Before this season kicked off, American Idol producers promised that the long-running show’s second season on new home ABC would put the focus squarely on the contestant’s stories, rather than on the celebrity judges. And while there is still plenty of time for Katy Perry to do push-ups and Luke Bryan to tune up guitars, for the most part, they’ve stayed true to their word.
That’s meant way less of the signature terrible audition and goofball acts that highlighted the show’s initial 15-season run on the Fox network — not to mention bits and brawls between the judges — and way more moving stories of overcoming adversity. As you might expect, that’s led to a virtual waterfall of tears form Katy, Luke and Lionel Richie over the course of the city-hopping audition rounds.
From stories of love and loss to moving montages about coming out, growing up and letting go, the past three weeks have packed in a season’s worth of drama, as aspiring singers have wowed the panel with their perseverance and pipes.
Check out 10 of the most moving stories below.
Nick Townsend — The Nebraska singer shared the heartbreaking story of his two brother’s deaths by suicide, which hit home for Bryan, who got emotional while discussing the loss of his two siblings. Check out Townsend’s performance of James Bay‘s “Let It Go.”
Shayy Winn — The legally blind 17 year-old singer brought Richie to his knees after sharing her story of a brain tumor that took her sight, but not her amazing voice. Her soaring cover of Andra Day‘s “Rise Up” just destroyed him. “Lionel you look like you’re walking a daughter down the aisle,” Bryan told the red-faced R&B superstar.
Logan Johnson — The 20 year-old from Boise threw off Justin Timberlake vibes according to Bryan, as he shared the story of his eight months of sobriety and gained three more members for his support team thanks to his moving take on Demi Lovato‘s “Sober.”
Alejandro Aranda — Sometimes it’s just the music that does the trick. And when Pomona, California’s Aranda took the stage with his story of graduating from busking on the street to teaching himself guitar and piano and writing original, heartbreaking ballads over the past four years, well, the judges knew they had found something special. While Aranda seemed shy and maybe too humble to survive the upcoming maw of Idol cuts, his finger-picked soul ballad “Out Loud” and an equally stunning, jazzy piano composition made a dumbfounded Bryan admit that he felt like he was “in the presence of greatness” as Aranda earned a standing ovation and hug from Richie.
Wade Cota — Some stories are almost too much. Phoenix native Cota broke hearts with his story of a childhood of abuse from his biological father, who he dubbed “the devil.” The physical and emotional scars, he said, were permenent, but he found a way to turn that pain into gold with his stunning rendition of George Ezra‘s “Blame It On Me.” Richie, once again, was blown away. “I was not expecting that other person to jump out of your body,” Richie said. “In my business we look for the character, and my friend, you brought me a character. And it’s an unusual character because it sounds like you,” he said, with a red-eyed Bryan adding that Cota reminded him of Johnny Cash.
Lauren Engle — It was almost too much to bear, as Engle, 27, performed the heartbeaking ballad “Compass,” written in honor of her late husband, who died in a car accident in 2018. Performed with her brother-in-law on acoustic guitar, the timeline of the couple’s love left the entire panel in a puddle as Engle sang lines such as “I’ll reach for your hand for the rest of my life…so, please don’t let me go/ Oh how I love you so.” “That is so beautiful, Lauren you are so strong,” Perry said.
Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon — The church janitor and, like Perry, a pastor’s kid, shared his story of never fitting in growing up and his struggle to come out. His original piano ballad, “Almost Heaven,” was a chronicle of his struggle to gain acceptance from his family, which clearly touched Perry, who hung on his every word and soaring falsetto. “Love I can lift you higher/ And it was almost heaven/ Oh, it was almost heaven/ When we reach forever will there be a place where you and I may find home/ In heaven,” he sang. “I dare you to critique it,” Perry said.
Gaba (Elizabeth) — The singer told her story of meeting her egg donor mom and then slayed with a near-operatic cover of Adele‘s “All I Ask” and a tear-inducing piano duet of Sara Bareilles‘ “Bright Lights and Cityscapes” with Amy, her egg donor mom. Cue the tissues, Katy couldn’t stand it. “I gotta call my mom!” she yelled as Richie doled out a double-hug and Luke wished he also had “two mommas.”
Jackson Gilles — The last spot is always the one you know is going to just wreck you. And 19 year-old Santa Barbara native Gilles had an uplifting story that was custom-made for the slot. Diagnosed as a 14 year-old with the autoimmune skin condition HS (on top of his childhood Type 1 diabetes), the sunny dispositioned singer shared his story of the raging condition that has left him with giant scars across his whole body and how learning to play guitar helped him get through the pain. His elegant cover of Foy Vance‘s “Make it Rain” proved that it’s possible spin gold from straw, as Bryan struggled to hold in his emotions during the soulful performance.
“I had a couple things that bothered me this morning when I woke up,” Richie said. “I’m going to go to bed now without a care in the world because of how you’re looking at your life and the positive approach that you’re taking.”
Emma Kleinberg — Singing in honor of her older brother, Alex, whose struggles with bipolar disorder resulted in a suicide attempt last year that left him with permanent damage to his brain, Kleinberg paid loving tribute to her big bro with a powerful, soaring run through Allen Stone‘s “American Privilege.” “You showed us everything…you cannot showcase yourself any better,” Bryan said, while Richie noted that “you can’t teach confidence,” which Kleinberg clearly had in spades.
Look for some of your favorites when the Hollywood rounds begin this Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.