Buckle your safety belts and lather up those texting fingers, folks, because for the first time in the season 16 reboot of American Idol, your opinions actually matter.

After solo and celebrity duet performances with the Top 24, new judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan narrowed down the field by kicking 10 wannabe idols back to the curbs from whence they came.

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But now they’re handing over the reins to America. And based on our voting tendencies since American Idol went off the air in mid-2016, I’m 100% confident that absolutely nothing bad can happen. I mean, they were just e-mails, right?

Still, the judges are keeping a few aces in their pockets, though it appears that they learned from the season 15 format debacle. In the original final season, the judges advanced the four best singers — including eventual winner Trent Harmon and runner-up La’Porsha Renae — straight through to the Top 10 without a performance. 

It left viewers to determine who sucked the least in a night of rather pathetic performances chock full of pitch issues balanced by a complete lack of star power. 

Here’s what I wrote back then: 

“It seems backwards to have the judges choose the favorites and toss us the scraps, in part because comparing performance with vote totals gives you an idea of who viewers like, regardless of whether or not they’re any good. And then a wildcard or two in the back pocket prevents any travesties. 

“Wouldn’t it make more sense to have viewers vote on seven and then give the judges one save each? Are we that untrustworthy that we can’t even risk it? I know it’s time slot issues and thems the breaks, but it still leaves a sour taste.”

Well, I’m happy to report that they’ve taken my advice, and viewers will be advancing six singers into the Top 10 before the other eight hit the stage again in an effort to impress the judges. But there’s no rest for the weary, as those we select will be forced to perform a meaningless filler song victory song because, hey, it’s a live show and we’ve got two hours to fill.

Ryan Seacrest drops a “This … is American Idol,” and for the first time on ABC, we get the iconic theme music that has been absent thus far.

All Aboard for Caleb Lee Hutchinson 

The ever-steady Caleb Lee Hutchinson is kicking off the show, and what he lacks in flash, he makes up for with dependability.

In his intro, Caleb reveals that he’s lost 80 pounds over the past year, and he’s sporting a fresh haircut with some product as he attempts to hang with Garrett Jacobs and Jonny Brenns in the heartthrob club. 

The theme is “sing whatever you want,” and Caleb is going with Chris Stapleton’s “Midnight Train to Memphis” (not to be confused with the one that stops in Georgia). He’s playing the banjo and eye-f***ing the audience with a newfound confidence. And as usual, it’s solid without being spectacular. 

Katy is proud of his evolution and loves the new look, but she thinks nerves overshadowed some of the performance. Luke wasn’t crazy excited about the song choice, and Lionel quips that Caleb saw all the girls screaming at him and forgot about everything else.

Michelle Sussett Only Wants to Be Friends

She’s dreamed about this moment and hopes to adequately represent every immigrant who has come to this country seeking a better life. Her family back in Venezuela means everything, but she feels embraced by her adopted homeland. 

She’s singing Marshmello and Anne-Marie’s “Friends,” which strikes me as exactly the type of music she wants to make. Her movements are natural and engaging, and she knows how to command a stage. She’s spinning around and whipping her hair, and it’s great to see her comfort level and budding star power. But the vocals are lacking outside of a moment or two, and there’s not much of a connection.

Luke calls her a pop star who carved out her lane. Lionel feels that she owned the song and her presentation. And Katy likens her to early Shakira, but she cautions that this might’ve worked better for the live crowd than the audience at home.  

Marcio Donaldson at the Copacabana

He grew up in Compton, which taught him strength and survival and made him the man he is today. He doesn’t want the same cycle for his son, though, so his ultimate goal is to win the competition and get Straight Outta Compton.

He’s made the bizarre decision to go with Barry Manilow, and Barry’s “It’s a Miracle” is a terrible choice for a plethora of reasons. It’s not at all contemporary, and I don’t think anyone who isn’t a Barry Manilow impersonator has ever felt that his hits were the path to stardom. It’s fun and he does fine with it, but I’m not going to remember it in an hour. The crowd, however, seems to love it, and it’s a valiant attempt at being an entertainer. 

