The top three finalists on ABC’s first season of American Idol performed three songs each on part one of the two-night season finale Sunday night. America has until Monday morning to vote and the winner will be announced on Monday evening’s show, but before that happens, Billboard had a chance to chat with the finalists, the judges, Ryan Seacrest and guest mentor Bobby Bones about the Idols’ chances for radio airplay and an assessment of season 16.
“I think the season turned out great,” says Seacrest. “It all came together and there’s some true momentum now. I honestly wish we had a couple more weeks of the competition. Maybe next year.” Did Seacrest have any concerns at the beginning of ABC’s inaugural year? “You come into it making comparisons [to previous seasons], but the show doesn’t need to change much. The format is strong. The judges are stars. They know what they’re doing. If we can get great contestants on the road, you’re going to have something that works. If they don’t find good contestants on the road, you don’t have a great race at the end. But they did.” And wearing his disc jockey hat, how does Seacrest think the three finalists will fare on the radio? “Gabby is a mainstream pop/country performer. I think Maddie could do a tremendous job singing her own songs and Caleb [will do well] in live concerts. A little bit of shtick and a little bit of music — he’s such a funny guy and a fun loving guy.”
Turning to the judges, Billboard asked the same question about radio airplay for the finalists. “I’m totally sold that any of the top three are certainly worthy of having big, big hits down the road in whichever genre they carve out their spot in,” says Luke Bryan. “That’s what we signed up for. Our goal has been to find somebody that can have legitimate success on the radio, in touring and be big-time artists. If I couldn’t stand here and believe that, I wouldn’t have signed up for next year.”
Katy Perry, who said after the show that she thinks Maddie Poppe should win, professed, “I think country radio is still very strong, so people like Gabby [Barrett] and Caleb [Lee Hutchinson] have the potential. As far as streaming services, I think someone like Maddie has potential there. The more distinct the voice, the better the chances are.”
Nationally syndicated radio host Bobby Bones has his own opinion of how the Idols will do on the radio. “As a pure country artist, Caleb probably has the best chance. I don’t think he’s going to win the show. I think he’s probably the least favored to win but he has the best chance in the country music format to actually get on the radio. He has the tools for that. Gabby is the best singer and for her, she needs a great team and a great song. I think there’s this terrible formula that isn’t allowing females to thrive at radio, and that’s going to be her biggest obstacle because she’s really good. I’ve tried to help kick down those walls too, but they’re not going to be down tomorrow. As for Maddie, I don’t know what she wants to be. She is musically my favorite, but she’s sort of Triple A, sort of Americana, if she wants to be. She’s not country, but she wants to move to Nashville because that’s where all the songwriters are.”
Barrett performed her debut single for Hollywood Records, “Rivers Deep.” Billboard asked how she was introduced to the song. “The record label showed me three songs and I went with that one vocally because it was my favorite. It was the biggest. There was a more country sounding one, but I didn’t go with it because it wasn’t as vocally big.”
Billboard had the same question for Poppe, who said she had a choice of four songs. “I got to pick which one I liked and I liked ‘Going Going Gone’ the best. I like that it had my feel to it but it could be played on pop radio. I listened to it twice before going into the studio to record it. I didn’t know the words, didn’t know the song at all. We were so busy, I didn’t have time to learn it and I went in there and just sang it. But man, standing in the studio and singing live are two different things. It was very rough for me tonight. It was very hard and it wasn’t comfortable.”
So will it be Barrett, Poppe or Hutchinson for the win? Seacrest will open an envelope and announce the name of the 16th American Idol on Monday night. And somewhere in America, the person who will win season 17 will be home watching, wondering if they should go to an audition city this summer. The answer is, yes.