Hey, want to feel instantly ancient? Then just watch the first five minutes of this week's Season 11 (yes, ELEVEN) "American Idol" premiere, and find out that many of this year's contestants would answer Ryan Seacrest's question "Where were you when it all started?" with "in diapers/preschool/the womb." Watching home movie after home movie of this year's extremely young "Idol" hopefuls (some of whom almost made last year's Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina look elderly) toddling in onesies in front of their rabbit-eared TV sets singing along to Kelly Clarkson's old "Idol" performances, or competing in "Idol"-inspired elementary school talent recitals, was a real wakeup call for longtime "Idol" viewers of, ahem, a certain age: Just imagine, these kids, while probably too young to remember who Brian Dunkleman is, and certainly too young to remember Steven Tyler's Aerosmith heyday or Jennifer Lopez's Fly Girl era, have still never known a world without "American Idol." The show, which celebrates its 10th (yes, TENTH) anniversary this year, has always been a part of these kids' lives, and a part of their big showbiz dreams; they've genuinely been practicing for their "Idol" closeups since Kelly Clarkson was a glimmer in Simon Cowell's beady little eye.
Really, it's truly amazing that this show is still going strong after all these years and has become such a unstoppable, un-topple-able pop-culture institution, especially after all of last season's judging-panel shakeups. And there's one ultimate reason for this. It's because no other talent show (not "The Voice," not "America's Got Talent," not even Simon Cowell's "The X Factor") does as excellent a job of getting the viewing audience to emotionally connect to and invest in the true stars of every season: the contestants. And this week's premiere--which featured not only grainy vintage camcorder footage from way back in the [insert eyeroll here] early 2000s, but also freshly shot flipcam chronicles of some of this year's first auditioners' road trips to Savannah, Georgia--certainly helped establish a few new early Season 11 stars among the 42 singers who got through.
Listed below are some of Wednesday's Savannah highlights--along, of course, with some lowlights, just for fun...
David "Mister Steal-Your-Girl" Leathers Jr. - This 17-year old wannabe ladies' man looked 12, but he's clearly going on 25. The kid had swag for days, and in the waiting room he was hitting on female auditioners seemingly 10 years his senior and twice his height. But he had a likably humble side too, as evidenced by his sudden shyness when Ryan interviewed him about that demi-legendary time when he actually beat out Scotty McCreery in a local amateur talent competition. David's audition of "Remember The Rain" by the 21st Century (not Century 21, as this possible future real estate agent said) was promising. But it was when the judges asked him to sing a little early Michael Jackson, and he responded with a few bars of "Never Can Say Goodbye," that I really started to dig this crazy kid. He just may steal my heart, if he makes it to the live rounds.
Gabi Carrubba - A former "diaper dancer" who grew up with "Idol" (and boy, did she ever grow up, much to Steven Tyler's leering delight), this pretty 16-year-old had the judges swooning with her audition of Maroon 5's "Sunday Morning." Steven raved, "That was so wonderful...this might be your moment," and Randy Jackson told her, "You were born to do this." Jennifer insanely even compared Gabi to Luther Vandross, which indicated that she might be sniffing too many Fiat fumes as of late. Anyway, I was not hugely impressed and I found Gabi a little generic--but I'll keep my eye on her in Hollywood, and see if she covers any Vandross songs.
Elise Testone - This growly girl received about eight measly seconds of screentime, but she made an impression on me nonetheless with her earthy rocker-chick charm. I was kind of hoping Steven would duet with her, like he did with Lauren Alaina last year--Elise sort of seemed like a lost Tyler family member, right down to her flashy fedora hat. Too bad the cameras cut away before there was a chance for that to happen. Attention, "Idol" producers: More Elise, please!
Shannon Magrane - Shannon is an American Idol if I ever saw one. Six feet tall, flaxen-haired, 15 years old, a volleyball player, and one of seemingly a dozen golden-girl daughters of St. Louis Cardinals World Series veteran Joe Magrane, this girl might as well have walked into the audition room carrying a slice of apple pie in one hand and a Statue of Liberty torch in the other, singing the national anthem. Well, she didn't do that, but, flanked by her huge Waltons-esque family, she did sing a shockingly funky version of Etta James's Flo Rida-sampled classic, "Something's Got A Hold On Me." Her sisters were grooving around her, her mom was lip-synching behind her, Steven was drumming along on his desk, and it was a big Magrane family party up in there. I was impressed by this girl's sultry confidence; she really seemed like a natural, and mature beyond her years. To borrow some common lingo from her dad's profession, Shannon hit it out of the park with her audition.
