Season 11 of American Idol begins with one simple question, supered over a planetarium scene of the universe: WHERE WERE YOU WHEN IT ALL STARTED? it’s a perfect, succinct summation of Idol’s self-regard: Kelly Clarkson’s win was the peppy little Kennedy assassination of pop culture.
Listen: I can’t tell you where I was when it started, but I can tell you where I was when it ended last year. I was in Los Angeles and I got a phonecall from my friend Derek, who had an extra ticket to the afterparty. The finals hadn’t aired in our time zone yet, so I hatched a plan: I decided to see how far I could get into the American Idol Finals Afterparty without finding out who had won. And you’d better believe I pushed my luck; I met and congratulated Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina and both sets of parents. I met Casey Abrams and Naima Adedapo and said, “I can’t believe who won!” And they were like “I KNOW!” I kept my ears open, I closed the party down, and I learned the identity of the winner at around noon the next day when I finally gave up and Googled it.
What I’m saying is that American Idol is a show that- if it makes stars at all- makes stars almost entirely by accident, and leaves its winners standing with their dicks flapping in the breeze, shilling lazy singles like Scotty’s “The Trouble With Girls,” which has thus far failed to break the Country Top 20.
Oh, but this year it’s going to be different. You’ll see. The montage of images that follows- pictures of Idol-onesied toddlers who grow up to be this season’s contestants- indicates that this year’s crop has never known a world without American Idol. They’ve spent the last 10 years doing their scales, flat-ironing their hair, hoping a parent or childhood friend would die, waiting…waiting for their dream journey moment.
Fine. Sure. Whatever. Let’s pretend to make history.
We start in Savannah, GA. Let’s meet our judges! Randy Jackson, the luckiest man in the history of television, says “Savannah is the jump-off right here,” which is difficult to dispute. Jennifer Lopez promotes the absurd fiction that she would walk into a building unaccompanied. And then there’s Steven Tyler. Steven Tyler, who in his sunset years has transformed into some kind of Santa Fe candle store Joan Didion. “Are we having fun yet?” he asks, with the verve of a person who’s heard that phrase for the first time that very morning. Yes, Steven, we just started having fun.
Our first contestant of Season 11 is David Leathers Jr. or, as his friends call him, Mr. Steal Your Girl, because his friends don’t understand that David Leathers Jr. is already all the nickname a person will ever need. Turns out that David Leathers Jr. Who Will Steal Your Girl was in a singing contest with Scotty McCreery Who Thinks The Trouble With Girls Is That They Bat Their Eyes No Really That’s How The Song Goes a couple of years ago, and beat him. The kid must have chops. And indeed he does! He’s got the falsetto-soul thing down, and it is going to be devastating to watch him lose it to puberty this season.
16-year-old Gabi Carrubba is one of those Idol superfans the intro package warned us about. She enters the audition and makes a beeline for Nigel Lythgoe, because Gabi Carrubba is ruthless. Her jazzy take on Maroon 5’s “Sunday Morning” impresses the judges, and makes Steven Tyler do his happy face, over which the producers impose stock videos of waterskiing squirrels. Because he is so out there, do you get it? Listen, Idol: there is not a single viewer who does not have their laptop open, dividing their attention between the show and their Twitter feed full of friends and comics making fun of it. Leave the comedy to the professionals and the kids, guys; this is not what you do. (She makes it through.)
Montage time! Neco Starr does Bruno Mars’ “Grenade,” and shows us that when you strip out the music, you’re left with lines like “I’d put my hand on a blade for ya,” which are clunk-a-roo. Elise Testone gives us some rasp, and is also a fun name to say. They are both through, along with some other people I am looking at and forgetting at the same time.
And then we meet Season 11’s first chunk of cannon fodder, Jessica Whitely. There is something off about her, she yells her way through some song by Charice, the judges are dicks to her, and I’m not going to get into it except to say that in this post-Aguilera world, she can be forgiven for thinking that yelling is singing. Hold your head high today, Ms. Whitely.
Have you ever noticed that you’ve never seen anyone’s Ryan Seacrest impression? Do you think that it’s because there’s nothing there to mimic? I do. The montage of people’s Ryan Seacrest impressions, which is simply people saying, in their own voices, things like “We’ll be right back,” or “Next on American Idol,” or “I am holding a microphone,” would seem to back me up. Shaun Kreisman “takes it to the next level” by sort of looking like Seacrest, by which I mean I am looking at the both of them right now and I couldn’t begin to describe either of them. He does sound a bit like Ryan as he bites into Seacrest’s million-dollar catch phrase “This is American Idol,” but he cannot sing, and thus we are spared the sad season-long charade that Ryan Seacrest has a discernable, mimicable personality.
