Season 14 of American Idol got off to a slow — or even false — start Wednesday, with only a few standout auditions scattered across an hour-long episode. Thursday is when the season really got underway. This time it was a two-hour show featuring tons of great talent… including, most excitingly, a totally robbed, triumphantly returning contestant from Season 13.
ICYMI: Last year, Savion Wright seemed like the one to beat, after he memorably auditioned with his fantastic original song, “Dark Side of Me.” But his audition came with a dark side, indeed, when he was inexplicably axed just a few weeks later, right before the live shows. It was one of the most shocking Green Mile cuts in Idol history, second only to Josiah Leming’s — and making this even more heartbreaking was the fact that Savion’s brother had just been murdered, and Savion was still grieving this horrific tragedy. The sensitive troubadour sobbed when he learned about his Idol elimination, and America sobbed right along with him.
But if that setback damaged Savion’s confidence, he certainly didn’t let that show when he tried out again this Thursday in Nashville. He entered that audition room with newfound swagger — and a new makeover, too. His once-scrawny body now brawny and buff, his famous braces removes to reveal a radiant smile, his floppy dreads tucked under a trendy knit cap, he played Eric Clapton’s “Change the World,” and looked and sounded like a changed man.
The all-grown-up Savion explained to the judges that he’d taken their advice, honed his skills, and had been writing and touring nonstop he left the show. And clearly all that hard work had paid off. Judge Harry Connick Jr. called him more “advanced,” and Jennifer Lopez said he seemed “more in his own skin.” All three judges put Savion through to Hollywood, again.
I still think Savion could have made it to the top 10 if he’d been given the chance in Season 13. Now, in Season 14, I really think he could win. Check out an exclusive interview from last year, in which Savion revealed to Yahoo Music’s Reality Rocks his intention to try out for American Idol again:
The return of Savion wasn’t the only bright moment of Thursday’s Idol episode (which featured Nashville auditions, as well contestants who’d tried out via the roaming Idol bus across 11 U.S. towns and then attended callbacks in Kansas City). These were my other favorite singers of the night:
Trevor Douglas – Imagine if Seth Cohen from The OC tried out for American Idol (except not with the expected Death Cab for Cutie song), or if that one cute guy in Weezer (Brian Bell) gave it a go. That’s what Trevor was like: a nerdy heartthrob, or a heartthrobby nerd. The floppy-haired, bespectacled 16-year-old, who spends his free time busking outside One Direction concerts (to capitalize on the concertgoers’ raging hormones, he wisely explained) and dreaming of being the next Bill Nye, performed a guitar-slap-happy rendition of Ed Sheeran’s “Sing” that had J.Lo saying, “I like the quirk. I love a good geek.” And Trevor is a very, very good geek, indeed. I think Trevor’s gregarious personality could grate if he gets too much screentime, but with a good edit and the right song picks, this guy could go far and blind all Idol viewers with science. Nerds rule!
Cody Fry – Cody is a pro (he’s a touring musician and the son of a jingle-writer, and he even sang on his dad’s jingles when he was a little boy), and his experience was evident in the audition room. If Idol's producers want to make sure they don't end up with any deer-in-highlights contestants this season (i.e., if they want to avoid what happened with MK Nobilette, Majesty Rose, Sam Woolf, and Jessica Meuse last season), casting singers like Cody is a darn good idea. Cody's acoustic cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was magical; honestly, if Matt McAndrew had been this note-perfect doing the Oz classic during The Voice Season 7 finals, he probably would have won. And Cody’s sustained high note? That was everything. This guy is so ready for prime time. I’m ready to hear more.
Jhameel – Jhameel showed up with handmade origami gifts for the judges and a faceful of Klaxons nu-rave warpaint. So basically, I loved him on sight. Jhameel, another proud nerd-boy, explained that his deliberately asymmetrical makeup helped him cope with his OCD, but I just thought it looked cool, like the Idol equivalent of Adam Ant. You know what else was cool? Jhameel’s adorakble, acoustic, Auto-Tune-free cover of T-Pain’s Auto-Tune classic “Buy You a Drank.” Judge Keith Urban didn’t actually think Jhameel’s voice was strong enough (maybe Keith would have liked some Auto-Tune?), but he enjoyed this audition nonetheless. I think Jhameel is just the sort of maverick Idol Season 14 needs, so I’m thrilled he got through. And if I ever meet this guy, I am going to buy him a drink.
