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'American Idol' Season Premiere Recap: I Heart NY & the New Judges

By Kelsea Stahler, Hollywood.com Staff

American Idol auditions are no longer a double-sided trainwreck. Despite my greatest fears that the addition of Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey's combative relationship behind the judging table might spin Idol resolutely into the sideshow pile, eschewing all the credit Phil Phillips' success laid out for the series, I was wrong. Nicki and Mariah's energy gave the panel the edge it's needed for years and the result is more satisfying than any of us could ever have imagined.

Gushing words aside, this is the first of many audition episodes, so of course it's still going to be a hot steaming pile o'crazy, filled with borderline offensive graphic treatments, cartoonish sound effects, and the usual set of delusional contestants pumped up by the producers calling them up to the big audition room. They're shaking things up, but they're not stupid. What has changed is that the judges are more responsible this year, there were fewer God-awful singers and more average ones who'll actually benefit from constructive criticism, and most importantly: not a single one of them described a performance as "pitchy." I won't say the life of this meaningless word is over (after all, Randy's still perched at the judges' table), but it could be losing its steam. Finally.

Nicki and Mariah, however, are full of hot air. Before the first New York audition even begins, they're at each other's throats, in a playful way... we think. Our first contestant, who remains nameless because he never actually sings a song, attempts to overshadow the infighting by stomping along to "We Will Rock You" before dancing around like a grown man who's just tried vodka for the first time. No one is amused (including me), but it does the trick: it instigates Mariah/Nicki drama, prompting Ms. Minaj to mouth with her neon lips: "She's a bitch, she's a bitch, she's a bitch." My dear, the thing about neon lipstick is that we can read your lips. Every time. But then again, something tells me you knew that.

And we're off. Mariah is set to play wise stage marm to Nicki's precocious little girl. (Sorry, Nicki, not catching Mariah's Mean Girls reference set you back a bit.) It takes a little adjusting, but by the end of the episode the little tiffs turn out to add just the right about of flavor and a healthy dose of Nicki's famed terror shot faces.

The first girl to bring out the side of Mariah sure to broil Nicki nice and good is Tessa Torres, a 28 year old "professional model" from Queens who once attended "Camp Mariah" and who's carrying pictures from the time she got to sing for the diva. This drives Nicki bananas, but in her defense, it's got to be frustrating to watch a grown woman fawn all over your co-judge. In Mariah's defense, she's Mariah-freaking-Carey. Of course a girl who modeled her vocals after the pop legend is going to fawn upon meeting her. It's unfortunate that Tessa didn't obtain Mariah's pipes through some sort of osmosis when she met her back at camp, but she's decent. Every single one of the judges is impressed, but of course Mariah is "proud," and Tessa, Mariah-ite, makes it through to Hollywood.

As we gloss over a series of good singers without names, including a handsome man with a voice not unlike John Legend's and an unfortunate choice of headwear. (Is that a scarf tied in a knot on the side of your head? What possible purpose could that serve? Maybe a drink koozie that keeps your hands free?) Instead, we're forced to focus on poor little James Bae, a 15 year old kid from Long Island whose dreams are about as the ability to spin gold from straw. He's convinced he's the next Justin Bieber, attempting to sing "One Less Lonely Girl" for the judges and nailing like two whole Bieber dance moves. Faced with the first instance of this classic heartbreaking encounter, Nicki confronts it with kindness, telling him she likes him (before giggling a bit at his confusion of the words "collide" and "collaboration.) But ultimately, the judges do their best to offer James solid advice. Mariah tells him DJing could fulfill his passion for music without relying on singing. Randy tells him about his defunct dream of becoming a race car driver. And Nicki gives him a whole lotta love, and even a little kiss. Somehow, we make it out of James' audition without feeling like horrible people, and it happened this season and not during the two with the living Sally Sweetheart Doll that is Jennifer Lopez.

But then we get some of the goods. The good goods. Christina "Isabelle" recently lost 50 pounds and is using her newfound confidence to audition. (I'm still trying to figure out if her name is in parentheses because it's a fake last name or her proposed one-word stage name because she's tried Christina and realized The Voice already has one of those, but I'll let it go for now because she was good.) The 21-year-old opened her mouth, and out came the first memorable voice we'll hear this season. Mark it down. She sings "Summertime" with a little mix of jazz and country and she's a gorgeous girl studying music at the renowned Berklee College of Music. We'll be seeing a lot more of her.

