"Do not miss the first 9 mins of tonight's @AmericanIdol premiere," Idol master of ceremonies Ryan Seacrest tweeted on Wednesday afternoon. "It explains where we've been & where we're going." What was going to happen, I wondered upon reading his announcement? Would Seacrest sternly lecture the camera about Idol needing to grow up? Would there be a burning of Simon Cowell's effigy (or at least one of the acid-tongued former judge's too-snug t-shirts)? Would there be a big "lol jk" reveal that would result in Steven Tyler being morphed into Kara Dioguardi, and Jennifer Lopez transforming into Paula Abdul?
Well, no. The first nine minutes were, instead, given over to the sort of schmaltzy montage that the last nine seasons of Idol—particularly the opening episodes, when as much filler as possible is necessary in order for Fox to maximize that ad revenue—have specialized in, with lots of soft-focus shots and high-octane complimenting of the new hosts; there was also a bit where Steven Tyler seemed like he was morphing into the Black Swan. And on top of that you had the to-be-expected trumpeting of Idol as the premier vehicle for finding undeveloped talent and delivering it to the masses. (Although the matrix of faces in the show's opening montage, once reserved only for winners, expanded to include successful runners-up like Adam Lambert and Jennifer Hudson—which one could interpret as a sign that "the most illustrious prize in music" isn't always such.)
So! Once that was all out of the way, we could finally get down to business—the business of finding people in the greater New York/New Jersey metropolitan area who could sing. A curious thing happened since the last time the Idol crew had their cattle calls at the Meadowlands, though—and that thing was Jersey Shore, which brought all things Garden State to the public consciousness. During the 2009 season, when the Idol auditions were held at the Meadowlands the episode was dubbed "the New York auditions"; this time, though, the increased Jersey cultural presence meant that not only did the contestants have to fist-pump and Constantine Maroulis had to show up and declare his allegiance to his home state, there was a fake Jersey Shore opening-credits montage that showcased the less-clothed members in attendance, which included...
Tiffany Rios, who showed the audience at home how to tease hair and whose bikini top was accentuated by two, uh, strategically placed stars. This naturally attracted the attention of Steven, who spent much of his camera time leering at the young women presenting themselves in front of him. (Can we all remind ourselves that he's celebrating his 63rd birthday this March? And that this season is the one where the age was famously lowered to 15? Okay then.) Tiffany decided to sing an original composition about her desire to win, which at least was in keeping with her overall artistic vision, but the judges asked her to sing another track, and her vocals on "I'm Your Lady" were actually OK enough to make her through. Ah, the old "crazy singer who's actually able to take on Celine" switcheroo! It's a time-honored Idol tradition, and it's nice to see that it's still alive—and that it came alive again with the hopped-up-on-something Ashley Sullivan, who entered viewers' field of vision via exiting a Port-A-John and who was so excited to receive her golden ticket after cajoling the judges she ripped the thing while celebrating her victory. Gasp! Is it still valid?
Unfortunately she was pretty much the apex of the evening's deliberately lousy auditioners; even Yoji "Pop" Asano, a Japanese singer who was introduced to the audience as someone who was not afraid to use his nickname and engage in a little kung fu and tell the judges that he was actually impersonating Michael Jackson before he was conceived, sang a halfhearted version of "Party in the USA" for his spotlight bit—although the reason it was probably so deflated was the fact that every singer who got to meet the new judging triptych had to sing the track for one of those Big Medleys Of Everyone In Attendance that try to keep alive the lie that the cattle-call auditions and the intimate tryouts exist in the same part of the space-time continuum. Maybe he had some awesome, yet unclearable song for his actual tryout? I guess we'll never know.
So what else happened? A brief rundown:
GOLDEN TICKETS DOLED OUT: 51.
RANDY JACKSON'S VAGUE COMPLIMENT OF THE NIGHT: "Great, great, great look in New Jersey. Great jump-off."
NEW JUDGE JUDGING: Neither Steven nor Jennifer seemed too comfortable judging the hopefuls at first, although as the episode went on and their crankiness quotients increased—and so, thankfully, did their saltiness. (This reached its apex near the end of the episode, when Jennifer actually whined about her "long day." Sorry, Jen. Work is hard!) There's a lightness to their judging that was definitely missing once Paula left, and it's a bit refreshing, although it makes the truly mean packages on lousy contestants seem a bit more out of place than in years prior. And doesn't Steven realize that it's rude to sing along with auditioners when they're performing, no matter how bad they might be? One feisty back-and-forth and you're dangerously close to acting like Kara did when Katrina Darrell showed up in 2009.
AWKWARD CALLBACK OF THE NIGHT: The first hopeful to walk in front of the new judges' panel was Rachel Zevita, who not only was a returning hopeful from a previous season (she tried out during Season Six and made it to Hollywood on the strength of her operatic voice, but was cut immediately), but who sang, of all songs, "Hallelujah," the Leonard Cohen song that Cowell trots out for all his favorites. After all that brushing away of the Cowell cobwebs, this is what the producers decide to open the show with? I know that people responsible for the decision to front-load the show with a bunch of reminders of its past also wrote bits of Seacrest dialogue like "An arena once filled with so much promise had now dwindled down to one final contestant," but honestly.
THE ONLY 15 FACTOR: As previously mentioned, American Idol lowered its minimum age for competitors from 16 to 15, and tonight was full of heaps of praise for The Youngs, with the first "only 15" compliment going to the night's second contestant, Kenzie Palmer. Kenzie had a vaguely irritating precocity about her and remained stock-still throughout her rote version of Carrie Underwood's "We're Young And Beautiful" (because get it? she's young), but she made it through. Although at least she didn't try to tackle a soul song like Victoria Huggins, the 16 and three-quarters-year-old from North Carolina who has a scary pageant-queen demeanor and her own merch-table-equipped website; Victoria sang Gladys Knight and the Pips' 1973 classic "Midnight Train To Georgia," even though it was clear to everyone that she's barely been Pipped. (She made it through.)
SPOILER ALERT: Recent activity on the website of Caleb Hawley, a New York singer with super-intense eyes and a Constantine-ish demeanor, would seem to indicate that even though he made it to Hollywood, he didn't get too far past it; he's actually playing a show at New York's Living Room tonight, so if the 80 seconds of screen time he got tonight intrigued you and you don't have plans, well.
SAD STORIES GALORE: A Kosovo refugee! A girl whose dad has throat cancer! A formerly homeless resident of the Bronx! A fellow Idol watcher rhetorically asked during the show if tonight's episode had actually been switched with the sob-story-laden "Idol Gives Back" charity show when all of us weren't looking, and judging from the way it even made the show's inaugural champion sad, that theorizing wasn't too wild:
Of course, all three of those singers—Melinda Ademi, Brielle Von Hugel, and Travis Orlando—made it through, with Von Hugel and Orlando closing out the show on a totally bummer note, despite Randy's "jump-off" assurances above. Randy, I do not think that term means what you think it means.
So, Idol has returned, and things seem pretty much normal, if a little bit less tense than things were at this time last season. Tomorrow night: Get your tissues ready, as the audition episodes continue with a trip to New Orleans!