You guys! American Idol is BACK, and Fox would very much like you to watch it. How much would they like you to watch it? This much: They are not only not getting out in front of the rumor that Nicki Minaj threatened to gun down Mariah Carey at the judges’ table, they are actually sort of goosing us all into talking about it. They can throw me all the slow-motion, manipulatively scored promos they like, this is the real measure of the importance of this show: It is totally okay for you to believe that Fox would be an accessory to televised pop-star murder if it washes the taste of The Mob Doctor out of your mouth.
So this is Season 12, and our judges’ table is 75% new; in addition to Minaj and the right side of Carey’s face, we are joined by Keith Urban, an Australian country star I could tell you almost nothing about. He seems like a friendly enough guy, but I expect more sophistication out of my Aussies. Modern country is a phenomenon we’re stuck with in America; I am suspicious of anyone with better native music choices who aspires to be Kenny Chesney. Good hair, though.
But the real star of the show is going to be the ongoing feud between Nicki and Mariah, which is a thing that I officially do not buy. Sure, I can imagine that they wouldn’t get along terribly well, but neither one is a good enough actress to sell any serious beef. Instead, we just get a lot of sighing, imperious Mariah, and frisky, tooth-baring Nicki, and it’s my impression that they’re both like this all the time.
Oh, and also sometimes both Mariah and Nicki become British for a few seconds. But, like, eighth-grade performance of The Importance of Being Earnest British. I am aware that Nicki has an alter ego named Roman Zolanski with this kind of showy accent, though I don’t know whether he or she comes out outside of a musical context. But when Mariah asks a production assistant: “Would it be frightfully tiresome for someone to bring me a bit of ice?” it all gets deeply off-putting. And — this is a thing that we have to take the time to specify now — not deeply off-putting in a fun way.
It is not insignificant that the first singer of the season can barely get a note out over Mariah and Nicki’s stilted bickering and can’t win their full attention until he works their names into an Idol-specific take on “We Will Rock You.” As is typically the case when you make up your own version of a popular song, the results are not good. Good-bye, first singing voice we hear in season twelve. Sorry you’re less interesting than a halfhearted fight over a majorette hat.
Tenna Torres went to Camp Mariah as a child, and apparently they don’t teach you anything there, because she fails to come into the audition room on a jet ski. Instead she just sings, and while it’s too adenoidal and runsy for my taste, Mariah eats it up and she is through.
“Oh, but we are bored,” says America, “where is the racism and malice we came for?” Relax, because here is James Bae, a big-faced Asian guy in Real-D 3-D glasses and headphones that aren’t plugged into anything. He attempts a Justin Bieber song, remembers about every fifth dance move, and stinks up the room. But Nicki, who has not read her corporate-policy manual, shows him some kindness: She asks if he has a girlfriend, and he replies, “No, but I’m single!” He then tells her he wants to do a “collibe” with her, and she tells him he’s special, which, you know, sure. I wasn’t expecting to get my human touch from a woman who has an entirely new head every time I see her, but I will take it where I can.
Christina “Isabelle” expresses her name like that, and I have no idea what she means by it. She also lost 50 pounds at some unspecified point in her past, and while that’s not an insignificant amount, it’s also not, like, Biggest Loser–worthy. It’s an achievement, but if you’re going to lead with a sob story, you’d best bring it. This feels a little like: “I used to not be able to parallel park.” Anyway, she has a lovely voice and she’s “through.”
Evan Ruggiero lost a leg to osteosarcoma, but not his spunk or his passion for tap dancing, which we are tragically not shown. His sense of style is also intact: In B-roll footage of him playing his guitar in Columbus Circle, he wears two very stylish boots. An expensive, flashy shoe at the end of a prosthetic leg. It belongs on the American flag. He leads with Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” and makes an airtight case against leading with Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours”; it’s all hiccuppy and cute, the way it is written to be, and he can’t sell it. He follows up with Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” and while it’s miles better, you don’t get a first chance to make a second impression when you wasted your first impression on Jason Fucking Mraz. He is not through, and he must schlep his bionic leg back outside where his whole giant family waits for him. This judges’ table is surprisingly tough.
Oh! One new thing they’re doing this year is I Nominate, where you can suggest that the production come and find the bashful singer in your life and basically force them to audition. A lovely Staten Island mother nominates her 19-year-old daughter Jessica, and then Randy Jackson comes and plucks her out of a bar gig that is surprisingly well-lit. She comes to the audition room, sings an a cappella song weakly, then plays an out-of-tune guitar and winces, and then gets four NOs. So this new I Nominate thing is going great.
Shira Gavrielov had a No. 1 single in her native Israel, but now lives in America, where she is pursuing her passion for wearing shorts that clearly showcase her labia. She is through!
Frankie Ford is an industrious young guy who now sings for donations in subway cars, and I like his spirit so much I’m just now remembering how much I hate people who sing for donations in subway cars. He does “Sweet Dreams” and stops himself halfway through because of nerves (that don’t show), then continues; he is better and gets through, and, if he can keep it cool, he’ll be a contender. But don’t get any ideas, kids; silence is golden on the subway.
So far, I have no idea what anything about this season is going to feel like, but I can tell you this: We as a nation are less confident than ever. In every season so far, there’s been a deluge of deluded jackasses, so certain of their specialness, so entitled to fame and fortune. So far in season twelve, it’s all talented kids with the yips. This is how empires fall.
Benjamin Gaisey is our first Person Who Is Obviously Kidding. He hits the scene in a plastic Thriller jacket and a lady wig, and the production plays along by adding rubbing-pleather sound effects to his every move, the way they used to do in that Jimmy Fallon SNL sketch where he and Horatio Sanz worked in a leather store. Except here, there’s nobody to giggle about it.
Rozanna Shindelman is one of those Brighton Beach gals with the long legs and the tiny, doting Russian parents, and the voice that is far too big for its own good, and the enunciation that makes you think she has hard ethnic candies in her mouth. Four NOs.
A young Jersey girl whose name I never catch sings a Carrie Underwood song very competently and then does the first verse of “Superbass,” and Nicki swoons while the other three judges cannot digest the idea of a girl who sings country and is also aware of hip-hop. She is through!
Angela Miller is an 18-year-old with a lovely voice and some hearing problems, and she causes Mariah to ask the greatest question I hear tonight: “For singers, it’s so important to hear yourself. Does hearing loss make that more difficult?” Turns out it does. Also turns out it doesn’t matter, as her voice is pretty much flawless. This girl will go far.
This lovely moment sends us straight into abject cruelty. Brett Holt is an Idol super-fan, who sings “We Are the Champions” strongly and is unanimously sent through in a scene that is suspiciously gauzy, and then we realize that IT WAS ALL A DREAM. Brett’s actual audition is much worse, yet he gets four enthusiastic YESes, and then a talking duck snaps him out of what is YET ANOTHER DREAM. Hey, fuck you, Idol. Pick on someone in your own tax bracket.
Gupreett Singh Serin calls himself “the Turbanator” for his collection of colorful turbans, and his voice is just good enough to keep him from being a terrible racist punch line, but that’s not to say the producers won’t try for the next few weeks.
The show ends with Ashlee Feleceano, who possesses a lovely, clear voice and whose parents foster several special needs kids, which is pretty much the perfect Idol one-two punch. She is, of course, through.
Randy sends us home thusly: “It’s been real.” It has actually been utterly fabricated, Randy, but I know what you mean. Season twelve is neither here nor there so far. A few good singers, but nobody makes an impression. A couple of half-decent zingers from Nicki, but all are met with weary sighs from Mariah. It’s all frightfully tiresome.