Amy Brumfield - This 24-year-old, laid-back hippie chick sort of gave me a Crystal Bowersox vibe--and it wasn't just the dreads, or tatts, but her world-weary, seen-it-all demeanor. I mean, the girl is so broke, she lives in a tent. In the woods. (Hey, that's one way to one-up Josiah Leming's living-in-a-car sob story from Season 7, huh?) Amy--or, perhaps more correctly, "Idol" producers--milked Amy's tent-dwelling tale just a little too much (okay, we get it, Amy; you're poor, you're a hippie), but her raspy audition of Alicia Keys's "Superwoman" showed raw promise. "The spirits of the children of the woods snuck into you," babbled Steven. So, does this girl have a shot in Hollywood? Um, does an Amy live in the woods?
Stephanie Renae - A true child of "Idol" culture, so young that her first fond "Idol" memories are of the Carrie Underwood/Bo Bice fourth season, Stephanie came to Savannah toting homemade poster collages of her past "Idol"-worshipping days (that's her in the childhood snapshot at the top of this article, in the pigtails and pink "Idol" girly T-shirt). She even auditioned with Carrie's classic coronation song, "Inside Your Heaven." I don't think she was exactly Underwoodian--her performance started off well, but then veered into some seriously ouchy sharp notes--but Steven of course called her "beautiful," and Jennifer, while gently criticizing Stephanie's tendency to sing through her nose, did enjoy the girl's natural vibrato. Only Randy said no to Stephanie, and honestly, I think he was right: This 15-year-old was so nervous (that might have been the underlying cause of her wavery vibrato), and she just didn't seem ready. She should have just been advised to try out next year. But she's through to Hollywood now, so we'll soon see if she can follow in her idol Carrie's cowgirl-booted footsteps.
Colton Dixon - Speaking of coming back next year...Colton was a Season 10 top 40 contestant, and the fact that he was passed over for the live semifinals was a shock last year. Colton seemed tailor-made for the show and its fanbase of mostly swooning fangirls and their moms: He was cuuuuuute, he was a singer-songwriter with a Kris Allen kind of vibe, AND he had a background in Christian music to boot. (Many successful Idols have roots in the church, including the aforementioned Kris.) This season, Colton was supposedly only at the Savannah tryouts to lend moral support to his younger auditioning sister, Schyler. Um, yeah, right. Come on, were we really supposed to believe that the judges had to BEG him to come into the audition room, and BEG him to try out again, and that he didn't have a song prepared? And that he just happened to be able to sing David Cook's "Permanent"--a song sure to please his presumed fanbase--on the spot? Puh-leeze. Don't get me wrong; I am thrilled that Colton is back. I wanted him in the top 24 last year. But don't expect me or anyone else to buy it that his return to the show wasn't staged. Anyway, he's back, and if my whole conspiracy theory is correct, he'll probably go a lot farther this season. As for Schyler, she received a golden ticket too, but I expect she'll receive a lot less screentime when Hollywood Week comes around. The poor girl. I can almost imagine her yelling, in a Jan Brady-esque "Marcia Marcia Marcia" moan: "Colton Colton Colton!" There's only room for one Dixon this season, and let's face it, it's going to be her more popular big brother.
Lauren Mink - Lauren is the type of sweet, non-threatening girl-next-door that America will root for. I mean, she has a day job working with people with intellectual disabilities like autism and Down's Syndrome. It almost seems a shame for her to quit such a noble day job, should she advance on the show, but this 25-year-old does have the potential to be a crossover pop-country star. Randy thought her audition of "Country Strong" had a Jennifer Nettles-ish quality to it, and another Jennifer, Ms. Lopez, got "goosies!" (J.Lo's annoying term for goosepimples) when Lauren sang. So move over, Miss Alaina: There may just be another blonde, country-crooning Lauren in the "Idol" mix this season.
Ashlee Altise - I fully expected this kooky cutup, who was almost literally bouncing off the Idol-mural-postered audition room walls, to be terrible. She was so wacky, she made Steven Tyler seem sane. But you know what? Her rendition of the Beatles' "Come Together"--clearly inspired by the Aerosmith version--was not bad. Not amazing, but not at all bad. Apparently she was "the right kind of crazy," according to Randy. Plus, she had her own dance, the "joyhop." That's got to count for something. I predict she will get axed early, like on day one of Hollywood Week...but how much you wanna bet she'll be invited back to lead a big joyhopping dance number on the Season 11 finale?
W.T. Thompson - Here's a guy with a made-for-"Idol" sob story. A man with a dream and a baby on the way, W.T. quit his job in order to attend his audition. Was that the smartest thing for this dad-to-be to do, especially in this economy? Er, I'm not so sure. His audition of Little Big Town's "Boondocks" did not wow me, Steven had doubts about him, and Randy warned him that he'd get "eaten alive" in Hollywood. But J.Lo spotted a "twinkle in his eye," and producers probably knew that viewers will love W.T.'s underdog story. Now we'll just have to wait and see if Randy's ominous "eaten alive" prediction was true.
