While the majority of singers who entered the Boston and Austin audition rooms on Wednesday's "American Idol" Season 13 premiere seemed starstruck by glamazonian returning judge Jennifer Lopez — leaving poor newbie panelist Harry Connick Jr. to whine about his relative anonymity as clueless contestants confused him with "Robert Downey Jr., or someone like that" — there was one hopeful, Pakistan-born jazzbo Munfarid Zaidi, who was just wild about Harry.
"I read your Wikipedia page every day before going to sleep," the 19-year-old Connick fanboy gushed. (To which Harry's co-star and budding bromance partner, Keith Urban, quipped, "Oh, so he's the one who's been reading it!" Zing!) Harry, delighted to finally get some love, promised to rock Munfarid in his arms like a baby if he liked Munfarid's audition…and honestly, Munfarid seemed more excited about that prospect than about receiving an actual golden ticket.
Luckily, Munfarid's performance of Adele's "Crazy For You" was one of the best auditions of the entire episode — jazzy, scatty, and just plain cool — prompting J.Lo to remark, "I see a cradle coming on!" And sure enough, the brawny Harry swept up the elfin auditioner in his welcoming arms and carried him out of the room, An Officer and a Gentleman-style, as Munfarid (with golden ticket in hand, of course) crooned Alicia Keys's "No One" with his head on Harry's shoulder. Aw.
Clearly, Munfarid realized that Harry is the real star of "Idol" Season 13. And soon, all of America will realize this too, if Harry's stellar Wednesday debut was anything to go by. While Jennifer was surprisingly astute, and Keith was his usual pleasant self, it was Harry who brought the comedy, who brought the necessary tough love ("To send someone out of the room crying is a terrible feeling, but if it's the right thing to say, I think you have to say it," he explained), and who brought the knowledge, teaching all the laypeople out there about pentatonics and minor scales. "What's wrong with challenging America?" he said.
Yes, yes, yasssss. Great attitude! "American Idol" NEEDS a judge like Harry Connick Jr. He won't be the "least famous 'Idol' judge" for long.
But as awesome as all three judges were on Wednesday, sharing an easy-breezy chemistry that was glaringly missing from last season's disastrous panel, Wednesday's episode really was all about the contestants. An impressive 45 singers made it through to Hollywood; only three William Hung-esque rejects' auditions were shown in full; and the competition was stiff, as several hopefuls who probably would've advanced in previous seasons instead went home golden-ticketless. (Unsurprisingly, Harry was the dissenting judge most likely to say no. That'll make things interesting in Hollywood Week, when a new first-day twist will require all contestants who didn't get three yesses at their first audition to sing in a sudden-death round.)
Munfarid was a definite standout Wednesday, but he was just one of many promising contenders. Here's a rundown of the others — the good, the not-bad, and the funky:
Marrialle Sellers, 17 – Marielle was the one contestant shown Wednesday who didn't try out in Boston or Austin; she was a teaser from the Detroit auditions. But "Idol" producers clearly already have her pegged as a frontrunner, since they featured her in the cold open, then had her stare down the camera and declare herself the Next American Idol. I can see why this girl got such a coveted chunk of prime time. She was off-the-charts charismatic and absolutely adorakble, a sort of Rihanna-meets-India.Arie type, and her guitar-strummy cover of Bruno Mars's "Grenade" really set the tone for an exciting episode. "You are going to be a nightmare for the other competitors," Harry predicted. I'm already predicting she will at least make the top 20.
Troy Durden, 28 – At first this guy seemed like one of those joke contestants. He asked former Fly Girl J.Lo to twerk with him, and after she politely declined, he tried to do his best twerky Miley impression. He wasn't as good as Miley, and Jennifer admitted she could've done it better herself. But then Troy crooned "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and he actually could sing. Three yesses followed. I don't really know how far Troy can get on this show (J.Lo warned him that he'll be hard to take seriously), but it'll be fun to watch him try. And, to quote the "Idol" judges, it just might twerk.
Sam Woolf, 17 – I almost want to predict right here and now that Sam Woolf will win Season 13. He's adorable, he's sweet and self-effacing, he plays guitar, and he lives with his loving, doting Florida grandparents, taking care of them while his proud grandpa acts as his "agent" and unofficial fanclub president. Little girls, their mothers, and their grandmothers will fall in love with this kid. ("My daughters are going to go absolutely crazy for him," Harry admitted.) The fact that Sam's sped-up cover of Ed Sheeran's "Lego House" showcased his creativity and what Keith called "incredible pitch" sealed the deal. Just give him the record contract now.
