Welcome back to American Idol, where the auditions have moved to Chicago and eager contestants are patiently waiting for a chance to sing in front of Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj, Keith Urban and Randy Jackson – you know, if he happens to be in the room. The second episode of Idol's 12th season kicks off with someone in the graphics department showing off the Batman-style Pow! Boom! Bam! signs they brilliantly plastered over footage of Nicki and Mariah bickering.
Today, Nicki is greeting the contestants wearing a leopard-print bus driver uniform, which actually makes more sense now that's she told us that she wanted to be a bus driver when she was kid. First up is Mackenzie Wasner, whose country-tinged voice mesmerizes Mariah and Randy. Nicki tells her flat-out that she's a star, and Keith puts on his big Country Mentor hat and tells her she reminds him of Lee Ann Womack and Dolly Parton.
Kiara Lanier, who is approximately two feet taller than Ryan Seacrest, already sang for President Obama, so she's hardly cowed by Nicki and Mariah, although Nicki and Mariah aren't glad-handing for votes. Kiara smartly thanked Mariah for existing, so she is ushered through quickly after wowing the judges with her Celine Dion cover. Best part was Randy inadvertently leaving Nicki hanging on a high five.
A blond moppet with a mesmerizing amount of mascara named Stephanie Schimel sings a, well, dreamy version of "Dream a Little Dream of Me." Keith gets all New Age-y, telling her, "I love your whole light." But Nicki votes no, because she and the girl are wearing the same color eye shadow and are thus in a rivalry. Do I hear a diss track coming? Mariah is having none of that malarkey and she and Nicki start bickering right over Keith's head. Randy tells Stephanie to run . . . and she does. Her sweet voice and self-preservation streak should carry her far in the competition. The in-fighting leads into a montage of tedious bickering between Nicki and Mariah, who are determined to turn this competition into a diva-off. At one point, Keith mewls, "I feel like a scratching post." It's a cry for help that is promptly ignored.
Melissa Bush is a Michigan massage therapist who gave Ryan Seacrest a rub-down. Melissa apparently has awful friends who encouraged her to wear a pink Elvis stripper costume to the auditions. While the outfit got her in front of the judges, her singing voice got her sent right back to Michigan's lesser karaoke bars.
This season Idol is sending buses into small towns looking for performers unable or unwilling to trek to the auditions. When the bus tour stops in Iowa City, they meet Gabe Brown, a baker with a voice made for rock & roll. After wowing the bus team, Gabe comes to Chicago to belt out "Gimme Shelter." There is no word other than "belts" to explain his singing technique. Bellows, maybe? Anyway, he almost blows Nicki's wig clean off, and the breeze wakes up Keith for the first time in this competition. Mariah asks him to try something mellower, and he comes out with a nice, loud rendition of "We All Die Young." With that, he's through to Hollywood, where he will inevitably be cut for not being able to sing Jason Mraz covers.
Kevin Nabity is going to sing "One Week" by Barenaked Ladies, but before he gets to sing Nicki makes him promise that he's good enough to be on Idol. Nicki Minaj opens her mouth wide and it's as blue as her lipstick is pink, which is really, really blue. I only mention this because Kevin is terrible and we don't need to talk about someone who is told to stop singing, permanently, by the judges.
Fifteen-year old Isabelle Parell invites Keith to sing the Christmas song "Baby, It's Cold Outside," which, lyrically speaking, is wildly inappropriate for a teenager to sing. Mariah, Keith and Nicki all say yes, but Randy blurts "no" out of nowhere, and with no justification. Luckily, Mariah "loves Christ-MAS!" and Isabelle is through. Then tragedy strikes and Keith has to leave the auditions for a concert in Vegas, meaning that Randy is stuck alone with Nicki and Mariah. If you watch closely, he is blinking S-O-S in Morse code.