Jess Lamb – Yay, more quirky contestants! I swear, I almost mistook Thursday’s show for an episode of The Voice, there were so many interesting and eccentric auditioners. Chanteuse Jess, at age 28, is at the top of Idol's age limit, but she seems to be an even older soul. The first contestant in the show's history to try out while playing piano, Jess immediately connected with Harry during her “Ain't No Sunshine” cover, so much so that he eventually joined her for a piano duet.
It was easy to understand why Harry was so moved and called Jess “the definition of creativity.” This woman just spit pure fire when she sang. She was raw, real, intense, exciting. “You’re an artist; that’s plain to see,” said J.Lo. I am so afraid that if Jess makes it to the live shows, the TV audience won’t connect with her, or she’ll get stubborn and pick obscure songs that cost her votes, or she’ll freeze up and overthink things and lose her quirkiness, or she’ll get some terrible glam makeover. She’s definitely not your typical Idol contestant. But she’s cool, she’s the real deal, and I hope she gets her shot.
Gina Venier – Apparently there are a lot of quirky kids and a lot of buskers who want to be American Idols. This hippie-ish one, age 24, definitely gave me a Crystal Bowersox/Casey Abrams vibe. A one-woman band, she walked in with a suitcase full of “toys” (egg-shaped shakers and such) and performed a high-energy cover of ZZ Ward’s “Put the Gun Down,” banging on a wooden box and shaking that egg like she was shakin’ her moneymaker. Honestly, all of her doohickeys made her performance feel slightly gimmicky; I wondered if her voice alone was enough, or if I would have been as impressed with Gina if she’d just come in and sung the song straight. But apparently the judges harbored no such doubts, since they put her through with three yeses. I must admit, I was entertained and intrigued, and I’m excited to see more of what she can do. Maybe she even has a cowbell in her suitcase of tricks? That would be awesome.
Garrett Miles – Garrett was supercool. Blind since birth, he didn’t milk his blindness as some sort of sob story. He just got down to business with a cover of CCR’s “Proud Mary,” and he definitely made it his own, as they say in the biz. Even when he sang a snippet of a Selena song in honor of Jennifer Lopez, with perfect Spanish, he still sounded like himself. (I wish J.Lo hadn’t joined in and ruined it, but oh well.) Garrett is distinctive, and I think he could be a big country star, not just “the blind guy from American Idol.”
And here’s the rest…
Andrew Annello – This guy’s class-clowning, self-described “positive personality” grated from the moment he appeared onscreen — Harry called him “silly,” and Keith called him a “caricature.” His voice was decent, especially when he toned it own long enough to croon a few bars of “My Girl,” but it still wasn’t good enough. Please, please, let this guy get cut on day one of Hollywood Week. I seriously can’t deal with a whole season of his shenanigans.
Loren Lott – This bubbly girl was very likable, and she looked like a superstar. But as an actress primarily, she lacked authenticity, and (to bring up one of the greatest insults that can be hurled at an Idol contestant) she seemed very Broadway. “You sound like an actress who is singing,” griped Keith. Loren does light up the screen, so maybe she can get a job hosting American Idol if Ryan Seacrest ever quits the show.
Piper Jones – There’s no doubt that Piper’s got pipes, but her Jessie J cover was so over-the-top and strident, even Jessie J would advise her to tone it down. If she continues on this show, she needs to learn to pick her moments. Sometimes more is not more.
Kelly Kime – The gorgeous single mom’s “Sunday Morning” was pleasant (this woman, who kind of reminded me of Season 8’s Megan Joy, definitely knew how to pick her moments and tone it down), but she was totally upstaged by her precocious mini-me daughter, who sang “Let It Go” (of course) with barely any prompting. I’m more excited to see Kelly’s kid in Hollywood, to be honest.
