Photo: Michael Becker/FOX
You guys! American Idol is back! And so am I! I took the last season of The X Factor off — and so did you — because life is too short. But I have rested, and I am ready for a new season of what can and should be the best singing-competition show on television, but, for the last few seasons, really hasn’t been. American Idol has been feeling the squeeze from the sudden influx of competitors in recent seasons, and it has been doubting itself. It needn’t have; Idol is the one show that can reliably put its hopefuls on the charts, last season’s winner Candice Glover notwithstanding. (Has anyone checked in on her? Is she okay?)
Idol has tried a lot of things. It has tried being overblown. It has tried being funny. It has tried putting Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey on the judges panel at the same time and basically become professional wrestling. But what it does best is what it did first. Idol is the Coke in these particular Cola Wars, and I’m willing to call last season’s eschewal of Cute Boys With Guitars and inclusion on the judges panel of two mortal enemies their New Coke moment. We live and we learn, and if we’re wise, we learn to return to the formula.
Right off the bat, Idol lets us know they’ve recommitted to their central mission. There’s no syrupy voice-over, no computer-generated pyro, just one terrified yet preternaturally poised young woman saying good-bye to her family and waiting a moment inside the Chamber (more on that later) before doing her thing for the judges. And what a thing! Seventeen-year-old Marielle Sellers looks like a less-debauched, African-American Miley Cyrus (which if you ask me is exactly what the world needs right now) and her version of Bruno Mars’s “Grenade” is lovely. She makes it to Hollywood! Dreams come true!
It’s an American Hustle–style flash forward to the middle of these audition episodes, but I think we’re moving in the right direction here. Throughout the first act of this show, Ryan keeps his VO to a minimum. Idol’s judges work well together and actually have things to say. The focus is on the hopefuls, where it should always be. Hallelujah.
We’re not even making fun of effeminate people this season maybe! Troy Durden is our first to audition from Boston, singing “Over the Rainbow,” and he’s just gay enough so you’d notice, but they don’t even take the bait! It seems cheap jokes at the expense of gay men is strictly for Golden Globes acceptance speeches these days.
Sam Woolf will make the top ten, just you watch. He’s not just adorable in that teenaged-chipmunk way that young girls love. He hasn’t just been abandoned by his parents and left in the care of two Tommy Bahama–wearing grandparents, giving him backstory for days. He’s legitimately talented in that Ed Sheeran kind of way that’s actually selling records these days, and his version of “Lego House” is on point! He’s unanimously in. Girls are gonna go nuts.
But the next Cute Boy With Guitar, 23-year-old Ethan Thompson, is way cuter in my estimation, simply for being plausibly post-pubescent. It’s like they’re saying: We robbed you of your CBWGs last season and you didn’t watch (even with the promise of two pop stars eating each other’s hearts on live television); this year, take all the CBWGs you want. An all CBWG top twelve? Go for it.
Hey, remember last season of The X Factor, when a young bullying victim named Jillian Jensen sang a Jessie J song, said Demi Lovato was her hero, dissolved into heaving sobs on Demi’s shoulder just offstage, and then didn’t get much further? Of course you don’t; nobody watched The X Factor except for me. But I’m here to tell you: Jillian aged a year and a half, got herself a sleeve tattoo, auditioned for American Idol, and made it through to Hollywood. Better luck this time! Better show this time, anyway.
Subtlety has never been Idol’s thing, and it still isn’t, and it never will be, but at least they’re not hammering their theme home with treacly host copy tonight. In seasons past, they’d stick poor Ryan with some overwritten voice-over about how this is some poor auditioner’s dream. Tonight, they have the auditioners stand and give a stalwart look to camera, holding poster board on which they’ve written: “This is my dream.” Listen: It’s progress.
Nineteen-year-old Taylor Hildack says she is “a jazz singer for a community college,” and you know I like to root for an underdog, but an associate’s degree is not going to cut it this season. She takes rejection well, though. Young’uns Stephanie Hanvey and Morgan Deplich are both a little too touring-production-of-Annie for my taste, but both make it through, owing possibly to their generous buttering-up of Jennifer.
So let’s talk about the Chamber. Just after an auditioner says good-bye to his or her family, and just before they walk in to say hello to the judges, each one must take a moment in the Chamber, a Gravity-esque airlock where they can take a moment to breathe and mug for the cameras they’ve surely been warned are there. It’s a little forced, and I wish they’d do like Sandra Bullock and just slowly spin in boy shorts, but it’s a nice, mostly quiet moment, and I will take those where I can get them.
We’re nearly an hour into the episode by the time the night’s first goofball shows up! And this one has just the right amount of self-awareness; not too little so that you’re afraid he’s disabled, and not so much that you’re positive he’s an out-of-work improv guy. No, James Earl is just a genuine weirdo who wanted to take himself on a little adventure, so he’s taken a day off from his job (“razzle-dazzlin’ burgers,” obviously), put on a satin Japanese smoking jacket, and sung a self-penned song that forces him to switch uncomfortably between soprano and bass. It’s as bad as it sounds, but it passes quickly. There are no William Hungs tonight. I am so relieved.
Now, here’s why I think I’m going to like Harry Connick Jr. as a judge: Like me, he has no patience for empty vocal gymnastics. We couldn’t help but die of melisma last year, what with Patient Zero Mariah Carey at the judges table. But now she’s gone, and Harry has no problem telling singers to cool their jets. And he even throws a little Ben Folds–on–The Sing-Off boffin energy into the mix, explaining some vocal terms along the way; when one singer gets a little too run-heavy, he tells her to go easy on the pentatonics, and then explains to all of us (and J.Lo and Keith) what “pentatonics” means. It’s like: “Here’s the technical name and some basic information about the specific way you’re getting on my nerves,” and shows like this need it badly.
