"This is where it all happened," host Ryan Seacrest ominously intoned at the start of Wednesday's "American Idol" episode. Ryan, of course, was referring to Charlotte, North Carolina, the infamous audition city where catfighting alpha-female judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj went from frenemies to full-on enemies--and some intrepid TMZ spy was conveniently on the scene, flipcam in hand, to document what went down. This Wednesday, viewers would finally find out what really happened to set off the feud heard 'round the Interweb back in October.
But the real question was...would viewers even care anymore?
I admit I was torn. And just a little curious. Yes, there was a part of my inquiring mind that naturally wanted to know what all the fuss had been about. What exactly was it that made Nicki stomp off the set, spewing expletives like Steven Tyler on a bad day? What drove Mariah to post the single drawn-out word "whyyyyyyyyyyyyy" on Twitter (only to delete the tweet moments later)? And what made Mariah run off to her buddy Barbara Walters, scandalously claiming that Nicki had violently threatened her? With a gun?
But then there was another, much larger part of me that was so over it. (Like, to quote Carrie Bradshaw, I needed a new word for "over.") I just wanted the show to keep calm and carry on...and keep its focus on the contestants.
Anyway, about an hour into Wednesday's episode, one of those contestants, a mild-mannered young girl named Summer Cunningham, unwittingly found herself at the center of this controversy. When Summer somewhat offhandedly told judge Keith Urban that she "did the country thing" already, an insulted Keith got a little mad (well, mad by Keith Urban standards, not by Nicki Minaj standards), quipping: "That's like saying, 'I did the brain surgeon thing.'" This prompted fellow judges Randy Jackson and Mariah to question Summer's true musical calling, and poor Summer quickly, somewhat desperately backpedaled, claiming she was actually a huge country music fan who practically grew up on a farm and came out of the womb sporting a cowgirl hat and spurs.
So Nicki looked increasingly annoyed during this long-winded exchange, making her famously GIFable faces and tugging agitatedly on her pink My Pretty Pony wig. When it finally came time for Nicki, who supported Summer from the get-go, to speak, she grunted: "Sheesh, for a minute I thought this was a country music debate! Why are you picking her apart because of a country comment? It's like you're scaring her into lying!"
"We're trying to help her, instead of talking about her outfit," snarked Mariah. Then Randy bragged about his "30 years of experience." And that was it: Nicki strutted off the set in frustration, practically threatening to quit the show--and apparently soon after, the outtake from this outburst was all over TMZ's YouTube channel. And the rest was history, or herstory.
So there you have it. Yes, that's all that happened. Move along, people, no major scandal to see here. This exchange--at least in its heavily edited, made-for-TV format--really wasn't unlike the heated debates that transpired between Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul, or Simon Cowell and Kara DioGuardi, back in the day. It was just a disagreement, and one that involved Randy at least as much as it involved Mariah. If this edited version of the altercation had been all that America ever saw, it would have been no big deal. It might have even been interesting. And really, this is all America should have ever seen. That "leaked" footage (which was far more damning and shocking than what Fox aired) should have never "leaked" in the first place. The ensuing fallout over the past months did nothing to help this show, only generating icky vibes, turning off longtime viewers, and creating a lot of conclusion-jumping Nicki haters (seriously, folks, give Nicki a chance)--all before Season 12 even began.
I have one more point to make before we all, hopefully, leave this incident behind forever and ever and ever and ever. I didn't expect to side with Nicki here, but I kind of did. It has always annoyed me too when short-sighted talent-show judges have forced singers to choose and remain in a lane, when in the real world, mega-artists like Bruno Mars, Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga, Adele, Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift, Beck, Madonna, Tina Turner, and even "Idol's" own Kelly Clarkson have successfully crossed genres. So I fully understood why Nicki defended Summer's supposedly controversial choice to sing country music mixed with some soul, and I understood why Nicki got upset. (In case you care: Summer did receive a golden ticket to Hollywood, after all that.) Did Nicki need to walk off the set? Did she need to swear? Of course not. The woman definitely has to control her temper and be more professional in the future. (I'm already worried about Nicki's potentially censor-provoking, five-second-delayed behavior on "Idol's" live shows. Yikes.) But honestly, she's probably not the first tantrum-tossing reality judge to storm off the set in a huff. She's just the only one to do so within spitting distance of a secret TMZ camera-person.
Anyhoo, with all that mercifully out of the way, the episode picked up in the second hour, with several standout auditions, a couple of genuinely heartstring-plucking sob stories, and Randy even telling one singer, "You're what this show is all about!" (Hey, Randy, tell that to "Idol" producer Nigel Lythgoe, who nowadays seems to think that this show is all about tabloid-baiting, gossip-mongering, and lowest-common-denominating.) One of the many promising singers who auditioned in Charlotte even memorably told the judges, "Please don't fight! It makes me sad." I seriously hope the judges heed that contestant's advice, going forward.
