Even the most casual "American Idol" viewer knows all about the months-long feud/publicity campaign leading up to this Wednesday's premiere of "Idol" Season 12, starring new alpha-female judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj. The "leaked" TMZ video of their on-set war of (four-letter) words. Mariah's subsequent claim, to Barbara Walters, of Nicki-administered death threats and the need for beefed-up security. Nasty Nigel Lythgoe, "Idol's" executive producer, telling reporters that hapless new middle judge Keith Urban will serve as the "scratching post" in this TV catfight. Yes, before Season 12 even began, this show looked like "The Real Housewives Of Idol," or "Idol Shore," or "Bad Judges' Club." Was this really the new direction for this formerly feelgood, family-friendly program?
Well, now that Season 12's first full episode has finally aired, the answer to that burning question seems to be...yes and no. "When you add three incredibly passionate performers to the panel, you know there's going to be a bit of personality conflict," warned host Ryan Seacrest, and Nicki and Mariah's clash of egos/hair/outfits/personal assistants definitely did dominate the premiere's proceedings at New York's Lincoln Center. Within the first half-hour of the show, in fact, they'd squawkily, squeakily bickered about everything from Mariah's diva demand for more ice in her conspicuously branded Coca-Cola cup, to Nicki's decision to wear a distracting drum-majorette hat, to Nicki's familiarity or lack thereof with the dialogue of the film Mean Girls. (Nicki then likened Mariah to Rachel McAdams's villainess character, Regina George, and even Mariah's manager, fellow judge Randy Jackson, had to chuckle a bit.) At one point, Nicki even called Mariah "something that starts with a B and ends with an itch," although it seemed that Nicki was just snarkily rapping a verse of an old-school Missy Elliott song.
The two loud ladies were actually chattering so much from the moment they sat down on either side of poor Keith Urban, they didn't even notice when the wild-eyed first auditioner of the day, Michael Buonopane, stomped into the room, clapping his hands and shouting Queen's "We Will Rock You" at them. It was only when Michael broke into some ill-advised reggaeton that they looked up from their argument, but even then, they didn't agree: Nicki gave Michael the big fat "no" he so clearly deserved, but Mariah shrugged and said yes, just to be contrary.
However, this whole she-said/she-said shtick seemed very tongue-in-Nars-rouged-cheek, and done with a heavily falsh-eyelash'd wink. Mimi and Her Minajesty repeatedly giggled and grinned as they side-eyed each other across Keith's table space, and while I hardly got the impression that they became besties and went out for cosmos and mani/pedis after the taping (they'll probably never be more than frenemies, at best), there was never a moment when the show took a genuinely dark turn and I actually feared that Mariah's reportedly newly hired bodyguards would spring into action and bumrush the set. If Mariah really did hire additional security personnel this season to protect her from the dastardly Nicki, then she obviously wasted her some of her $18 million "Idol" salary on such an unnecessary expense--even if Nicki did quip at the end of the show, in what wasn't exactly a cliffhanger of "Who shot J.R.?" proportions: "I have to strangle one of the divas on the panel, but I won't tell you who..."
Really, the whole Mariah/Nicki rivalry seemed in good fun. It wasn't always fun, of course--it got old, fast, and I am already praying to the television gods that Season 12 won't be entirely overshadowed by their crazy quarreling. (If I ever get in the mood for that sort of TV fare, I'll just switch over to Bravo for some hair-pulling "Real Housewives" action, thank you very much.) But it was all harmless enough, and by the episode's end, the two women-on-the-verge even seemed to come to some sort of truce, with Nicki musing, "I feel like we gel well in a weird, freaky way," and Mariah actually smiling demurely and admitting, "I agree."
Oh, I am sure that there are many TV-trainwreck-loving rubberneckers out there who were sorely disappointed that Mariah didn't try to yank off Nicki's neon wig by its nylon roots, or that Nicki didn't lunge across the judging table only to be forcibly restrained by middle-man Keith and/or a SWAT team of bodyguards. But honestly, I was much more disappointed by the LACK OF TALENT. And really, isn't what "Idol" is supposed to be all about? Not superstar judges and their silly, probably-fake, definitely-overhyped feuds, but the search for America's next potential superstar?
Seriously, during the entire two-hour episode, only eight of the 41 contestants who received golden tickets had their auditions shown in full--and sadly, few of those auditions were true standouts. Although the cold open of the premiere featured Season 11 winner Phillip Phillips, "the pawn shop worker turned into a megastar," crooning his triple-platinum coronation song "Home," followed by a montage of A-list "Idol" alums like Kelly, Carrie, and J.Hud scooping up Grammys, Oscars, and gold plaques galore, I didn't necessarily spot a potential Phillip or Kelly in Wednesday's mix. Of the contestants who did make it through, ones to watch for in Hollywood Week included a Mariah fangirl, a country golden girl, an affable subway busker, a hearing-impaired beauty, an Indian fashionisto, and a foster-family caregiver with a voice as lovely as her spirit. But will any of these contestants really become The Next American Idol? Of that, I am not so sure...
Here's who advanced to Hollywood on Wednesday:
Tenna Torres - Apparently there is some magical place called Camp Mariah, where impressionable young girls presumably frolic with butterflies, and Tenna is a product of this camp: There, at age 13, she had the chance to sing for her personal idol, Mariah. And it was such a monumental day in Tenna's tweenhood, she brought yellowed photos of their encounter to her "Idol" audition, 15 whole years later. Apparently singing was a top merit-badge activity for Tenna at Camp Mariah, since her rendition of Carole King's "You've Got A Friend" was pretty solid. But acting was clearly not even offered on the schedule of Camp Mariah's sanctioned activities, since Mariah's faux-emotional reaction to her reunion with this happy camper--pretending to remember their first meeting, trying to force out a single proud tear as she listened to the grown-up Tenna sing--seriously made her Glitter performance look like an Oscar-winning tour de force. Puh-leeze. But Mariah seemed sincere enough when she praised Tenna's voice and gave her a great big yes, and for once she and Nicki agreed: Nicki was impressed as well. Keith and Randy also said yes, so now Tenna will be moving on from Camp Mariah to Camp Hollywood.
