Katy Perry is ‘feeling threatened’ by teen ‘American Idol’ singer’s stunning audition

Incredibly, this year marks the 20th — yes, twentieth! — anniversary of when Kelly Clarkson won the first season of american idol. The series has since launched many other superstars, including Carrie Underwood, Adam Lambert, Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia, Chris Daughtry, Jordin Sparks, and most recently Gabby Barrett. But when Kenedi Anderson auditioned this Sunday, Luke Bryan told her, “You might be the biggest star we’ve ever seen.” Lionel Richie declared her “the next big thing in the music business” and Katy Perry proclaimed the 17-year-old was “born to be a star,” before the judges handed Kenedi a rare, coveted platinum ticket.

The platinum ticket is a new twist this season to celebrate idol‘s 20th anniversary, a “special upgrade” that fast-tracks a “best of the best” contesting straight past the first round of Hollywood Week. Only three of these shiny happy tickets will be handed out this season — on last week’s Season 20 premiere, the first one went to country crooner Huntergirl — and the decision must be unanimous among the judges. But Luke, Lionel, and Katy were in full and ready agreement after watching Kenedi’s stunning piano-cabaret rendition of the fitting Lady Gaga song “Applause.”

From the first note, Katy appeared both pleased and flummoxed by Kenedi’s sheer lung power and passionate delivery, breaking into a broad Cheshire Cat grin. Katy later jokingly (or maybe not-so-jokingly?) offered to be the golden girl’s manager and producer and declared herself a “Kennykat,” before dramatically whining, “I’m feeling threatened! [This season’s singers] are younger, they’re skinnier, they’re prettier… they sing really good! Siri, make an appointment at the plastic surgeon!”

A shocked Katy Perry reacts to Kenedi Anderson's 'American Idol'  hearing.  (Pictures: ABC)

A shocked Katy Perry reacts to Kenedi Anderson’s ‘American Idol’ audition. (Pictures: ABC)

But in all seriousness, Katy was 100 percent supportive of the high school ingenue, telling her, “Get ready to be your own hero.” Luke said Kenedi’s audition left his “head spinning,” and he told Kenedi, “I truly believe your musical journey for the rest of your life just started right here.”

Several other contestants’ journeys began Sunday, although only a couple of them may make it to the top 10 alongside new frontrunner Kenedi as the judges predicted. These were the other successful auditions of Season 20’s second episode:

Betty Maxwell, 27: “A Moment Like This”/“Jesus Take the Wheel”

She won the title of Miss America in 2016 (singing opera in the talent portion of the competition), and now she’s going after another title: The Next American Idol. I suspected that a beauty who entered the audition room carrying her crystal crown, whose biggest dream is to be the voice of a Disney princess, and who chose to sing not one but two idol champions’ ballads for her audition would be gratifying and cheesy. And she did attack the songs in a eager-to-please manner, the likely result of years of pageant training. Katy advised Betty to “take it down a little bit,” and when Betty grinningly bragged that she can perform “every type” of music, Lionel said, “I don’t want you to sing everything. I want you to have a style.” But the judges all thought Betty sounded credibly country on the Carrie Underwood song, and resident country expert Luke actually told her, “You don’t sing like a pageant girl; you sing like a real singer.” I do think Betty had a nice, sultry, rounded tone — or, as Katy put it, “a lot to work with.”

Leah Marlene, 20: “Steal My Girl”/“Wisher to the Well”

OK, here’s this season’s token quirky girl. Katy compared the goofball from Normal, Ill., to Season 16’s Catie Turner; Lionel called her “ball of energy”; and Luke described her as “entertainment in a human little lifeform.” But Leah showcased an unexpectedly sweet, vibrato-heavy songbird voice on her acoustic One Direction cover, and the Belmont dropout showcased serious songwriting chops on her second song, an Allen Stone-esque original. She really lit up the screen as well, and I can’t wait to witness her Hollywood Week antics. “You’re super-fun, super-quirky, super weird,” Katy gushed. “You carry your strangeness so well, and that is a wonderful part of being an artist,” added Lionel.

Mike Parker, 27: “Strawberry Wine”

To train The Voice contestant (he was on ex-Idol Jennifer Hudson’s team in 2018), Mike’s soulful, gospel-infected take on a Deana Carter country classic likely would have turned Blake Shelton’s red chair on that other show. His performance was raw, unfussy, and heartfelt, and his “silky” vocals gave Luke “chillbumps.” An impressed Luke said Mike demonstrated the potential to be a “truly amazing” country singer and advised him to stay in that lane instead of focusing on R&B, and Lionel (a soul/country crossover artists himself) told Mike, “Simplicity is king… your voice cry, that texture in your voice, is the gold. You have all the goods to make it happen.”