Here are the contestants who managed to get in the judges' good graces this Wednesday:
Brian Rittenberry - This is the kind of guy America will root for. He's a Georgian everyman with a normal job (he's a bookkeeper), a cute son, and a wife who miraculously beat stage 4 cancer. And he managed to not ruin the Beatles' "Let It Be." What's not to like, really? Said Keith, "You have a good light about you, and you have soul, and it's just cool." Said Mariah, "You took me by surprise, and I seriously enjoyed it." Said Nicki, "I love that raspiness, and the commitment that you're making to that genre." So it was four yeses (Randy liked Brian too, dawg) and good vibes all around.
Jimmy Smith - Jimmy's hair needs a serious makeover (not by Tommy Hilfiger, though), but he otherwise possesses all the essential elements to become a new-school country star. The fact that Keith loved Jimmy's cover of Rascal Flatts' "Bless The Broken Road"--and, incredibly, even said, "I wish I could sing like that"--was a very good sign. But interestingly, Nicki was Jimmy's biggest fan, raving, "You poppin'! You mad fly! Yo, your voice was the voice I was waitin' to hear today!" (Jimmy had been nervous to face a hip-hop judge, but Nicki proved that she has an open mind during her interactions with both Jimmy and Brian, not to mention with Summer.) Now let's see if Jimmy can get it poppin' in Hollywood.
Isabel Gonzalez - What is it with contestants named Isabelle or Isabel on this show? They're all awesome, for some reason. This stunning, sassy, sweet-natured 16-year-old, who was nominated by her aunt (a new twist this season), wowed with her poised rendition of "Nothing Could Ever Change This Love" by Sam Cooke. She could very well be America's next sweetheart. "Four seconds after you started singing, I was like, 'Let's just vote yes!'" said Keith. "I'm head over heels in love with you," gushed Nicki. "You are so adorable. People are gonna fall in love with you," said Mariah, who likened Isabel to a young Phoebe Cates (and thus had me dreaming about Isabel covering the entire Fast Times At Ridgemont High soundtrack during Hollywood Week). Upping the adorability factor here? When Isabel exited the audition room, her waiting relatives attacked her with celebratory Silly String. Imagine how cute the Gonzalez family would be at the Season 12 finale!
Taisha Bethea - The judges were also doubtful about this girl and her commitment to one musical genre or another, but thankfully, this debate remained civil. Taisha is African American, but she happens to sing in an alternative rock band called Carson (who came with her to the audition, either to nicely support her or to just get the band some screentime). AND she chose to audition with a cover of a country artist, Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." All of this seemed to be too much for some judges to process (Mariah said she "couldn't wrap her head around it"). I just thought it made Taisha seem cool, memorable, and unique. Her breath control wasn't quite right, her presentation was a little manic, and she definitely fared better on her second song, Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know"--but still, there was something about her tough-but-approachable tomboy vibe that I appreciated. Keith thought Taisha might be better off sticking with her bandmates, but he eventually said yes. Nicki again dismissed genre restrictions and told Taisha, "I like your voice. I like your style. I don't really care what style you choose. I like that you're a black girl but you're not doing typical R&B runs." So it was a yes from Nicki as well. But Randy said no, and Mariah, though intrigued, was still "not 100 percent convinced." In past seasons, a split vote would mean no golden ticket, but for some reason Keith was the designated "tie-breaker" in Charlotte, so luckily for Taisha, he put her through. I'm not 100 percent convinced about Taisha either, yet--but I'm convinced enough about her potential to be happy that the judges gave her a chance.
Brandy Hamilton - This 25-year-old Navy reservist had everyone in the judging room standing at full attention and saluting when she delivered a rousing, powerful performance of "All I Could Do Is Cry" by Etta James. "You lit up the room. That's what stars do," declared Randy. "I heard enough to know that it's all in there," said an impressed Keith. "You really made me feel what you were singing," said Nicki. "It was POW! It was A-plus!" added Mariah. It was nice to see the panel in such smiling agreement as they gave Brandy four yeses. And then Brandy uttered those aforementioned immortal words, speaking for all of America in the process: "Please don't fight. It makes me sad." Aw.
