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American Idol Recap: Hey, Wait a Minute, This Season Is Good!

AMERICAN IDOL XIII: Atlanta Auditions: L-R: Judges Harry Connick Jr., "Bubby," Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban on AMERICAN IDOL XIII airing Thursday, Jan. 23 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX.

Changes are afoot at American Idol. Subtle but significant changes. To the casual viewer, nothing’s different — it’s still starry-eyed hopeful after starry-eyed hopeful plead-singing their case to a panel of celebrity judges ­— but this is not the show I’ve been love-and-hate-watching since 2002.

For one thing, I don’t think we’ve ruined the life of any effeminate boys or autistic teens. In its first twelve seasons, American Idol treated people with lower-than-average talent and unconventional affect like they were sub-human. During the Cowell years, it was especially vexing: Onscreen, you'd see judge Simon faux-fuming over all the wasted time, but in the edit bay, producer Simon was licking his lips and building an empire on kicking dreamers while they’re down. But this year? So far, nobody’s had their genitals laughed at on national television. What a relief.

Plus, the level of talent this year is not only higher, but deeper. In past years, Idol has gone straight for the belters, letting in the occasional weirdo who either ends up overshadowing the process (Charlie Askew, Sanjaya Malakar) or winning the whole thing (Taylor Hicks, Phillip Phillips). This year, after a disaster of a season twelve that was obviously massaged to result in a female winner, they’ve opened things up. This year is full of proud oddballs. It’s about 80 percent Cute Boys With Guitars, with a small but noticeable percentage of Gawky Gals With Interesting Tones. I not only like the people they’re sending to Hollywood, I can’t wait to see what they’re going to do next. (And I’m curious as to how Hollywood Week will work; I see them doing away with the cheeseball choreography and allowing group guitar performances.)

And then there are the judges: Jennifer Lopez gives us sweetness and backbone in equal measure; Keith Urban has experience, insight and Mary Carrillo’s haircut. But it’s Harry Connick Jr. who’s stealing the show so far; he’s quick, self-effacing, and every bit as shrewd as Cowell but without his increasingly contrived edge. Plus, he hates all the same things I do, so I’m pretty sure he’s the smartest person on the planet. With Harry at the helm — and whether they know it or not, Keith and J.Lo are absolutely taking their cues from him — this is shaping up to be one interesting season.

I feel like I’m eating something from that Jessica Seinfeld cookbook where she shows you how to sneak vegetables into your children’s dinner. I sit down for a big plate of junk food, yet I walk away oddly nourished.

Tonight’s show opens with hippy-dippy cutie-pie Majesty Rose, who sings Coldplay’s “Violet Hill” and actually makes me listen to a late-career Coldplay song. (And you have to listen, because she’s inaudible in her lower register.) The judges praise her subtlety and effortlessness, and that’s as perfect a descriptor for this show’s new direction as anything I’ve managed to write so far: The judges are praising subtlety and effortlessness. Oh, it could be so nice this year!

Jesse Cline works the night shift at a gas station and drove eight hours straight to the Atlanta auditions right after work. He’s a little chunkified, he’s got big thick glasses, I am bracing myself for this to be one of those exploitative bad auditions from years past, but NO. Dude is on point. Harry covers his mouth and says to his fellow judges: “The ultimate Cinderella,” and while Jesse is neither female nor the last diamond in the rough this show will see, I get his point. He’s got a less Jesus-y Chris Sligh thing going on. Keep an eye on Jesse Cline.

Alyson Ragona combines three things I’m tired of: "Bohemian Rhapsody," cat-themed clothing, and unctuous ukulele cutesiness, and gets the gas face from the judges. But it’s a kind, respectful gas face, and she says she’ll be back next year, and I hope she is; everyone deserves a chance to grow out of their Zooey Deschanel phase.

Kristen O’Conner is a nurse technician and a traditional American Idol hopeful, with her flawless skin and big bag of runs. Emily Piriz is the requisite Girl Who’s Been Watching This Show Since She Was a Toddler and Now Is Old Enough to Audition, and as is customary, her song begins with a big, showy “WELLLLL!” Both are through. A showdown is coming, and Kristen and Piriz will represent the old guard. Choose your side.

Here’s mine: Ben Briley is a tall, chunky, country Daniel Radcliffe. He sings Amos Lee’s “Arms of a Woman,” and it’s a little soul, a little country, but totally compelling. (You know who else one could say that about? The actual Amos Lee, who deserves better than he’s getting from this industry.) Ben gets yeses across the board. “It was real,” says Harry. And he’s right! Ben is wholly authentic. (And then the producers give us Ben’s big “exiting the building” shot, of which they probably shot thirteen takes.)

Nica Nashae is straight-up traditional Idol, and confident to boot. She says she wants to show out, and she does, and what she’s showing is what Idol should have served us last season. She gets a golden ticket, and says “I’m gonna win it.” Outside with her family, she adds, “There is no place to go from here but up.” Now that we have seen more than one former Idol contestant turn up on Celebrity Rehab, we know that’s not exactly true, but it’s a lovely thought all the same.

You know who’s adorable? Fifteen-year-old Jordan Brisbane, that’s who. He fixes his perfectly round face on the judges and says, “I believe I have what it takes to shut the American Idol series down. Yes. Oh yes.” He sings Bruno Mars’s “When I Was Your Man,” and there is undeniable power to his voice, but I wish he’d have tried this out three years from now. He tries to do runs, and that’s when he’s at his weakest, and I love that Harry is leading the anti-run parade; literally every other judge in the history of this show would have encouraged him to do more. He’s through!

Twenty-two-year-old Sam Burchfield sings “I Wanna Be Just Like You” from The Jungle Book, but it’s really more the version from Swingers. He affects a Louis Armstrong thing in his vocal, which Harry doesn’t buy. But the other two send him to Hollywood. He might prove to be too Phillip Phillips–esque, but that’s not our problem for now.

Jessica Meuse is a rock chick who is prone to statements like, “Well, if I’m what they’re looking for, I’ll make it,” and “I’m either going to be a successful musician or a broke one,” so we know she has a grasp on the very simple. Also, she is from a city that I promise you is called Slapout, Alabama. (Because when the guy who founded the town — who was a gas-station proprietor — was out of something, he said he was “slap out of it,” which I’m now going to start using, and so are you.) The judges think she has a Stevie Nicks thing, and I wouldn’t go that far, but I will concede that she has a thing. Yes all around!

Lauren Ogbern has an American flag hankie tied around her head like she’s Randee of the Redwoods, and while her audition doesn’t do much for me, the judges all love her. Harry calls her out for overaccessorizing — can you imagine anyone doing that in any past season? — but that’s the only note she gets.

As with last night, hopefuls from seasons past make triumphant-ish returns. Caleb Johnson is the guy from season eleven who forgot the words to "Old Time Rock & Roll" just before the live shows. Neco Starr, also from season eleven, didn’t make it that far. And they’ve both spent the last two years taking oversinging lessons. But they’re both sent to Hollywood, where they will probably make it about as far.

Bria Anai has a momager and all the overly polished affect that that implies, and I don’t even know what her audition song is because it’s so overdone and technique-heavy. All of this is going to be a problem, because we’re going to be seeing a lot of her. Yes yes yes, say the judges.

In all, 44 go to Hollywood, and I’m antsy to get there myself. Next week, Salt Lake City! Get ready for sexy Mormons with blinding teeth. And seriously, tune in. It’s not so bad anymore.

Photo: Michael Becker/FOX