On Wednesday's Season 12 "American Idol" premiere, the family-friendly feelgood show sort of lost its way and lost its heart, focusing on the judging-table diva drama between mortal frenemies Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj--at the expense of any contestant unfortunate enough to have auditioned on this season's first troubled day of taping. And when Season 12's second episode, featuring the Chicago auditions, aired this Thursday, it looked like weary viewers were going to get more of the same, or worse of the same, so to speak: feuding, more feuding, and worse feuding, for two tedious hours.
But just when it seemed like Mariah and Nicki were about to brawl like a couple of scorned women on a particularly heated love-triangular episode of "The Jerry Springer Show," a memorable, bow-tied contestant came along to turn the show around and remind viewers (and hopefully the judges) what "Idol" is supposed to be all about: giving kids a much-needed break and making talented people's dreams come true. Yes, it was sappy and manipulative (cue violins here), but it was just the sort of sap and manipulation the show dearly needed.
The contestant's name was Lazaro Arbos, one of Season 12's most moving sob stories so far, and already one of the season's standout stars. A Cuban immigrant with a severe lifelong stutter, whose speech problems became even more pronounced after he moved to the States at age 10, the shy, sweet 21-year-old struggled to make it through even a few syllables of his nervous introductory conversation with the judges. But once he began singing "Bridge Over Troubled Water," he wasn't troubled at all: He warbled the Clay Aiken-popularized Simon & Garfunkel classic with nary a trace of speech impediment. It was impossible not to root for the guy, and impossible to not be impressed by his brave performance.
It really was a special "Idol" moment. And ironically, the squawking, side-eyeing judges were finally rendered temporarily speechless...by someone who had difficulty even speaking at all.
But all four judges finally found the right words to praise such a lovely audition. "I love your voice. It's amazing that the stammer doesn't happen all the time," marveled Randy Jackson. "Your story is very, very inspiring. I think you brought a really great vibe into the room," said Nicki. "You have a beautiful voice," gushed Mariah. And Keith Urban advised Lazaro, "Just sing all the time!" And of course, all four judges voted to send Lazaro to Hollywood. A joyful Lazaro broke into sobs as he embraced Mariah, while the other judges looked on, beaming benevolently. And for a few minutes, there was peace on "Idol."
But of course, for most of the night, Nicki and Mariah weren't speechless at all. Within the first 30 minutes of the episode, in fact, some sort of Mimi/Her Minajesty argument broke out about pink eyeshadow (at least I think that's what it was about?); this was preceded by a montage, set to "Stuck In The Middle With You," of Nicki and Mariah snipping and sniping at each other while put-upon Keith sat haplessly between them, banging his blonde head on the table and probably wondering why on earth he ever decided to quit "The Voice Australia" for this. I believe this segment was supposed to be funny. It wasn't. It was just shticky, silly, and sad.
This was a shame, because along with Lazaro, there were some really excellent auditioners in Chicago--much more so than on Wednesday's underwhelming New York episode--and they deserved to have the judges' and viewers' full attention, rather than struggle to be heard above the divas' din. So I wholeheartedly suggest that "Idol" producer Nigel Lythgoe scramble to drastically re-edit the next few audition weeks, no matter what the cost to Fox, to ensure that future episodes showcase more superb singers, like the ones listed below, and a LOT less icky bickering. (Additional suggestion: Figure out a way to feature former "Voice" semifinalist Jamie Lono--who was shown for maybe two seconds on Thursday's "Idol" episode--to find out why someone who sailed through "The Voice's" tough Blind Auditions didn't even get a golden ticket on this show.) Really, with a few salvaging tweaks, "Idol" actually could pull off a great Season 12--and that's nothing to argue about.
These were the other standouts from Thursday, all of whom gave me a bit of [Chicago] hope for this season:
MacKenzie Wasner - MacKenzie's father is veteran country session player Pete Wasner, pianist for Vince Gill, so she had a lot to live up to--especially since she auditioned with Vince's own "Whenever You Come Around." But I am sure she made Vince, and her dad, very proud. Clearly this girl has country in her blood, because she already sounded like a Nashville star. "Awesome...there's a star power there that can be honed," said Mariah. "Someone like you walks in a room once every few years. That doesn't even sound like a competition--that sounds like we're listening to your first single," said Nicki. "I love that song, and you really did it justice," said Randy. And even the obvious country expert on the panel, Keith, was impressed, saying, "What I love about your voice is you've got this great combination of strength and vulnerability." Keith even compared MacKenzie to Lee Ann Womack and Dolly Parton. Country music has always been a big part of "Idol," and I think MacKenzie could represent the genre very well in Season 12.
