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American Idol Recap: In Defense of Nicki Minaj

AMERICAN IDOL: Charlotte Auditions: Contestant Jimmy Smith on AMERICAN IDOL airing Wednesday, Jan. 23 (8:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX.

Tonight! The Mariah-versus-Nicki moment that shocked the world gave Billy Bush something to talk about for three minutes! Are you ready for the fireworks to watch two rich people be snippy? Let’s get ready to rumble wonder what all the fuss was about!

Oh, but American Idol never met a potentially interesting moment it couldn’t neuter with endless padding. And so it is with tonight’s show, which comes to you from the Charlotte Speedway. “They say the finish of one chapter is the start of the next,” says Ryan. Do they? Who are these people who feel the need to explain how books are laid out? Still, I will take this over the rest of Ryan’s dialogue tonight, which is roughly 85 percent NASCAR puns. Rev up your engines, bumpy turns, etc. Tonight’s show feels especially thrown-together.

Scotty McCreery greets the stadium full of hopefuls by doing a Ryan Seacrest impression that is suspiciously Nixon-esque. (Also, does the Charlotte Speedway have a stadium in it? When are they going to level with us about how the auditions actually work?)

Our first auditioner is Naomi Morris, whom Nicki suggests should be called simply OMI. And OMIGOD, Naomi cannot sing. She is also not quite a wacky enough character to warrant how very long this whole thing takes. Neither is Joel Nemoyer, who looks like what would happen if Jack McBrayer went to clown college. Joel plans to do his audition flat on his back. It’s better for the voice, he says, and claims that this was “proven by science” in season five, when Andrea Bocelli made Chris Daughtry do it. The shocker here is that Chris Daughtry’s season was seven whole years ago, which passed in the blink of an eye, while we are nine minutes into this episode and I can barely remember a time before it began. Anyway, Joel is a great big weirdo and he doesn’t make it through.

Brian Rittenberry’s wife was diagnosed with stage four appendix cancer, which grew from the size of a grapefruit to the size of a basketball before mysteriously disappearing altogether, and I’d love it if someone could tell me where my appendix is, because now I have a whole new part of my body to check a million times a day. Brian’s got a soulful, gravelly voice, a Tate Stevens look about him, and a potentially tragic backstory, which means an automatic yes. Cancer Wife has a huge crush on Keith Urban, and as Ryan prepares to bring her into the audition room, he asks whether she has a “hall pass” for him. Like, out loud, in front of her in-laws and young son. I will remind you that this is a show that still does not acknowledge the existence of gay people so as not to offend families. Anyway, she meets him, and it turns out she and Brian do have an arrangement, so the next few minutes is devoted to her and Keith’s tender, soft-focus shower-fucking. She’s earned it.

Jimmy Smith is a countryish guy with a family full of women who look like an evolution chart of Paula Deen. He sings “Bless the Broken Road”; it’s a little flat, but he’s cute and he turns Nicki into some kind of gangsta. This woman has many faces, people.

There’s a quick montage of singers who have made it through, and they all have that terrible running-up-and-down-the-scales kind of voice that Mariah popularized, and of course she loves them all.

And then they do another I Nominate segment! A woman in Alabama nominates her sweet niece Isabel, who’s too shy to do it herself. And then Randy shows up at her school (“Yes, the Dog is on a school bus,” he says, as though it were some kind of unbelievable thing). This is my favorite moment of the whole show so far: In order to surprise young Isabel, the school whips together a fake assembly, and here’s the principal’s ad-libbed speech: “Okay, kids: Can anyone tell me what an SAT score is?” TOTALLY natural school-assembly stuff right there. Super normal. Great job, ma’am. Anyway, Isabel is charming and marketable and Zooey Deschanel–esque, and she is through.

Here’s where trouble starts a-brewin’. Stoner-y black rock chick Taisha Bethea sings Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” and Randy, Mariah, and Keith look at her like confused Jack Russell terriers. “You want to sing rock, but you sang a Johnny Cash song,” Randy asks, as though those two things could not be resolved. Dude cannot figure it out. She helpfully follows it up with an Alanis Morrissette song, because you have to go back that far to find a credible pop female with a rock edge, apparently. Nicki gets it and builds a solid case for her. Taisha is through. The judges’ table is 75 percent idiot.

But the problems continue to build. Finally, Summer Cunningham, a countryish gal, sings a countryish song and then says, “I did the country thing, now I want to try something more soulful.” This puts Keith’s nose out of joint: “That’s like saying, ‘I did the brain-surgeon thing.’” (No it isn’t, Keith. The country thing is notoriously easy to slip into. Exhibit A: Kid Rock.) The rest of the panel wants poor Summer to define specifically what it is she wants to do with her career, and whether it’s country or soul or rock; Mariah picks up the ends of her hair and puts them back down a million times, and Nicki stomps off in frustration.

AND SHE’S RIGHT. Who cares exactly how any of these people would market themselves, when, if they make it through, they’ll be singing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” with three strangers on Group Night? The world, like Nicki herself, is post-genre, and this show has a tendency to flatten everyone out anyway. 

So, anyway, that was it. Some minor shade thrown between Nicki and Mariah, a storm-off, and that’s all she wrote. But the entertainment news media made a huge deal out of it, and Idol makes a huge deal out of THAT. Here’s how wack our entertainment news media is: The three shows we see commenting on the spat are TMZ, The Talk, and TMZ Live.

We return on the second day of Charlotte auditions, and everyone seems just fine. Nicki is dressed like the dictator of some kind of gay North Korea, Mariah is still asking for ice like a languorous lost Gabor sister, and Keith and Randy are still also there. We’re going to make it through this thing, people.

And the second day brings us a better crop of singers: Army reservist Brandy Alexandria Hamilton, who is bubbly and charming and begs the judges not to fight because “it makes us sad” and who also sounds like a cocktail at a colonial-America-themed chain restaurant; Janelle Arthur, a spunky country gal with an effortless charm; street singer Rodney Barber, who survives having chosen Edwin McCain’s “I’ll Be”; Candice Glover, who got knocked out in the group round last year and sounds like she hasn’t stopped practicing since; Ja’Bria Barber, who hunts live bullfrogs and fries their legs, and no, I’d rather not think about it either, but those are the facts as we know them; and Ashley Smith, who is a little too effervescent for her own good and who gets the loonball music in her introductory package but surprises us all by having a killer voice. (Still, this show is littered with characters who survived the audition rounds only to annoy us in the live shows. What I’m saying is: America, meet your new Sanjaya.)

Through it all, only Nicki manages to make the trains run on time. She asks good questions, she gives interesting feedback, she sasses the other judges, she gives the hopefuls nicknames, she looks like an action figure from a completely different movie every time you see her. Nicki is the only person who seems to understand that she has two jobs to do: to guide this young talent and to entertain us. This is Randy’s twelfth season, and he hasn’t managed to do either, even once. If this part of this show is remotely watchable, it’s entirely because of Nicki. 

The thing is, this show has a format that works. It has a potentially interesting judging panel. But it still has the same old audition process, which is deadly boring, repetitive, and mean. I know there’s money to be made here, but I’d appreciate it if they’d say, “Listen, you have things to do. Take our word for it: There are plenty of people out there with worse voices than they think (or delusions of greatness, or autism). How about you just take our word for it that we got a good laugh at their expense, and you can use the extra time on an episode of Ben and Kate.” As it is, I’m meeting some fine young singers, and I’m already resenting them for wasting my time.

Take a tip from Nicki, producers of American Idol: You don’t have to be the very best, just try something new once in a while. We might like it.

Photo: Michael Becker/FOX