Wednesday night marked the start of a new era for “American Idol.” After the exit of judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez -- a decision I suspect Lopez will regret within two years -- a whole new panel made its debut. Well, almost all new. We were once again stuck with Randy Jackson, who simply will never leave. I have accepted this. He is that guy at the party who sits around at 3 a.m., eating the last of the corn nuts, talking about how crappy the food was and how awful all your friends are, while you try your best to pick up the living room while simultaneously hinting that it’s time to leave. He so is that guy. But that said, I was actually glad Randy was there this episode, because he’s the only person on this new panel capable of telling people that they cannot sing.
The rest of the panel includes Keith Urban, “Idol”’s first country-star judge in 12 seasons. This is surprising given that at country artists have been a major part of this show for years now, with two full-on country winners. Unfortunately, Urban was a total dud this episode. There were large spans of time where I totally forgot that he existed -- even when he was on screen! -- and his critiques varied from exceedingly kind to just totally off base. The least auspicious judging debut since the Ellen Degeneres debacle.
The season’s big “get,” Mariah Carey, also had a less-than-successful night. Carey is a great choice for this panel. Aside from Steven Tyler, she is the only other member of the “Idol” judging panel past or present that could be classified as a legitimate vocalist. She is an honest-to-god legend. And she is at the absolute right point in her career to segue into this kind of a show. But she did not come off particularly well in the premiere. In fact, she seemed self absorbed and an unapologetic diva who seems to delight in poking the Chihuahua/My Little Pony hybrid that is NickiMinaj with a very sharp stick, and then acting aghast when Minaj bites back. I got the sense that Mariah is truly committed to this process -- something I could not say about Britney Spears and her recent, failed run on “The X Factor” -- but Mariah is doing herself no favors by taking herself so seriously.
And then there’s Minaj herself. Many people saw her hiring as a major coup for the show, as she’s still very much a pop star in her prime. I think this is a mutually beneficial situation for both parties. Minaj brings in a much younger fan base -- something this show desperately needs in these later seasons, which have been taken over by The Frauen Vote -- and she and Carey are going to generate headlines with their instantaneous rivalry. But Minaj benefits, too. This is very similar to the situation “The Voice” had with Cee Lo Green. When they first nabbed him he was riding high on “F**k You.” But…what has he done since? Minaj has already had greater and more sustained success, but I suspect even Nicki, or her managers, know that because of her already over-the-top persona she has a shorter-than-usual cultural shelf life. This show will give her a sustained, mainstream relevancy for as long as she’s on it. Assuming she can avoid killing Carey, that is. All that said, I found myself responding positively to Nicki in the premiere. Yes, she is RIDICULOUS. But she’s also a fairly astute judge and she seems really excited to be there. She’s definitely not boring….
My fear for this season, as demonstrated tonight, is that this show is going to be less about the actual singing competition and instead totally dominated by the Minaj/Carey feud. I don’t think this is at all manufactured; I think that the two of them honestly cannot stand one another. If it was this ugly during the initial-audition “honeymoon” phase, it has the possibility to get really unpleasant during the somewhat-tense live shows. (Even Paula and Simon used to get snippy with one another during The Golden Age.) Of course, producers are probably counting on that. I suspect that Keith Urban is not paid nearly enough to sit between the two of them.
The other major concern I had after the two-hour premiere is the show’s apparent return to cruelty. There were multiple segments devoted to the mocking of the socially awkward, something the editors had backed off of considerably since the Season 10 revamp. I’ve never liked that aspect of the show and I was chagrined to see probably half the spotlighted auditions fall into the joke category -- especially since we only saw maybe three really decent auditions all night. Maybe it was a blip, but I really don’t need that kind of negativity. There’s nothing funny about a guy wearing a terrible Michael Jackson costume and TRAGIC wig making an ass of himself on national television. And we really needed to make fun of two different immigrants for not being able to speak English? Shame on you, show. Shame on you.
I won’t bother recapping the auditions that we’re all supposed to laugh at in order to feel better about ourselves. It’s a waste of your time and mine. But of the ones we’re supposed actually care about, here is my takea:
-Tenna Torres, 28, from Queens, is a huge Mariah Carey fan and went to Camp Mariah back in the day. She picked “You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King. Tenna can sing, but she has to watch her tone, which sometimes can get very unpleasant, almost tortured. Mariah said she would be “honored” if someone like Tennawas to win Season 12. She got sent through to Hollywood.
