'Our country has f***ing failed us!': Katy Perry emotionally reacts to school shooting survivor's story on 'American Idol'

Katy Perry breaks down while speaking to 'American Idol' contestant Trey Louis, a survivor of the Santa Fe High School shooting in 2018. (Photo: ABC)
Katy Perry breaks down while speaking to 'American Idol' contestant Trey Louis, a survivor of the Santa Fe High School shooting in 2018. (Photo: ABC)

American Idol has always been known for its wacky moments, from William Hung and Larry “Pants on the Ground” Platt’s viral auditions, to Kara DioGuardi’s finale-night bikini reveal, to any number of the always-extra Katy Perry’s focus-stealing, pants-splitting antics since she became a judge on the show’s ABC reboot five years ago. But at the heart of Idol — along with a nationwide search for undiscovered raw talent, of course — the show has always been about the more serious and vulnerable moments.

Sunday’s episode had two such deeply resonating moments. And while some Idol sob stories can admittedly seem contrived (quick-to-cry judge Lionel Richie is already running out of handkerchiefs, only two weeks into Season 21), these two exchanges seemed genuine. And these two contestants will make a lasting impression, no many how far they go this season.

I pretty much tore through my own handkerchief reserve by the night’s end, when 21-year-old blues-rocker Trey Louis, of Santa Fe, Texas, auditioned with Whiskey Myers’s “Stone.” One of the night’s best belters — he reminded me a bit of mighty-lung’d Season 13 winner Caleb Johnson, while Luke Bryan described him as a “Chris Stapleton disciple” — Trey gave a fantastically gritty performance, and it was clear that there was pain behind his aw-shucks, class-clown demeanor. “Man, you’re singing from just the perfect spot,” Luke told him. That’s when Katy asked Trey what had motivated him to try out for Idol, and we all found out the source of that pain.

“In May 2018, a gunman walked into my school,” Trey told the judges. “I was in Art Room 1; he shot up Art Room 2, before he made his way to Art Room 1. I lost a lot of friends. Eight students were killed. Two teachers were killed. And it’s just really been negative, man. Santa Fe’s had a bad rap since 2018.”

There was stunned silence in the audition room as the judges processed what they’d just heard, although Luke seemed to try to steer the conversation back to his positive critique of Trey’s “perfect voice.” But that’s when Katy broke down. She crumbled, dropping her forehead onto her desk and burying her face in her hands, before letting rip a from-the-heart, expletive-riddled tirade about gun control that was partially censored with an American Idol logo placed over her sobbing, swearing mouth.

Katy Perry breaks down while speaking to 'American Idol' contestant Trey Louis, a survivor of the Santa Fe High School shooting in 2018. (Photos: ABC)
Katy Perry breaks down while speaking to 'American Idol' contestant Trey Louis, a survivor of the Santa Fe High School shooting in 2018. (Photos: ABC)

“Our country has f***ing failed us!” Katy shouted furiously. (Trey nodded stoically and merely concurred: “Facts.”) “This is not OK! You should be singing here because you love music, not because you had to go through that [long, bleeped-out sentence here]. You didn’t have to lose eight friends! I hope that you remind people that we have to change, because you know what? I’m scared too.”

“We have tolerated this for so long. Too long. It’s become a norm,” Lionel sighed, dabbing his own watery eyes.

“And we’ve gotta change. And I hope you can just lead,” Katy told Trey.

“For myself, for my school, for you — you got it. Yes, ma’am,” Trey replied.

Trey seemed to hope that winning American Idol could help boost Santa Fe residents’ morale and cast his hometown in a better light, and I think he has a chance — he noted that Idol is the premier platform through which small-town, regular folk like himself can get a shot, and even without his sympathetic backstory, his immense talent alone will surely take him far. But Sunday featured another 21-year-old everyman auditioner, from Goshen, Ohio, with his own plot-twist personal tale plus a five-hanky heartbreaker of an original song.

Jon Wayne Hatfield was raised by his loving grandparents due his drug-addict mother being unable to care for him, and three years ago, when his grandmother died, his grandfather, Ray, lapsed into a deep depression and literally did not speak for a year and a half — not even to Jon. “I got mad at myself, because I couldn’t fix it,” Jon recalled. “He wasn’t ready. … I didn’t see what he was actually going through.” When Ray finally did open up, Jon learned that his grandpa had been carrying around a secret — which Jon’s grandmother knew — for years.

