It was a true full-circle (and family-circle) moment, 13 seasons in the making, when Tristen Langley, son of Season 1 finalist Nikki McKibbin, tried out for "American Idol" on Thursday night. "Second-generation 'American Idol'! This is something! This is history!" declared judge Jennifer Lopez as Nikki, as flame-haired as ever, proudly entered the Austin audition room with 15-year-old Tristen. It was definitely an "Idol" first.
Longtime "Idol"-watchers surely remember Nikki from the series' groundbreaking inaugural season…and probably feel pretty old to realize that she now has a son of "Idol"-qualifying age. Nikki was the fuchsia-dyed underdog, the rocker chick, the girl who nearly made it to the finale (placing just behind Justin Guarini and Kelly Clarkson) despite being the target of Simon Cowell's brutal criticism week after week. Nikki's career never quite took off, as she battled the music industry and her own demons; her most high-profile post-"Idol" moments were her appearances on VH1's "Celebrity Rehab" and "Sober House," on which she underwent treatment for multiple addictions. But that didn't discourage Tristen from giving showbiz and "Idol" a go this year.
It wasn't the first time that Tristen had appeared on "Idol": In 2002, at age 4, he attended one of the Season 1 live shows and gave his mommy a rose onstage. But this time, it was Tristen's turn to blossom.
Truth be told, Tristen's performance of Sublime's "Santeria" was just OK. Harry Connick Jr., aka "Hatchet Harry," Season 13's toughest (and best) judge, was right when he said, "If your mom weren't here, it wouldn't work for me." But I don't think J.Lo and Keith Urban wanted to disappoint one of the O.G. "Idol" contestants, especially one who's had such a rough life like Nikki…so Tristen squeaked through with two yesses. Now, like his mother, he's an "Idol" underdog. Will he prove Hatchet Harry wrong, just like Nikki did with Simon 12 years ago? Watch this space…
There were 32 other singers who received golden tickets in Austin and San Francisco this Thursday, some of whom impressed the judges — and me — a little bit more than Tristen did. Here are some other standouts from the rest of the episode:
Jesse Roach, 27 – I loved this girl. A tough-as-leather guitar chick in a sleeveless Guns N' Roses tee and sleeve tattoos, she seemed like a cross between "The Voice's" Grace Askew and Amy Winehouse, and she performed a K.T. Oslin cover that was raspy, sexy, and just plain cool. She just seemed real. "I think you could make records; I think you could be an artist," said Jennifer. "You have a lot of soul. You have a voice older than you are," mused Keith. Could a rocker girl finally win "Idol"? It's never happened before, but this is looking to be a very guitar-centric season, so maybe Jesse has a shot.
Quiandra Boston-Pearsall, 17 – Two friends entered the audition room; only one left with a golden ticket. Quiandra's 15-year-old "little brother" Jamiah, who auditioned with an original, semi-rapped song, didn't seem quite ready for prime time, but he took the news of his rejection with a maturity that proved he might have the thick skin needed to make it in this biz later on. However, the confident Quiandra, who boldly told the judges, "I'm gonna show you how it's done," had the goods. I'm interested to see if she can apply her gospel stylings to songs outside her wheelhouse.
Megan Miller, 23 – Megan brought lot of lungpower to her cover of Carrie Underwood's "Last Name," but her performance seemed labored. Keith gave one of his best critiques ever when he told Megan, "If it sounds like a lot of work to get [the song] out, it takes the same work for the audience to listen to it." Harry worried that she'd blow her voice out, although she assured him that she performs several times a week with no issues. Ultimately, Harry appreciated her work ethic, and along with the other two judges, gave her grudging yes — but said, "I'll be shocked if she has a voice in a month." We will see if Megan even makes it through Hollywood Week, let alone a whole month — but regardless, I just didn't think she was all that memorable.