Brittany Kerr - Okay, here is someone America will not root for. Or, more specifically, someone that America's female viewers, aka the voters that totally run this show, will not get behind. Brittany is a curvy blonde NBA dancer, seems to have no sob story to speak of, and is so gorgeous that Steven said yes to her before she'd even sung a single note. When Brittany did sing, auditioning with Joss Stone's "Spoiled," it turned out that she actually had a good voice. But tellingly, while Randy and Steven said yes to her, Jennifer said no. And that's pretty much how the voting will go down, if Brittany makes it to the top 24: Girls will say no to her, and not pick up their phones. So Britt is probably doomed, unless she starts telling people that she lives in a tent or something.
Necco Starr - This guy got even less screentime than Elise Testone, but his belty performance of Bruno Mars's "Grenade" was still impressive. Plus, I dug the suspenders. So I'm going to go out on a very flimsy, precarious limb here, and predict that this guy is a Paul McDonald-style dark horse who we'll be seeing a lot more of down the road. Starr seems to have some star quality, for sure.
Phillip Phillips - So basically, this guy just won, right? Like, do we even need to have an entire Season 11? Besides possessing a very marquee-worthy moniker (yes, that is his real name, or so he claims), a likable everyman story of working at his dad's "Sanford & Sons"-style pawn shop, and a cute face the girlies will go speed-dialingly mad for, this pawn star is a WGWG (that's "white guy with guitar" in Idolspeak, as in, he's the kind of contestant that has won this show for four seasons in a row). How do we know Phillip is a WGWG? Because the judges let him bring his acoustic guitar into the audition room, something that few contestants are ever allowed to do. And then, much like Colton Dixon, Phillip pulled a page right out of the David Cook Playbook--and performed a rock remake of a Michael Jackson song, strumming along to "Thriller." Is it too soon to predict a Colton/Phillip finale showdown this May?
Mawuena Kodjo - This West African transplant said he had a dream to be "the first African country music superstar." Hey, it's nice to have a dream, but it's also nice to have a good voice, and that was something poorMawuena just did not have. His Rascal Flatts cover simply fell flat, period. He had the confidence ("I am gonna blow you away," he declared), and he even had a random assortment of well-wishers plucked from off the street to endorse him and insist to the doubting judges that he indeed deserved a golden ticket. But it looks like the only ticket in Mawuena's future is a one-way ticket back to West Africa, sadly.
Shaun Kraisman - Shaun didn't have the singing voice to make it to Hollywood, at least as a contestant. But with his somewhat unnerving resemblance to Ryan Seacrest, and a pretty good speaking voice, maybe he'll make it to Hollywood one day as Seacrest's replacement. There has been talk that this is Ryan's last season, after all--and Shaun volunteered to host "Idol" for free, which is about 10 gazillion dollars less than Ryan's salary. So maybe penny-pinching producer Nigel Lythgoe will ring Shaun up in Season 12.
Joshua Chavis - Apparently they were serving up WAY too much complimentary Coca-Cola in the Savannah audition room this particular afternoon. Joshua was so hyperactive, he made Ashlee Altise seem positively sedated. Pre-audition, he engaged in a little scream therapy that seemed to nearly scare the judges right out of their chairs, and his bug-eyed, absolutely unhinged performance of Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours" was scary indeed. Joshua did not go quietly, either, as he cursed more than Steven Tyler while making his walk of shame back to the parking lot, cameras trailing him the entire way. Can I please suggest that Caffeine-Free Coke become "Idol's" new sponsor?
Erica Nowak - Erica's agenda when auditioning for "Idol" seemed to have nothing to do with grabbing a golden ticket and everything to do with grabbing her crush Steven's golden behind. "Steven Tyler is my future ex-husband," she announced somewhat creepily [cue evil laugh]. "If allowed, I would kiss his feet--or anything else, for that matter!" Well, Erica didn't get to do that, but she did get a Tyler hug out of the deal, and she got to gleefully grope his backside. "You better sing good," Steven warned her, after she molested him. But then she caterwauled Joss Stone's "Superduper," and she was anything but super, or even duper. "The best note you hit was when you grabbed my [BEEP]," Steven told her. So Erica exited the audition room--though not in handcuffs or escorted by security, as she'd predicted--but not before copping a feel of Randy's behind, too. Jennifer Lopez's famous posterior, however, remained untouched and unscathed.
So Thursday, "Idol" searches for more zygote-aged contestants in Pittsburgh. Will the Pittsburgh episode be the pits? Or will the judges find talent as promising as David Leathers Jr., Shannon Magrane, Elise Testone, Colton Dixon, and Phillip Phillips--or even better? Tune in.