When Ray met his late wife at age 16, “I told her about myself, and she said, ‘I love you, and it’s OK,’” Ray revealed. “Jon was the last person I told, because I was scared he would stop loving me.” But when Ray finally sat Jon down and told Jon he was gay, Jon’s first reaction was to say, “Hey, don’t think that’s gonna change a damn thing between me and you, because you’re my best friend, and you’re my dad.”

“It turned out then that [Jon] was there for me more than anybody,” said Ray through happy tears. “It’s a big relief to stand here and be proud and say, ‘I’m gay, and there’s nothing wrong with it.’”

Jon’s second reaction to Ray’s coming-out was to pen the country ballad “Tell Me Ray,” which he performed for the Idol judges Sunday with his weeping grandfather in the room. By the time he was finished, Lionel, who praised Jon’s “great songwriting,” was handing out one of his signature hankies. “I don’t normally do this, but Ray, you need this,” he said. “I don’t give these out except to special people. You’re a helluva inspiration, man.”

“What I love about being a part of this show is people come in and bare their souls in front of us, and people at home that may be dealing with the same stuff get to realize that they’re not alone. … Maybe we’re not on an island, on our own,” mused Luke. “And you guys being able to handle it and sing about it and tell your story is pretty amazing.”

'American Idol' hopeful Jon Wayne Hatfield with his grandfather, Ray. (Photo: ABC)
'American Idol' hopeful Jon Wayne Hatfield with his grandfather, Ray. (Photo: ABC)

“What you shared with us today was so authentic, so beautiful. You’re a songwriter. You’ve got so many stories inside of you,” Katy said to Jon, then telling is grandfather, “It’s never too late, Ray! Welcome to the club, honey! Not everyone gets to live their authentic life. Good for you.”

Sunday’s two hours brought lots of feels and lots of talent; it truly was a classic Idol episode. These were the other standout singers of the night:

Caroline Kole, 25: “Firework”

The pigtailed social media maverick had a fun and spunky personality that Katy clicked with right away, but when Caroline hit an iffy falsetto note in the pre-chorus, initially shying away from the chorus’s “big payoff,” Katy was admittedly “worried.” (Katy had semi-jokingly quipped, “Don’t sing it better than me, girl!”— and it seemed like she’d gotten her wish.) But then Caroline “nailed” the chorus, and Katy conceded, “If someone can hit that, they win!” Katy was even singing along to her own song, something that Luke noted she’d never done in all her years as an Idol judge. Katy said she thought Caroline was top 24 (or “top 20-something”) material but might not make it further than that, and Luke thought Caroline was “missing the mark on some of the delivery.” But the “super-cute” kid showed potential, and even if she doesn’t go far, she’s already won in a way — because she thought Katy singing to her acoustic version of “Firework” was the “coolest thing that’s happened to me in my entire life.”

Ashley Tankard, 22: “You Broke Me First”

Ashley, who once suffered from such severe stagefright that she’d crop her face out of her own YouTube videos, has tried out 15 times for Idol, and “the 15th time was the charm.” I could see why she hadn’t made it before: Although she showcased what Luke called “nice, nice tones when doing that rich vibrato,” she lost control in the high parts and really struggled with her enunciation. But after a bit of diction-coaching from Katy, her staunchest advocate on the panel, Ashley was a quick study, and she improved during her do-over attempt. “I think someone who tries out 15 times knows there’s no challenge you can’t overcome,” declared Katy, who said yes. Luke was a no, thus leaving the trembling Ashley’s fate in tiebreaker Lionel’s hands. The empathetic Lionel, who confessed that he used to suffer from stagefright himself, gave Ashley grudging yes (after a fakeout rejection and a cliffhanging commercial break, of course), but warned her: “If you can fight 15 times to get this spot, then I want you to fight like hell.” Like Lionel and Luke, I have my doubts that Ashley can survive Hollywood Week. But, like the judges and much of America, I’m rooting for her, because she just might want this more than any other contestant of Season 21.

