As 'American Idol' Nears Finale, Judges & Eliminated Contestants Reflect on Season 17 Lessons

ABC/Eric McCandless
Wade Cota performs onĀ American Idol.

One of the most priceless perks of being on American Idol is getting advice from the three superstar judges. After Sunday (May 12) night's penultimate live show of season 17, backstage talk turned to the opinions the judges offered this year's top three finalists.

"I think with Madison [VanDenburg], it's always to dig harder," Luke Bryan began the discussion. "When you look at her voice structurally, it is as dynamic as any voice in the world. So it's about her creating the character and the emotion. With Laine [Hardy], it was always about, 'Get out of your way and be free.' And Alejandro [Aranda], we had to let him know where his career's fixing to go."

"Like hold on to your horses!" Katy Perry exclaimed. "We are not worthy."

"He has no idea," Lionel Richie added. "Alejandro is a phenomenon unto himself. Totally different from anything we've ever seen. It's one thing to be able to play a guitar arpeggio. It's another thing to play it on the piano while you're singing." Then Perry looked ahead to the future: "I hope that science will study his brain after his time on earth."

Next, Richie confided to Billboard, "I'm going to tell you something. I think this trip around, Laine found his identity. Before he was singing, but he had no idea who he was. Madison has always been the phenomenal 'Is that a 17-year-old voice?' She's got it. Calm down and just lean forward, okay? Dirty it up a little."

Perry pointed out that VanDenburg was taking their advice "in real time," explaining: "I don't know if you all saw this, but we heard Madison sing her first song, right? And we pointed out that she needs to sing like the last 30 seconds in the first 30 seconds. Something changed in the next song. She is applying the constructive criticism in real time." "With a voice like Madison's," Bryan suggested, "the right producer will [come along] and she'll be an Adele/Kelly Clarkson type singer. That's what she's going to be."

Billboard reminded Bryan that the judges compared VanDenburg to Clarkson during her first audition. The country star responded, "What's amazing is when you look at our initial reactions to their auditions, I mean, even last year with Laine, we predicted him last year and it didn't pan out but now he's here. And with Alejandro, we knew right off the bat he was special, and Madison too."

"We're going from our hearts," Richie concluded. "Jeremiah [Lloyd Harmon] is in the studio now. Keep an eye on him. Because let me tell you something, it's a top 10. Look out [for] everybody."

After the conversation with the judges, eliminated contestants Wade Cota and Laci Kaye Booth stopped to talk to Billboard about how they were feeling just a few minutes after they found out they were going home. "I thought I would feel a lot more disappointed, because I wanted to win," said a smiling Booth. "I wanted to see myself in the finale, but honestly I feel so good right now and I'm looking back on how much I've learned throughout this journey. And I never thought I would be able to say that I was in the top five of American Idol. It's the most amazing thing in the world to me. I've prayed my entire life for something like this to happen. And I know that going back home, life is not going to be the same. And as scared as I am for that, I couldn't be more excited."

Cota also said he felt good, but added, "It sucks to get this close to the finale and not get there. I put it all out there though, so win or lose, I'm going to be all right. I'm really excited to be able to go home and see my puppy and my family and hang out for a little bit and I'm going to get started right away on an album. Honestly, this was a really cool way to get into the business, so I love American Idol."

Having just talked to the judges about the advice they gave to this year's contestants, Billboard asked Booth and Cota about which judges' comments meant the most to them. Booth replied first, "It was when Lionel said, 'Don't worry about being the best vocalist. Worry about being authentic.' That was the best piece of advice I could have gotten, because it's hard to be in this competition with so many amazing vocalists around you. It's intimidating for sure, but him saying that made me hone in on who I am, what I was put on this earth to do, what I give out to the world musically. And I'm so grateful for the judges."

"The best advice I got was from Katy, and it wasn't even something that she said directly to me," Cota revealed. "She did an interview with Entertainment Tonight, and she said, 'Once he starts believing in himself, I think we're going to see something special.'" Just as Cota finished that sentence, Perry walked over, and Cota told her, "The confidence I've had the past couple of weeks came from you talking to Entertainment Tonight, saying that once I figure out my confidence and see myself in the top six or whatever it was that I would see something."

"You saw that interview?" Perry asked. Cota became a little hesitant and said, "Now that you're in front of me, I can't say it. I just said it perfectly to Billboard. But you told me to have the confidence that I need and you'll see something special out of me and I saw that right before my first performance last week, and it meant so much to me."

"You keep that mantra and it will take you all the way," Perry offered. "It doesn't matter that this show is over. If you keep that mantra in your mind, you can do whatever you want."