If there was any question as to who is American Idol’s current poster boy for success, it was answered in the first five seconds of the season 12 premiere.
Cue: a wide shot of the Idol stage, devoid of the show’s trademark lighting, blaring theme music, audience cheers and judges and displaying a lone stool and vintage mic. The spotlight is set for season 11 winner Phillip Phillips, who strolls to the center armed only with his acoustic guitar and -- oh, yeah -- his mega-hit song, “Home."
“They say home is where the heart is, so welcome home,” intoned host Ryan Seacrest. “Last summer you turned a pawn shop worker into a megastar... But he’s not alone. He is up there with the best of the best of Idol history.” To prove this point, the show fired off a dizzying array of statistics -- 200 million records sold, 371 hits, and domination of “every facet of the entertainment industry." Continued Seacrest: “Together we have created a phenomenon and the legacy continues as a new era begins."
With the gauntlet thrown down, the Fox singing competition made its case, even throwing the success of the judges -- Randy Jackson, Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey -- in the viewer's face.
And what of this new face of Idol? When the season 12 curtain was raised in New York City, it became glaringly obvious that this was not the warm and fuzzy “we love your story, so yes” judging panel of yesteryear.
So what do the new judges bring to the table? Minaj showcases her colorful flair -- she’s funny, unfiltered, and clearly on the hunt for more than just a passable vocalist. She also encourages the bad singers to continue their auditions, and afterwards, flirts with them as if to cushion the blow rejection. Even her British accent (aka alter-ego Roman) gives her a certain distance from their imminent rejection.
As for Carey, she gave salient advice to delusional auditioners (“you can do this as a hobby”) while offering astute observations on vocal tone and delivery. Finally, we have a judge that can speak with conviction about the craft of singing. Hallelujah!
Urban, strategically seated between the two women, has experience behind the judging table and it shows. Now, if he's ever able to get a word in edgewise, it will be great to hear what he has to say (especially with that exotic Australian accent). Also refereshing: he isn’t one to be swayed by a compelling back-story if he doesn’t believe in the vocals. In fact, he was the first judge to deny a Golden Ticket to a one-legged cancer survivor.
That leaves Jackson, the veteran of the panel. He knows the ropes and how this works. He keeps things moving by re-focusing the panel, calls in the families of contestants, and has no problem telling people they are awful if the try-out warrants it.
Then there is the obvious tension in the room between the judges, prompting a not-so-veiled dissertation of the merits of the movie Mean Girls. “If she calls me something that starts with a ‘B’ and ends with an ‘itch,’ I rebuke it,” Carey said, as the two women immediately got down to sniping at each other over accessories and hats. In a word: awesome.
With the proverbial fur already flying, the judges did not even notice Michael Buonapane’s stomping entrance to Queen’s “We Will Rock You” (oh, Adam Lambert, where art thou?) and some weird routine singing oldies songs. That was enough to get the judges' attention, but not necessarily in a good way.
“Well, we’ve had some fun today,” said original dawg Jackson, who is definitely showing some bite this season. “Can we just say no, now? Let’s be friends. It’s not you, it’s us.”
For the next two hours, New York offered the best-and worst-singers the tri-state area had in its stable: an Asian Justin Bieber wannabe, a cancer survivor, and -- ta da! -- The Turbanator. There's no doubt about it, this was an entertaining premiere! Here’s how it went down:
Tenna Torres of Queens, who performed Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” attended Camp Mariah when she was 13 years-old and amused the singer with photographic evidence of that experience. “I’ve been into Mariah since I was five,” she said. Minaj was eager for her to start her audition, but Carey wanted to gaze at the pictures a bit longer -- and asked for copies -- which prompted the first WTF? facial inflection of the night. When Torres does perform, she displays a strong voice with some interesting inflections, and Urban loves her “patience and pace.” "If we could have somebody like this come out of this moment of Idol 12, I would be personally proud," Carey said.
