Before I sat down to write this piece, I did what I rarely do before writing a recap, namely, I googled the show. Among the many articles crowing semi-excitedly about the new judges, the new direction of the show, some general hilarity over the last two or three generic, forgettable, milquetoast white dude winners and quotes from Randy saying that the public often gets it wrong – well, duh, dude! - there were the articles about the show's ratings. And they were not pretty. In fact, this premiere episode that I'm shortly going to lavish
wastea few thousand words on, was the lowest ranked premiere since Idol's debut in 2002. Down 13%, to be precise.
If anyone is surprised by that, perhaps they were asleep during Season 9. I know I recapped that turnip of a season in a state of semi-stupor with nightmarish visions of yet another guitar-wielding, sensitive fake rocker white dude mewling through yet another plaintive, acoustic Nickelcrack cover, in the back of my mind. Shudder. It's a wonder I made it through every other episode without pain killers. But I'm willing to let bygones be bygones because I'm a glutton for punishment like that.
Jury's still out
So, first off, we have new everything this season and to kick off all that novelty Idol has a spiffy new intro montage featuring faces of past winners floating majestically around a glowing pyramid type thingie that Kheops would have envied. New this year, the lineup includes the faces of some of the actual stars of this show, Jennifer Hudson, Adam Lambert and Daughtry, who were, arguably the real winners of both their respective seasons and among that of the whole franchise itself. See kids, if you're good, really, really good, you can come in 7th or 4th or 2nd and make everyone forget the winner's name. Perhaps it's a sign of things to come in the name of change and a step toward finding real stars as opposed to yawn-inducing, text-messaging-showdown winners. For the contestants' and the public's sake both, I sure hope that's the case.
Ryan Seacrest, everyone's favorite smilebot, is back in fine form and sounding peppy and all excited about the kick-off in, where else but New Jersey, home of Bon Jovi and Springsteen and, of course, Snooki. Don't hold your breath for Idol finding the next Bruce, not that anyone needs another one, but I think Snooki 2.0 has a real chance.
We also get our first real glimpse of the new judges on the block, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler, along with a montage highlighting their illustrious careers. Well, at least in Steven's case. Of course he says he wants to find the “Janis Joplin of this era” which makes me think the dude hasn't seen one blessed episode of this show from the past 9 seasons or he wouldn't be saying that. JLo says she won't be crushing hopes and spirits on the show. Hmm. We'll see whether she'll turn out to be the new Ellen or the old Paula. Randy Jackson is back as well and he's got nothing new to say unless you count “it's hawt”. Which begs the obvious question: Which one of them will turn out to be Simon by the time the Hollywood round ends? My money is on Steven.
I hope it comes without saying that in Ryan's estimation this will be the season with the most talent, the most fun and the most everything you can think of. Bien sur. Along with the new judges, Idol also gets a shiny new record label where their future progeny will try to sink or swim with the big leagues as Universal steps in to replace Sony. The famed Jimmy Iovine will be on hand to mold the contestants to the best of his ability and will try his best not to laugh too hard at any point in the process.
The very first contestant of the night is a squeaky voiced repeat from Season 6 by the name of Rachel Zavida, 22, from New York who gets the full pimp treatment segment minus sob story. JLo pretends to remember Rachel, who seems to actually believe this. Only on TV, folks! She launches into a tortured, high-pitched rendition of “Hallelujah” and if I were the praying sort, perhaps I'd be praying for her to shut up. As it is, I'm using my TV's mute button for the first time this season. Hallelujah! JLo says that this wasn't her best audition but she thinks Rachel can sing and deserves a shot. With three yeses, Rachel with the thin, squeaky voice is through to Hollywood. Hmm, I thought they said they were looking for stars. Of course they said that last season too...
Shaggy haired, 25 year old Caleb Hawley from New York is next and he puts a slightly twangy, at least to my ears, spin on an old Ray Charles song that Steven seems to enjoy because he's going all Paula Abdul, clapping cutely and dancing in his chair. Caleb gets a yes from Steven who says Caleb's voice has a bit of character that he appreciates. The other judges agree and he's through to the next round.
Teen To Tin
Did I mention that Idol is going all tweener on us this year? Well, they are. The age limit has been lowered to where if you are toilet trained and your mother is no longer feeding you from a bottle you are eligible to apply for the show. Well, almost. Fifteen is the new bottom of the barrel age-wise.