Christina "Isabelle" - This corn-fed, all-American girl gave me a serious Jessica Simpson vibe, and not just because she talked about her past weight struggles like a pro Weight Watchers spokesgirl. (Christina used to weigh in at 200 pounds; she's now down to 150 and looking fabulous.) She just seemed like the kind of girl-next-door that viewers would root for. Her rendition of "Summertime," while not exactly on par with Fantasia's iconic Season 3 version, was definitely great, and she sounded like a budding country star. Keith praised the "realness" and "humanity" in this Berklee College Of Music grad's voice. Nicki exclaimed: "Oh. Em. Gee!" Mariah simply beamed, benevolently. And all four judges said yes, of course. I think Christina--or Isabelle, or whatever her name is--could be a real contender this season.
Shira Gaveilov - Apparently this girl had a number-one single in her native country, Israel. But I doubt she will ever have one in America. I thought her awkward cover of the Zutons'/Amy Winehouse's "Valerie" was more like the kind of audition that makes it onto an "Idol"-reject blooper reel, and I was utterly shocked (talk about "Oh. Em. Gee!") when the judges roundly praised Shira and Nicki went so far as to dub her a "superstar." I can't imagine Shira will make it past day one of Hollywood Week, really.
Frankie Ford - This Flatbush native, self-declared "starving artist," and subway busker--the son of a drug addict who's lived with his adoptive mom since age 2--started off shaky, when nerves got the better of him only a few seconds into his first attempt at singing the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams." But luckily, the judges saw some potential and gave Frankie another chance, and then he really pulled it together; he actually ended up being one of the finest singers of the entire episode. "I liked your big voice; there's a lot of musicality and tone," said Keith. "I like this kid. I believe in you, man," added Randy. "You have an inner glow, which is always beautiful to see," said Mariah (unwittingly giving ex-judge Jennifer Lopez's perfume some free PR). And so, Frankie will soon stop singing on New York trains and will take a plane straight to Hollywood, where I expect he will keep on glowing.
Sarah Restuccio - This 17-year-old blueberry-farm worker's rendition of country Idol Carrie Underwood's "Mama's Song" was nice--but just that. Nice. And nice wouldn't cut it. Sarah was certainly no Underwood. But when Sarah started rapping Nicki's smash hit "Superbass," she came alive. That was total entertainment. Nicki loved it, of course, and she showed her appreciation by breaking out an array of wackadoodle facial expressions that are probably being turned into GIFs and uploaded onto countless Tumblrs at this very moment. However, the other three judges were somehow confused, unsure of whether Sarah was trying to be a country rapper, a rapping country singer, or something else entirely. But eventually the judges--even Mariah--came around to Nicki's way of thinking, and they put Sarah through. Now let's see if Sarah covers "Beez In The Trap" during Hollywood Week. That'd be kind of awesome.
Angela Miller - Incredibly, Angela has struggled with hearing problems her whole life, but that didn't at all hinder her ability to sing beautifully, according to my own two ears. Her cover of Jessie J's "Mama Knows Best" was really strong--Randy even declared it one of the best auditions of the day. Nicki raved that Angela had "that thing that makes me feel something in my soul." Mariah adored the natural tone and texture of Angela's voice. Keith called her an "easy yes" (that sounded a little sleazy, but he meant that in the best possible way). I can't wait to hear more from this girl, no pun intended.
Gupreett Singh Sarin - Fashion diva Nicki, no stranger to colorful headwear herself, instantly appreciated the fact that this guy said he owned "40 to 50" turbans, to "coordinate with every outfit." He was soon dubbed "The Turbanator," complete with action-movie CGI graphics, with Nicki buddying up to him and further nicknaming him "Turb." I assumed Turb would be just a joke contestant, an affable reject. However, his smooth performance of Maroon 5's "Sunday Morning" was surprisingly decent. (One minor quibble: He should have worn a maroon-colored turban.) The judges were divided--Keith thought Turb's voice was "too light" and said no, Randy and Mariah were intrigued and said yes--thus leaving this innocent man's fate in Nicki's acrylic-manicured hands. Incredibly, Nicki sided with...Mariah, and the Turbanator got a golden ticket in the end. And I hope he wears a golden turban in Hollywood, to match.
Ashlee Feliciano - This soulful 20-year-old with a strong Tamyra Gray vibe was the final auditioner of the evening, with "Idol" as usual saving the best for last. Ashlee had some sort of backstory about her family fostering "medically complex children," and while that was indeed a heart-warming tale, she didn't even need to tell it--or drag her entire family into the audition room, at the judges' request--to ace her audition. Her cover of Corinne Bailey Rae's "Put Your Records On" was really, really nice--the girl had a gorgeous voice and a certain quiet star quality that made me (and the judges) sit up and take notice. "I'm so inspired by you, and I think so many girls will be inspired by you," said Nicki. "Your potential is great," said Mariah. "Your low register has the most beautiful tone," marveled Keith. So this girl was also an easy yes.
So there you have it--a few singers with potential, for sure, but too few to deflect attention away from Mariah and Nicki's diva drama, unfortunately. Tune in Thursday to see if Season 12's talent improves, when the judges blow through Chicago, the Windy City--and, by the looks of Fox's promos, blow up at each other all over again. Ugh. So much for that truce...