-Christina “Isabelle” from New York/Atlanta/Boston/Whatever picked “Summertime” and she absolutely killed it. There was some banter about her weight struggle (she is a gorgeous woman), Randy talked about how high school kids can be so cruel, and somehow it came about Nicki. I don’t know. Nicki complemented her tone, skill, and vocal beauty. Urban loved the vulnerability and humanity in her voice. Randy told her to build up her confidence (she is a student at Berklee -- don’t you have to be pretty cutthroat to make it in that program?). Four yesses.
-Apparently this year people could nominate potential contestants for “American Idol” via the internet? Jessica Kartalis’s mother nominated her, and Jessica was “surprised” when Randy came to give her her audition number. Please. So fake. And I don’t understand any part of this new process. Jessica sang an original song. She was fine when she was singing a cappella, but when she started playing guitar she lost her pitch and maybe screwed up the lyrics -- she kept apologizing while she was singing. All of the judges encouraged Jessica to try out next year, and Jessica said, “Today is my only shot.” What does that mean? What a bullshit response. She’s 19! This girl really thought she was going straight through to Hollywood, you could tell.
-Frankie Ford, 24, a subway busker from Brooklyn, sang “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurythmics. He broke down in the middle of the audition and had to take a lengthy pause to get his stuff back together. He was good -- not amazing, but a good singer with a big voice and he knows how to interpret a song. Mariah loved his “inner glow.” Nicki felt that he was “so different,” but acknowledged that he doesn’t have the best voice of the crowd, but that he has a story America will respond to. I actually think America will be largely indifferent to Frankie. He seems very nervous, very scattered.
-Sarah Restuccio, 17, from New Jersey works on a blueberry farm, drives a four-wheeler, and shoots arrows. She can also sing, and she picked “Mama’s Song” by Carrie Underwood. I don’t like the song (love Cunderwood, though), but she has a lovely voice and can emote. Nicki thinks she can be a big country star. Mariah thinks she’s the whole package. And then something amazing happened: Sarah went into a second song, and it was “Super Bass,” and she was GREAT! She rapped and it totally worked. Loved her. The second song confused Urban and Randy, who didn’t get who Sarah is. Nicki defended the hell out of Sarah and said that she can be all of those things. It got heated, but in the right way. Four yesses. That was the best part of the night to me, hands down.
-Angela Miller, 18, from Massachusetts has significant hearing problems, but she can sing. She did “Mama Knows Best” by Jessie J and she has a great pop voice with a bit of a jazz twist. Big range and good control and a great natural groove and look. Nicki said that Angela made her feel something in her soul. Mariah said that she has tone and soul and beautiful texture. Randy called it one of the best today. Certainly one of the best we saw all night, if not the best.
-Ashlee Feliciano, 20, a student from Connecticut, sang that damned “Put Your Records On” song by Corinne Bailey Rae. Ashlee’s family adopts “medically complex children.” So there’s your requisite sob story. She’s a good singer with a big voice. She got a bit scattered, needs to work on her breath control, and needs to focus on her upper register. Nicki said she was inspired by Ashlee. Mariah thought everything was “nice and clear” and Ashlee has tons of potential. Urban said that her lower register has tremendous character -- I thought that was the weakest part of the audition. Her little brother Aiden would win if there was a show called “Cute Toddler Idol.”
-I’ll wrap by commenting on the part of the episode that made me actually groan. Gurpreet Sing Sarin is a dapper man who color coordinates his turbans to his outfits. Fabulous. He referred to himself as “The Turbanator,” which prompted the editors to go into an ill-conceived package in which they gave Gurpreet glowing red eyes and had him “targeting” the judges. Now, why might it not be a great idea to make a guy in a turban look like a killing machine on national television? Did nobody involved stop and think, “Oh, hey, this might be a little culturally insensitive”? Oh, SHOW. Anyway, Gurpreet sang “Sunday Morning” by Maroon 5, and he did a fine job. He’s got some natural rhythm and has a sweet voice, but it was all a little unassuming. Both Ketih and Nicki thought he was too light/weak for this competition. Randy and Mariah gave him yesses. Keith said no, but Nicki put him through because he has a beautiful marigold turban, just like the wig she snatched off Rainbow Brite to wear to that afternoon’s taping. While I suspect the segment that introduced him is going to infuriate several different groups, I am a sucker for some hot turban action. Go Gurpreet!
Tomorrow: The auditions move to Chicago, and Nicki vs. Mariah gets even more serious, with Keith Urban left to suffer as a human “scratching post.” Poor Keith Urban…