We have a complicated relationship, American Idol and me.
I was there at the beginning, watching my Clarksons and Aikens and Hungs with one finger on the fast-forward button (Idol and TiVo came into my life at the same time and made such a winning pair). I joined Taylor Hicks’s Soul Patrol but let my membership lapse almost immediately. I bore silent witness as the show evolved from the Search for the Next American Superstar to the Search for the Guy the People Who Vote Most Want to Smooch. My heart broke, but I kept watching. I kept fast-forwarding.
As TV recaps became a thing, I started covering it right here at Vulture. I was forced to watch every minute. I observed in excruciating detail how formulaic, how manipulative, how very dull the show had become. I saw new singing competitions pop up and erode Idol’s ratings. I saw YouTube usurp Idol’s place as the conduit between the dreamer and the audience. I saw Caleb Freaking Johnson win this thing.
I couldn’t take any more. I tapped out. I watched a little bit of last season, when Nick Something led a top 13 that included such unforgettable singers as Anglo Taylor Lautner, the lead in “Joan Armatrading Babies,” and the second-most-interesting Jax on reality TV. It made me glad to know that Idol was still doing what Idol does, but it made me even more glad not to have to watch it.
But now Idol is threatening to leave, and, as in most abusive relationships, the threats are working. I’m back to recap this final season.
Here’s the thing: As corny as the show is, as certain as I am that we’re going to get another Cute White Boy With an Acoustic Guitar, and despite the many idiots and goofballs and attempted comedians we’re going to meet during the endless audition weeks, Idol still makes stars. Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Adam Lambert: These are legitimate artists with real significance. Idol alumni are on the Broadway stage, all over Hollywood, and in the cast of that CBS show I’m pretty sure is just Big Bang Theory scripts reworked as police procedurals. There are still stakes to American Idol.
By contrast, the winner of The Voice basically wins the chance to be a topic on Dish Nation the day after the finale.
So, here we are, you and me. Back in front of this fascinating, confounding, irritating show. It’s good to see you again.
We begin our first episode, as we must, with a look back to the very first episode — Dunkleman and all — followed by a trip down memory lane to the show’s most Idolicious moments: Kelly Clarkson’s victory, Kris Allen’s face after his name is announced, that thing where the guy who kind of looked like Clay Aiken met Clay Aiken and had a seizure. Blessedly, this montage is short. If we are still here, watching this fifteenth season, the producers seem to know we have seen this. Nobody is trying American Idol for the first time in 2016.
Auditions start in Atlanta, and our first hopeful is Michelle Marie Lecza, who, like the show itself, is 15 years old. She names all 14 winners so far, and like all of us, gets a little lost around 2011. She sings LeAnn Rimes’s “Blue,” a tricky song that’s half-yodeled, and she slaughters it. (In a good way!) Michelle gets through to Hollywood, and she is dressed like an extra from the school dance in the original Footloose.
The audition registration desk is manned by former Idol winners and losers like Ruben Studdard, Taylor Hicks, Lee DeWyze, Kris Allen, and Clay Aiken. To spare Harry, J.Lo, and Keith any trouble, the former contestants get to judge the weirdoes and the tone-deafs. Hicks still plays the harmonica too much. Allen and DeWyze are still extremely hot. Clay Aiken is now a full-time sasspants; he has tried singing and politics, and now he’s gunning for that Ross Mathews spot.
Josiah Siska, 17, is a golf-course maintenance guy with a crazy, gorgeous, deep singing voice. He does some Johnny Cash song or another. Interestingly enough, the judges request he demonstrate how low he can go, and he does it in a chromatic scale, which shows he understands music, but the syllable he chooses to sing in a low-country drawl is “duh,” which shows he doesn’t understand how cruel people can be on the internet. He sounds unlike anyone who’s been on Idol before, which is exciting for now but will be problematic during Group Week. I just remembered there is a Group Week, and I sighed wearily.
Lindita lost 150 pounds before auditioning for the show, which is interesting because her name sounds like a weight-loss drug. She does that thing where she sings every note and points at them all, which went out of style in 2005 and must never come back. Seriously: Her big-finish melisma on “It’s a Man’s World” is Christina Aguilera multiplied by the last two minutes of “One Sweet Day.” Lindita, I look forward to being irritated by you for a few more weeks.
There’s a guy named Travis who calls himself Billy Bob — he has borrowed his whole entire thing from Billy Bob in Varsity Blues. He’s an appealing character, but his voice isn’t strong enough. Also, Billy Bob in Varsity Blues literally drinks maple syrup, so maybe his thing is not a thing you want to borrow.
Lee Jean, 15, has an good voice and a charming personality, but he’s emblematic of Idol’s worst influences. He leads with his tragic family story as much as he does with his talent: I can sing and my brother died! I realize this is probably less his choice than the show’s, but he seems too willing to throw it into the mix. (Hell, I probably would, too.) He makes it through, despite some pitch problems.
