If there were a Mount Rushmore of reality shows that laid the groundwork for the modern era of the increasingly terrible yet ever-influential television genre, American Idol would certainly be among the forefathers.
Fun sidebar for the comments section: What are the other three? I’m going with The Real World (George Washington – the father), Survivor (Thomas Jefferson – the author of the declaration of snakes and rats) and The Amazing Race (the much-acclaimed Abraham Lincoln), with Idol checking in as the Roosevelt rockstar.
Apologies to runner-up Big Brother, but you’re literally the most pointless thing on television. It’s the only show where you can watch after-hours footage of absolutely nothing happening just in the hopes you might see a boob. At least The Bachelor offers a slim shot at love. If they ever carve George Bush into the monument, I will also document Big Brother‘s greatness, influence, and reliance on Double Dare challenges.
The Same Old Idol… Yet Different
Despite waning ratings, Idol remains a FOX juggernaut that still draws a significant audience and maintains the possibility of creating the next big thing. We’re still waiting for Caleb Johnson and Candice Glover to hit the airwaves, but let’s not forget the franchise has produced five Grammy winners (four you know — Mandisa won in 2014 for Best Contemporary Christian Music Album) and launched dozens of careers.
And the 14th season kicks off Wednesday with some big changes designed to streamline the viewing experience by eliminating all that excess filler.
Gone (for real this time) is Randy Jackson, who is no longer in it to win it. That leaves Ryan Seacrest as the final link to a bygone era that once saw him splitting hosting duties with a dude named Dunkleman.
Replacing the Dawg as mentor is Scott Borchetta, head of the Big Machine Label Group and best known for discovering and molding 14-year-old Taylor Swift. So we’re going from the bassist from Journey to the guy who created the industry’s most prolific contemporary hit machine (no offense to Maroon 5). Don’t stop believin’, dawg. Upgrade.
But the biggest and most appreciated alteration is addition by subtraction — no more results shows. That’s right, once the live shows begin in mid-March, we’ll be cutting back to once-a-week episodes. It sucks for the person who has to spend a week preparing only to find out he or she is going home sans performance, but it’s great for us.
And starting with a 60-minute premiere? Bravo, FOX, well played. So let’s get to the auditions. Onward with the good, the bad and the (happily reduced for time constraints) ugly.
Hey, These Guys Look Familiar
After what seems like years of musical chairs, we are returning the same group of judges for just the second time since the great shakeup of Season 8, which started by welcoming the first additional so-called expert (Kara DioGuardi) and ended by bidding sayonara to one of the original ones (Paula Abdul).
The delightful trio of Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick, Jr., will again be leading the way, whether you agree with them or not. They botched some picks for the Top 24 in Season 13, and there are sure to be mistakes again. But you gotta love the chemistry.
And hey, if you feel like playing super sleuth, you can attempt to match up the auditioners with the silhouetted Top 24 singers who are revealed at the start of the show. Or you can just be lazy and wait like the rest of us. But I’ll tell you this much, there’s some hotties in the group! And apparently a pirate.
The Music City Miracle
The first set of auditions comes to us from Nashville, Tennessee, home of every country music star who doesn’t live in Texas or Georgia. Naturally, it’s Keith’s stomping grounds and the first of 17 scavenged cities that include all the judges’ hometowns.
J-Lo is sporting some six-inch heels, Harry looks dapper in his jacket and Keith is rocking his t-shirt. And everyone in Nashville LOVES Keith Urban, except the girl who can’t wait to meet Mariah and Nicki. That’s all you need to know.
Riley Bria looks like the guy from Silverchair (is he like 40 now?) and once played guitar on stage with Keith Urban thanks to a Grammy summer camp, so clearly he can rip. But can the 17-year-old sing? The long answer is yes, but the short answer is no. He’s got the stage presence and some pipes, but there are definitely rough patches in his rendition of “Georgia Woods.” Three yeses reward ease, potential, image and fearlessness.
