"It's a revamped show, and it's completely different from what it was on Fox," Perry proclaimed. "It's got so much heart and storytelling. It's constructive criticism. It's not judgment. This is not meanness. There are not setups. We don't play that game. We understand how vulnerable and valuable people's dreams are. We just want to get people to the finish line as fast as possible."
Bryan addressed the impact that season 17 runner-up Alejandro Aranda had on the show through his organic approach, performing a number of original songs. "The Alejandro element was so important. It brought legitimacy, and all these kids that are at home working on these computer programs, building tracks and singing over the top of them, they're so creative but they truly think there may not be a place for them in a show like this. Alejandro knocked all of those walls down. Music has to be that way. I think the stereotypes of what we perceive stars should be and look like, all of that stuff has really gone away a little bit, which is great. It makes a whole other side of creativity come out. Every American Idol doesn't have to be what we draw up. It can be anything, and that really makes the show very special."
"I'm just going to add a little tidbit," Richie interjected. "Singers come and go. Stylists stay forever. In other words, some people say, 'Why did you throw off that lady? She was a fabulous singer,' and I say, 'But she had nothing that was identifiable. Great voice. You can go see her tomorrow afternoon at any club around town.'"
Bryan elaborated, "We've got a kid this year who doesn't have a huge range, but when he starts singing, you can hear his whole life story in every note that he sings. It's so real. His voice is so authentic. It sounds like where he grew up and you can hear all the soul in it."
Guests were asked not to video or photograph or identify the three season 18 contestants who performed in the hotel's hidden theater, but the vocalists (two males and one female) impressed with three very different styles. Then the surprise guest walked on stage – season 17 winner Laine Hardy, who sang his forthcoming debut single for Hollywood Records, "Ground I Grew Up On." Later, in a private conversation, Hardy told Billboard, "That was the first time I've ever performed that song acoustically by myself in front of people. When I was on tour, I played it. I had it on my set list." Billboard also asked Hardy about his new hometown, and he said, "I arrived in Nashville on June 14, 2019. I stayed there for about two, three months writing every single day of the week. I'd get up at nine in the morning. I'd go to write songs at 11. And we would write a song until it was finished. I like being in Nashville, but I need to go home every now and then and rebuild my mental creativity. It really helps. I came back to Nashville and wrote an amazing song." And what was Hardy's biggest takeaway from his year on Idol? "The biggest thing I learned was to have endurance and patience. It made me think outside the box all the time. You've just got to never give up and keep on going, even when you're low or in a bad part of your life. That means it's about to skyrocket."
Finally, Perry sat down with Billboard for a private chat and the conversation turned to what her biggest takeaway has been so far from her first three years on Idol. "The biggest thing I've learned so far during this past three years is that being 17 and being ready for this moment is not rare anymore. There are people that are that age that are absolutely ready. They are super young and have something to say. Because they have been watching. They've had the internet for a decade. They have more information than our generation had, so they're so much more well-prepared and educated and they really mean it. And they want to be their own artist. They don't want to be cookie-cutter, they don't want to be karaoke singers or wedding singers. And it's really great to be a part of a show that doesn't feel stale. It feels like every season it evolves and pushes the limits and really tries to contribute in an authentic way and not make noise. We're not here to make noise. We're here to make stars."
Season 18 of American Idol premieres on ABC at 8pm ET and PT on Sunday (Feb. 16).