‘American Idol’ recap: season 19 debut episode

AMERICAN IDOL – "401 (Auditions)" - "American Idol," the iconic series that revolutionized the television landscape by pioneering the music competition genre, returns to airwaves during its season premiere SUNDAY, FEB. 14 (8:00-10:00 p.m. EST), on ABC. (ABC/Christopher Willard)
AMERICAN IDOL – "401 (Auditions)" - "American Idol," the iconic series that revolutionized the television landscape by pioneering the music competition genre, returns to airwaves during its season premiere SUNDAY, FEB. 14 (8:00-10:00 p.m. EST), on ABC. (ABC/Christopher Willard) GEORGE CONWAY, CLAUDIA CONWAY

Credit: ABC

Credit: ABC

Kellyanne Conway’s daughter is among the singers.

“American Idol” grapples with the pandemic by only making a few tweaks to the formula as the show enters its 19th season.

As expected, there is social distancing. The judges sit six feet apart, and Katy Perry and Luke Bryan can’t poke each other. Lionel Richie can’t hug the contestants.

This episode harkens back to the early years with two contestants singing classic Aretha Franklin songs that were commonly heard back in the early 2000s.

There was even a ridiculous joke contestant, the type “Idol” rarely shows anymore (although he had to be imported from Europe.

Ryan Seacrest wore a scraggly pandemic beard.

Contestants can only bring one family member with them to the audition, so to make up for that, the producers created an immersive “family screen” room so the contestants can share the news with folks back home.

Ryan’s narration for the screen room: “The world may look a little different this year, but one thing that will never change is the power of someone saying they believe in you.”

Overall, the talent was typical. There were a couple of potential finalists, and one contestant getting a lot of buzz because she’s a TikTok “social media influencer” and daughter of two well-known political operatives.

And the pacing was relaxed. The show over two hours featured the full auditions of just 11 contestants.

Here are the contestants for the first episode and their auditions:

Benson Boone, 18, Monroe, Washington, college student (“Punchline” Aidan Martin) He just started singing a year ago but quickly embraced his talent. He has never used a mic before but knows how to play the piano. He is surprisingly pretty darn good considering his lack of experience. Lionel gives the train conductor toot-toot arm movement and stands up in praise. Katy says he has potential to win this. He gets a golden ticket.

Alex Miller, 17 Lancaster, Kentucky (original song “I”m Over You, So Get Over Me”) He is a charmer with a heavy Southern accent. He is very old-school in his vocals and style. Lionel: “Your personality is just infectious.” Luke decides to do a duet with the kid called “Big City.” He will be a fun, memorable character in Hollywood, the classic rural “Kelly Pickler” type that the show adores.

Jason Warrior, 25, Chicago, music teacher (”What’s Goin’ On” Marvin Gaye) He did not react well when he got booted from Fox’s short-lived show “The Four” and felt like that hurt his career. He is grateful he is getting this second chance. This entire story sequence is unusual for “Idol” to even acknowledge any past reality shows by name, but I guess this one was OK because “The Four” didn’t last. Would they have highlighted him if he had been an early reject from “The Voice?”His singing is good but struck me as rather generic. The judges all gave him a standing ovation. Lionel called it phenomenal and said to forget his past. He considered it one of the strongest vocals he has ever heard on the show. (Seriously, Lionel? You’re working the super superlatives already?)

After a bunch of no’s, the producers cart out Ryan Romano, 16, Romeo, Michigan (”Rocket Man” Elton John) He gets bonus points for using a keytar but his overall performance is just mediocre at best. He is not ready. But Katy Perry did buy his outfit for $400 using Venmo.

Anilee List 20, Los Angeles, college student (”Blue” by Aaron Taylor) She has Tourette Syndrome. She was inspired by James Durbin from season 10 who finished in the top four and had Tourette himself. They even got to meet. Her tics go away when she sings. She is quite effortless. Luke has chills. Katy: “One of the most technically perfectly performances we’ve ever had on ‘Idol.’” Bonus: James Durbin pops up on the big screen after her audition and tells her that Tourette “doesn’t define you, but it’s something you defy.”

Danica Steakley, 17, Gulfport, Mississippi, high school student (”I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love with You” by Hank Williams) Her dad, who is 73, joins her on the audition stage with the piano. She seems a little nervous, but she’s not bad. Katy thinks she needs to be surrounded by stronger singers to loosen up. Lionel likes her high end, but her lows tend to fade out. The judges generally feel she needs to mature. Katy gives her a yes, but Lionel and Luke say no. Dad is more peeved about the rejection than Danica and cracks: “Next time I’ll have her audition for ‘The Voice.’” (That is the first time in my memory that the rival show has ever been referenced on “Idol.”)

DJ Johnson, 18, Longview, Texas (original song “Scars”) The sixth of 10 kids, her mom made her feel worthless, and she started hating herself. Once her mom left, she was able to regroup. Her dad, a worship leader, is DJ’s rock. During her first audition, she breaks down while singing a very personal original, biting song about her mom, and Lionel provides her a hankie. He can’t hug her due to COVID-19. So. her dad hugs her instead. She gets a second shot and the song, while heartfelt, isn’t particularly good. I don’t think her voice is all that great either, but her approach is all pain and anguish. Lionel: “Your delivery was completely honest to the point you have us crying up here.” Katy said she gives hope to so many people. She goes to Hollywood.

Nia Renée, 17, Little Rock, Arkansas (”Chain of Fools” by Aretha Franklin) She tackles a classic “Idol” song that goes back to season one. And she does an excellent, nuanced job. My favorite of the night. Luke: “Born to do it.” Katy: “You have a power in your hands and your voice.”

There are a few disagreements among judges. Then a man named Keith Trump, who may have gotten on for his name only, pops up and is quickly rejected.

This is the perfect segue for the contestant that has been getting all the pre-season buzz:

Claudia Conway, 16, Alpine, New Jersey, (”Love on the Brain” by Rihanna & “When You Were Young” by Adele). She is the daughter of Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway and avowed anti-Trumper George Conway. “It’s a lot, but I only want to spread love,” Claudia says. (She is not a Trump fan.) She sings her first song mostly with her eyes closed, which is distracting. Katy says she got nervous and lost it. So, she gives Claudie a second chance with her Adele song, advising her to “calm the storm that is around you” and stop thinking about what the TikTok folks might think. Claudia is better the second time around, but she is a bit twee. Luke notes her lack of range. She gets two yesses and a no from Luke. I don’t expect she will last long in Hollywood.

Mario Adrion 26, Germany, model. It’s hard to find good “joke” contestants by season 19. The producers had to import one from Germany. He wears a Speedo for his audition. Nuff said. They do a mock model walk, and Lionel is actually pretty good at it. (Luke? Not so much.)

Grace Kinstler 20, Chicago, “Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight and “Natural Woman” by Aretha Franklin. Sob story alert; her dad died suddenly last year. She has a gloriously powerful voice. Katy is awed. A last note goes off the rails during the Gladys song, but her Aretha is rock solid. Lionel: “You have control of your amazing instrument.” Luke said “This is the first time someone singing just made me cry.” Katy says she got a “full wave of chills... That is true magic.” She could land in the finals with that voice.

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