Spencer Lloyd, 19 – J.Lo, a woman known for liking younger men, immediately had eyes for this handsome fella. "I love him!" she announced as he entered the audition room, before he'd even sung a single note. Then she predicted, "Girls are gonna love this." Eh, she's probably right. But if we're being honest (as in, like, Connick-honest), Spencer's cover of ex-Idol Colton Dixon's "Never Gone" was, as old judge Randy Jackson used to say, just a'ight for you for me for you. It was a generic performance. Of course J.Lo gave him a yes, but Harry said, "You seem like a really sweet guy, and you're ridiculously handsome, but the part that's missing for me is you're an OK singer." Keith agreed, but called Spencer "entertaining." Then Harry finally admitted, "You're going to bring something to 'American Idol' that needs to be there; it's an image thing." Basically, Keith and Harry put Spencer through because they knew a cute face like his would be good for ratings. Wow, any attractive, marginally talented male who tried out for "Idol" last year, when producers all but rigged the show in favor of the female contestants, really picked the wrong season. There were cute boys last year that sang better than Spencer, but didn't even get past Hollywood Week.
Marlon Lindsey, 27 – Six years in the Army put this crooner's "Idol" dreams on hold. Was he worth the wait? Well, yes and no. He had tons of charisma and heart, and lots of potential, but there was a grating quality to his "Change Is Gonna Come" performance. Let's see how he does in Hollywood, which is its own kind of bootcamp.
T.K. Hash, 28 – After doing a pretty convincng impersonation of President Obama that probably would've earned him a ticket to Vegas on "America's Got Talent," T.K. belted out Fall Out Boy's "My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark" (awesome song choice) and commanded the room. It wasn't the vocal performance of the day, but his personality was off the charts, and he really sold the song. Harry loved his likability factor. Jennifer loved his energy. Keith loved his confidence. Looks like T.K.'s approval rating just went up! Maybe soon we will see if he can rock America's vote.
John Fox, 20 – A Texas worship pastor who started writing church songs at age 6, John came across as more of a musician, a singer-songwriter type, than a star. But I suppose when you grow up in a town with a population of 1,100, shyness is to be expected. There was no denying that his voice on Bob Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love" sounded lovely, so warm and inviting and natural — with "authority," as Keith put it. Let's hope that some time in Hollywood brings out John Fox's foxy star quality.
Rachel Rolleri, 17 – This gorgeous guitar girl came in with a confidence that belied her years, and her "Cher-thick tone," as Keith so amusingly put it, sounded great on Sugarland's "Stay." There was even a keening, Crystal Bowersox-like quality to her voice. She made a few flubs, but what was annoying about those flubs was the way she acknowledged them, unprofessionally pulling faces and rolling her eyes. That's when she finally did seem like an awkward teen. It was cute the first time, but by the third time, the shtick had gotten old, and the judges called her out on it. But they gave her a chance anyway. Rachel needs to develop a better poker face in Hollywood. If she gets that under control, she could go far.
Remi Wolf, 17 – This former Junior Olympian ski-racer gave up the sport to pursue her true passion, and I think she made the right decision. Her sultry, throaty cover of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On," described as "raw and primitive" by Keith, really wowed me, as did her awesome Edie Brickell/'90s-era Julia Roberts hair. This Wolf could attack the competition.
M.K. Nobilette, 20 – An androgynous Bieber-haired girl in baggy fatigues, M.K. readily admitted, "I don't look like someone who looks like how I sing." Then out came this gorgeous, gorgeous voice. J.Lo called her "authentic." I just call her awesome. I can't wait to see more from this girl.
Emmanuel Zidora, 24 – This guy didn't even wait to reach the podium before he started his audition: He walked in wailing a theatrical rendition of Beyoncé's "Sweet Dreams." Harry remarked, "Good entrance," though J.Lo was a little skerred. Emmanuel certainly knew how to grab his audience's attention, but it was an over-the-top stunt that could have backfired. Luckily, he showed his (slightly) more subdued side when he sang his real audition song, "I Believe In You and Me." Either way, it was nice to see this guy exhibit so much unflappable confidence, considering that his 7th grade music teacher once told him he'd never make it on "Idol." Emmanuel got three yesses, and instantly burst into tears. I hope he can keep his emotions in check and stay confident during Hollywood Week, because I really want him to prove than mean old teacher wrong.