Ethan Thompson, 23 – Actually, maybe Ethan will win. When he walked into the audition room, I nearly thought I was watching a surprise cameo by Season 11 winner Phillip Phillips; the resemblance was uncanny, right down to the floppy haircut and plaid shirt. In what is looking to be the most guitar-centric season of "Idol" ever (for the first time, singers can try out with their six-strings), Ethan is definitely one to watch.
Lindsey Pedicone, 18 – Lindsey is a marketing genius. She wore a cat T-shirt to her audition, and anyone who's ever watched Miley Cyrus's American Music Awards performance or hit "Like" on one of Grumpy Cat's Instagram photos can tell you that FELINES RULE THE INTERNET. Luckily, Lindsey had a lovely purry, kittenish voice to match her shirt. She even made "Hatchet Harry" smile, so that's promising.
Jillian Jensen, 21 – Jillian may look familiar to regular reality-watchers: About a year and a half ago, she was all over Fox's other singing competition, "The X Factor," sobbing on coach Demi Lovato's shoulder about her bullied past, then sobbing again when she got cut right before the live shows. Of course, "Idol" producers made no mention of all that, but at least there was no rehash of her sobby backstory, either. Instead, we just saw a side of Jillian that we didn't see on "The X Factor," as she sweetly strummed a guitar while warbling Gavin DeGraw's "Not Over You." It seemed like she'd grown up a little. If Jillian's diehard fanbase (nearly 160,000 followers on Twitter) has grown up with her and followed her to "Idol," she could have a strong advantage in the voting rounds.
Stephanie Hanvey, 16 – This Jersey girl was one of the day's J.Lo superfans; she was practically in tears while still waiting in the "Idol" holding pen, just knowing that her own idol was sitting on the other side of the door. She pulled it together to sing Jessie J's "Price Tag," and while her audition showed raw promise, she didn't seem quite ready for Hollywood. Even J.Lo called Stephanie "emotionally lacking" and "inconsistent." Eventually the judges all said yes (even the hard-to-please Harry), and Stephanie dropped to her knees, sobbing gratefully. I'm afraid, though, that she'll end up sobbing again during Hollywood Week — when she gets cut early on. I think she'll get eaten alive in Hollywood.
Morgan Deplitch, 15 – This J.Lo stan was even younger than Stephanie, but she exhibited an incredibly womanly confidence. She was a little too womanly, almost: Concerned dad Harry, who has daughters around Morgan's age, sternly disapproved of Morgan's sexy song choice, Grace Potter's "Ooh La La," which he said "creeped him out." (When Morgan repeatedly told Harry, "My mother loves you" while she fawned over Jennifer, it didn't seem to help matters.) But Harry was willing to overlook the creepy song selection because there was no denying her preternatural pipes. Let's hope Morgan chooses her tunes wisely in Hollywood.
Austin Percario, 17 ("soon to be 18, so if I go to Hollywood I will be alone without my mom!") – Austin was one of my favorites of this episode. The stage-mother-smothered teen had me cracking up as he sassily plotted his golden-ticketed-assisted escape and ignored his mother's advice to audition with "Valerie," singing the more rebellious "Titanium" instead. With his raspy pop voice (aptly described as "Justin Bieber at 5 a.m." by Keith) and "great look" according to J.Lo, this kid will go far, with or without Mom's meddling.
Kaitlyn Jackson, 15 – This sweet teen tried out with "Another Angel," an original she wrote for her grandfather after he suffered a heart attack. She had a nice voice, but her song was way too literal, definitely the work of an amateur (at least lyrically). The judges were impressed, but I'll reserve judgment until she's in Hollywood singing more established artists' better material.
Keith London, 21 – Oh, man, this guy is going to give Sam Woolf and Ethan Thompson some stiff competition. Another guy with a guitar — with a Phillip Phillips/Kris Allen-like ability to turn Katy Perry's "Roar" into a coffeehouse/Bonnaroo folk jam, a faux British voice not unlike Season 7's Josiah Leming's, and a look that seems inspired by the cast of The Outsiders — this heartthrob is sure to be a favorite with the ladies. Jennifer certainly loved him, saying, "I like that song, but you just made me like it more."
Shanon Wilson, 24 – A football player and a big ole mountain of a man, Shanon surprised everyone, especially J.Lo, with his pretty, delicate, almost girlish falsetto. (He also surprised Ryan Seacrest, when a waiting-room game of amateur tackle went awry and Ryan suffered the sort of injury that can cause a man to end up with a falsetto, if you catch my drift. Seacrest ouch!) Jennifer didn't even wait to tally other two judges' votes — she just immediately handed Shanon a golden ticket, and it was a done deal. But I have a feeling Keith and Harry's would have said yes anyway.
