American Idol Honors Willie Spence in Emotional Season 21 Premiere — Watch

American Idol kicked off its 21st season on Sunday by giving viewers what felt like the equivalent of 21 punches to the gut.

The emotional wreckage came courtesy of returning contestant Kya Monee’, who duetted with the late, great Willie Spence back in Season 19. Back for another shot at Idol glory, Monee’ spoke tearfully about her relationship with Spence, the pain of losing such a close friend, and the importance of pursuing her dream in his honor.

“Losing Willie was very, very hard for me,” Monee’ said. “I’m still trying to cope with that. Willie always told me: ‘No matter what, you will always be a singer.’ … Three days before he passed, Willie was telling me, ‘You have to go back. You have to chase your dreams.’ He made me want to do it, and I’d really like to make it further. Most of all, I want to make Willie proud.”

Spence, who originally planned to accompany Monee’ to her Season 21 audition, died in October 2022 from injuries sustained in a car accident. Before his death, the Season 19 runner-up helped Monee’ select her new audition song, “I’m Here” from the Broadway musical The Color Purple.

Emotions were already running high before Monee’ opened her mouth to sing, and things only got more intense as those bittersweet notes began pouring out of her. It wasn’t the most polished performance of the night, but it was the most powerful. It was raw, it was honest and it served as a beautiful tribute to Spence.

Read on for more highlights from the Season 21 premiere…

* The first Platinum Ticket of the season went to 17-year-old Tyson Venegas, who tickled both the ivories and the judges’ collective fancy with his smooth take on Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind.” Some of Venegas’ impressive notes and runs made Katy Perry feel alive, and while I didn’t find it quite as life-affirming, I never doubted for a second that Venegas would make it through to Hollywood. (Click here to watch.)

* Two others I suspect will have continued success in this competition are Colin Stough, who looks like he was built in the same factory as last season’s winner Noah Thompson, and Zachariah Smith, whose impressive take on John Mellencamp’s “Hurts So Good” really lived up to its name. The only thing I didn’t buy was Stough and Smith’s coincidental run-in at the diner; let’s just say it’s a good thing this isn’t an acting competition. Watch both of their auditions below:

* I would have given my theoretical Platinum Ticket to Iam Tongi, whose performance of James Blunt’s “Monster” reached how-dare-you levels of incredible. His overwhelming emotions shone through in every note, like he wrote the song about his own experience. (Click here to watch.)

* The judges were surprisingly tough on Lucy Love, 28, who (I thought) crushed Marvin Gay’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” complete with the kind of natural charisma most nervous contestants would kill for. That’s why it bummed me out that the judged asked her to essentially turn down her glow in favor of a more serious ballad, Donny Hathaway’s “A Song For You.” It was also very good, I just don’t think the judges should have made Love jump through so many hoops before sending her to Hollywood. (Click here to watch.)

* And Perry believes she’s found the next Shawn Mendes or Harry Styles in 21-year-old Ohio native Michael Williams, whose performance of Bruno Mars’ “Talking to the Moon” was damn near perfection. Those runs. That falsetto. That hair. It all worked for me, and I don’t disagree with Perry that Williams is destined for (at least) this season’s Top 10. (Click here to watch.)

* Other singers continuing to Hollywood include Megan Danielle, whose audition of Lauren Daigle’s “You Say” turned into a surprise duet with Daigle herself (click here to watch); Lyric Medeiros, who still needs to work on sacrificing pretty for powerful (click here to watch); and Havin Madison, who impressed the judges with “15,” an original song in which Perry sees a lot of potential (click here to watch).

Your thoughts on Sunday’s Idol premiere? Vote for your favorite auditions below, then drop a comment with your full review.