Caitlyn Johnson, 15 – The judges were floored to learn this Amazonian blonde's real age. Harry was convinced she was a "32-year-old New Yorker named Beth Goodwin." Nope, she's just a sweet young ranch girl from Oregon. Her cover of "the Christina Aguilera version" of Etta James's "Something's Got a Hold on Me" showcased her big ole voice, which again belied her years, but there wasn't a lot of originality to her performance; it sounded like an Xtina imitation, albeit a good one. Harry told her she wasn't ready, of course. But the other two judges put her through. I guess we will soon find out how ready Caitlyn really is.
David Luning, 26 – David the NoCal indie-rocker was (surprise!) my favorite of the night. This is a guy I'd buy records from. Looking like Snoopy's cool beatnik cousin Spike in his floppy hat, and sort of seeming like the lovechild of Season 10's lackadaisically cool Paul McDonald and last season's quirky fire-juggler Kez Ban, the rebellious troubadour auditioned with a broodingly dark original song that showcased true, gritty talent. All of the judges were impressed, but none of them were sure if this guy was right for "Idol." Keith said he feared David would be crushed in Hollywood by technically better singers, though he said David's "staunch originality" might help him stand out. Harry said David's "misanthropic and down" style was all wrong for a shiny happy show like "Idol." But in the end, the judges gave him a chance. I am thrilled they did, but I worry that David will struggle when he's forced to sing other people's material. Make this guy do a group number of, say, a Lady Gaga song, and he may be a goner. But I hope not.
Selena & Sierra Moreno, 22 – These twins must be fraternal, because not only did they not look that much alike, but they had very different singing/performing styles. Selena belted Janis Joplin at the top of her lungs; the visibly shaky Sierra reined it in for an understated cover of Beyoncé's "1+1." Selena was definitely a better performer, but Sierra's voice drew me in more. Harry thought they made a mistake trying out together (twins are a common gimmick on shows like these), barking, "One of you is clearly the better singer; as a set, you won't make it." Selena ended up getting two yesses, however, so she'll now be heading to Hollywood alone. But honestly, I don't think either twin was totally deserving of a golden ticket.
Briana Oakley, 17 – Regular "Idol" viewers may remember Briana from last year's "American Idol." True TV addicts may even remember her from "America's Most Talented Kids" in 2009. Clearly, Briana is not a quitter. After getting cut in Hollywood last season, she tried, tried again, despite being devastated by the rejection. ("I'm relentless," she explained.) Her Sara Bareilles cover this week was very good, with superb pitch and control, so this time, she may go far. Will she go as far as Season 6 winner Jordin Sparks, to whom she was compared by J.Lo? We shall see.
Adam Roth, 28 – I still can't decide if Adam was a joke contestant or an awesome contestant. Probably a bit of both. His whole beardy, hippie-dippie, yoga-pajama'd act, as some sort of "sound healer" in touch with all his chakras, was like something out of the Mike Myers box-office bomb Love Guru, and when he flashed Keith some creepy devil's-eyes, he suddenly didn't seem to be all about peace 'n' love 'n' unicorns 'n' rainbows. There were moments of promise in his cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," but I don't know if I can get past his new-agey gimmickry…or the fact that he said this song was written by "Co-Hann." Facepalm.
So that wraps up "Idol's" big two-night Season 13 premiere. So far, I'm very impressed with the talent this year, although the producers did seem to frontload the season with more amazing auditioners on Wednesday's kickoff show. Still, Jesse Roach and David Luning alone made the entire episode worthwhile for me.
What did you think of Thursday's auditions? Let me know in the comments section below.