Kelsie Dolin, 18: “Piece by Piece”/“Where We Were Young”

The tear-jerking moment of the night came courtesy of this shy, small-town Southerner, who’d had a rough childhood due to her mother’s drug addiction and ended up being raised by her grandparents. Kelsie’s grandma, who died last year, had encouraged to get her to sing in public before, but Kelsie never had — until now. Dedicating Kelly Clarkson’s aching ballad about parental abandonment to her late grandmother, Kelsie had a gorgeous, natural voice, but she gave a wooden, nervous, school-recital-like performance. Katy urged her to “step on the gas” for the Adele song, and as her confidence grew in real time right before the judges’ eyes, Lionel’s eyes filled with tears. “That messed me up completely,” Lionel sighed. “Do you know how many bad notes you hit? Zero. You have this pure, beautiful voice that’s never been challenged, never been pushed, never been lifted up and loved on,” said Luke. I do worry that Kelsie will panic and flounder in Hollywood, but I am rooting for her. “You’re very special, and you’re worth it,” said Katy.

Luke Taylor, 20: “Ring of Fire”/“Frosty the Snowman”

Singing a deep, deep sub-baritone that made Season 10 winner Scotty McCreery sound like Tiny Tim (“He sings lower than Cash!” Lionel chuckled during the “Ring of Fire”) cover, Luke T. was an absolute hoot. After Luke Bryan declared him the “next Burl Ives,” he even agreed to sing a Christmas carol on demand. But the judges rightfully questioned the guy’s versatility, and whether he could be more than just an “impractical” novelty act. “If you don’t give us those other [higher] notes, it’s just a gimmick,” Katy said bluntly, while Luke B. admitted, “I don’t think this is going to go all the way.” Katy actually said no, but her fellow judges wanted to give the big, bear-like boy a chance. I hope Luke T. heeds their advice to sing some Barry White later this season.

Aaron Westberry, 20: “2016”

An Owen Wilson-esque indie dork with a floppy Harry Styles-circa-2010 haircut and what Luke called a “heartbreak tone” to his wispy, Owl City-reminiscent voice, Aaron is just a cool kid who has that thing, despite being what Luke called “one of the most limited singers we’ve ever sent for Hollywood.” Katy told Aaron, “Your voice makes us melt. It doesn’t have this crazy range. It doesn’t need a crazy range.” Luke said Aaron’s delivery was “right up there with James Taylor,” and of course 20-year-old Aaron didn’t even know who Sweet Baby James is. (Feel old yet?) But he did have that vibe; he also reminded me a bit of Season 9’s Alex Lambert. If Aaron can just bring more passion to his performances, as the judges advised, he could be Season 20’s heartthrob and/or dark horse.

Allegra Miles, 18: “Tainted”

“I want to go down in history that I was the first to say yes,” proclaimed Lionel, after being wowed by this piano singer’s Tori Amos-esque original song. Well, he’s not technically the first: Allegra is another Voice veteran. However, she competed on The Voice‘s 2020 COVID-derailed remote season and never got to perform live on that show, so here’s the shot she deserves. “Everything about you is looking like an artist,” Luke told her.

Christian Guardino, 21: “A Song for You”

This Long Island-raised Italian with a big personality seemed like a joke contestant at first, but he had a big voice that was no joke. An old-fashioned, soulful crooner with masterful runs, Christian delivered such a stellar Donny Hathaway cover that Lionel actually ran up to hug him, shouting, “We found him!” All three judges gave Christian a standing ovation, and Luke said his voice was “touched by the hands from upstairs. … I don’t know if we’ve seen it so naturally this year.”

Lady K, 25: “Wide Awake”

A resident of Lionel’s hometown of Tuskegee, Ala., Lady K grew up in poverty and recently lost her brother to suicide. Picking a triumph-of-the-spirit Katy Perry anthem that symbolized her journey of survival, she powered through her performance and then humbly told Katy, “That was everything to me, to be able to do this right now.” Lady K was so grateful for this opportunity, in fact, that she brought thank-you notes for all of the judges, regardless of whether or not she made it through — a class act! But she was a great singing act, too. Katy said Lady “reinvented” the song, adding, “It’s like your heart is shining through your vocal chords.” Lady’s note to Katy, which Katy read after Lady exited the audition room with her golden ticket, read: “Thanks for reminding me I’m a firework.”

american idol Season 20’s journey continues next Sunday with more auditions.

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