While the majority of singers who entered the Boston and Austin audition rooms on Wednesday's "American Idol" Season 13 premiere seemed starstruck by glamazonian returning judge Jennifer Lopez — leaving poor newbie panelist Harry Connick Jr. to whine about his relative anonymity as clueless contestants confused him with "Robert Downey Jr., or someone like that" — there was one hopeful, Pakistan-born jazzbo Munfarid Zaidi, who was just wild about Harry.
"I read your Wikipedia page every day before going to sleep," the 19-year-old Connick fanboy gushed. (To which Harry's co-star and budding bromance partner, Keith Urban, quipped, "Oh, so he's the one who's been reading it!" Zing!) Harry, delighted to finally get some love, promised to rock Munfarid in his arms like a baby if he liked Munfarid's audition…and honestly, Munfarid seemed more excited about that prospect than about receiving an actual golden ticket.
Luckily, Munfarid's performance of Adele's "Crazy For You" was one of the best auditions of the entire episode — jazzy, scatty, and just plain cool — prompting J.Lo to remark, "I see a cradle coming on!" And sure enough, the brawny Harry swept up the elfin auditioner in his welcoming arms and carried him out of the room, An Officer and a Gentleman-style, as Munfarid (with golden ticket in hand, of course) crooned Alicia Keys's "No One" with his head on Harry's shoulder. Aw.
Clearly, Munfarid realized that Harry is the real star of "Idol" Season 13. And soon, all of America will realize this too, if Harry's stellar Wednesday debut was anything to go by. While Jennifer was surprisingly astute, and Keith was his usual pleasant self, it was Harry who brought the comedy, who brought the necessary tough love ("To send someone out of the room crying is a terrible feeling, but if it's the right thing to say, I think you have to say it," he explained), and who brought the knowledge, teaching all the laypeople out there about pentatonics and minor scales. "What's wrong with challenging America?" he said.
Yes, yes, yasssss. Great attitude! "American Idol" NEEDS a judge like Harry Connick Jr. He won't be the "least famous 'Idol' judge" for long.
But as awesome as all three judges were on Wednesday, sharing an easy-breezy chemistry that was glaringly missing from last season's disastrous panel, Wednesday's episode really was all about the contestants. An impressive 45 singers made it through to Hollywood; only three William Hung-esque rejects' auditions were shown in full; and the competition was stiff, as several hopefuls who probably would've advanced in previous seasons instead went home golden-ticketless. (Unsurprisingly, Harry was the dissenting judge most likely to say no. That'll make things interesting in Hollywood Week, when a new first-day twist will require all contestants who didn't get three yesses at their first audition to sing in a sudden-death round.)
Munfarid was a definite standout Wednesday, but he was just one of many promising contenders. Here's a rundown of the others — the good, the not-bad, and the funky:
Marielle Sellers, 17 – Marielle was the one contestant shown Wednesday who didn't try out in Boston or Austin; she was a teaser from the Detroit auditions. But "Idol" producers clearly already have her pegged as a frontrunner, since they featured her in the cold open, then had her stare down the camera and declare herself the Next American Idol. I can see why this girl got such a coveted chunk of prime time. She was off-the-charts charismatic and absolutely adorakble, a sort of Rihanna-meets-India.Arie type, and her guitar-strummy cover of Bruno Mars's "Grenade" really set the tone for an exciting episode. "You are going to be a nightmare for the other competitors," Harry predicted. I'm already predicting she will at least make the top 20.
Troy Durden, 28 – At first this guy seemed like one of those joke contestants. He asked former Fly Girl J.Lo to twerk with him, and after she politely declined, he tried to do his best twerky Miley impression. He wasn't as good as Miley, and Jennifer admitted she could've done it better herself. But then Troy crooned "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and he actually could sing. Three yesses followed. I don't really know how far Troy can get on this show (J.Lo warned him that he'll be hard to take seriously), but it'll be fun to watch him try. And, to quote the "Idol" judges, it just might twerk.