Kiara Lanier - Kiara once sang for President Obama, but she seemed even more excited to be singing for her idol Mariah. (Kiara explained that, being multi-racial, she related to Mariah growing up and was happy to see a superstar that "looked like me.") But Kiara performed like such a pro, it didn't seem like anything, or anyone, could faze her. She somehow turned Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli's "The Prayer" into a cool neo-soul song, and I instantly liked her. "That's a big song, and I was really impressed," said Randy. "You have so much controllllllllllll," purred Nicki. Mariah called Kiara a "beautiful girl" with "huge potential." Keith compared her unique voice to Aaron Neville's and told her, "You came ready to be a star." I think Kiara was born ready, and this Obama-girl certainly has my vote.
Stephanie Schimel - Okay, this girl had me really excited. When she started dreamily warbling "Dream A Little Dream Of Me" in her honeyed, sexy drawl, I got total flashbacks to Season 8's tattooed indie girl Megan Joy, in the best possible way. Stephanie was cool, she was cute, and there was something very special about her. "I thought your voice was really pretty," remarked Mariah. Keith went crazy for Stephanie's "Carrie Underwood/Gwen Stefani blend." Only Nicki "wasn't wowed," surprisingly (I've actually agreed with most of Nicki's critiques so far this season, but not this one). Nicki was outvoted, thankfully--three yeses to her single no--and then that fight about pink eyeshadow started. Don't ask me to explain. All I know is the bickering seemed to confuse and spook Stephanie, who practically ran out of the audition room. I hope it didn't scare her off for good, because I want to see her in Hollywood.
Gabe Brown - When this guy came in sort of looking like Chris Sligh's long-lost twin and started neck-vein-poppingly shouting the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" at the judges (really, he was the only contestant of the episode capable of drowning out Mariah and Nicki), I thought he was a joke contestant. Then he sang "We All Die Young," by the fictional band Steel Dragon from the 1996 hair-metal comedy Rock Star--and I totally wanted in on the joke. Best. Audition. Song. Choice. Ever. Actually, his second attempt was better than his first--he was still shouty, and without control, but there was potential there. "I like you, Curly," mused Nicki. "I believe you, and I don't think a person has to be into rock to hear your authenticity." Keith added: "I always found that those guys who have those big, belting voices have really big hearts as well." (Keith was right. Did I mention Gabe brought home-baked cookies to his audition?) So somehow, Gabe turned it all around and got a ticket to Hollywood, the city where so many metal singers' rock 'n' roll fantasies have been realized. I honestly don't know how long he'll last once he gets to Hollywood (he should probably bring more cookies), but I think I'll enjoy whatever screentime he gets.
Isabelle Parell - I LOVED THIS QUIRKY GIRL. Quirky girls 4ever! I loved everything about young Isabelle, from her cute outfit seemingly pulled straight from a "Style On The Street" pictorial in Lucky magazine, to her lusciously jazzy/bluesy voice, to the pure gumption it took for her to turn her audition of "Baby It's Cold Outside" into a duet with Keith Urban. (She held her own, by the way, and remembered all the lyrics even when Keith couldn't.) How is this girl 15 and already so cool? I was never that cool, sadly, and I probably never will be, but I can live vicariously through the awesome Isabelle, my new girl crush. Mariah praised Isabelle's "nice, humble, adorable quality." Nicki told her, "You came in here poised; I love your tone, and I love your attitude." All the judges gave her yeses. I hope this girl makes it to the live shows...and that she duets with Keith again once she does.
Griffin Peterson - This wholesome, hunky 22-year-old walked in basically looking like the kind of guy who wins "Idol" every year. Really, just strap a guitar on him and it'll be a done deal--no need to even open up the voting lines all season. Nicki saw Griffin's appeal before he even opened his mouth to sing a good-but-not-great rendition of Needtobreathe's "Washed By The Water," pointing out: "Girls [i.e., the people who vote on this show] are coming to his concert. Let's just be honest!" Mariah agreed, admitting that Griffin had a "very handsome face" and saying, "I see what the fuss is about." But Randy said Griffin's voice was "barely below average." I sort of sided with Randy on this one--Griffin's vocals were no better than those of Evan Ruggiero, the one-legged guy who was rejected by the judges on Wednesday--but somehow Griffin got a ticket to Hollywood anyway. We'll see how far his pretty face takes him from there.
Curtis Finch Jr. - This nice charter school tutor belted the Hillsong gospel standard "God Is Able," and while he did a great job with it, I didn't necessarily think it was right for "Idol" circa 2013. But then again, this show kind of needs religion right now, after all the aforementioned bad vibes. So it is probably a good thing that he made it through.
