'American Idol' Premiere Recap: New Season, New York
'American Idol' Premiere Recap: New Season, New York
Bill King
Bill King
Contributing Writer, BuddyTV
It's been eight long months since we last heard Ryan Seacrest utter those four little words that have become a staple in pop culture for more than a decade, but "This ... is American Idol" is back for a 12th season of wonderment. If you can remember the first season way back in 2002, you have a leg up most of the competition. The two youngest finalists from last season, Shannon Magrane and Jessica Sanchez, were both born in 1995 and were 6 when the show debuted. If that doesn't make you feel old, the OLDEST finalists from season 1 (Nikki McKibbin and runner-up Justin Guarini) were born in 1978, faaar too close to my own birth year of 1980.

Anyway, America's favorite singing competition returns to hopefully deliver another superstar to the music world. But for every Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, you also have to deal with the occasional Ruben Studdard or (gulp) Lee DeWyze. It's been six seasons since Jordin Sparks became the last female winner, so the pressure is on the women to deliver this year.

In addition to an almost entirely new judges' panel, American Idol is also introducing a (sort of) new format and potentially a tweak to the voting process. Gone are Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez, replaced by country singer Keith Urban and ever-bickering divas Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj. Show producers also announced that the girls and boys will perform on separate weeks during the Hollywood rounds, AND a brand new Vegas Round will be used to whittle the semi-finalists down to the 10 finalists. That means no more Top 12 and no wild card round. Singers may also be ranked by their vote totals, though that has not been confirmed, and there's no word if there will be a judges' save. Thankfully, Randy Jackson is back to provide us with some semblance of normalcy. Bring it, Dawg!

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The new judge dynamic should actually be pretty interesting to watch. I think everyone can agree that last season, J-Lo and Steven were just too nice. I mean, maybe the talent was that good, but everyone was all rainbows and sunshine. The negativity seemed too directed (at poor Hollie Cavanagh) and sporadic, like okay, we should probably offer something "constructive" now. Now we have two judges who legitimately don't like each other (including reports that Minaj threatened to shoot Carey), and Nicki could be the closest person we have to Simon since no one. Though with the recent news about Lance Armstrong and Manti Te'o (look it up if you don't know who he is, it's really a crazy story), I wouldn't be surprised if they were actually best friends.

But before we can get to the drama of Hollywood, the intense performances of the live shows and the who-knows-what of Las Vegas, we have to endure weeks of audition shows, where the best and worst of the people who think they can be professional singers both dazzle us and make us cringe. I am not generally a fan of these shows, and used to hold off on watching until Hollywood week. But now I'm here to sit through all of it with you!

The first stop on our road to the next American Idol is New York City, where thousands lined up and waited for hours for their shot at stardom. Most were just mediocre enough to be sent home, but after a quick performance by most recent winner Phillip Phillips of his triple-platinum single "Home" and an overly lengthy Ryan Seacrest judge introduction, it's time to kick off the season!

Singers to Remember

Tenna Torres is a huge Mariah Carey fan who wears the largest hoop earrings ever created. She could use them as hula hoops after her audition, but instead gets the first golden ticket with her rendition of Carole King's "You've Got a Friend." A couple of screamy notes, but the judges love her, probably because Mike (see below) is the only one they can compare her to at this point.

Christina "Isabelle" (That's how they put her name on screen. I don't know what it means.) doesn't want to look at the judges until after she sings. She used to weigh more than 200 pounds, but she lost 50 of them because other kids were mean to her and now she looks great. She offers the first goose-bump moment of the season. That is honestly how I judge the performances, so get ready to hear a lot about goose bumps from me. Seriously, keep your eye on her. I will be disappointed if we don't see her go past Hollywood.

Audition Video: Why Christina "Isabelle" is a Singer to Watch

Evan is a 21-year-old dancer and guitar player who wanted to be on Broadway before he was diagnosed with bone cancer. After 16 months of chemotherapy and multiple surgeries, his cancer came back and the only option was to amputate his leg. His performance of Jason Mraz' "I'm Yours" is okay at best, but then he incorporates the guitar and does much better with Bon Jovi's "Dead or Alive." Still, the judges don't think he has star power and aren't sure what his musical identity is, so it's a no. But he's one to remember just because of his inspirational story. 

Shira Gavrielov came from Israel just to audition. Her dad is a composer/singer/songwriter, and she had a CD and number 1 hit in her native country when she was 17. Nicki calls her a superstar and tells her she loves her, but it didn't do anything for me. I don't know if it's people who sing with an accent, but it's what killed Heejun Han for me last season. I want to hear the lyrics pronounced.

Frankie Ford is the final contestant of Day 1, and he's an adopted kid who lives in a rough neighborhood in Brooklyn. He's currently a starving artist who sings on the subway for spare change, and he promises to work harder than anyone else on the show. His voice is goose-bump worthy, but he gets nervous and cuts himself off halfway through. He starts again and continues to crush it. It's absolutely going to come down to him keeping his emotions in check in Hollywood. 