The next kid, Evan Ruggiero from New Jersey, is the challenge. He's an amazing survivor with a heartbreaking story about surviving cancer and losing his leg as a result, but when it comes time to sing, the kid's just not up to par (though not without enthusiasm). He's attempting to go folky and even rock, but his voice is all Broadway and he's turned away. Keith Urban, who is also a judge with a voice (which we hadn't really noticed until this point), steps in to tell Evan he needs more work and some direction, which is, shocker: really relevant and constructive advice. What is going on? They're letting a prime sad story walk out because he's not up to snuff? No more Chris Medinas? Wait, Seacrest's not even wearing a jacket, is this really Idol?

The weirdness just gets weirder when Idol implements its big change this audition season: the nominated/surprise audition. Days before the audition (because take it from me, Randy would not make it to Staten Island and back to the auditions in Columbus Circle in under three hours) Randy treks out to Staten Island to personally deliver an audition number to 19-year-old Jessica Kartalis who was nominated by her mom. It's like a bogus Idol fast pass while everyone else is waiting in day-long lines starting as early as 5 AM. What's more is that it seems they took Jessica's mom's nomination at face value. Did they check her out before bringing her a ticket in front of her whole family? If so, the producers are a wee bit cruel. The poor girl's guitar is out of tune, throwing her off a bit, but it's clear that she isn't quite ready. Nicki gets her sass out and tells Jessica, "Maybe don't come in and expect Idol to do it all for you." I'm sorry, did you miss the part where the poor girl didn't even drag herself to this audition?

Next: A country girl pulls off ""Super Bass""?

Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler

[Photo Credit: Fox]

More:

'Idol' Returns: Why You'll Be Watching Season 12

How to Ace an Idol Audition: Lessons from Our 12 Favorite Alums

Randy Jackson, American Idol is Nothing Like Picasso

[PAGEBREAK]

Frankie Ford from Brooklyn auditions for the judges.

Luckily, that bait-and-switch's subsequent icky feeling was remedied by two Hollywood-bound singers. First, we meet Shira Garielev from Israel, who sings "Valerie" with clarity and strength, though it probably helps that her father is a famous composer in Israel. Second is Frankie Ford from Flatbush in Brooklyn. He's fallen on hard times, often singing in the subway to make money, and somehow throughout the telling of his story, you can't hear the Idol grinder in the background, squeezing it for every possible tear. It's simply genuine. and when Frankie actually sings, despite a slight hiccup at the start of "Sweet Dreams," his voice is beautiful, it's soulful with a little rock edge. He's certainly not perfect, but he draws us in. Mariah calls it his inner light, Nicki says he captures people but at least they can agree and send him to Hollywood while Keith is still babbling on ambiguously about dynamics.

Just like that, we flip the coin over to the apparently necessary evil of Idol, the crazy person in a ridiculous costume. Benjamin Gaisey comes all the way from Pennsylvania to dress up like Curly Sue does "Thriller" in a red plastic suit and a curly wig, mix Mariah and Nicki's song into a potpourri of romantic songs that most people use for getting it on, and shock Nicki's more-fragile-than-expected constitution by accompanying her verse with an aggresive (but unimpressive) pelvic thrust. After Keith finally comes out from under the table (an accidental metaphor for his usefulness thus far), he tries to assess the presence of the wig (which isn't even the biggest issue plaguing this audition): "He obviously loved Tom Jones." Aw, Keith. You certainly tried, mate.

It should be stated that any singer whose parents have to insist that their daughter sings "in the car and at parties" after the girl herself said she never sings in public, are probably the parents of someone who's about to be used as amusement on Idol. Rozanna Shindelman from Staten Island is that girl. She sang "To Know Him is To Love Him" and all Randy can muster is "Dude, it was bad." Now, Randy's far more blunt this year thanks to the Nicki-Mariah energy, but that was a little cold. Randy's becoming the old dog ready to snap at anyone who looks at him sideways, but so far, that seems to serve him well.

