On Sunday, American Idol aired its 20th season premiere, prompting people across the country to sigh, “Damn, I’m old.”

It has officially been 20 years since the immortal words, “You’re going to Hollywood,” were first uttered in unison by Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell. Two decades of the cultural phenomenon that birthed huge, generation-defining stars such as Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, and Carrie Underwood. Idol’s popularity may not be what it once was, but there was a time when seemingly everybody blocked out that hour on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to watch Cowell and Abdul flirt relentlessly in between forgettable covers of Whitney Houston songs.

Now, American Idol airs on ABC, and its judging panel is made up of actual singers Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan. It leans less on humiliation for laughs—fans will remember how early seasons of the show were often defined by mocking the delusions of failed auditioners, with Simon Cowell saying the meanest thing you’ve ever heard to a tone-deaf teenage girl from Kentucky. And let’s not forget about the infamous, mean-spirited William Hung “She Bangs” arc from season three. Instead, the current iteration of Idol focuses on tear-jerking inspirational stories and, well, people who can actually sing.

Otherwise, though, the show feels fairly familiar. Ryan Seacrest is still the host, a perpetually smiling mannequin-come-to-life that is essential to the Idol DNA. Auditioners still dust off their most tragic backstories in the hopes of scoring camera time and walking out of the building with a coveted “golden ticket” to Hollywood.

The theme of the 20th anniversary season is “A Moment Like This,” inspired by the (amazing, by the way) Kelly Clarkson ballad of the same name. I would be lying if I said I didn’t get a little misty-eyed during the intro compilation of hopefuls singing the song, and also, OK, several other times throughout the episode. Consider me officially susceptible to manufactured emotional stakes.

There are plenty of talented singers in the first round of auditions. Standouts include Noah, a construction worker and young father who sings with a soulful country-meets-Ray-LaMontagne voice, and Nicolina, an 18-year-old with a chills-inducing belt.

This year, Idol has introduced special platinum tickets that automatically guarantee the recipients safety in the first round of Hollywood eliminations and are only awarded to nine contestants throughout the entire audition process. The first platinum ticket winner is a Miranda Lambert-esque country singer who goes by the stage name Hunter Girl.

There is one gimmicky audition that reeks of vintage Idol—a gamer girl in pink bunny slippers with a squeaky baby voice too peculiar to not be affected, especially considering how she seamlessly slips several octaves deeper to sing Tina Turner’s “Rolling on the River.” There’s also an appearance from Aretha Franklin’s literal granddaughter, 15-year-old Grace Franklin, though she ultimately proves too inexperienced to make the cut.

But all of this instantly becomes irrelevant in the final fifteen minutes of the episode when New York-based songwriter Taylor Fagins steps into the audition room. His entrance is preceded by a conversation between the judges about how they’re hoping to find great artists who express themselves through original songs. What a fortuitous time for Fagins to walk through the door. The 26-year-old sits at the piano to perform a song he’s written and, with a deep breath, whispers, “This is for you.” And nothing could have prepared me for what comes out of his mouth next.

“Ahmaud Arbery, you went for a run because you probably felt free,” he sings. What follows is… bizarre. First of all, it really is a beautifully-written song that captures the devastation of violence against Black people in America, specifically focusing on the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. It should also be mentioned that Fagins has a lovely voice.

It takes what *should* be a powerful performance and turns it into another gimmick or bid for tears, a perfectly packaged viral moment to get people talking.

“Little Black boys don’t run outside or play with water guns at night,” he sings in the chorus. “Little Black girls don’t open doors or use their pockets anymore. Can someone tell them what they’re living for? They need more.”

But then there’s the fact that this is all happening on American Idol, the show that brought us Sanjaya’s ponytail mohawk and ensured that “Bad Day” by Daniel Powter would be stuck in our heads every Thursday for weeks on end. Fagins’ audition is touted throughout the episode as one of the most powerful moments in Idol history, but instead it just feels deeply out of place—the very first mention of race jammed into the final minutes of a two-hour premiere. It takes what should be a powerful performance and turns it into another gimmick or bid for tears, a perfectly packaged viral moment to get people talking.

It’s also hard to imagine what Fagins’ future might look like on American Idol. He obviously makes it to the next round, deservingly so. But on a show like this, how will his dark original pieces that grapple with real-life social and political issues stand up to Adele covers? What about when audience voting begins and tends to favor the country crooners that don’t ruffle any feathers?

Ultimately, it would be disappointing if Fagins’ audition proves to be merely a short-lived, transparent effort on behalf of showrunners to seem tapped into the cultural moment and generate buzz around the season premiere, but it would not be a surprise.



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