American Idol Premiere: Speedo Guy, Terrifying Stage Dad and Claudia Conway

There were a lot of original songs in this two-hour premiere, as well as some incredible vocalists taking songs from the likes of Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye and making them sound like originals!

“American Idol” kicked off its fourth season on ABC — and 19th overall! — with an incredible batch of vocalists and one very famous teenager.

Claudia Conway, who is famously the daughter of George and Kellyanne Conway, probably took all the hype of the episode leading up to this premiere, but hers wasn’t the audition that most people will walk away shaking their head in amazement at.

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That’s not to say Claudia was a dud. There were some on the night, and Claudia certainly did a respectable job of showcasing something else she’d rather be known for than her feuding parents (and feuding with them), but she’s got her work cut out for her already.

With only about a dozen substantial finalists featured in the two-hour premiere, we’ve already seen the first contestant ever to make Luke Bryan tear up, leading to comparisons to Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson’s auditions.

Another big moment was one of redemption for one contestant. We’ve all seen those singers who get cocky and show attitude when they get rejected, and that’s exactly what happened with this guy a few years back. Humbled and better for it, he got his second shot at stardom.

We had a woman inspired by a past contestant with her same condition absolutely slay her audition, as did two performers who effortlessly tackled Aretha Franklin. The night saw more original songs, too, with one so heartbreakingly powerful the contestant broke down halfway through.

“American Idol” is back and it’s as wild and varied and moving and powerful as ever. And we’re just getting started!

Fair warning, since I’m safe at home, I’m probably going to be a little harsher than my colleagues Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan. But I might be nicer, too. Maybe.

Just for fun, I’m going to rank the performances from worst to first to see who my favorites are.

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Ryan Romano

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(“Rocket Man,” Elton John – 16, Romeo, MI) We were hoping that Ryan’s understated “extravagance” was a clever misdirect and then he was going to blow us away with an actually animated and lively performance. Instead, it was animatronic and anything but lively. On top of that, the vocals were close to the right note but mostly wobbled all around it. You have to know you’re good to take on Elton John, and Ryan just is not there at all. But he may have found a new vocation, as Katy legitimately bought the jacket off his back for $400. He may not have made it, but he clearly knows how to sell it!

Mario Adrion

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(“[Untitled],” Mario Adrion – 26, Germany by way of Hollywood, CA) Hilariously, Mario’s package (ahem) was about him wanting to be judged on his talent and not on his looks. So of course he auditioned in a Speedo. Actually, his whole song was about auditioning in a speedo and being known more for his body. It was certainly entertaining, but it was by no means talent. Well, he had some ability when it came to flexing his pectoral muscles, but vocally — it’s a no, dawg. We were totally down for the walk-off between Mario and the judges, though. Katy’s got some fierce runway moves. Get it, girl!

Danica Steakley

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(“I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still…),” Hank Williams – 17, Gulfport, MS) And we thought stage moms could be scary, they’ve got nothing on this stage dad. The package made us uncomfortable because he talked for her, over her and overrode all of her ideas, too, so he sounds like a real delight. While Danica has a pleasant enough tone, she sounded extremely nervous and had a look of deer-in-headlights behind those eyes throughout the performance. She was holding back throughout the performance. The judges were right, but Dad was not having it, storming off like a spoiled baby. It was really sad seeing a 17 year old have to be the more mature one.

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Claudia Conway

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(“Love on the Brain,” Rihanna & “When We Were Young,” Adele – 16, Washington, DC) More than likely the most famous person who will audition this season, the daughter of George and Kellyanne Conway actually has some real vocal chops underneath all the crazy drama of her life. But she also has a somewhat limited range and is a little shaky at times. Katy gave her some great advice to help her get in the right headspace for her second shot and it was stronger with some genuinely meaningful moments, but she’s still definitely “in the rough,” as it were. Is there a diamond? With two yes votes, we’ll all find out together.

Alex Miller

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(“I’m Over You, So Get Over Me,” Alex Miller – 17, Lancaster, KY) There was a very classic country twang not only to Alex’s delivery, but even to the original he prepared for his audition. It was a sweet and gentle performance, with no tricks or power of any kind. But it was also heartfelt and genuine. Luke was so enamored with him, he had to perform an adorable duet on “Big City.” On this, our love for Alex was cemented, as he can even make a cover sound his own.

Benson Boone

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(“Punchline,” Aidan Martin – 18, Monroe, WA) This guy has been singing for a year and he’s got range and a falsetto on top of that. Benson has his own vocal style and already a signature sound all his own. The potential to soar when this is basically your starting point is just about mind-boggling. On top of that, he’s got a genuine humility — or he’s a great actor — that makes him instantly likable.

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DJ Johnson

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(“Scars,” DJ Johnson – 18, Longview, TX) After years of criticism, her mother walked away from the family last year. Her words haunted DJ for years, but her leaving actually reignited DJ’s love of music, and helped her start to again believe in herself. She put her story into her original song and her heart on the line. It was so raw, she broke down completely halfway through. Another note, this is how an incredible father supports his daughter through the good and bad. His boost of support helped her carry through, and the second verse was so much more heartbreaking than the first. This one left everyone in the room just gutted. Stunningly honest.

Nia Renee

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(“Chain of Fools,” Aretha Franklin – 17, Little Rock, AR) How did this little unassuming girl walk in on Luke Bryan “cow tipping” Katy Perry and then just lay into an effortless Aretha Franklin. She had attitude for days and a maturity and conviction in her voice that belied her years. That was pure soul through and through and just such a natural performance. Dare we say she’s “A Natural Woman”? Seriously, anyone who can take Aretha and sing it like that deserves all the tickets!

Jason Warrior

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(“What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye – 25, Chicago, IL) Jason came to “Idol” humbled by Meghan Trainor as a contestant with too much attitude and not enough “it” on “The Four.” He certainly came back in fine vocal form, with power and conviction for days. There was such confidence in this performance. He might have put more on the song than absolutely necessary, but if the goal was to showcase as much of his gift as he could, he definitely achieved that — and then some!

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Anilee List

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(“Blue,” Aaron Taylor – 20, Los Angeles, CA) Inspired by Season 10’s James Durbin, Anilee made the decision that she wasn’t going to let her Tourette syndrome hold her back from following her dream, either. Like James, Anilee’s tics vanish completely when she sings. Even better, she has an angelic voice, filled with passion and emotion. Her control was on point, but more importantly, she sold the story of the lyric with a cool jazzy vibe, and that’s how you connect with voting audiences. It was an incredible showcase that earned a standing ovation from the judges and a special message from James after she scored her ticket.

Grace Kinstler

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(“Midnight Train to Georgia,” Gladys Knight & The Pips & (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” Aretha Franklin – 20, Chicago by way of Boston, MA) Thank goodness we got to see her second song, because Grace missed a few high notes on the first one and while she was impressive, it wasn’t mind-blowing. She then proceeded to knock the roof off the place with stank on her face and her voice making Carole King and Aretha Franklin both proud as she told us exactly who she is and what that song means to her. Connection is everything, and when Grace is feeling it, that’s exactly what she’s capable of delivering. It’s all in there, it just needs to be consistently available.

”American Idol” continues every Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

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