Stephanie Petronelli, 22 – It seemed gimmicky for this New England Patriots cheerleader to show up in her skimpy uniform, shaking her pom-poms for all of America. She also did Grace Potter's "Ooh La La," and while the song was much more appropriate for someone her age, and it suited her ragged voice (roughened up from too much singing practice, and probably too much cheerleader screaming), her audition was ultimately underwhelming. J.Lo and Keith gave her a chance, but Harry gave her a big fat no…and then instantly regretted his decision once Stephanie's equally scantily clad fellow cheerleaders came rushing into the audition room. Ha. But I think Harry was right the first time. Stephanie wasn't a singer to cheer about.
Terrica Curry, 20 – This soul belter barely got any screentime, but she certainly could sing, and she was the only straight-up female R&B vocalist, in a Candice Glover/Jennifer Hudson mold, shown all day. Let's see how she does in Hollywood.
Justin Fira, 24 – His briefly shown acoustic cover of Maroon 5's "This Love" seemed like fodder to me. I predict he'll get lost in the shuffle of more memorable guitar-boy types this season.
Shelby Comey, 15 – I found his country girl's yodely vocals shrill and grating, but J.Lo compared her to a baby Miranda Lambert, and the panelist's resident country expert, Keith, adored her. She's a real all-American girl (daughter of a cowboy, lives on farm, etc.), so she could do well with heartland voters…but only if she picks songs that work with her voice.
Madelyn Patterson, 24 – This more seasoned country girl came to her audition with a huge voice, a huge amount of poise, and a huge marketability factor. But I thought she oversang Patty Griffin's "Up to the Mountain" (she's no Crystal Bowersox), and Harry wasn't impressed by her gratuitous licks and runs. I'm still not quite sure why J.Lo gave her a "double yes."
Jordan Grizzard, 27 – A worship pastor, new dad, and regular-Joe type, likable Jordan brought the element of surprise. Said Harry: "If I saw you walking down the street, I wouldn't think of you as a guy who'd audition for 'Idol.'" Said Jordan, smartly: "I'm banking on that!" Then Jordan delivered a surprisingly soulful cover of "Ain't No Sunshine" that made Harry flash a rare smile and wax poetic about minor scales. With Harry already on his side, Jordan could go far.
Savion Wright, 21 – Savion was another one of my favorite this Wednesday. An ADHD sufferer who found an outlet and salvation in music, he waited eight long years to audition for "Idol" until he thought he was truly ready. (A far cry from the many deluded, unprepared auditioners who've tried out for this show in the past.) Maybe he was just waiting till Harry joined the cast, since he said he's been a fan of Harry's since age 10. Anyway, it was worth the wait. Savion's original song, the brooding but folksy "Dark Side of Me," was actually great. "The other competitors are going to be very intimidated by you," Harry predicted.
Viviana Villalon, 19 – She covered Maroon 5's "Love Somebody" on the ukulele. Not since the awesome Lilly Scott in Season 9 has such a thing been seen on "Idol." Let's hope Viviana continues the awesomeness in Season 13.
Savannah Young, 17 - Britney Spears's "Toxic" has become a predictable cover-song choice by now, but Savannah's sultry performance showcased some soul. She may be one to watch.
Ben Boone, 22 – Jennifer said this audition gave her the "first goosies of the season" (ugh, yes, she's still saying "goosies"), but I didn't think Ben's cover of Alex Clare's "Too Close" packed nearly the same wallop as the intense original. His rendition felt lazy and throwaway. My goosies remained unraised.
Malcolm Allen, 19 – I ADORED this dude. He came in playing an invisible guitar, complete with imaginary whammy bar, to Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" (if "Idol" doesn't work out, he can always try the U.S. Air Guitar Championships), but he wasn't some nutter: He was good and funky! And funny, too! "I'm literally love with music; if I could marry it, I would," he declared. I fell in love with Malcolm. And so did J.Lo, who called him a "natural" and gave him a "triple yes."
So there you have it. I think this was a pretty superb episode, packed with promising talent (especially Sam Woolf, Austin Percario, Malcolm Allen, Viviana Villalon, and Munfarid Zaidi), solid judging, and good humor. If "Idol" can keep this up, then Season 13 will definitely shake off last season's curse.
What did you think of Wednesday's premiere? Let me know in the comments section below!