Priscilla Barker is the 19-year-old baby of 10 siblings, and she’s got everything you could ever want in an accent. Provided you scored a decoder ring in your Cracker Jacks and can decipher what she’s saying. Her “Delta Dawn” is every bit as southern as the name Tanya Tucker, and her likable and outgoing personality earn her a ticket despite a lack of any real star power or support from J-Lo.
Cameron Bedell is 25 and from Kansas, and he’s got a sweet and smooth voice that delivers the first goosebumps of the season. Harry loved it despite the fact that Cam didn’t open his eyes at any point of the performance, and Keith wants to play with him (Harry: “That’s another show, Keith”). The show and the judges are off to a rousing start.
Fifteen-year-old Amber Kelechi Walker comes from the “hard part” of Memphis, an area with run-down buildings and funerals every Sunday. Music saved her from gangs and pregnancy, and this is her dream. She belts out Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” just fine enough to move forward, but I don’t know if she’d have made it without the backstory. Harry is the sole dissenter, but he stresses that he likes her. On the way out, she has them sign her golden ticket (Keith: “C’mon, Harry. If you can’t give her a ticket, at least give her an autograph”).
Kory Wheeler, 26, is a barista at the coffee shop across the street who made extra sure he wasn’t leaving his boss in a lurch. His version of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” seems to wow the judges, but to me, his voice sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard. I cringe while they swoon. J-Lo raves that she’s never heard anyone sing like Kory, and I agree, just for very different reasons. America? Whose side are YOU on?
Michael Simeon, 20, has a soulful yet original version of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me,” and Keith is moved to singing along. Unanimous yeses, which isn’t a surprise to a confident Michael after he made the Top 48 last season, and then he has a special request. He slow dances with Jennifer Lopez while singing a reprise with Keith and Harry providing instrumentals and backup vocals. I can’t decide if I love this kid or hate him. But a ballsy move, for sure.
We cap the premiere off with 15-year-old Emily Brooke, who believes that Ryan Secrest spoke to her through the television and told her to audition. She gave up all her weekends to perform live and raise enough money to afford the trip from Florida, and now it’s time for all that hard work to pay off. And her rendition of Carrie Underwood‘s “Blown Away” does just that. In all honesty, she could use a professional touch to tweak her vocal technique, but she’s just oozing with star potential.
The nos are mostly and mercifully unnamed and contained in montages. There’s the dude who butchers The Outfield’s “Your Love,” sending Josie on a vacation even further away. There are two guys who backflip and somersault onto the singing square, a girl who shows off terrible dance moves, a guy with super high-pitched voice and a dreadlocked fellow who sings two bars and then bounces. Thank you and good day, sir.
Kyle Blaine Corman looks like the love child of Howard Stern and Carrot Top, and he came all the way from Staten Island, where he unloads produce, because there just aren’t enough music venues to perform at there. In New York City. Keith touches his hair, and that’s the highlight of the audition. His voice isn’t terrible, but his “Give a Little Bit of Your Love” (Goo Goo version) is all over the place. He’s the dude who cuts off the judges’ feedback to sing another song, and Keith takes offense.
Tears follow as other unnamed rejects head home in montage mode.
Quick and Painless
That’s it for the first set of American Idol auditions, and it went by fast. Emily Cooke and Cameron Bedell were the best of the seven advancing performers, but while Emily leads the way in potential, Bedell has her beat in readiness.
Who were your favorites? Did you love them all as much as the judges did? Is there anyone you could see advancing to the finals from this group?
We’re back to two hours and more potential superstar finds on Thursday night, though we’ll have some recap tag-team action in effect. Still, I look forward to another season of inspired debate, ranking controversies and, inevitably, a white guy with a guitar winning the whole thing.
You can watch American Idol every Wednesday and Thursday at 8pm on FOX.
(Image and video courtesy of FOX)