Adding to the pile of success are youngsters Sara Restuccio, a country girl from New Jersey who rides four-wheelers, sings Carrie Underwood songs, and can do the rap verse of "Super Bass" like a mini Nicki. Her voice isn't completely polished and her "Super Bass" cover is enough to get Nicki to lobby her fellow judges to let her through. Nicki will do anything for her Barbies, including teaming up with Mariah to steamroll Keith and Randy. (Don't get too excited, it only happened once.)

Angela Miller, who looks like a baby Allison Williams who's still stuck in that awkward phase of teen-to-adult wardrobe transition (she won't always think bike shorts under a dress, paired with purple, glitter platform heels is a good look). But wardrobe issues aside, Angela places herself in the early upper echelon. Her performance of "Mama Knows Best" earns a compliment from Mariah about Angela's tone, something Mariah actually knows about, so unlike when Steven Tyler said he loved a girl's tone and meant "you're hot/I like you/that was fun," it clear this girl is the real deal.

With only four contestants left in the two-hour broadcast, we were bound to get a few more unfortunate souls. And the Idol editors were bound to get a little more creative with their visual treatments. Albert Chang of Rego Park, Queens doesn't last long. His only purpose is to muddle what I think is the main theme from Phantom of the Opera and end it on a high whine so grating I didn't think it was a sound crying humans over the age of three could make. This interlude serves one purpose: to provide Nicki an opportunity to rib Mariah about poor Albert encroaching on her high note territory. Like the sternest (and most exasperated) stage mom, all Mariah can say is "Nickiiiii..." Fun rivalry or not, you don't f**k with Mariah's hallowed range.

Our last sad sack is the saddest of the sacks. Twenty-eight-year-old Brett Holt has auditioned for Idol seven times and for some ungodly reason, he thinks the eighth time is the charm. He apparently missed the media storm around the new judges this year. Simultaneously appearing as middle aged and adolescent, Brett performs his expectedly awful audition after the editors have spliced together him standing before the judges with high praise stolen from other auditions and masked with a dream-like haze. Before he gets his real feedback, we're introduced to a CGI dancing frog out of a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas reject reel, who hops along to wake up Brett and deliver the real news: he's still pretty terrible.

And because they clearly weren't having enough fun with the drugged up frog, the graphics department had a heyday with Gupreet Singh Sarin, who admits his friends call him The Turbanator. Because Idol has never embraced the cultural value of a turban or depicted any serious contestant wearing one, this segment takes the time to introduce this style gently... by turning Gupreet into a robot of destruction through red filters, beeps and boops, and of course, by turning his eyes red as he enters the audition room. That'll certainly foster learning and acceptance of other cultures on this show. Oh wait, it's doing the opposite. And for what? To work in that "Keith Turban" joke? He finally sings "Sunday Morning" delightfully, albeit a bit lightly and Randy asks him to sing "Indian Music," and Gupreet reluctantly obliges. Very worldly of you, dawg. When it comes time to vote, the judges are split and it's up to Nicki to give the man a chance. On one hand, she reduces his name to an abbreviation of the name of his hat ("Oh, Turb!"), but on the other hand, he gets that golden ticket, so perhaps it's a wash? Whatever it was, it was weird.

Lastly, the panel may be necessarily harsher this year, but Idol isn't about to give up its favorite audition episode ender: the tear-jerker. Ashley Feliciano of Connecticut has a lovely little voice and a sweet disposition, she's a shoe-in for Hollywood (though we'll see what happens when groups start forming), but it's the story of her family that hooks us. Her family fosters "medically complex children," including her little adopted brother Aidan, who she calls their "miracle baby." After she tells the judges her story and sings a snappy rendition of "Put Your Records On," Mariah rightly points out that she's got potential. Even when faced with a touching story, Season 12 judges are honest and constructive. Maybe all is not lost. Maybe Idol really is earning its second life with this new panel.

And maybe, just maybe, Nicki Minaj will put that posh British accent of hers back where it came from. I know we can't have everything, but those two minutes of accented nonsense were enough to make me want to claw at my television like a cat with anger issues.

Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler

[Photo Credit: Michael Becker/Fox]

More:

'Idol' Returns: Why You'll Be Watching Season 12

How to Ace an Idol Audition: Lessons from Our 12 Favorite Alums

Randy Jackson, American Idol is Nothing Like Picasso

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