Ashley Smith - Like last week's "wacky" Kez Ban, Ashley was set up to seem like a trainwreck/reject at first, with her head of Barbie hair that looked like one of Nicki's beat-up wigs and an over-caffeinated personality that made her seem like she'd found the show's secret Coca-Cola stash and had mainlined it right before entering the audition room. When she announced her intention to sing Carrie Underwood's "Cowboy Casanova," I wasn't expecting much. I certainly wasn't expecting her to sound so lovely. "I enjoyed you. I really did. There's something about you that's very effervescent," said Mariah. "That sounded really, really pretty," cooed Nicki, who nicknamed Ashley "Blondie." (Not since Flavor Flav has a reality star come up with so many bizarre contestant nicknames.) "I couldn't look away. I loved that you sang Carrie Underwood. All the juxtapositions were thoroughly entertaining to me," said Keith. "I always say, if you can sing, you can sing anything," said Randy, totally contradicting what he had told both Summer and Taisha earlier in the episode. But whatever, at least the Dawg came around to that way of thinking in time to give Ashley a great big YES. The other judges agreed, and so Ashley was dispatched to Hollywood, the city where this bubbly Blondie so clearly belongs.
Janelle Arthur - A familiar "Idol" face (seriously, I have lost track of how many times she's auditioned before), Janelle gave a great performance of Keith's own "Where The Blacktop Ends" that had me wondering why she ever stalled in Seasons 10 and 11. Even Keith loved this audition, and Randy called Janelle a "young LeAnn Rimes." (Nowadays, being associated with LeAnn isn't really a good look--just ask "The X Factor's" poor Carly Rose Sonenclar--but trust me, Randy meant this as a compliment.) Let's see if this will finally be Janelle's year.
Rodney Barber - At first I thought Rodney should be automatically disqualified for auditioning with Edwin McCain's overdone "I'll Be" (come on, hasn't that song been officially blacklisted from "Idol" already?), but his backstory about his homeless past and triumph over adversity prompted me to give him a chance. And once he sang, I was impressed. Keith enjoyed Rodney's "big, crazy voice," and so did I. (Rodney needs to learn to rein it in a bit and be less shouty, and of course he needs to choose better material--but the raw gift was there.) "I'm really inspired by your story, and I think you have something very captivating about you," said Nicki. I think much of America will agree with her.
Candice Glover - Candice, another repeat auditioner, was a promising contestant in Season 11 who was cut during the Vegas rounds--much to my chagrin, and the chagrin of many "Idol" viewers who thought she was a real R&B diva in the making. (Female R&B was almost entirely unrepresented in last year's "Idol" semifinals, sadly.) But it seemed that this year, Nicki, Keith, Mariah, and Randy might be more willing to give Candice a shot than Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez, and the clearly long-term-memory-challenged Randy had been. After all, the new judges gave her a standing ovation when she auditioned this time with Duffy's "Syrup And Honey," even saying it was the best audition they'd seen so far this season. "I'm obsessed with you. I want to skin you and wear you," raved the always soundbite-ready (if not exactly PETA-friendly) Nicki, adding, "I wish you had something out now I could listen to." Mariah joked (or maybe she wasn't joking), "Can we listen to you for the rest of the day?" And then Randy told Candice, "You're exactly what this show is about." That's right, Randy. Let's have a lot less feuding, and a lot more Candices, on future episodes. Please.
Ja'Bria Barber - Ja'Bria's shtick, if you can call it one, is she likes to hunt frogs and eat their legs. Grossssssss. I was getting total flashbacks to that Beavis & Butt-Head "Frog Baseball" cartoon (splat!), and Nicki's special nickname for Ja'Bria was "Frog Killer." All of this left a bad taste in my mouth, pun wholly intended, although the girl did possess a certain plucky charm. But then Ja'Bria opened up her own mouth to sing, and all was forgiven. Let's just say she did not have any sort of frog in her throat. Her cover of Bonnie Raitt's "Pride And Joy" was a real joy, so it's no wonder that Mariah decided to "give her a pass on the frog thing." Randy told Frog Killer (um, I mean Ja'Bria), "You got a little spunk in you. You got a little crazy swag. You're not scared. I like that." Nicki called her "a big piece of cutie pie." Frog Killer for the win!
Seretha Guinn - Okay, so we can all agree that the contestant who walked in with a Hello Kitty doll and sang the "Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air" theme (how very Reed Grimm of her!) deserves to make the top 20, right? If that wasn't enough, Saretha also walked in with her adorable 3-year-old kid (a massive Nicki fan), a gripping sob story (a boyfriend who almost died in a major car accident), and a huge amount of talent. Her "Fresh Prince" audition was fun, while her second song, the more serious "How Do I Live," showed her depth and versatility. Randy said he was "blown away" and compared Seretha to the almighty Whitney Houston. Nicki called Seretha "incredible" and a "superstar," before posing for photos with Seretha's daughter. Cuteness and warm 'n' fuzziness ensued. It was the perfect way to end an episode that had started off on such a negative note, and I hope this segment was a sign of kinder, gentler "Idol" episodes to come.
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