All-‘American Idol’ rejects: Wacky auditions steal the show on Season 18 premiere

American Idol returned for its 18th season this Sunday, resuming its annual search for the Next Superstar. (Or more specifically, the next Alejandro “Scarypoolparty” Aranda, since last season’s second-place fan favorite received a lot more airtime during the premiere’s cold open than actual champion Laine “Party With a” Hardy, for whom the party seems to have already ended.) Anyway, the two-hour episode offered some impressive auditions, including a British balladeer whose original song had judge Luke Bryan saying, “I think you might be the biggest star we’ve ever had” (move on, Alejandro?), and the usual sob stories, courtesy of a humble garbage man and a hard-luck subway singer.

But interestingly, the best moments revived an old-school Idol tradition mostly abandoned in kinder, gentler recent seasons: rejected auditioners. But Sunday’s bunch were no William Hungs. They seemed very in on the joke, very much in control of their narratives, and very happy to emerge from the experience with a few minutes of screentime and maybe 15 minutes of fame. And they were so entertaining that if the ABC executives are smart, they’ll extend Alisa Ermolaev and Hunter “The Comeback” Gibson’s time by a few more minutes on the Season 18 finale.

Alisa has already gotten some screentime, actually most notably playing “Russian Stripper No. 2” alongside former Idol judge Jennifer Lopez in the box-office smash Hustlers. (She even performed a bit of Russian dialogue from the movie, and I don’t know what she was saying, but she was in character enough to make me wonder if she wasn’t the only Hustlers actress robbed of an Oscar nom.) The Moscow-born, Queens-bred, tough-talking cherry bomb and self-described “crazy hothead” made her grand entrance to some badass Runaways music, accompanied by her slick sidekick “Luigi Babe” and rocking some Drag Race-worthy neon contact lenses, Vampira makeup, and Pretty Woman boots. (Though for some reason, she seems to think she’s a ded ringer for Taylor Swift. I’d say she bear a closer resemblance to Lady Mapo.)

I’m pretty sure all this was an act too… but what a fun act it was! Alisa and Luigi had a Cyndi Lauper/Captain Lou Albano buddy shtick going on that made me wish they’d get their own late-night cable access chat show. And Alisa possessed a not entirely unconvincing metal-chick scream. I knew she wouldn’t make the grade, but the woman was a showbiz hustler, and I appreciated that. And at least Alisa got some killer exit music: Any chance to hear Lou Reed’s “Vicious” on American Idol (plus an #AlisaRant) is a win for everyone!

Alisa Eromalev makes the best use of her screentime on 'American Idol.' (Photo: ABC)
Alisa Eromalev makes the best use of her screentime on 'American Idol.' (Photo: ABC)

Interestingly, last week at an Idol junket, judge Katy Perry told me, when asked about dream theme episodes, “An Emo Night would be fab. I would back that 100 percent. My Chemical Romance? Panic! at the Disco? Let's go!” So I thought Hunter — a.k.a. “The People’s Star,” a.k.a. “The Comeback” because he wants early-2000s alt-rock to, you know, come back — might have a shot. He had all the right retro ingredients: the nasal screamo tone, the combover scene bangs, the Metro Station skinny black stretch jeans, the crabcore poses. He even saw Katy on the 2008 Warped Tour (he recalled her being booed offstage, sadly) and thinks her “first album is everything” (he’s not wrong there). Maybe it was because Hunter was so supportive of Katy in her early days, or just because she is a genuine emo fan, but Katy seemed into his strident, manic, sing-shouted rendition of All-American Rejects’ 2002 pop-punk classic “Swing, Swing.” She was belting along with seemingly genuinely enthusiasm, and later explained to Luke and fellow judge Lionel Richie, “This is an actual movement. … That was great, that brought me back.”

I didn’t think Hunter was a terrible representation of the genre, actually, but as Katy told him, “You are correct, this movement is coming back. I don’t think it’s coming back for American Idol, but you could be ahead of the curve.” Oh well. I am still hoping an Emo Night, with or without Hunter, will happen when this season goes live.

As for Sunday’s final all-American reject, this was the moment when Katy got emo, and screamo – and rightfully so. Former child actress/singer Saveria absolutely should have made it through to Hollywood. Her sultry, folksy performance of Kelisi’s “Tell Me This Is Real” showcased such a warm, buttery, interesting tone – a bit Norah Jones, a bit St. Vincent, a bit Nicole Atkins, a bit Corinne Bailey Rae, yet sounding like no one else. There were so many colors and shades in there, and though she was all over the place, she was going to good places. The potential was clearly there, and a wowed Katy called Saveria a “gymnast singer.”

But Lionel said Saveria “needed to do the discovery work,” and Luke agreed, also voting no. So, Katy freaked out: screaming in the corner, punching a hole in the set, and running barefoot through the hallways as she decried Luke and Lionel’s “horrible mistake.” I understood Katy’s wrath. Lionel and Luke’s decision to turn Saveria away made no sense. But, speaking of “comebacks,” I have a feeling this isn’t the last we’ll see of Saveria. She’s going to pop up in another audition city, or Katy will pull some strings to make her a Wild Card, or maybe she’ll just come back next year. But Saveria and Idol have some unfinished business.

However, in the meantime, let’s review the successful auditions from the judges’ hometowns: Luke’s Leesburg, Ga., Lionel’s Tuskegee, Ala., and Katy’s Santa Barbara, Calif.

