‘American Idol’ is back with… a tribute to Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor?

On Sunday, american idol aired the premiere of its 20th season, causing people across the country to sigh, “Damn, I’m old.”

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

Now, american idol airs on ABC and its jury is made up of real singers Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan. It relies less on humiliation for laughs – fans will recall that the early seasons of the show were often set by poking fun at the ravings of failed listeners, with Simon Cowell saying the nastiest thing you’ve ever heard at a deaf teenager from Kentucky. And let’s not forget William Hung’s infamously petty “She Bangs” season 3 arc. Instead, the current iteration of Idol focuses on heartbreaking inspirational stories and, finally, people who can actually sing.

Otherwise, however, the show looks quite familiar. Ryan Seacrest is still the host, a perpetually smiling model who comes to life and is essential to the Idol DNA. Listeners continue to dust off their most tragic stories in hopes of buying time on camera and walking out of the building with a coveted “golden ticket” to Hollywood.

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

There are many talented singers in the first round of auditions. Among the stars are Noah, a construction worker and young father who sings with a soulful country voice to meet Ray-LaMontagne, and Nicolina, an 18-year-old with a chill belt.

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

There’s a fancy audition that reeks of vintage Idol— a player in pink bunny slippers with a squeaky baby voice too peculiar not to be affected, especially considering how seamlessly she glides 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 that instantly becomes irrelevant in the final fifteen minutes of the episode when New York-based songwriter Taylor Fagins walks into the audition room. His entry is preceded by a conversation between the judges about how they hope to find great artists who express themselves through original songs. What a fortuitous moment for Fagins to walk through the door. The 26-year-old sits down at the piano to perform a song he wrote and, with a deep breath, whispers, “This is for you.” And nothing could have prepared me for what will come out of his mouth next.

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

“It takes what *should* be a powerful performance and turns it into another gimmick or auction 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 no longer open doors or use their pockets. Can anyone tell them why they live? They need more.

But there is the fact that everything happens on american idol, the show that brought us Sanjaya’s ponytail mohawk and ensured Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day” would be stuck in our heads every Thursday for weeks. Fagins’ audition is featured throughout the episode as one of the most powerful moments in Idol the story, but instead it feels deeply out of place – the very first mention of the race stuck in the final minutes of a two-hour premiere. What do you need should be a powerhouse performance and turn it into another gimmick or tears offering, 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, with good reason. But on a show like this, how will its original dark pieces grappling with real social and political issues stand up to Adele’s covers? What about when public voting begins and tends to favor country crooners who ruffle no feathers?

Ultimately, it would be disappointing if Fagins’ audition turned out to be merely a transparent, short-lived effort by the showrunners to seem tapped into the cultural moment and generate buzz around the season premiere, but this wouldn’t be a surprise.

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