Sam Woolf, 17 – I almost want to predict right here and now that Sam Woolf will win Season 13. He's adorable, he's sweet and self-effacing, he plays guitar, and he lives with his loving, doting Florida grandparents, taking care of them while his proud grandpa acts as his "agent" and unofficial fanclub president. Little girls, their mothers, and their grandmothers will fall in love with this kid. ("My daughters are going to go absolutely crazy for him," Harry admitted.) The fact that Sam's sped-up cover of Ed Sheeran's "Lego House" showcased his creativity and what Keith called "incredible pitch" sealed the deal. Just give him the record contract now.
Ethan Thompson, 23 – Actually, maybe Ethan will win. When he walked into the audition room, I nearly thought I was watching a surprise cameo by Season 11 winner Phillip Phillips; the resemblance was uncanny, right down to the floppy haircut and plaid shirt. In what is looking to be the most guitar-centric season of "Idol" ever (for the first time, singers can try out with their six-strings), Ethan is definitely one to watch.
Lindsey Pedicone, 18 – Lindsey is a marketing genius. She wore a cat T-shirt to her audition, and anyone who's ever watched Miley Cyrus's American Music Awards performance or hit "Like" on one of Grumpy Cat's Instagram photos can tell you that FELINES RULE THE INTERNET. Luckily, Lindsey had a lovely purry, kittenish voice to match her shirt. She even made "Hatchet Harry" smile, so that's promising.
Jillian Jensen, 21 – Jillian may look familiar to regular reality-watchers: About a year and a half ago, she was all over Fox's other singing competition, "The X Factor," sobbing on coach Demi Lovato's shoulder about her bullied past, then sobbing again when she got cut right before the live shows. Of course, "Idol" producers made no mention of all that, but at least there was no rehash of her sobby backstory, either. Instead, we just saw a side of Jillian that we didn't see on "The X Factor," as she sweetly strummed a guitar while warbling Gavin DeGraw's "Not Over You." It seemed like she'd grown up a little. If Jillian's diehard fanbase (nearly 160,000 followers on Twitter) has grown up with her and followed her to "Idol," she could have a strong advantage in the voting rounds.
Stephanie Hanvey, 16 – This Jersey girl was one of the day's J.Lo superfans; she was practically in tears while still waiting in the "Idol" holding pen, just knowing that her own idol was sitting on the other side of the door. She pulled it together to sing Jessie J's "Price Tag," and while her audition showed raw promise, she didn't seem quite ready for Hollywood. Even J.Lo called Stephanie "emotionally lacking" and "inconsistent." Eventually the judges all said yes (even the hard-to-please Harry), and Stephanie dropped to her knees, sobbing gratefully. I'm afraid, though, that she'll end up sobbing again during Hollywood Week — when she gets cut early on. I think she'll get eaten alive in Hollywood.
Morgan Deplitch, 15 – This J.Lo stan was even younger than Stephanie, but she exhibited an incredibly womanly confidence. She was a little too womanly, almost: Concerned dad Harry, who has daughters around Morgan's age, sternly disapproved of Morgan's sexy song choice, Grace Potter's "Ooh La La," which he said "creeped him out." (When Morgan repeatedly told Harry, "My mother loves you" while she fawned over Jennifer, it didn't seem to help matters.) But Harry was willing to overlook the creepy song selection because there was no denying her preternatural pipes. Let's hope Morgan chooses her tunes wisely in Hollywood.
Austin Percario, 17 ("soon to be 18, so if I go to Hollywood I will be alone without my mom!") – Austin was one of my favorites of this episode. The stage-mother-smothered teen had me cracking up as he sassily plotted his golden-ticketed-assisted escape and ignored his mother's advice to audition with "Valerie," singing the more rebellious "Titanium" instead. With his raspy pop voice (aptly described as "Justin Bieber at 5 a.m." by Keith) and "great look" according to J.Lo, this kid will go far, with or without Mom's meddling.
