information that we have been through as artists and helping all the contestants try and navigate this really intense time in their lives and grow like a Chia, so fast because they have to. And they’re growing in front of the world in real time and so our work is not just about, ‘You seem nice. Go ahead.’ I’m a lot more invested in this job than I thought I ever would be. Not that I thought I wouldn’t be, but it’s emotional and sad in the end because a lot of people have to go home.”

Despite the sad part, Perry confesses, “I have so much fun. I love my co-judges. We love traveling around the country finding talent. We love trying to help people get their believe-in-themselves wings.”

And does Perry see the contestants’ growth week-to-week? “Yes, I do. I see it with many of them. We get brief moments with them a lot of times and they’re all amazing students of the craft. I was just thinking tonight, they’re all singing amazingly and doing amazing but they’re in a competition, so it’s nerve-racking. Imagine when they get their own stage and they’re only competing with themselves. That can breed some brilliant stuff when they can let loose.”

On the same subject, Richie said, “First of all, I didn’t realize that five years could go this fast. The reason for that is because it’s not a job. People have asked me when am I going to retire, and I’ve said from what? I’ve never had a job in my life. This is probably the most fun I’ve ever had at this stage of my life only because I know what I’m talking about. I’ve done everything. This is a great place to give all your information to the next group, because that’s what happened to me. Somebody gave me some advice that helped me get through. It was Marvin Gaye. It was Berry Gordy. It was Smokey Robinson. It was Eddie Levert of the O’Jays. Someone told me, ‘Hey kid, you can sing it, but you’re not acting. You’ve got to learn how to act.’ What we’re giving these kids here is real concrete artists’ suggestions. No fluff.” And does Lionel see the impact of the judges’ wisdom on the Idol contestants? “Yes. Your mother and father say things to you over and over and over again and you say, ‘Oh God, I can’t wait to leave home’ and then for the rest of your life, you’re sitting at a table somewhere and your mother’s voice comes in and your father’s voice. Well, that’s what’s going to happen here. They’re going to be onstage and think, ‘Okay, he told me to do this, where’s my stage presence?’ It’s all going to keep regurgitating over and over again until they understand it and then when they pass it on, it’ll be their advice.”

Bryan also talked about what he knows now after five years as a judge. “Kids are still learning to love music and play guitar and play instruments and kids are out there following their dreams and we always are able to find more talent and that’s so rewarding. At some point, you’d think there isn’t anybody else out there but the show does a great job [finding people]. I’ve learned that me and Lionel and Katy and Ryan and everybody involved, if we speak from our hearts, we can put together a show that families and people from all walks of life can sit down and watch.”

Each of the judges also assessed the current season compared to their first four years on Idol. “Last year we had an amazing group of talented people,” says Bryan. “This year is right up there with last year, if not better. The show where we did the judges’ song contest was a big hit and then you have Katy dressing up like a mermaid. We’re able to have fun on the show. Me and Lionel and Katy, especially Katy and I, we’re not able to take ourselves too seriously. There’s so much ‘serious’ out there. You’re getting fed stuff that upsets you and I think there’s nothing about this show that upsets you. It’s an uplifting show that provides hope and we’re just lucky to be the facilitators of it.”

“This is a well-versed class,” says Richie. “What I’m loving most of all is that they’ve learned how to share because a lot of times, you come here on your own and think, ‘I’m fighting against the others.’ But they’ve taught each other and so a lot of times when you get in and take the selfish part out and start accepting the fact, ‘Oh, that’s a country guy. Okay, well, I’m a pop guy’ or ‘I’m an R&B guy or lady.’ Now you understand categories and where your lane is and then you start breaking down, ‘Who am I as a singer?’ I keep telling them, everybody can sing. That’s why karaoke is so popular. But what makes you a unique star? That means you have instant identity and that’s what we build on during the show.”

“Every season starts to be more and more authentic for the artist,” says Perry. “The artists are really trusting us, so you see them coming out in droves like Fritz Hager and Leah Marlene. We welcome that, because we are looking 10 years ahead for Idol. Imagine Fritz in 10 years playing Coachella and thinking, ‘We’re so grateful for him, but never forget he started on Idol.’”