Clark Beckham – Oh hey, it’s another busker! But I’m not really sure how many dollars bills get thrown in Clark’s guitar case on any given day, since I found his “Man’s World” performance underwhelming. His voice was soulful, but his delivery was bland. J.Lo picked up on Clark’s nerves and Keith called him out for his lack of intensity, but they said yes anyway. I have a feeling Clark will be back on the street corner soon enough. He’s not ready.
Alex Shier – Apparently Alex tried out for this show before, unsuccessfully. (I don’t remember him.) This year, covering Ed Sheeran’s “I See Fire” after gigging 200 shows over the past year and developing his skills, he made it through — even if his performance still sounded like a basic Ed Sheeran impersonation. Good for him, I guess… but can he grow his hair back in time for Hollywood Week? He looked like a total heartthrob before. Long hair gets votes!
Hector Montenegro – The sassy cosmetologist’s rather serious “Too Close” cover was a stark contrast to his wacky personality; I was surprised to realize he wasn’t a gimmick contestant or blooper-reel candidate. But I still think he has a better chance a landing a job as part of J.Lo’s glam squad than winning Idol.
Sarina-Joi Crow – Poor Sarina has actually tried out for Idol four times, which is one more time than it took for Caleb Johnson and Candice Glover to finally stick. She sure seemed confident for someone who’s been rejected so many times, and her vivacious rendition of OneRepublic’s “Till the Love Runs Out” elicited three quick yeses from the judges. Maybe the fourth time will be the charm for her.
Jake Black – His beatboxing shtick could get old fast. Besides, Blake Lewis set the gold standard for Idol beatboxing, and Jake is no Blake. But, I suppose he does have potential. He just better not cover “You Give Love a Bad Name,” that’s all I’m saying.
Zack Kaltenbach – Zack went to David Cook’s high school. I guess that’s his claim to semi-fame (that, and the fact that he looks like a lost member of Bronski Beat). But Zack is no Cookie. And he’s no Jimmy Somerville, either. Harry called his performance “flat.” Keith told him his voice needed work. Then Zack hit on J.Lo, which was kind of icky. So why was Harry the only dissenter here? J.Lo and Keith gave Zack a golden ticket, but he really should not have made it through.
Naomi Tatsouka – Belting out Adele’s “Someone Like You” while “pretending it’s Tequila Tuesdays” at her local karaoke hut, Naomi basically came across like, well, she was doing drunken karaoke. Surprisingly, there was a good voice in there somewhere. Maybe there was like five good voices in there, since she kept switching it up with the crazy vocal acrobatics. It was all too much. But with the right coaching, she might have potential. (Side note: Naomi does need to be less theatrical, but she should totally keep that RuPaul’s Drag Race-style death drop in her act, whether she’s on the Idol stage or the Tequila Tuesdays stage. That was awesome.)
Lovey James – Harry told this teen that she sounded “like pop singers on the radio right now.” Um, was that a compliment? Most pop singers nowadays are Auto-Tuned wannabes. Idol, with its emphasis on stellar singing, is supposed to be the antidote to that. Lovey, who has several pop music videos to her credit, all of which seem like products of Rebecca Black’s infamous Ark Music Factory, did sound like a typical modern pop singer — in the sense that her voice was very limited and cartoonish. I’m very surprised she received a golden ticket. I just hope that if she wins, her terrible original song "Don’t Be Such a Chick" doesn’t end up being her coronation single.
And with that, American Idol Season 14’s two-night, three-hour premiere wraps up. Combining the two nights, I have about six contestants I’m genuinely excited about (Wednesday’s Kory Wheeler and and Thursday’s Savion, Trevor, Cody, Jhameel, and Jess), plus a few others that I think have potential. So I guess those odds aren’t so bad.
Come back next Wednesday, as Idol's search for a superstar continues. Until then, Parker out.