Last night, the 12th season of American Idol kicked off in New York (and New Jersey; the cattle-call auditions were actually held at the Prudential Center, located across the Hudson in Newark). For those viewers who appreciate the dramatic arc of the season more than the chance to point and laugh at the vocally challenged, the first weeks of Idol can be a bit of a slog; the audition episodes can seem endless, thanks to them employing the same jokes, overwrought Ryan Seacrest narration, and Fox's attempt to goose ratings by scheduling these shows in every nook and cranny of its schedule. But something about last night's season opener felt a bit snappier than previous years. Perhaps it was the Mean Girls interplay between new judges Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey; maybe it was the New York setting, which brought not just subway-singing hopefuls, but guitar-toting Staten Islanders and a lot of people from Nicki's home borough of Queens. Or maybe it was a sign that the producers are actively trying to break the show, in hopes that it won't be seen as a fading star by the fickle American populace. In honor of this being the 12th season, here are a dozen observations about last night's parade of hopefuls.
1. The producers love the Nicki-Mariah interplay so much, you could hear them rubbing their hands and thinking "Catfight!" This is obvious from the TMZ leaks, and the myriad interviews, and the way their arguments were peppered throughout the show, from the opening argument about Nicki's "accessories" on down. While I would love for Mimi to bring her dog along to one of the auditions just to make a point, I hope this doesn't turn into a mini-Kara-vs.-Bikini Girl thing on the regular.
2. The powers that be will do anything to prevent WGWGs—White Guys (and Girls) With Guitars—from getting too far in the competition. Two back-to-back auditions with solid backstories—the charming Evan Ruggiero, who lost a leg to bone cancer, and Taylor Swift lookalike Jessica Kartalis, who made the Idol cut after her mom submitted a YouTube testimonial—were given the heave-ho after being told they weren't right for the competition. True, Ruggiero's performance of "I'm Yours" had some oddly enunciated Rs, and Kartalis botched her audition when Randy at the last minute asked her to incorporate her guitar, but it seems like the inclusion of those two rejections, as well as the overwhelming number of people who made it through while leaning away from the singer-songwriter spectrum (particularly the pass-through of the utterly charming Frankie Ford, a subway singer who also had to engage in a do-over), sent a message: No matter how compelling a person's story might be, a guitar for now will be seen as a reason for a demerit.
3. Randy Jackson might finally be taking his charge as "senior judge" seriously. Nicki said the most last night, but the most withering of the judges was Randy, who dispensed with the mealy-mouthed "dawg"s and straight-up told contestants when he didn't like what he was seeing. Will he continue his tough-guy schtick when the live shows start? Based on past seasons, probably not, but it's always nice to hope.
4. Keith Urban is pretty charming! Although his status as Idol's first judge from the country-music world might be a bit moot, given the clear bias against guitars.
5. "British Nicki" could be a decent replacement for Simon Cowell. Her cutting remarks were even more so when she talked as if she were from old Blighty—even though she apparently learned how to do so from watching old videos of Scary Spice. Girl power!
6. Then again, so could regular Mariah. Cowell's old canard that Idol was a "singing competition" was never, of course, entirely true—just ask any of the melisma-crafting female singers who were passed over for guys with plainer technique. But that didn't stop Mariah from busting it out as a reason for downvoting a contestant, and her comments about other hopefuls made it clear that she takes the "good voice" charge extremely seriously.
7. Complimenting Mariah is always a good thing. When Camp Mariah alumna Tenna Torres came into the room with praise for her heroine, you could see the singer blossom; she even did the fake "of course I remember you" routine when presented with a picture of herself and the hopeful from long ago. After Torres's audition, Mariah said, "If we could have somebody like this come out of Idol 12...," and it was obvious that her "like this" really meant "as inspired by me." Which is fine! And probably a big reason why Mariah was brought on the show to begin with.
8. But making Mariah compliment herself is even better. Berklee College of Music-educated Christina "Isabelle" (quotation marks Idol's) engaged in the requisite butterfly-ring-kissing when she said that she wanted to bring the style of music Mariah was known for "back." But this didn't stop Mimi from sneering, after "Isabelle" dropped her credentials, "I didn't go to no school. I went to the school of fuckin' life, OK?" (Of course, the revelations of abuse by her ex-husband Tommy Mottola in his book add an extra bit of sadness to that declaration.)
9. "Put Your Records On" will never die in Idol land. The night's final singer, the heartstring-tugging Ashlee Feliciano, whipped out this Corinne Bailey Rae chestnut, which has been omnipresent during previous Idol audition seasons. How many more times will we hear this retro-soaked track over the coming weeks of auditions? I'll put the over/under at seven.
10. Nicki Minaj is still pretty peeved about people trying to fit her in a box. When blueberry farmer Sara Restuccio auditioned with a country song, the judges liked her OK, but her busting out "Super Bass"—and turning Nicki's line about a coke dealer into a product placement for the official Idol soft drink—won over most of the panel. Keith was skeptical, wondering whether or not this fusion implied some confusion on Sara's part, and this inspired a tirade from Nicki about not pigeonholing artists. It's worth noting that the auditions took place in September; last summer, the Hot 97 DJ Peter Rosenberg took Minaj to task for straddling the line between hip-hop and pop, and Nicki's fiery reaction to Keith's suggestion sure seemed inspired by that kerfuffle.
11. The joke contestants are still not all that funny. The only time I laughed during the Obviously Funny Auditions—Albert Chang's Phantom massacre, James Bae's attempt to channel Bieber, et al—was when I realized that the sounds made by the vinyl Michael Jackson jumpsuit worn by Benjamin Gaisey had obviously been pumped up in the Idol mix. It at least provided a percussive element to his love songs for Nicki and Mariah.
12. We're never going to find out "Donde esta Jennifer?" unless we turn off Idol and open up a tabloid's site. Even though that query ,en español was one of the questions that the premiere promised it would answer, the official Idol whereabouts of Jennifer Lopez are "Unknown, Unless She Has An Album To Promote Sometime In April When Fox Really Needs to Fill Out The Results Show."