Sarah Restuccio is a 17-year-old from Hammonton, New Jersey, which is the nice, wide-open southern part of the state for you outsiders. She works on a blueberry farm and sings country music nice and sweet. She also raps (Nicki's "Super Bass"), which confuses everyone. She needs to strengthen her voice a bit and find her identity, so we'll have to see how she develops.  

Audition Video: Sarah Restuccio is a Jersey version of Skylar Laine 

Angela Miller suffers from hearing loss, which makes it harder for her to hear the music while she sings. Luckily for her, she doesn't need music to sing a cappella. I wonder how the 19-year-old will perform in Hollywood group numbers, when four people are trying to keep up with each other.

Gurpreet Singh Sarin, or "The Turbanator," always matches his turban with his outfit. He has never met a celebrity and was star struck when he met Keith Urban (who they hilariously dub Keith Turban), and he also has some sweet dance moves thanks to a background in Indian classical music. What you might not have expected is that he also has a sweet voice. Nicki and Keith correctly identify that he sings too softly and doesn't have a standout voice, but they send him to Hollywood anyway. He'll be a breath of fresh air in a month or so when we get to see him exactly one more time.

As is the Idol tradition of saving either the absolute best or the absolute worst for last, the show's final contestant is 20-year-old Ashlee Feliciano. For the last 10 years, her family has been fostering and adopting medically-complex children. In addition to their three biological children, the Felicianos have adopted four children, including an adorable little miracle baby who wasn't supposed to survive. Her voice is as inspiring as her family, who all join her on stage to hear the good news that she's moving on. Tear-jerk moment.

'Singers' to Forget

Mike is the first contestant of the season, and he walks out singing a beatbox version of "We Will Rock You" with the words rewritten about the Idol judges. He gets three no's before he even actually auditions.

James Bae is a rap and pop artist whose lifelong dream is to make it to the top and be the next Justin Bieber. He's the type of guy you really want to shock you and be great, but he's awful. He wears white pants and a white T-shirt with headphones around his neck, a huge rosary and sunglasses on his belt loop. Nicki asks him if he has girlfriend, and he says the two of them should do a "collide" instead of a collaboration. Nicki shakes his hand, gives him a hug and a peck on the cheek and tells him he's special. Mariah wants him to be a DJ.

Jessica Kartalis is a 19-year-old bar singer who was nominated by her mom over the internet, cause apparently that's an option now. Randy goes to Staten Island to surprise her with an audition number, and she performs an original song but keeps playing the wrong notes on her guitar. She asks to sing another song and Nicki says no. The judges think she needs more work and send her home disappointed, and I'm wondering why they bothered showing this at all? They totally wasted Randy's time and ours. Couldn't Randy have just realized she was no good at the bar?

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Benjamin Gaisey is wearing a curly wig and a red plastic suit that he says is an old Halloween costume. He claims to be a ladies' man, and he kinda looks like Tim Meadows' "The Ladies Man," but he is the reason I don't love the audition shows. He wears a ridiculous outfit and then genuinely seems surprised when the judges don't take him seriously. And he pelvic thrusted while serenading Nicki. Gross.

Rozanna Shindelman is 21, lives at home and doesn't sing in front of anyone but her parents. It's probably because she has a voice that only a parent could love.

Albert Chang is 25 and has no idea who the judges are. They also have to caption EVERYTHING he says because it's impossible to understand. He "sings" something from "Phantom of the Opera," complete with ear-shattering falsetto, and I wish I could fast forward through it.

Brett Holt is an American Idol superfan who has auditioned seven times, and they do a bunch of confusing daydreams with the judges loving him. But of course, in reality, they do not.

Other Random Notes

I was going to list some of the people who weren't featured that they showed getting tickets, and they included a guy with a fro and a headband, some guy who got really fired up, several pretty girls and a black guy with a sweet voice. But since 41 moved on to Hollywood, it made no sense to try and identify any of them. Same thing with the random rejections, which included a person whose gender I could not determine, a guy who farted on stage and a girl who, in true New York style, screamed, "Get this man out of my [expletive] face or I'll [expletive] the [expletive] out of him" at the camera.

The Nicki-Mariah tension was a bit of a letdown, as the most noteworthy moments happened when the two of them argued over who knows the movie "Mean Girls" better and at the end, when Nicki said she wanted to strangle someone on the judges' panel but wouldn't say who. Her rainbow hair was more entertaining than the British accent she used for much of Day 2. She should just leave the accents to Keith. He is much better at them.

There were eight featured singers who moved on, and only two of them blew me away. You definitely want to remember Christina "Isabelle" (whatever that means) and Ashley Feliciano. And if Frankie Ford can keep his nerves in check, he could also make it far. Who were your favorites?

The show now moves to Chicago, where we are promised more emotional stories of perseverance and some dramatic diva fights. I love that they keep making Keith sit in the middle. Oh, yeah, and some people will sing. Welcome back, Idol!

American Idol airs Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8pm on FOX.

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(Image courtesy of FOX)

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