The first contestant served up in Idol's new bid for whatever crumbs the Bieber demo is willing to throw its way is 15 year old musical theater student Kenzi Palmer who is cute, wavy haired and in possession of a good voice that she's more than willing to overuse in between audible breaths that betray her weak vocal control. But then, she's only 15 years old. Steven wasn't feeling it, JLo – who suddenly comes out as a musical theater lover - disagrees saying the girl is great while Randy is wishy washy. Still, he says yes to the kid based on her voice alone. Steven quickly folds and Kenzi gets a golden ticket. Based on the last three contestants, JLo seems to be calling the shots so far.
A slew of other nameless Jersey specimens are also given affirmative answers in a quick, blink-and-you-missed-them montage. Cushioning before the big blow of Agile Lovle, perhaps? She is from the Ivory Coast or, actually, the Bronx, and can neither sing nor speak English but claims to be currently working on both with a vocal coach. In the meantime, Agile is here to murder one of Madonna's songs with her deep I-wanna-be-a-man kind of baritone that worked for Marlene Dietrich because she could actually sing in tune. Agile, however, is bludgeoning all the notes in her half octave range with a bloody baseball bat and seems blissfully unaware that she is doing so. Chalk one up to the crazy parade. Steven and JLo both try to gently tell her that she can't sign worth crap and in the end it's a predictable no across the board. Watching Agile's sad form exit the audition room, JLo groans and moans saying how much she hates saying no to people. Don't worry, darlin', that feeling will last only till the next William Hung walks through that door.
Day 1 on the Jersey shore trudges by with more freaks and maybe some talent. But of course talent is not paramount on this show. No, what is of vital importance is spectacle and Jersey offers plenty of that for Idol to exploit. Cue the trash reel in which we glimpse such helpful Jersey stereotypes as tattoos of the Jersey state map on somebody's arm, boys with six packs sporting orange fake bakes and long metal hair and girls in scary fashions reminiscent of 80s porn star chic.
But apparently, nothing says Jersey hottie quite like big teased tresses and here to demonstrate this unique art is dance instructor Tiffany Rios, who is not only proud of her big Puerto Rican ass and generous bust but also knows her way around a teasing comb. See, you grab a strand of hair just like so and drag that comb down till you look like you've met the wrong end of an electrical outlet and then... Fuhgeddaboudit! Don't try this at home, people, I beg of you! Tiffany turns on the waterworks as soon as she eyeballs JLo and we find out that the movie “Selena” was pivotal in young Tiffany's life. This earns her a hug from JLo – the first of the season - while the boys snicker in the back.
For her audition piece, Tiffany is singing an original composition with lofty lyrics such as “You've got to put me through to the next round/ Oh, baby, you need me, they need me, America needs me/ For higher ratings on TV”. Steven is somewhat impressed but not by her singing rather by “the jujubees on her hoohoobees”, as he oh-so-delicately calls the two huge shiny silver stars on her bikini top. Randy wants another song and gets an overdone version of Celine Dion's “I'm your lady” minus the glory note portion, which is like getting a hamburger without the bun. JLo thinks Tiff has a good voice but advises her to dial down the histrionics. Everyone
parrotsechos that decision and it look like Tiffany will get to jiggle her goods in Hollywood. All three adolescent males watching this show are ecstatic.
A brief loser reel follows filled with a string of unfortunates and famewhores in which we find out that Steven can send people home sweetly, JLo has trouble telling the delusional to take a hike and Randy is still recycling his old lines.
Will 16 year old Robbie Rosen from New York be your next American Idol runner-up to find fame and fortune? I'm not sure but Idol thinks he's got potential as he gets the full workup complete with sappy background music as his childhood pictures flash by on the screen and he gets an opportunity to tell the tragic story of his early paralysis and amazing recovery with a sweet smile on his earnest young face. I can practically hear grannies all over the country going “awww” while scribbling his name on a kitchen notepad. Robbie puts forth a florid, overwrought version of “Yesterday” - hey, he's 16 and doesn't know better! - that nevertheless shows off a good, if untrained, voice. Nowhere in the Lambert vocal gold standard ballpark but it certainly made me look up for a second. The kid has potential unless Idol insists on pushing his sob story in which case all bets are off. The judges are adequately blown away and he's off to Hollywood without even a proper vote. Did you hear about how Idol wants a girl to win this season? Hah. They're going to have to stack the deck again...
