The 21st season of “American Idol” kicked off on February 19, 2023, wih a two-hour episode filled with powerful performances, as talent from across the country auditioned for celebrity judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan. The first night of season 21’s auditions was dominated by talented teens, most of whom will be heading to Hollywood with their proud parents in tow.
Spoiler Alert: If you do not want to know which performers received golden tickets to Hollywood during the first episode of season 21, do not read further.
Teens Steal the Show on First Night of ‘American Idol’ Season 21
The show kicked off with an audition from 16-year-old Haven Madison, a high school student from Clarksville, Tennessee, who blew away the judges and made her dad Jason Roy, a Christian music artist who accompanied her on guitar, break down in tears when she finished singing her original song, “15.”
“Young lady, your songwriting ability is incredible,” Richie told her. “The world doesn’t know anything about you, but they will.”
After making it through the virtual auditions with producers, Madison told Clarksville Now that she went into her audition in front of the celebrity judges thinking, “If I don’t make it through, I want to leave knowing I made the judges feel something. I just tried to enjoy their presence, enjoy the fact that it was an original, and enjoy that it was so personal.”
Though it was not mentioned during the season premiere, Madison was eventually chosen by the judges as one of three contestants nominated for the show’s new “Platinum Ticket,” which fans voted for in November 2022. Though she didn’t win the vote, which allowed its winner — Elijah McCormack of Southern Pines, North Carolina — to bypass the first rounds of Hollywood Week, it is clear producers still view her as a major contender, given how much they’ve promoted her on social media in recent days.
On February 19, just before the premiere aired, Madison posted an Instagram photo with another contestant she met at the auditions, 17-year-old Tyson Venegas from Vancouver, British Columbia. The teen performed “New York State of Mind” by Billy Joel on the piano, which gave Perry goosebumps and prompted all three judges to give him a standing ovation.
During his audition package, his mom said when Venegas still wasn’t speaking at age three, they used music therapy to help him find his confidence and then his vocabulary. One of his first concerts was seeing Richie, during which Venegas told his mom that was what he wanted to do for his career someday.
“Well we’ve flipped the switch,” Richie told him and his mom. “I inspired him back then, he just inspired us today. Let me tell you, that performance was spot-on professional.”
The judges were so impressed that they awarded the season’s first Platinum Ticket to Venegas, who will get to skip the first round of competition during Hollywood Week.
Colin Stough, 18, said he was convinced by his mom to audition, impressing the judges with his rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man.” After performing, the judges asked the Amory, Mississippi, teen to bring his mom, Nara, into the audition space.
Hugging her, Bryan said, “This is a very important meeting between you and I. We are so thankful that you signed this human being up — nice to meet you!”
The proud mom said Stough asked for his first guitar for his fifth birthday and had been playing music — and collecting guitars — ever since. Earning a golden ticket brought the teen, who works as an HVAC mechanic, to tears.
Oddly enough, another teen from the same tiny town of Amory, 19-year-old Zachariah Smith, also made it through to audition in front of the judges. He belted out “Hurts So Good” by John Mellencamp and they instantly knew he had what it takes to “be so much fun” in the competition, Perry said.
After Smith finished singing, Bryan told the grill cook at Bill’s Hamburgers, “Go back to Amory, get your damn apron, get a little lighter fluid, burn the apron.”
Before giving Smith his golden ticket to Hollywood, Richie told him, “You have a rasp, you have a growl and on top of that you’re having fun!”
Another teen who took the judges by surprise and earned his way to Hollywood was 18-year-old high school student Iam Tongi of Kahuku, Hawaii, who broke down talking about his dad, who died two months before the audition but had often encouraged him to try out for the show.
Tongi dedicated his audition song, “Monsters” by James Blunt, to his dad; the powerful lyrics and acoustic performance brought both Richie and Bryan to tears. Watching him, Bryan said, reminded him of his own nephew, who lost his dad and moved in with Bryan’s family as a teen.
Perry told Tongi, “You sang it, you delivered it and you’re making these grown men cry. You hit a nerve.”
Who Else Advanced to Hollywood on the Season 21 Premiere of ‘American Idol’?
In addition to the talented teens who made it through, several other “Idol” hopefuls impressed the judges enough to earn golden tickets to Hollywood, including one repeat contestant — 21-year-old Kya Moneé of Austin, Texas.
In 2021, Moneé was singing partners during Hollywood Week with Willie Spence, who went on to place second on the show. The two became dear friends and she said he’d planned to accompany her to the audition prior to his fatal car accident in October 2022.
In addition, 21-year-old Michael Williams from Mason, Ohio, made it through after singing “Talking to the Moon” by Bruno Marrs. Perry compared him to Shawn Mendes and Harry Styles, saying she thought he was “Top 10 material.”
Another 21-year-old, Lyric Medeiros of Honolulu, Hawaii, squeaked through her audition, singing two country songs. Perry tried to get the singer to perform with more aggression by pretending to fight her as she sang. Bryan was a “no” vote, Richie gave her a “yes,” and Perry decided at the last moment to let Medeiros go through to try to prove herself.
Twenty-year-old Megan Danielle of Douglasville, Georgia, not only got a golden ticket, but a surprise visit from star Lauren Daigle, as Danielle sang her song “You Say” for her audition.
And in an especially powerful audition, 28-year-old Lucy Love of Holly Grove, Arkansas, shared about past challenges, including a non-existent dad and a mom who was “in and out” of her life. Now raising two of her own children, she’s trying to break the cycle of hardship and blew away the judges with her second piece, “A Song For You” by Donny Hathaway.
“You’ve got so much joy in you, but you’ve got so much pain in you,” Perry told her, “and you can sing from both places. I believe in you — you’re gonna show those babies to never, ever give up on your dream.”
Season 21 auditions on “American Idol” continue next Sunday, February 26, with another two-hour episode.