The 17th season of “America’s Got Talent” is in full swing, with five audition episodes having aired since May 31. Instead of moving right on to the sixth set of hopefuls, the AGT team paused on July 5 to give viewers a look back at some of the best tryouts from the last six years. During the first ever Golden Buzzer special, entitled “Simon’s Favorite Golden Buzzers,” judge Simon Cowell sat down with host Terry Crews to present a two-hour countdown of his personal picks for the 15 greatest moments involving the coveted honor.
The Golden Buzzer was first incorporated into AGT’s ninth season, which aired in 2014. The show’s current format allows it to be used only five times per season (once by the host and once each by the four judges) to lock in quarterfinal placements for particularly outstanding auditioners. 12 of the 59 acts who have earned the honor have gone on to finish in at least third place, while five have gone all the way.
Simon explained that paring the entire crop of golden acts down to 15 resulted in a mix of auditions he personally loved and ones that resonated strongly with viewers. Out of fairness, the current season’s five Golden Buzzer recipients (Madison Baez, Avery Dixon, Sara James, Mayyas, and Lily Meola) were left out of consideration for this ranking.
Check out our “America’s Got Talent” season 17 episode 6 recap of this special countdown in our live blog below:
15. W.A.F.F.L.E. Crew – Simon kicked things off by reminiscing about these season 15 semifinalists, saying, “The minute they walked on, they got me. I just really liked them.” The crew consisted of seven male dancers from The Bronx whose mission was to inspire inner city children to be creative. In this case, Simon hit the buzzer himself, and he remembered doing so as a way of “rewarding [them] for all [their] hard work and everything that [they] stand for.”
14. Sal Valentinetti – This 21-year-old jazz singer ended up in season 11’s final five after getting a Golden Buzzer from judge Heidi Klum. Simon admitted he initially saw nothing special in Sal, but “then he went into a different gear,” performing “My Way” in a manner that both evoked Frank Sinatra and established his own individuality.
13. Brandon Leake – Simon called this spoken word artist’s audition “a real surprise [that] completely changed [his] mind [about poetry] forever.” Although pandemic restrictions limited Leake’s audience to only the judges, his performance of a poem about his departed infant sister “was still a huge moment.” After getting buzzed through by judge Howie Mandel, Leake went on to be crowned the season 15 champion.
12. Courtney Hadwin – After getting a pep talk from former judge Mel B., this 14-year-old English singer quickly overcame her shyness and delivered a wildly passionate rendition of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” (which was later notably covered by The Black Crowes). Simon mentioned that this season 13 audition clip is the second most viral in the show’s history and that he and his fellow judges “all wanted to give this person a Golden Buzzer.” Howie, who Simon said was “obsessed” with Hadwin’s talent in the moment, was the one who hit the buzzer.
11. Zurcaroh – This 40-plus-member, multigenerational group of Austrian acrobats became season 13’s second place finishers after getting a Golden Buzzer from former host Tyra Banks. Simon remembered expecting an ordinary gymnastic routine from them, especially after they introduced themselves as non-professionals, but he ended up seeing something “phenomenal.” He went on to rave that “it was like a machine” and that he “had never seen anything of that scale.”
10. Tyler Butler-Figueroa – This 11-year-old violinist from North Carolina was another of Simon’s personal Golden Buzzer recipients. He immediately won the hearts of the season 14 judges when he described how his previous battle with cancer subjected him to bullying and then proved his remarkable talent by covering Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger” on his string instrument.
9. Sofie Dossi – This entrant is the only one on Simon’s list who received a Golden Buzzer from a guest judge during the now-retired Judge Cuts round. The teenage aerialist-contortionist won the approval of all four judges after her season 11 audition, and then amazed non-regular Reba McEntire enough with her second performance for the country legend to boost her further. With Dossi’s thriving social media following in mind, Simon looks back on this as “a ‘star is born’ moment.”