Matt Wilson, 21: “For Tonight”

This likable daycare worker once gave up on his musical dream, but thankfully his adoring and supportive wife, who’s believed in him ever since she first heard him sing in middle school, encouraged him to try out for Idol. After hearing his effortless, sexy Giveon cover, the judges were astonished that no record label had offered him a deal yet — he was that good. Lionel gushingly praised Matt’s “purity and believability,” telling him, “The sky’s the limit, my friend.” Katy marveled, “Tone, tone, tone! It cuts through. It sounds like it’s already mixed and mastered.” And Luke called this “one of the most genuine, honest, real performances I’ve ever witnessed.” I totally think Matt is top 10 material, but no matter what happens next, this gifted man, who is only 21, should not give up on his dream.

Kaylin Hedges, 15: “I’m Already There”

When this military kid opened up about missing her military dad (who’s been deployed during her past nine birthdays), then dedicated Lonestar’s heart-grows-fonder classic for him, we all knew that producers were setting Kaylin up for a big surprise, when her father showed up in the audition room. But viewers’ tears still flowed anyway, especially when it turned out that Kaylin’s mother — who’d been out in the hallway, listening at the door — was just as surprised as Kaylin was by her husband’s secret visit. This Hedges family reunion made for great heartstring-tugging TV, but so did Kaylin’s mature and rangy performance, which obviously came from a real place. (How is she only 15?) And Kaylin had one more surprise in store, when the judges gave her the coveted Platinum Ticket, which will fast-track her past Hollywood Week’s first round. Clearly all of sacrifices Sgt. Hedges made, so that Kaylin could study music in New York, were worth it.

Aiden Adair, 19: “Break My Heart Again”

This nervous kid was “completely out of his comfort zone” and his Finneas cover was stiff, a bit dreary, and a bit school-recital-y. But there was a nice raw voice in there somewhere, so Lionel literally got up out of his chair and shook Aiden to loosen him up. Then Katy got up out of her chair, made Aiden examine her pores up-close to prove she is a real and non-scary person, and randomly requested some James Bay, telling him: “You’ve got everything you need inside of you.” This moment felt very contrived — of course Aiden’s James Bay cover was better, and of course he just happened to already know all the lyrics to the nine-year-old song “Let It Go” — but it was good TV, manufactured or not. “I’m just loving this moment,” said Luke. “We’re watching you right in front of our eyes develop — years of development, in this moment.”

McKayla Stacey, 16: “She Used to Be Mine”

McKayla said she was “literally born into Idol,” and she really meant that literally — her mom, “the most forgiving wife in the world,” was giving birth to her while her dad, Phil Stacey, was trying out for American Idol Season 6. Phil’s first meeting with the newborn McKayla was even captured on camera for the show. And now, 16 years later, Phil, who placed sixth that season, was “passing the baton,” accompanying his kid on piano at her own audition. Phil was 28 years old when he tried out for Idol and therefore a lot more experienced (in many ways — he sang “Let’s Get It On”!), while McKayla, as Luke put it, “sang like a scared 16-year-old.” Luke said no, but Lionel, who coached McKayla on “little simple things” to help her get out of her head and get more connected to the Sara Bareilles song, thought she was “worth rolling the dice on.” And so did Katy. “I think you were born for a moment like this,” Katy declared, while proud papa Phil beamed. “I was his story, and now he’s my story,” McKayla chuckled. Maybe on Season 45, Phil’s grandkid can be another Idol story. In the meantime, we’ll see how long McKayla’s story lasts this year.

Nutsa, 25: “Lady Marmalade” / “Greatest Love of All”

This sassy song-and-dance gal from Georgia (the country, not the state), one of several international auditioners this week, flew 17 hours from her current home turf of Dubai to pursue her American Idol dream. Katy could tell there was “a voice in there,” but thought the Vegas-style flashiness that Nutsa picked up from performing in Dubai was “turned up too hot” and distracted from her sultry vibe. (Nutsa did have an oversinging, Xtina-like quality to her delivery.) Upon Katy’s recommendation, Nutsa sang her second song, the Whitney Houston-popularized empowerment anthem “Greatest Love of All,” with “natural beauty,” and this time, Lionel said she “nailed it.” Luke even called her “the J.Lo from Georgia.” Said Kat, “It just needs to be real, and then it could really be something.” We’ll see if Nutsa can unlearn her bad habits when she heads to her ultimate dream city, Hollywood. At least we know that a lack of confidence won’t be an issue.

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