Lionel dubs it “old school,” and he believes that Marcio’s confidence has risen to a level where he’s about to be out of control. Katy finds it joyful and is certain that Marcio has arrived, but she wants everyone to stop thinking about the results and just sing. Luke has enjoyed the more tender Marcio moments, so he’s not as sold on the song choice as Lionel is. 

Mara Justine is Herself

The youngest contestant continues to evolve in front of our eyes, and the 12-year-old we first fell in love with on America’s Got Talent is starting to figure out who she will be as an artist. She’s still playing up the “I don’t fit in at school” angle, which I’m not sure I buy. Still, she’s starting to have the look of a star. 

Her lips are quivering out of nerves or emotion before she even begins. And, unfortunately, it translates to her vocal performance on “This is Me” from The Greatest Showman. The pipes are strong, but it’s shaky and full of pitch issues and missed notes. Her Top 10 AGT finish is proof that audiences are likely to vote based on her potential, but this is definitely not her best.

Katy sees amazing new stage presence nuggets, but even though she’s arrived, she didn’t arrive vocally on this one — and she’s better than that. Luke has let Mara take him on some emotional rides, but he’s not invested, despite the content and message of the song. Lionel remains proud that Mara brings her inner strength, whatever that means.

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Garrett Jacobs Fights a Raging Fire

His mom is a church singer who instilled in him the love of music, and he went through the seven stages of grief after he accidentally ran over his guitar with the family van. He wins the early award for least impactful introduction, but at least he’s pretty. 

He’s singing Phillip Phillips’ “Raging Fire,” and it simply doesn’t work. The former Idol winner has such a unique voice (despite sounding exactly like Dave Matthews) that’s full of confidence, and it’s his grittiness and growl that provide the emotion. But Garrett’s rendition is plain and boring karaoke, and there’s no way I’d ever believe it’s his song. At no point does he rise above the backup singers.

Somehow, Luke finds it to be a very dynamic performance, and he can get over pitch issues to go along for the ride. Lionel feels Garrett go in and out of consciousness as he analyzed parts of the song while singing it, and he reminds him to stay in character. Katy believes in Garrett’s comfort on stage, but she wishes everyone would bang out some pre-show jumping jacks to shake off the nerves.

Ada Vox and the Drag Show Must Go On

Ada is known for diva moments, but she wants us to know that it’s not all glitz and glamour. Adam Sanders had brain surgery as a child, and his mom singing to him during the painful recovery is where his dream started. He also wasn’t able to participate in contact sports on account of the procedure, so he focused on cultivating his gift.

Then it’s right back to the glitz and glamour for Queen’s “The Show Must Go On,” complete with a feathery fur coat and a giant, sparkly neckpiece thingie. She has the pipes to pull off Freddie Mercury, and even if it’s not perfect, it’s easily the best so far. From the staging and the lights to the preparation and the style, it’s clearly on another level compared to what we’ve seen. Everything else feels like a high school talent show by comparison. 

Lionel loves that Ada came to stop the show, and he’s on the judging panel to make sure she reaches the top. Katy says, “Not only did you stop the show, you finally started the show,” and she applauds Adam’s ability to maneuver a song choice. Luke calls it the biggest voice he’s ever heard.

Catie Turner Needs to Pray

She cried when she opened her first fan letter, but she’s gotten her fair share of hate mail as well. It’s usually people who think that her quirky personality is fake, and her response is that her mom wishes it was only an act. But everyone has haters, even Beyonce, if you can believe it, and so she brushes it off as best she can. So does she think she can win? “If we’re honest, no.” But otherwise, “I could win this show.”

It’s Hozier’s “Take Me to Church,” and Catie continues Ada’s feel of being on another plane. She doesn’t have a true “moment,” and it feels like it goes on a bit too long, but I dunno. I just like her and what she brings to the table.    

Katy would like to personally sing with Catie, who is exactly as she should be no matter what happens. But don’t scroll down on the comments because you give haters a job and they don’t deserve one. Luke affirms that she can win, and Lionel appreciates her authenticity, originality and uniqueness.