8. World Taekwondo Demonstration Team – After pandemic restrictions cost them their shot at performing at the Olympics, this Californian martial arts group tried out for AGT last year and ended up automatically advancing thanks to Terry. “You were as excited as they were,” Simon said to the host, who proudly admitted that he grew up loving martial arts. Before he hit the buzzer, Terry made it clear to the team that he admired them for representing “courage…, confidence, and respect” and said he hoped his gesture would make up for their missed chance at Olympic glory.
7. Grace VanderWaal – When Simon began his tenure as an AGT judge in 2016, his primary hope was to discover talented singers, and he quickly found one in Grace. The 12-year-old New Yorker wowed the judges and audience with a triple showcase of her voice, songwriting talent, and ukulele skills. Simon called her performance of her song “I Don’t Know My Name” “the moment where [the show] became cool, because she was so cool.” He also remembered wanting to hit the buzzer himself and joked about being “really upset” that Howie got there first.
6. Light Balance – This group of 12 Ukrainian dancers finished third in season 12 after being buzzed through by Tyra. Terry summed up their act as a “mix of technology, dance, [and] showmanship,” while Simon praised it as one that “defines what [AGT] is,” explaining that what they do constitutes “stuff you just can’t imagine happening” that is made possible anyway.
5. Mandy Harvey – The season 12 judges were intrigued right away when 29-year-old Harvey took the stage and proceeded to tell the story of how she had lost her hearing a decade earlier but still loved to sing and play the ukulele. Her skillful performance of her original song “Try” prompted Terry to reflect that she showed “there is no end to human potential.” Simon then recalled hitting the buzzer himself, telling Terry that it was “an absolute no-brainer.”
4. Detroit Youth Choir – In 2019, the two-decade-old DYC consisted of over three dozen children who collectively stood for positivity against the negative forces that tempt modern youngsters. Terry, who was born and raised in Flint, Michigan, quickly related to the kids, as they reminded him of his upbringing in almost the same setting. After the group’s rousing rendition of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s “Can’t Hold Us” and before he gave them the Golden Buzzer, Terry spoke passionately about how much watching them perform meant to him. Tonight, he revealed to Simon that he told himself, “If I don’t [hit the buzzer], everything’s going to be wrong with the world.”
3. Kodi Lee – The most viral moment in AGT history is attributed to Kodi, the blind and autistic young musician who stunned everyone with his performance of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” (later popularized by many other artists, including Ray Charles). Simon was concerned that the audience’s energy would make Kodi too nervous to complete his audition, but he was swiftly proven wrong by the remarkable singer and pianist, who was buzzed through by former judge Gabrielle Union. Looking back at the moment, which preceded Kodi’s eventual season 14 win, Simon said, “Magic is the only word I can use.”
2. Darci Lynne – The penultimate spot on Simon’s list went to this 12-year-old season 12 winner who blew the audience away with her rendition of the 1930s jazz song “Summertime,” particularly because it was built into a ventriloquist act. She then admitted to having honed her skills in only two years, having received her first puppet on her 10th birthday. Though she was already impressed, this admission was enough for Mel B. to hit the buzzer for Darci.
1. Nightbirde – Simon wrapped things up on an especially emotional note, choosing the recently deceased Jane Kristen Marczewski – known professionally as Nightbirde – as his favorite Golden Buzzer recipient. The singer auditioned just last year with her original tune “It’s OK” and earned Simon’s buzzer, but decided to withdraw from the competition prior to the start of the next round because she was dealing with cancer. Though she died six months later at the age of 31, she remained optimistic until the end and continually emphasized that there was more to her than her illness. As Simon put it, “No one else, in my opinion, could be number one.”
Nightbirde’s audition was Simon’s pick for the best Golden Buzzer moment ever, but do YOU agree? And do you think any of this season’s Golden Buzzer recipients will take home the $1 million prize? Sound off in the comments below and with other fans in our reality TV forum. Also be sure to make your predictions to influence our reality TV racetrack odds.
Which is YOUR favorite Golden Buzzer so far this season and do you think they can take home the $1 million prize? Sound off on the upcoming season in the comments below and with other fans in our reality TV forum. Also be sure to make your predictions to influence our reality TV racetrack odds.