Since Steven Tyler is now in residence, it was inevitable that sooner or later his
groupiesfans – mostly wearing glorified lingerie - would show up and the risque jokes and sexual innuendos would start flying around. Idol knew who they hired and Steven and his fangirls, his double entendres and suggestively raised eyebrows make for very good TV. Hide your gradmas, kids!
Plucked fresh off the farm, real live boyscout and 18 year old college freshman, Chris Cordeiro seems sweet. He also seems sprung straight from central casting for a Hollywood Hillbillies remake complete with plaid shirt, thick rimmed glasses, straw hat, two inch bangs and a sunny disposition. Chris even has a homemade public service video about the evils of texting and driving in which he stars wearing his boyscout uniform. Dude is prepared for everything except a career in music. His rendition of “My Way” is as painful as the presence of the straw hat suggested. Outside, he's got his entire family pretending to be anxious for their “talented” son but really, they're just there to be on television. The mother is even hugging Ryan and singing along to her son's audition for good measure. Famewhoring at its best, folks. Needless to say, he is going nowhere except back to boyscout camp in his own backyard where he'll no doubt take time to make a great sequel for his youtube video. Hopefully it will be about curbing irrational urges such as the urge to audition for American Idol if you can't sing. I know a couple of past winners who could have used that PSA...
Speaking of not being able to sing, Michael Perotto, 19, is one of those people although he does have an infinitely more useful talent for burping. Dude could exploit that in a comedy club somewhere but no... he wants to be a singing star apparently. I'm not sure why Michael chose to audition with “Proud Mary” but he sure provides some hilarity for the judges which is more than others can lay claim to. Steven tries to tell him gently that Idol has higher standards – not always, Steven, not always - which only makes Michael break out into another unfortunate song, presumably to prove himself again. Michael also claims he's been “singing for years” and, surely, people would have told him by now if he sucked donkey ba... I mean, if he weren't any good. I have a sneaking suspicion this dude has never seen American Idol or he'd know that behind every delusional individual there's an equally delusional but well meaning family able and willing to lie to them through their teeth, for years if necessary, about how exceptional they are. That or those families are equally tone deaf. You know, much like a great portion of the Idol watching public. I mean, somebody voted for last year's winner...
Moving on. I forgot this show was two hours long. Fear not, I'll report on every miserable contestant anyway. This time.
Ashley Sullivan, 25 year old mall worker from Massachusetts might not be your next American Idol but she does get a pimp package complete with an al fresco interview in some park. This seems to be the standard pimp interview this season. Call it the AI fake out. We find out that Ashley is a Britney Spears superfan of the insane variety who carries a crumpled up picture of her “Saggitarian BFF” in her pocket. She belts out a high school drama club version of “Gimme Gimme” which is not as horrific as her manic disposition suggested and literally leaves the judges speechless, though, I suspect, not in a good way. JLo tells Ashley that she needs to get herself to Broadway but Ashley has other ideas saying she wants to be the first “show tunes pop star”. And it's all downhill from there when Ashley drops to her knees, bursts into tears and starts begging for a chance. Get this, after JLo gives her a yes – really? - Steven nods his approval and even though Randy has already told her to take a hike, he changes his vote to a yes as well. Once again, JLo speaks and the sheep follow. At least Ashley will be an easy boot come Hollywood week. Sigh.
Next up on American Teen Idol is a clean cut, sweet as pie North Carolina teen, 16 going on 17, Victoria Huggins, who wants “this so much” because it's “very special” and you'll be happy to know that she is documenting every.single.moment.of.this.am azing.journey.on.her.video.cam era. Woohoo! Exciting! Yay! Giggle, giggle! Does her singing measure up? Her “Midnight Train To Georgia” rendition is vocally acceptable coming from a 16 year old but of course it has the emotional depth of a rain puddle. Not sure Sunshine Vicky quite gets the significance of that midnight train but, hey, it was in her range! Ashley gets a slightly creepy comment from Steven about the length of her skirt, the chance to make a couple of giggly comments and three solid yeses from the amused judges.
From sunny jokes to somber sob stories, that is how the world turns on a ratings-grabbing dime on American Idol. We go from a giggly teen straight to Melinda Ademi, 16, a young war refugee from Kosovo who gets an emotional promo reel filled with footage of the war and of course subtitles while her parents speak, you know, so the average Idol viewer munching popcorn at home doesn't have to make an effort to understand people from – gasp! - other countries. Saved by the green card lottery, the family is now living the dream in the USA and the next logical step is of course for Melinda to apply for American Idol. Complete that circle and all that. After this tearjerker of a buildup, I expect either a bomb or somebody good and Melinda delivers a decent cover of an Alicia Keys song that impresses the judges. She skates on towards her dream and will be going to Hollywood. Another green teen with an unschooled voice in what I predict to be a very long line of green teens with unschooled voices.