Camryn Lee Smith, 16: “Big White Room”

This Georgia teen worship leader sounded mature, soulful, and most importantly, not forced. There was an effortless, earthy grace to her that reminded me of Tracy Chapman and Edie Brickell. “For it to be so natural and easy for you, at this age, is remarkable,” marveled Luke.

Douglas Kiker, 27: “Bless the Broken Road”

This Alabama trash collector had literally no experience, and it showed. He didn’t even know the meanings of the words “range” or “warm up” (or he was at least playing dumb because he/the producers knew this aw-shucks act would make for good TV, which it did). He had some raw natural talent and an impressive ear for pitch and key as he blithely followed along to Luke’s piano in his blustery gospel voice, and he was a charmer. But I don’t think someone so green will be able to cut it in Hollywood. He is the contestant that “needs to do the discovery work.”

Francisco Martin, 18: “Alaska”/“Tyra”

This sweet student’s first performance, a Maggie Rogers cover, showed potential, but he was so, so nervous — stammering, hyperventilating, clammy all over — that this audition almost seemed painful for him. I was half-hoping the judges would just put him out of his misery and send him back to school, or at least give him a time-out so he could decompress in a corner with the Calm app. Instead, the judges surrounded him in a big group hug, which seemed to make him even more nervous. Still, there was enough magic in his first song that the judges gave him another chance, and when he soared on his second song, an original, he was so good that they were convinced that this had all been a set-up. “You little devil, you!” quipped Luke. Katy actually said Francisco is “top 10” material. I think he could be, but he’ll have to conquer his nerves if he wants to succeed on live TV.

Nick Merrico, 23: “You Say”

I remember this pretty-boy from last season; he was some sort of ex-teen actor, and Katy had a crush on him. But then he ghosted Katy and the show for vague “personal reasons,” and Katy is understandably over him by now. She was unimpressed by Nick’s competent but hardly remarkable Lauren Daigle cover, telling him, “I just have the feeling that you think you’re too good for us. I mean, that’s the only reason you would abandon us!” An uncharacteristically nasty Lionel also didn’t think Nick deserved another shot, barking, “I gotta be honest. I don’t like you. It’s not sitting well with me. I don’t like your attitude. And I don’t really think you’re going make it in Hollywood.” It turned out Lionel was just trying to give Nick some sort of tough-love lesson in humility (“I want you to understand what it feels like when people don’t adore you”), and Nick eventually got three yeses again. But I think Lionel may have been right. This guy is good-looking, but that’s about it.

Arthur Gunn, “Girl From the North Country”/“Have You Ever Seen the Rain”

This Nepalese immigrant and open-call bus auditioner, who moved to Kansas five years ago and quickly became enamored with bluegrass and country music, is the real deal, and he is the embodiment of the American (Idol) Dream. I loved is raw, roughhewn voice, which gave me full-on Richie Havens/Van Morrison vibes. He needs to work on his eye contact and stage presence (he was more present and connected on his second song), but he’s got the goods. “What a unique artist you are,” said Luke. “Arthur, you’re a rock star,” said Katy. “You have no idea what this journey is going to be for you. God bless you. You are the story that we need to tell,” said Lionel.

Louis Knight, 19: “Change”

While I thought this Brit ex-pat’s original song about a family friend’s suicide was a bit trite and literal lyrically, the emotion was there, the rounded-voweled voice was pleasingly Bastille-esque, there was a high likability factor, and the song’s melody was actually fantastic. This kid can write. Katy was enthralled by his passionate performance, and Luke told Louis, “I think you might be the biggest star we’ve ever had on American Idol. I have chillbumps just telling you you’re a star.” I don’t think this guy could be bigger than Adam Lambert or Kelly Clarkson, but he could win this season, for sure. This performance on a local Philly news show further showcases his talent.

Meghan Fitton, 23: “Love Where You’re At”

I assumed Meghan, a self-declared The Bachelor superfan and podcaster, was going to be another joke contestant whose sole purpose was providing some product-placement promotion for ABC’s other big reality franchise. But she had a nicely gritty, if slightly untrained, earth-mama voice. Luke called her a “dang rock star,” and Katy said, “If I had a rose, I’d give you one!” Meghan got a golden ticket instead. Bachelor host Chris Harrison delivered the good news via FaceTime on Katy’s conveniently at-the-ready iPad, of course. Can we assume that if Meghan had been rejected, Chris would’ve FaceTimed in to tell her, “Take a moment, say your goodbyes”?

Sam, 20: “Rise Up”

Sam lives in the Harlem projects with her grandmother, and she makes her living singing for change on the NYC subway. It’s a classic Idol hardship tale, so naturally it was saved for the end of the episode for maximum feels. Sam was even more nervous than Francisco, bursting into tears before she got through her first line, but just like with Francisco, the sympathetic judges knew she was worth waiting for, so they let her calm down. “Sam, you are safe,” said Katy soothingly. “We feel you’re going be amazing,” Luke added reassuringly. “We believe in you,” said Lionel. And then, as if on cue, Sam rose up and slayed Andra Day’s empowerment anthem “Rise Up.” It was one of those classic Idol moments – predictable, but hey, I’m a sucker for this sort of thing every time. “This feels like a dream!” Sam sobbed. “Remember where you came from, and sing to where you want to go,” Katy advised her sagely. Right now, Sam is for sure going through to Hollywood.

Come back next Sunday, when the search for the next Alejandro Aranda (or the next American Idol) continues! In the meantime, here are a few more minutes of Alisa Ermolaev, sharing the screen with Sam for the first (and possibly last) time:

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