Griffin Peterson is a handsome guy; Nicki quickly determines he does not have a girlfriend. While Randy thinks his voice is just barely below average. Mariah and Nicki usher him through to Hollywood. Then Curtis Finch Jr. takes the judges to church with a stunning, deeply reverberating performance of the gospel tune "God Is Able." Randy shouts "God bless you!" as they send him to Hollywood. Curtis brings his friends in to meet Mariah, an encounter he claims will change their lives.
Speaking of Mariah, the next contestant is also named Mariah – specifically, Mariah Pulice, which is far too much Mariah in one room for Nicki. So Nicki has no choice but to change the subject, discovering that this Mariah is recovering from anorexia. After an involved PSA about the dangers of anorexia (and seriously, Idol knows their demographic on this), she sings "Let It Be," and thank gawd her voice is clear and understated. If her voice had been terrible after that tear-filled biography, I would have had to chuck my remote at the TV and go volunteer at a homeless shelter to wash off the shame. Mariah's family rushes the stage and everyone, including the judges, starts crying, as she goes through to Hollywood.
Day two starts on a strong note with 17-year old Louisville native Brandy Neelly, who sings a slow, bluesy version of "Your Cheatin' Heart," which is unlike any version I've heard on Idol or elsewhere. She goes straight through to Hollywood with a golden ticket and a hug from Keith. Josh Holiday follows in her footsteps, wowing the judges with his voice. Courtney Williams and Andrew Jones don't warrant much screentime, but they get to go to Hollywood anyway. Clifton Duffin brought his parents to the audition, which was a surprise to them, because they had never heard him sing. But it's a good family who will spend all day in line for a talent show when they didn't know their son had talent. Clifton brings his mom to tears with his sincere rendition of "Superstar," earning a trip to Hollywood to boot.
Ieisha Cotton, a professional dancer, delivers such a poor performance that Randy tells her she's tone deaf, which is a level of truth that Mariah can't handle. She gets up to cry-laugh in the corner as poor Ieisha stands there in confusion.
Johnny Keyser is back. He made it to Hollywood last year but was cut pretty early, which was surprising, considering how heavily he was featured in the promos. He "tries a little tenderness," and the judges go for it. Again.
Meet Kez Ban, a street performer/balloon artist/amateur fire performer, who doesn't expect to win the competition but wouldn't mind going to Hollywood. The performance isn't nearly as bad as you're lead to believe, despite questionable wardrobe choices and a troll-gaze-y treatment by the Idol producers. In fact, once the guitar comes in and Kez Ban sings an original tune, the judges are totally sold. Kez Ban is going to Hollywood!
Ashley Curry is a musical theater major whose performance of Jessie J's "Mama Knows Best" is so loud and off-key that the judges just about lose it after the first two notes. If she's majoring in musical theater, hopefully she's minoring in some kind of day job. Ashley doesn't believe what she's hearing from the judges, so she starts singing again. Mariah gets up and leaves, because she just can't handle the "shocking" vocals. Randy tries to tell Ashley to change her major, adding, "Someone should have told you before." Ashley isn't one to take no for an answer, apparently, because she starts singing again, which causes the judges to give up on any decorum, and the bouncer ushers her out the door. Don't worry – Ashley's mom thinks she has a golden ticket in her heart.
Finally comes the day's heartwrenching performer who featured heavily in the episode's promos: Lazaro Arbos has a severe stutter. The Cuban immigrant tears up talking about how his stutter has isolated him from anyone outside his family. His dad puts it bluntly: "he's always alone." Lazaro's mom encouraged him to sing, because his very pronounced stammer is not present when he sings. The judges don't get it, but when he breaks into "Bridge Over Troubled Water," not a trace of a speech impediment can be found, and his voice is mellifluous, with a gorgeous tone. Lazaro starts crying as the judges vote him through to Hollywood.
Come back next week when Idol heads to Charlotte.
Previously: Crushing Dreams Isn't Easy for Nicki Minaj