Season 11’s first tiresome oversinger is Shannon Magrane, daughter of former Cardinals pitcher Joe Magrane. Steven hits on her right in front of her dad, and the producers drop out the sound to make it look like an awkward moment, but jaded old Pitcher Joe truly does not seem to care, which, to me, is a much more interesting story to follow. But whatever. She chews through Etta James’ “Good Feeling” and goes through, and Randy jokes that Joe Magrane “should come help out our Dodgers,” because that’s the kind of hilarious guy Randy is. Sports teams, right guys?
And then we meet the lady who shits in the woods. Amy Blumfield is sort of homeless, I guess, in that she and her boyfriend live in a tent out in the wilderness. “And there’s my bathroom,” she says as she gestures out into God’s creation. And the package is scored to an Elliott Smith song. I honestly did not see any of this coming. She says of her boyfriend, “I never been treated so good by anyone in my entire life,” which, when said by someone whose own family allows her to live in a tent in the woods, is a story that fully checks out.
Oh, Amy Blumfield, please be good.
She is! Steven says “The spirits of the children in the woods snuck into you,” which as compliments go is about as bone-chilling as it gets. She gets her golden ticket and sprints out of the convention center, spitting and growling like the enfant sauvage she is.
There is a moment when I think maybe American Idol might miss an opportunity to make a joke at a gay person’s expense, but the illusion fades quickly. Joshua Chavis is one of those guys who seems sort of butch but then starts talking about Jennifer Lopez and suddenly we’re in a Savannah Fantastic Sam’s. He attempts Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” and segues into Bruno Mars’ “The Lazy Song”- which you might not have noticed is the exact same song- and neither are good, and the judges recoil, and he queens his angry way out of the building. Joshua is pretty obviously doing this whole thing as a joke, and none of it is particularly funny, but the joke the producers play back at him, which is “ha ha GAY,” isn’t all that great either. It’s 2012, guys. Cut the shit.
So far, the only honestly funny thing I’ve seen on this show is the picture over Randy’s shoulder of Taylor Hicks.
Brother and sister pair Colton and Schyler Dixon return for a second year of auditions, and much is made of a “sibling rivalry” for which there is no real evidence. Much more interesting to me is that they are billed as “student/face painter” and “musician/face painter.” I think we can go with “student” and “musician” and be just fine, can’t we? Both do a good job, both get through, and Colton’s pipe cleaner arms freak me right out.
Lauren Mink is a charming little gal who runs an activity center for adults with intellectual disabilities, and I am therefore on her side forever, even though she chooses to sing “Country Strong.” We all know Gwyneth Paltrow kills herself in that movie, right? Anyway, it’s fine, and she goes through.
Oh, hello, vaguely effeminate immigrant Mawuhena Kodjo! You can almost hear the producers debating which they should make fun of: his gayness or his African-ness? The confused subtitles and the tiny cowboy hat they superimpose on his head reveal a victory for Team Xenophobia. Also he can’t sing. The judges send him back to Angola or whatever.
Ashlee Altise has invented a dance called “joyhopping,” which I seriously can’t wait to try. And she’s delightful, even though she looks exactly like Penny’s abusive mom from “Good Times.” Upon her entrance into the audition room, Steven sings “Lady Marmalade” at her, which he evidently thinks goes “Gitchi-gitchi-goomy y’all.” Please record “Lady Marmalade” at your earliest convenience, Steven Tyler. She makes it through.
WT Thompson is thick and juicy and a prison warden with a baby on the way and he makes it through in a squeaker. Remember a few years ago when there was an oil roughneck and that’s all they could talk about? WT is this year’s that.
A montage of pretty girls with weak voices who Randy and Steven put through to Hollywood would seem to support the theory that heterosexual men are attracted to attractive women. I’m sorry; were you sitting down?
And then there’s 20-year-old Phillip Phillips, to whom I am deeply attracted. The sleepy smile. The fresh, downy chest hair. The eyes that whisper “I know where to find mushrooms.” Oh, he is a dream. Ryan asks him “Are you ready?” to which he replies, “I was born naked and ready, they just put clothes on me.” Which a) I have never heard before, b) is straight-up adorable, and c) is a nice moment Ryan Seacrest immediately scotches with his special brand of gay panic. “Well, I’m glad they did put clothes on you,” he sputters. Because, you see, he is not gay. Well, I am, Ryan, and I would like to see Phillip Phillips naked. We are in a post-Todd-Glass-on-WTF world. Get with it, you weird little eunuch.
Phillip Phillips has a billion weird vocal tics which might wear thin after a while, but we are in our honeymoon period now, and I believe that I will love him forever.
So now we go to the next round and start this contest, right? Oh, wait, no, we have a million more episodes full of goons and malcontents and occasional dreamboats. Tomorrow: Pittsburgh! Ha ha, Steelers, right? (I borrowed that joke from Randy.)