In between conversations with Billboard, the judges also had a chance to speak to the two eliminated contestants Sunday night – Christian Guardino and Jay. “It’s not always about winning,” Perry explains. “It’s about what you do with it. It’s about the hustle afterward, which I just told Jay and he understands completely. So I have no worries for any of the contestants.”

Jay and Guardino both seemed at ease with their fates when it was their turn to sit down with Billboard. “I’m feeling great,” Jay announced. “I don’t think we have anything to be disappointed about. It’s been an amazing experience. Over 100,000 people auditioned for this show. We made it to the top 7. Seven in the entire country and that’s crazy to think about.” Sitting next to Jay, Guardino said, “For me, this literally opened the door for the rest of my life. I can’t wait for what’s next because there’s going to be a lot coming up.”

Both have thought about what comes next. “I’m going to rest and then after that, I’m going to hit it,” says Jay. “Hit it with the music. Hit it with the acting. Hit it with the modeling.” Guardino added, “I can’t wait to keep performing. I can’t wait to keep making music. That’s what I’m looking forward to most, because my ultimate goal is to tour and to record and it’s really, really exciting.”

Jay and Guardino were not the only contestants to talk to Billboard after the live broadcast. The top 5 who will compete next week also took time to chat, including Noah Thompson and Fritz Hager, who called in from their respective hotel rooms, where they are quarantined after testing positive for COVID. Asked how he was doing, Thompson truthfully replied, “I feel like crap. But Idol is doing a great job. They’re setting us up with some great treatments.” All of the top five have already recorded singles, which will be released by BMG on streaming services on Friday (May 13). “I have never ever in my life done anything like that,” says Thompson. “Being in the studio working in the sound booth was one of the greatest things I’ve ever done in my life. I had so much fun because I didn’t know how any of that stuff worked, so it was all new to me. It seemed surreal that I was in there working with Jimmy Robbins as my producer. He’s such a good guy. He’s a great dude with a first-rate sense of humor and we connected through the song and through music and I had a great time doing that. It was all I thought it would be. I loved it.”

“It’s my second time being in a studio,” Hager tells Billboard. “My first time, I was a teen. And coming from Texas, I worked with country artists and now the producer I’m working with is King Henry. We are two people who have the same sounds in mind. For my first EP, there was almost a language barrier because it was like working in two different mediums, so being able to work with King Henry and how our conversation flowed was really cool.”

While Hager and Thompson were locked away in their hotel rooms, the remaining three contestants in the top 5 spoke to Billboard in person about their upcoming singles.

“I wrote the original song that I’m releasing,” says HunterGirl. “It was literally the night the first episode of this season of American Idol was on and I was scared to death going down the driveway of my parents’ house for the watch party. I was thinking, ‘Lord, I know everything’s going to be okay but could you just let me know?’ And a big thing in my family is the saying that whenever you see a red bird, it’s a member of your family from heaven coming to visit you. After I talked to God and asked Him if everything was going be okay, a red bird flew in front of my car and another flew all the way home and I broke down. A few days later, I went back to Nashville and wrote this song ‘Red Bird’ with my friends Matt McKinney and Austin Goodloe. The song means a lot to me and it’s for everybody that I’ve lost in my family and for anybody that needs a little help.”

Speaking about her single, Leah Marlene says, “I wrote my song right after Hollywood Week, when we found out we were in the top 24 and I was just reflecting on how on earth did I come to this moment? A year ago, I was in rock-bottom territory and the fact that I was going to be on American Idol and was actually moving forward was just insane to me. This song came about in that reflection and it’s an encouragement that no matter how far gone you may feel, there’s always a way out and even the pavement gives way to the flowers and that’s what the song is about. It’s called ‘Flowers.’ I’m so excited to share it with everybody.”

“I did not write my song,” says Nicolina. “I chose to remake a song called ‘Glitter’ by Patrick Droney. It’s about how grief is something that we can deal with, but we can never truly escape. And I feel like everyone processes grief in different ways and grief means so many different things and the lyrics of that song resonated with me so heavily that I thought it would be a cool idea to take a song that people already love and reinvent it and give it a little Nicolina flavor.”

The top 5 will perform their new singles on the Sunday (May 15) live broadcast.

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