I have a technical name for 17-year-old Austin Percario, and it is “twink Penn Badgley.” He is being smothered by his shockingly young stage mother, and his version of “Titanium” hints at greater things to come when he is able to make his own decisions. And since he makes it through to Hollywood, and will be 18 by the time he gets there (which means he won’t need a chaperone), we’re about to see what that means.
Fifteen-year-old Kaitlin Jackson wears a top that makes her look like a bottle of Cupcake Sauvignon Blanc, and does she ever have a backstory. Actually, if you talk about it right away, and then you sing an original song where you summarize the main points, does it still count as a backstory? I’d argue that Kaitlin’s tale of her grandfather keeling over with heart failure watching her onstage, and then dying weeks later — one day too soon to hear the song she wrote about him — now counts as her front-story. But listen, it’s a doozy, and she’s got a hell of a voice, and even if she hasn’t mastered the art of poeticizing the events of her life — her original song is just a play-by-play of the grandfather saga — she’s young and she’ll pick it up.
Keith London has kind of a doughy Miles Teller thing happening, which is to say he’s absolutely adorable. He’s just out of college, taking odd jobs and busking to pay off his student loans, and his version of Katy Perry’s “Roar” does the impossible and actually makes me like Katy Perry’s “Roar.” (Given that Katy Perry’s “Roar” is a mash-up of Sara Bareilles’s “Brave” and a Lululemon shopping bag, this is no small achievement.) His personality, charisma, phrasing and bell-clear voice just make the whole thing so darn likable. It’s not unanimous, and I worry about what awaits him on Group Night, but if he can hold it together through that, he’s top ten for sure. Just think of what he can do with a song that wasn’t written by a committee.
Our second and final goofball of the night is Sam Atherton of Taunton, Massachusetts, who is either a prankster or an Asperger’s Disease sufferer. It’s hard to tell these days. Let’s not dwell. This is all going so nicely.
Enormous teddy bear Shanon Wilson has the gigantic voice you’d expect him to have, but at the chorus of his audition, he blasts off into a shrieking falsetto that I find totally unnecessary, but his pitch is good enough and the judges send him through. Patriots cheerleader Stephanie Petronelli has a Lohan-on-a-bender speaking voice, and sings completely through her chest and nose, but has a toned midsection and therefore is shooed right in. Harry and Jennifer argue over it for a second, and then Harry threatens to slap Jen in the face and I can’t believe they left that in, and I’ve decided I’m just not going to think about it.
And then we get a little taste of what went on in Austin, which will continue into the next episode. It seems like there are lots of bad auditions on day one, but to the producers’ credit, they don’t linger on any one loser. There are some definite winners: Savion Wright, whose guitar saved him from ADHD and who waited and crafted his persona for eight years before auditioning this season, sings an original song and slays it. Young spitfire Terrica Curry promises not to leave without a golden ticket, and the judges don’t put up much of a fight. Valet parking attendant Justin Fira and very young person Shelby Comey get sent through, but blaze right past without making much of an impression.
And then comes Madelyn Patterson, who exemplifies everything I don’t like about American Idol, and whose journey through the next few levels will really show whether the show is moving in a different direction. Now, she has a beautiful voice and she’s gorgeous, and she’d make it through no matter what. But before giving her a yes, Harry winds up giving her some advice. “Some people are easily impressed by licks and runs …” he starts, before Jennifer cuts him off and makes it all about her. But he’s building to a point that I think will be pivotal this season. He’s looking for someone who can emotionally interpret a song, not just hit a bunch of showy notes like a fourth-generation copy of an Aguilera, and if he can make that point persuasively enough, we should have a genuinely interesting top 24. But of course, Jennifer and Keith don’t let him finish, so he tells Madelyn: “You’ll hear the rest in Hollywood.” Here’s hoping.
In every major city in the United States, there is a bar called the Eagle, and it is always full of paunchy beardy gay guys who call themselves “bears” and say things like “woof,” and if young father Jordan Grizzard ever walked into one of those places, he would be worshiped as a king. Speaking of which, he’s tonight’s first “worship leader!” (And he’s married, so settle down, fellas.) He also has an absolutely gorgeous, clear voice and he sails right through to Hollywood. I wish him well, and I know where he can drink for free.
All the acoustic guitars make for some inventive versions of hit songs: “Toxic,” “Titanium,” and “Too Close” (the Alex Clare one, not the one by Next about dance-boners) all get the Starbucks treatment. There are so many guitars, poor Malcolm Allen gets intimidated and brings an air guitar to his audition. Of course, he then slays Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” so he won’t need any air accompaniment. He’s through! It’s so nice that Idol isn’t terrified of talented boys this season!
Pakistani-American Munfarid Zandi tells Harry “Every night before I go to sleep, I read your Wikipedia entry.” Is that a thing? Can you get inspired by Wikipedia entries? It would appear so; Munfarid’s audition is so good, Harry is forced to cash in his promise to pick him up and hold him like a baby, and there’s no reason for any of this to be happening, but I’m so happy the judges table has such chemistry, and everyone’s affable and funny and nobody’s feuding or having a nervous breakdown or calling everyone “dawg” because they’re pushing a personal brand, I’m up for letting them do what they want. Pick everyone up. Throw them at each other. As long as they get to sing for a minute, I don’t care.
In all, 45 people get their golden tickets, and I get my faith in American Idol renewed. It’s early going yet, but I think we’re going to be okay, friends. Tune in. You might actually be glad you did.