Christina “Isabelle” from Boston and New York, now based in Duluth, GA, chose ”Summertime," a bold move since every Idol singer in history will forever be judged by Fantasia Barrino’s performance of the same song on season three. Auditioner Christina is a Mean Girls survivor herself, having suffered ridicule in high school for her weight, which at one time was 200 lbs. But her voice is strong and Urban points out a “vulnerability” and “humanity” that he liked. “You should feel so proud," said Minaj. "I am blown away. You know who you are.” Urban asked Christina who her favorite singer, and she looks right over at Carey. "I’ve been singing that song since I was a baby,” Carey remarked, clearly flattered. Jackson told Isabelle she needed to work on her confidence, and she was sent through with a Golden Ticket.
Shira Gavrielov is from Brooklyn but originally Israel, where she had a No. 1 hit. She came to New York to break into the American market and this was her chance. Carey greeted her with a friendly “Shalom” and Gavrielov got down to business with a great choice -- “Valerie,” the Amy Winehouse version, not the Zutons'. While it didn't quite have the same soulful oomph of either, there was a spark. “You just excited me,” said Minaj. Urban was stoked too, noting that he “loved her vibrato." And with that (and Carey rather impressively waving her off with a "sababa," Hebrew slang for "right on), she was off to Hollywood.
Frankie Ford from Flatbush left school to pursue his musical dreams, and is now singing for his supper in the subway. He is also adopted. It must be said: this is hardly a tear-jerking story, but Ford seems like he would be a hard worker if given a shot. He began his audition with an unfortunate slip-up on the Eurythmics classic, “Sweet Dreams,” but is given another chance. The second time was far better as Ford practically changes the song, slipping in and out of different key changes with a serving of soul. Carey was impressed, but her critique had a hint of a Paula Abdul-ism that may be cause for concern. Said Carey: “What I think you have is an inner glow, which is always beautiful to see.” Ugh. Minaj was more realistic: “I don’t think you have the best voice that we heard today, but you have a story to tell.” Urban loved the “musicality” in his voice, and made another clever ‘80s quip after he received his four yeses: “Frankie Goes To Hollywood!” Cute.
Sarah Risstucio, a 17-year old teenage blueberry farmer from Hammonton, NJ, at first seemed a lock for the country crowd: she sews, she hunts, she rides horses and she loves Idol's own Carrie Underwood, who she chooses for her audition song. While her “Mamma’s Song” is pretty and on pitch, Jackson asks for another tune and suddenly, the script flips, and Risstucio, who said she grew up listening to country, launches into Minaj’s “Superbass,” completely confounding the panel and gaining a fan in Ms. Pink Friday herself. Urban, who knows a little something about country music (and didn’t feel her country song in the first place) was completely confused and insisted Risstucio identify what kind of artist she wants to be. “It’s my jam,” she said. Maybe she’s a country rapper? Is there a genre for that? Minaj loved the bi-polar performance, declaring, “She's every little girl! … She doesn't have to choose anything." In other words: "be you.”
Angela Miller, an 18-year old from Beverly, Massachusetts, has 40 percent hearing loss in one ear and 20 in the other and has to explain to Carey that she needs to turn up the monitors to help her sing. Her song choice: an a cappella rendition of Jessie J’s “Mamma Knows Best.” Minaj raved: "I haven't felt that for the whole day ... that thing that makes me feel something in my soul.” Miller received four yeses, and went through to Hollywood. “She’s got real PO-tential,” said Jackson.
Gurpreet Singh Sarin of North Potomac, MD. has 40 or 50 turbans which he rotates with every outfit. His version of Maroon 5’s “Sunday Morning” is soulful and pleasant, and he even sings a few Indian scales at Jackson’s urging. Urban stubbornly dismisses his voice as “too light” and votes no, but Carey is into him. Jackson decides to give him another chance, leaving Minaj as the deciding vote. She loved his “look,” but wasn’t feeling his voice. Still, she changed her mind after being bribed with a marigold turban.
Ashlee Feliciano of East Hartford, CT auditioned with the predictable ”Put Your Records On” by Corinne Bailey Rae, but you can't say the same of the 20-year-old hopeful's home life -- her sweet family takes in developmentally disabled kids. Jackson made it a TV moment, inviting the gang in after the audition. Displaying a cool lower register and a knack for delivering lyrics, Minaj comments that she wants to see Feliciano in concert. Indeed, things go well and she is sent through to Hollywood.