Meanwhile: Is Ryan Seacrest trying to have a beard on his face? I recently went to Macy’s to get a new belt, picked up one that caught my eye, saw that it was from the “Ryan Seacrest: Distinction” collection, put it back on the rack, sprinted to my car, and sped all the way home. I still need a new belt.
And then we move on to Denver! I like how quickly we’re racing through this. Jeneve Rose Mitchell lives off the grid and yodels and her family only fires up the generator to watch American Idol. (Her faces are very Disney Channel, though, so I don’t believe that last part at all.) She accompanies herself very funkily on her cello. She makes it through! She jams with Taylor Hicks! She will probably remember this day fondly, anyway!
Sonika Vaid, from Martha’s Vineyard, serves up a fresh, piping-hot Broadway audition. She’ll definitely be in the top ten, no doubt about it. This is how you Sonika.
And then we get Joseph Kohlruss, whose whole affect is very Cameron Carpenter. He sings Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” and looks like what would have happened if Neil Patrick Harris had aged the way Clint Howard did. He does not make it, and he does not seem to understand why. He also has a huge and vocal group of supporters. Is this a BatKid type of situation?
Reanna Molinaro is a police officer, so, naturally, the producers make her handcuff Harry Connick Jr. and wear a shirt that says POLICE on it instead of something flattering. But she has a good voice! She makes it through! There are all kinds of attempted hilarity with Harry and the handcuffs and everything. Harry Connick Jr. is one of those guys who will repeat what you say and add “essentially is what happened” to the end of it and then pat himself on the back for having made a joke. I know this because he does it during this segment, essentially is what happens.
And then it’s the obligatory montage of people who have overcome great obstacles to succeed on Idol. The blind guy. The guy whose parents are deaf. Tent Lady. Tourette’s Guy. Lazaro Arbos! And this next auditioner, Sylvia Lee Walker, is just like them because … she talks a lot. Her speaking voice is very DeAundra Peek. She yodels in her audition, as though that were a thing we had ever wanted. Oh, Sylvia Lee Walker. I don’t like you, but you allowed me to mention DeAundra Peek in an American Idol recap, so you have not lived in vain. Now go away.
Joshua Wicker, a 25-year-old Floridian and Ryan Gosling by way of Dan Fogelberg, has a baby due any minute, so there’s really only one way this audition can go. He does a very Vance Joy take on Rihanna’s “Stay” that makes Keith Urban do a lot of what I can only call Carol faces. He gets three yeses. His very pregnant wife meets Harry, but does not immediately give birth the way she fears she will. (We flash-forward to the birth of Branch Eisley Wicker, which, I mean, God help him or her.)
Jordan and Alex Sasser are married. Jordan and Alex Sasser are the kind of people who say “awk-ward” 10 million times a day and still think it’s great. Jordan and Alex Sasser heard the spoken-word bridge of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ “Home” and thought, Hey, let’s just be like that all the time. Jordan and Alex Sasser have a baby who is three months old, and she’s already embarrassed about Mom and Dad. You can see it in her eyes. (As you may have guessed by now, Jordan and Alex Sasser are worship leaders.) The judges earn my respect by giving Alex the boot for being too cutesy. (Alex is the woman.) Jordan goes next with a version of Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” which I know was also a Meat Loaf song, but he’s definitely doing Celine’s version. The judges lose my respect by sending Jordan through to Hollywood.
The dissolution of Jordan and Alex Sasser’s marriage begins pretty much immediately. Jordan coldly tells their families that he made it through and she didn’t. Alex very dramatically says she was never good enough (possibly true), accuses the judges of failing to notice her singing (definitely false), and then passive-aggressively suggests that the terminal cuteness that sunk her was being caused by Jordan’s dancing with the baby on the side of the stage. Like Alex, I believe Jordan knew exactly what he was doing, and I just hope they can amicably share custody of little Westeros or Bailiwick or Edisonbulb or whatever the hell their baby is named.
Kerry Courtney looks like Gary Dell’Abate, Stuttering John, and Ron Jeremy had a baby, which is absolutely a thing that’s happened in the world of Howard Stern fanfiction. His style is very “Portland open mic,” which I do not hate. I want to hear him do Alessia Cara’s “Here.” He’s through, so let’s make that happen.
Shelbie “Z” James is one of those people who says the word kin a lot and pronounces Friday as “Frotty.” Shelbie stole the scarves from 12 of Stevie Nicks’s lamps and wore them all to her audition. She does a very sultry version of Carrie Underwood’s “Last Name” that suggests she’s lived the lyrics. She is lovable, and she is through to Hollywood. I can already picture her duet with Elle King during the finale.
And then Kanye West comes in and does “Gold Digger.” It’s the first time someone has auditioned for Idol and announced their presidential candidacy in a three-month span since Sanjaya Malakar in season six. Kanye gets through to Hollywood. It’s actually the most likable he’s been in eight years.
And so ends the first episode of the final season, which the show’s producers are careful to call their “Farewell Season,” since “farewell” leaves the door open for a return. If you don’t think they’ll be back in five years like LCD Soundsystem, you’re a bigger fool than Joseph Kohlruss.
See you tomorrow. God help us all.