Cade Foehner Loves a Black Magic Woman

The rock god comes from a small town with one caution light, and life in Hollywood is the polar opposite of his day-to-day experiences working on the farm with his micro-pig. But no matter where he is, the stage is his home. 

Santana’s cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Black Magic Woman” is a great choice to show off his guitar skills, but even though he continues his flawless run, it’s probably my least favorite so far. The song is certainly well enough known, but in this case, it feels like one that a band plays mid-concert before they get to the hits everyone loves. 

Luke’s wife adores Cade, and even though this wasn’t a crazy vocal experience, it showed that he doesn’t have to deliver one in order to garner an audience response. Lionel retorts, “We call that the package. You are the package.” Katy’s mom is obsessed with him, so she plucks one of his hairs to pass along. Or sleep with under her pillow. Who can know?

Dennis Lorenzo Has Rock in His Blood

Everyone has met his newest daughter, but he has another one who was born when he was 19. He put music to the side to be a dad, taking about three years off before returning to his dream. It’s difficult to be away, but she’s the reason he began this journey, and he’s certain it will all pay off.

It seems like the nerves have crept back into play, and the first half of Shawn Mendes’ “In My Blood” is lower register speak-singing that doesn’t play to his strengths. Then he starts absolutely screaming on the chorus. But luckily for him, at least it sounds good. He takes a few too many liberties on the runs, but this is definitely another side he can sort of pull off. 

Lionel congratulates him because there’s a time in every performer’s life when he breaks through the ceiling and is introduced to his new self, and that’s what happened here. Katy finds it a bit shaky at the start, but once he started rocking and putting his body into it, she became a believer. Luke calls it the definition of an R&B rock moment.

Maddie Poppe is on the Incredible Journey

Maddie believes that her song choices set her apart because they’re what she was actually listening to while growing up. It’s the music she always wanted to sing, but she didn’t know it until after she went through pop and country phases. Record producers have always promised to get her name out there, but it’s been a difficult journey filled with pitfalls. This is her shot, and not being the obvious frontrunner suits her fine. 

It’s Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound,” a song I’m sure most people there have never heard before. But that doesn’t stop them from waving their arms in the air, taking it all in. It’s polished, sweet, simple and beautiful. Not much else to say.

The judges hug each other before offering their critiques, and Katy claims that she closed her eyes and thought she was listening to Joni Mitchell. She lauds Maddie’s incredible music taste, which is showing. Luke prays that viewers at home felt what he felt because she’s a seasoned, big-time pro who knows what the hell she is doing. Lionel urges her to keep revealing her truth, which he predicts will lead to a career and a possible Idol coronation.

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Jurnee Bang Bangs All Over You

She’s fantasized about this since she was little, and it’s as if someone heard her dreaming. She got in with a bad crowd and quit music after getting eliminated during the season 15 group round, but then the shadow of darkness left her, and she got inspired again. 

She’s bringing the attitude on Jessie J, Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj’s collaboration, “Bang Bang,” but there’s a reason that the original is a trio of powerhouses. One voice — even if it’s a good one — can struggle to capture the mood. The backup singers sound campy on the “Bang Bang” part of the chorus, and it’s not quite fierce enough. Kudos on the rapping, though.

Luke admits that the judges were shocked when they learned of Jurnee’s song choice, but she brought it while showing another side of her talents. Lionel keeps repeating, “Oh, yeah!” and praises her ability to affect a crowd. Katy has never seen Jurnee move, and she’s now stepping into the position of being an artist “instead of some wedding singer.”

Jonny Brenns Brings Church to the Disco

Jonny is the least experienced of the group, and apart from church, he doesn’t do any gigs. He thought he’d simply “feel it” on stage, but his coordination issues led him to take Katy’s advice and enroll in ballet classes. It’s more shtick than an actual learning experience, but at least he’s trying. 

His take on Panic! at the Disco’s “This is Gospel” is too deep initially to be pleasing to the ear, and while it may be a song he loves, it’s a bad choice. He’s drowned out by the music, and it doesn’t cater to his strengths. He doesn’t have that belt-it-out rocker voice, and when you suffer from a lack of experience, you have to stick with what allows you to forge a connection. 