James Bae the Asian Justin Bieber from Long Island, is the guy everyone will be talking about on Thursday. Oh, how he pined to be discovered the same way Bieber was, as a YouTube sensation. If he made it through, it would be “a miracle.” That was the tip-off right there. Bae’s version of the Bieb’s “One Less Lonely Girl” wasn’t just bad -- it was spectacularly horrific. The dancing, in particular, was stiff and robotic, and he inexplicably wore headphones. The best part of this audition: that it showcased just how good Minaj is for this show. Where shall we begin? She asked if he was single. She encouraged him even though he was awful. She bonded with him by saying she wanted to be a bus driver. It was inspired, but not nearly as good as Carey’s advice: “Have you ever considered DJing?” she asked. “It's artistic, you can still deal with music, but you don't necessarily have to be a singer.” Jackson was even better: “NO. DON’T SING,” he said.
Benjamin Gaisey will be remembered for two things: a plastic Michael Jackson costume and an atrocious wig. Oh, and lest we forget the hip thrust that nearly made Minaj "faint." Cracked Urban: “You obviously love Tom Jones." And with the squeak of a Halloween costume, Gaisey was a goner. Singing “I'll Make Love To You” by Boyz II Men had Urban running for cover under the judges table. Carey didn’t even want to vote -- “I don’t want to be the one that squashes the dream,” she said -- but Jackson had no problem providing the reality check. “Your voice is terrible -- just awful," he said, sending Gaisey squeaking out the door. Watch his audition in the video below.
Rozanna Shindelman never sang in front of people before, but her mother told Ryan Seacrest that her daughter gave her “chills.” Seacrest has been through this drill so many times before you could tell she was going to be bad just by the way he said, “that’s sweet.” Inside, she warbled an off-key “To Know Him is To Love Him” in such a way that Jackson merely said, “Dude, it was bad.”
Brett Holt. This guy auditioned for Idol seven times and claimed to be a wiz at Idol trivia. Then he takes a pop-quiz administered by Seacrest and misses a key question about which season spawned William Hung (season 3, dude -- pathetic!). Even Seacrest screws it up, mistaking this season for 13. The show kept packaging a segment to show Holt as if he were the best voice the show ever heard, but his Nat King Cole went south very quickly and he was ushered out the door.
Oh, Albert Chang, from Queens. He was speaking in English but still the show used subtitles. Maybe his Phantom of the Opera performance of “Music of the Night” should have been completely muted, but it did prompt the best Minaj line ever: “Your range is better than Mariah’s!” she said. Priceless.
The Heartbreaking Head-Scratchers
This one was a tough one. Evan Ruggiero of Old Bridge, NJ dreamt of a career on Broadway, but was diagnosed with bone cancer at 18 and suffered through 16 chemotherapy treatments. "When you get diagnosed with cancer, everything stops," he said. After multiple surgeries, the doctors told him that his leg had to be amputated. Ruggiero wanted viewers to know that just because you have a disability, that didn’t mean you couldn’t be an American Idol. Unfortunately, Ruggiero’s first choice of song was “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz, and something about his performance didn’t click with the judges. Jackson asked for another song, and Ruggiero strapped on a guitar with a nod to his Sayreville neighbor, Jon Bon Jovi, and a cover of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.” That failed to win over Urban, who said that even though the song was more in his “wheelhouse,” he didn’t see star potential. Minaj felt that Ruggiero can inspire people, but not on Idol. It was a shocking cut, as usually stories like this usually earn singers a pass.
Jessica Kartalis, 19, didn’t even know she was auditioning for American Idol -- her mother nominated her online in secret. So when Randy Jackson showed up at a gig with her audition number, it seemed like her lucky break. Later in the audition room, Jackson asked for an original song, which perked up Urban, who seemed eager to hear fresh material. She started the song a cappella, but when she switched to guitar, Kartalus hit the wrong chord, messing up the key, and never quite recovered. Carey felt bad and said that in one of her films, she had to play guitar and sing and it was the hardest thing she ever did. Minaj, ever the pragmatist, didn’t feel a need to hear a do-over, and another hopeful was shown the door.
Thursday’s show picks up in Chicago and promises more fireworks from the judges, along with some explosive auditions in that grand Idol style of flipping the cameras the bird. It has the makings of some good TV -- and really, isn't that all we've ever wanted?
What do you think, Worshippers? Who are you betting on in Hollywood?