Ryan says we're heading into Day 2 of the auditions now. Huh? I thought that was, like, four paragraphs ago and JLo has already had a wardrobe change once. Oh, well.
Still not legal enough to drink but at 20 years of age, Times Square singing waitress, Devyn Rush, at least won't need a signed permission slip from her school principal if she makes it to Hollywood. She half talk-sings “God Bless The Child” with the singing part being quite good. Her voice has a smoky quality with good tone and a shade of maturity that the 10th graders in the pack will have trouble matching in the upcoming weeks. For the first time this season, the judges are shown making technical comments about transitions and notes which is miles better than quips about somebody's cuteness. JLo thinks Devyn is a star although she needs to refine her image to match her talent. In other words, get thee some skinny jeans and a studded black T-shirt, girl! And dye you hair!She glides into the Hollywood round with three votes of confidence and probably the name of a good Jersey stylist in her back pocket.
Of course every good singer is followed by a parade of talentless albeit sometimes entertaining losers who are just there for comic relief. The flit by one by one, they make the judges laugh, and they are what a lot of people tune in to see in the first weeks of the show. Moving on.
Yoji Asano, a.k.a. Yoji Pop is Japanese, 25 years old, and has been a fan of Michael Jackson since he's been in the womb. However, for some odd reason, such as a possible lack of singing talent, he chooses to, er, sing “Party In The USA”, that venerable anthem to jiggling your bits like yeah and not caring about autotune like whoa. Not that Yoji couldn't have benefited from copious amounts of Miley levels of autotune or a reality check but the genuine shock on his face as the judges laugh at him tells me that he has been blissfully unaware of his own, shall we say, shortcomings as a performer. The good news is that his folly is just another reason for Idol to run a clip of Jersey's audition crowd rocking out to Miley's patriotic bubblegum pop nugget. Ooh, I spy people strumming guitars on a boat! Incidentally, that marks the only time a musical instrument is show on this episode. Somewhere, back in obscurity, Lee Whatshisname is weeping 'cause, times, they have a' changed.
I'm not going to list every crazy paraded around for our entertainment but as the day comes to a close it's between the laugh track and the sob story. What? We haven't had a sob story in at least 15 minutes, not since the Kosovo refugee girl! To remedy this horrific oversight, we get Long Island teen sweetheart Brianne von Hugel, all of 16, fresh-faced, earnest and she even comes with a built in story about her former singer daddy who survived throat cancer. Sniff, sniff. With a flower in her hair for good measure and because there's always an extra layer of tears to be milked from the audience, Brianne chooses to sing “Endless Love” for the judges. She has a shouty, mediocre voice, you know the kind that makes it to the Top 36 – or is that Top 24 this year? - only to be told that she is not going to cut it. But for now, Brianne sang mostly in tune and Idol needs the sob factor so after dragging her daddy out in front of the judges for another round of hugs and tears, she gets the good news and is off to Hollywood.
One more to go before Idol closes up shop in Jersey and the episode is ending with a tear-soaked segment of the losers and a little glimmer of hope in the form of 16 year old Travis Orlando from the Bronx. I guess it would be too good to hope that the tall cute boy dressed in a red T-shirt didn't have a story of homelessness, gangs, violence and familial heartbreak to ride and the kind Idol loves to exploit. As One Republic's heartbreaking “Come Home” plays mournfully in the background, Travis takes the cameras to his old hood and the shelter where he and his family lived for a while after losing their home due to the recession. A timely story indeed. Can tall cutie Travis sing? He can sing a good “Eleanor Rigby” in a pleasant, warm toned voice. His voice is breathy, the transitions are not smooth by any means, but Steven wants to hear more so Travis launches into a Jason Mraz impersonation with that old chestnut from Hot Adult Contemporary radio, “I'm Yours”. There's no individual spin but the boy has potential and Randy and JLo both express some reservations. In the end he is through to Hollywood.
And with that, Idol says Sayonara to Jersey and it's off to New Orleans next in search of more sob stories, teen crooners and whatever else they can find by way of freaks and people not afraid to embarrass themselves on national television. My partner in crime for this season will be Arielflies and she will be delivering all the voodoo goodness from the bayou for you tomorrow.