Mariah Pulice - After sharing her harrowing (and sadly all too common) tale of her teenhood battle with anorexia, Mariah P. sang a straight-from-the-soul rendition of the Beatles' "Let It Be," and it had the other Mariah crying--something Mariah C. didn't even do during Lazaro's emotional audition. "You touched me. I know what it is like to sing through tears, and I commend you for that. I can't even imagine how many people share the same story," Mariah told Mariah. "I really, really, really felt that song coming from you. I really, really, really am happy that you did that," said Nicki. Exiting the audition room clutching her golden ticket, Mariah P. excitedly cried, "I feel beautiful, for the first time in so long!" This was another nice moment that really counterbalanced all the bickering and BS on this show.
Brandy Neelley - This 17-year-old spitfire, who was adopted by her aunt after a troubled early start in life, infused a lot of spunk into her powerful cover of the Hank Williams classic "Your Cheatin' Heart." It was pretty impressive, and I think this girl could be a real country star. (I have a feeling that, in general, Season 12 will be a very country-centric season...and that may not be a bad thing, if contestants like Brandy Neelley and MacKenzie Wasner are in the mix.) Mariah called Brandy "A-plus-amazing." Nicki called her "super-super-special." Keith told her, "You just took it and made it your own. I love that!" I think viewers will love this all-American girl too.
Josh Holiday - Brian McKnight's "Back At One" was a cheesy song choice, but there was no denying that this blue-eyed soulman sang it well. "You've got something cool going on there," said Randy. "Your tone is a tone we haven't heard yet...an exciting sound," said Nicki. I'd be interested to hear how this guy sounds on more current material, personally.
Courtney Williams - Sadly, not a whole lot of Courtney's audition of the Jackson 5's "Who's Loving You" was shown, but I sure liked the little bit I got to see and hear. It's not easy to sing Michael Jackson--especially prepubescent, high-pitched MJ--but Courtney totally pulled it off. I sure hope she gets more screentime during Hollywood Week.
Clifton Duffin - Clifton never sang in front of his parents until they accompanied him to his "Idol" audition, and they were in for the pleasant surprise of their lives when they heard their son perform the Carpenters' "Superstar" and learned that he can really sang. Why did Clifton keep his singing a secret all this time? Well, now millions of people know about his talent. Keith called Clifton a "diamond in the rough"; let's see if "Idol" can help him polish his act and help him turn pro.
Johnny Keyser - This handsome singing waiter made the top 60 last year, and he showed promise--until he made the mistake, during Season 11's Hollywood Week group rounds, of ignoring his groupmate's fainting spell and just continuing to sing while she was sprawled out unconscious on the stage floor. It wasn't a good look, and some "Idol" diehards probably haven't forgiven him entirely for his callousness. However, casual viewers with shorter attention spans probably don't care, and Johnny does have fans from last year who are probably happy to see him get a second chance. I didn't think his "Try A Little Tenderness" audition this time around was all that amazing, but Mariah admired his star quality, Randy admired his persistence, and Nicki...well, single lady Nicki just admired Johnny, period, if you catch my drift. Mariah and Nicki started fighting again during the deliberations, for no reason (I mean, they agreed that he was good, so what was there to fight about?). But after a whole lot of yapping and yammering that had me lunging for the mute button on my remote and the bottle of headache tablets on my nightstand, Johnny was finally granted another shot at Hollywood.
Kez Ban - KEZ BAN MUST WIN. That is all. Yes, I thought Kez was going to be a trainwreck/joke contestant at first. She's an amateur fire-dancing street performer (which sure sounds scary); she makes balloon animals in her spare time; she freely admitted that she didn't expect or even want to win "Idol"; and she entered the audition room planning to sing the Pinocchio ditty "No Strings." So, you know, she wasn't exactly your typical Idol. But she became my idol once she sang, especially after she picked up her guitar and gave a second performance of one of her original songs. This chick was funny, interesting, self-deprecating, cool, weird...and talented. What a pleasant surprise that she wasn't just some one-woman freakshow. "I can feel the realness in you," said Mariah. "She's everything," raved Randy. "You're very captivating. You told your story so beautifully. I believe you. I want to pay to come to your show," gushed Nicki. Later, a stunned Kez stumbled over to Ryan Seacrest, golden ticket in hand, and confessed, "I had a feeling it was possible [that I'd make it through], but I thought that I was a little too bizarre." I think Kez Ban is just bizarre enough. Kez Ban for the win!