With “American Idol” now 10 years old, it was apparent in the show’s heavily hyped premiere episode that there’s a whole generation who’ve grown up idolizing “Idol,” so much so that the opening rituals took on the timeless quality of baseball, with its own version of spring training or out-of-town previews prior to a Broadway premiere. In case you’re pressed for time, here’s what you need to know: Simon Cowell was missed, but they didn’t mess with what’s proven a winning formula. The judges were OK, but Jennifer Lopez is not as unintentionally funny as Paula Abdul, and they could use an agitator. Maybe it will be Steven Tyler, but I don’t know quite yet.
In an attempt to spruce up the formula, as well as counteract the potentially devastating loss of Cowell, the producers have turned to rock star Tyler and pop diva Lopez, who join the Dawg Randy Jackson as judges, along with in-house mentor, record executive Jimmy Iovine. I’ve already expressed my opinions on the judges’ opening. Still, suffice to say, while the individual parts in ”AI” may change, the Fox cash cow is still a well-oiled machine. Hey, 24 million people watched last year, and even if it is down from previous peaks of more than 30 million, that ain’t no chump change, especially considering the show costs far less to put on than a weekly 60-minute dramatic series. And I bet this premiere episode does well in the ratings.
Are Randy and J.Lo Already Feuding?
BRING IN THE CLOWNS
Of course, the first audition shows are about looking for the trainwrecks, and finding jewels in the rough, and this opening installment from New Jersey’s Meadowlands was no different. It took but a single contestant, New Yorker Rachel Zevi, a rejected Season Six hopeful when she was 16 (J.Lo insisted she remembered her and even mentioned how good she was to husband Marc) to hear our first version of “Hallelujah,” which was good enough for a Gold Ticket. Manly hirsute blues singer Caleb Hawley was next, singing a version of another “Hallelujah,” this one Ray Charles‘ “Hallelujah, I Love Her So,” which got Tyler jumping in and singing along, and how irritating will that get by April? Still, it was enough to earn him a Gold Ticket, too. With the age limit down to 15, we got our first entry that young in Kenzi Palmer, who sounded just like what she said she was…a performing arts school student, all vocal trills, leaps and bounds, and predictably little heart. But she got to go to Hollywood, too.
DAY OF THE LOCUSTS
And then there were the misguided, the deluded… OK, the freaks. Ivory Coast-born Achille Lovlee has the name of a star, but her African patois and wavering beat turned out to be her Achilles’ heal, turning Madonna‘s “Dress You Up” into an indistinguishable jumble. Snooki doppelganger Tiffany Rios wore her heart on her sleeve and stars on her breasts, which appealed to Jennifer Lopez’ Puerto Rican heritage as did the fact she was inspired to sing by seeing “Selena” at a young age. That was enough to earn her a ticket to Hollywood after a “Jersey Shore”-like profile. She sang an original song that ended, “‘American Idol’ needs me…for higher ratings.” “You can sing your tushele off,” marveled Tyler.
And then there were the tear-jerkers: Nice, 16-year-old Lawn Guyland Jewish boy Robbie Rosen, confined to a wheelchair as a kid, sings “Yesterday” like he’s the second coming of Josh Groban. Ashley Sullivan, a near-psychotic bundle of tearful nerves who wants “pop to meet Liza Minnelli,” is told she’s more suited for Broadway than Hollywood, before her tears sway the judges to let her move on. Another 16-year-old, bubbly North Carolina native Victoria Huggins wins over the judges with her treacly sweet personality and a soulful take on “Midnight Train to Georgia.” Melinda Ademi, whose parents won a green card lottery to become U.S. citizens, emigrating from war-torn Kosovo, toys with our emotions as Tyler adds, “You won two lotteries.” Devyn Rush is an unassuming, thin, jeans-clad singing waitress in Times Square with frizzy hair and a big nose who gets image tips from Lopez, while Tyler cracks: ”Someone’s gotta take her clothes shopping,” but they give her a Gold Ticket anyway. Staten Island native Brielle Von Hugel has the most uplifting tale of a doo-wop singing father, her own artistic inspiration, conquering throat cancer, though the relationship gets a little creepy when they walk off hand-in-hand after hearing she’s passed the audition she just dedicated to dear old dad. Then there’s 16-year-old Travis Orlando, one-half of twin brothers from a recession-plagued Bronx family forced to live in a shelter, wearing a T-shirt that reads, “It’s Gonna Be Fantastic.” His versions of “Eleanor Rigby” and Jason Mraz‘s “I’m Yours” brought to mind a young John Legend, as his relatives rejoice in his selection.
THE NEXT WILLIAM HUNG?
The tradition of so-bad-they’re-good acts at “Idol” encompass the likes of the butt of all jokes William Hung to shaggy puppy-dog Sanjaya Malakar, and the audition shows have become infamous for exposing them on an “America’s Favorite Home Video” or blooper level. This year’s batch included Chris Cordeiro, a straight-laced Boy Scout who decimates Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” so completely he deserves his own demerit badge. Burping, plaid-covered Michael Perotto seems dumbfounded when his completely soulless version of “Ike and Tina Turner‘s ‘Proud Mary,’” leaves the judges nonplussed. “Did you eat a lot of paint chips as a child?” asks Tyler, one of his best lines of the night. Then there’s Rob Palmay in Bermuda shorts singing, very badly, ”Ramblin’ Man” and the Japanese kid from Brooklyn, Yoji “Pop” Agano, who claims he’s been impersonating Michael Jackson “since I was in the womb,” then proceeds to moonwalk his way through a phonetic reading of Miley Cyrus‘ “Party in the USA,” leading into one of those patented AI montages of contestants all singing the same song.
The Jersey auditions resulted in a total of 51 people moving on to Hollywood, and now tomorrow night, the show lands in New Orleans for the next installment. For the first episode of the season, all the usual tropes were in place. We’ll have to give the judges a little time to develop some kind of rapport.
What did everybody else think? Anyone stand out as a possible finalist, or even in the mix? I didn’t really see any “oh wow” talents, but it’s still early. Any early favorites? Anybody’s story hit home? Were the judges too easy? Let us know, and we’ll continue the “American Idol” dialogue as the season progresses inevitably to its conclusion.