Lionel loves that Jonny seemed to be enjoying himself because that’s infectious enough. Katy offers a hearty “real men wear tights” before pointing out that he was off-key. Luke sees Jonny as a sultry lounge singer, but this competition is forcing him to attack notes that make him uncomfortable. But this is how you learn to hit them.

Michael J. Woodard Won’t Fall

His genre jumping has kept everyone guessing, but he actually grew up listening to gospel and thinking “secular” felt like a heathen word. Then he started downloading rock ringtones to his flip phone and was introduced to a whole new world. I miss flip phones. 

He starts off the slow version of Sia’s “Titanium” with a giant toothy grin, which doesn’t fit the tone. But then he settles in, and even though I’ve been critical, it’s spectacular and goosebump-worthy. He’s still not going to win, but if I’m being honest, I stopped typing and simply watched, enthralled. Am I a Michael J. Woodard fan? I think I might be, at least for now.

Katy is about to head to Coachella with Sia, and her first words will be, “I met a star today that sang your song incredibly.” Luke has felt it in his heart since day one, and Michael has a knack for pulling us in and giving something that makes us love him a little bit more each time. Lionel refers to him as a Martian, and he keeps tuning in to see what Michael will do next.

Michael then thanks the judges for believing in him and always encouraging him to be himself. He’s like a “vote for the worst” person but one who actually has immense talent.

Gabby Barrett Climbs into the Pimp Spot

The country girl flashing early shades of Carrie Underwood scores the first true pimp spot of season 16, and she started out her journey as an overmatched gospel singer. When she came in, they said, “You can sing.” But when she left, they said, “You can sang.” She always hopes to put her own spin on songs, and this has been a true learning experience that has her working to figure out who she is and wants to be as an artist. 

Well, there’s no original spin on her rendition of Miley Cyrus‘ “The Climb,” but it doesn’t matter. I knew before she opened her mouth that it was the perfect song for her to shine, and it’s almost too easy. She sounds exactly like Miley, but Miley sounds effing good. There’s one weird moment where Gabby sings out of the side of her mouth, but it’s the nit-pickiest of criticisms on a moment that will likely rank in the top 10 of the entire season. 

It’s Luke’s favorite vocal situation of the night, and for the first time, he feels like Gabby isn’t playing around. Katy is impressed, and Gabby went through the “starwash” and came out looking and sounding like a star. Lionel calls it a magical moment, and this is the beginning of the phrase “a star is born.”

Who Will You Choose?

All right, America, get on those phones. It’s time to pick your favorites, which will lead to six singers breathing a sigh of relief before they’re forced to sing for fun. Gabby is a lock after closing the show, and Michael J. Woodard probably elevated himself to safe status with his performance in that slot. 

My other four standouts are Maddie Poppe, Cade Foehner, Ada Vox and Catie Turner, while subpar efforts would seem to guarantee that Jonny Brenns, Garrett Jacobs, Mara Justine and Marcio Donaldson are singing with a purpose. 

The middle group — consisting of Jurnee, Caleb Lee Hutchinson, Dennis Lorenzo and Michelle Sussett — are toss-ups. They were better than Mara and Garrett, but it’s clear that both are judge darlings who will be safe pending a disastrous encore. 

It will all be on the line in the next episode, as both American Idol and this blog go live for the first time in season 16. So be sure to watch along with me, and bring your commentary with you.

Who were your favorites and who let you down? Who do you think is a lock for the Top 10 and who is destined to go home? Who has the ability to change his or her fate based on the follow-up performance and who is simply dead in the water? Finally, who is on your short list of legitimate contenders for the American Idol season 16 crown? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below. 

American Idol season 16 airs Sundays and Monday, April 23 at 8/7c on ABC. Want more news? Like our Facebook page.

(Image and videos courtesy of ABC)

Bill King

Contributing Writer, BuddyTV

Emmy-winning news producer & former BuddyTV blogger. Lover of Philly sports, Ned, Zoe, Liam and Delaine…not in that order