Kaitlyn Jackson, 15 – This sweet teen tried out with "Another Angel," an original she wrote for her grandfather after he suffered a heart attack. She had a nice voice, but her song was way too literal, definitely the work of an amateur (at least lyrically). The judges were impressed, but I'll reserve judgment until she's in Hollywood singing more established artists' better material.
Keith London, 21 – Oh, man, this guy is going to give Sam Woolf and Ethan Thompson some stiff competition. Another guy with a guitar — with a Phillip Phillips/Kris Allen-like ability to turn Katy Perry's "Roar" into a coffeehouse/Bonnaroo folk jam, a faux British voice not unlike Season 7's Josiah Leming's, and a look that seems inspired by the cast of The Outsiders — this heartthrob is sure to be a favorite with the ladies. Jennifer certainly loved him, saying, "I like that song, but you just made me like it more."
Shanon Wilson, 24 – A football player and a big ole mountain of a man, Shanon surprised everyone, especially J.Lo, with his pretty, delicate, almost girlish falsetto. (He also surprised Ryan Seacrest, when a waiting-room game of amateur tackle went awry and Ryan suffered the sort of injury that can cause a man to end up with a falsetto, if you catch my drift. Seacrest ouch!) Jennifer didn't even wait to tally other two judges' votes — she just immediately handed Shanon a golden ticket, and it was a done deal. But I have a feeling Keith and Harry's would have said yes anyway.
Stephanie Petronelli, 22 – It seemed gimmicky for this New England Patriots cheerleader to show up in her skimpy uniform, shaking her pom-poms for all of America. She also did Grace Potter's "Ooh La La," and while the song was much more appropriate for someone her age, and it suited her ragged voice (roughened up from too much singing practice, and probably too much cheerleader screaming), her audition was ultimately underwhelming. J.Lo and Keith gave her a chance, but Harry gave her a big fat no…and then instantly regretted his decision once Stephanie's equally scantily clad fellow cheerleaders came rushing into the audition room. Ha. But I think Harry was right the first time. Stephanie wasn't a singer to cheer about.
Terrica Curry, 20 – This soul belter barely got any screentime, but she certainly could sing, and she was the only straight-up female R&B vocalist, in a Candice Glover/Jennifer Hudson mold, shown all day. Let's see how she does in Hollywood.
Justin Fira, 24 – His briefly shown acoustic cover of Maroon 5's "This Love" seemed like fodder to me. I predict he'll get lost in the shuffle of more memorable guitar-boy types this season.
Shelby Comey, 15 – I found his country girl's yodely vocals shrill and grating, but J.Lo compared her to a baby Miranda Lambert, and the panelist's resident country expert, Keith, adored her. She's a real all-American girl (daughter of a cowboy, lives on farm, etc.), so she could do well with heartland voters…but only if she picks songs that work with her voice.
Madelyn Patterson, 24 – This more seasoned country girl came to her audition with a huge voice, a huge amount of poise, and a huge marketability factor. But I thought she oversang Patty Griffin's "Up to the Mountain" (she's no Crystal Bowersox), and Harry wasn't impressed by her gratuitous licks and runs. I'm still not quite sure why J.Lo gave her a "double yes."
Jordan Grizzard, 27 – A worship pastor, new dad, and regular-Joe type, likable Jordan brought the element of surprise. Said Harry: "If I saw you walking down the street, I wouldn't think of you as a guy who'd audition for 'Idol.'" Said Jordan, smartly: "I'm banking on that!" Then Jordan delivered a surprisingly soulful cover of "Ain't No Sunshine" that made Harry flash a rare smile and wax poetic about minor scales. With Harry already on his side, Jordan could go far.
Savion Wright, 21 – Savion was another one of my favorite this Wednesday. An ADHD sufferer who found an outlet and salvation in music, he waited eight long years to audition for "Idol" until he thought he was truly ready. (A far cry from the many deluded, unprepared auditioners who've tried out for this show in the past.) Maybe he was just waiting till Harry joined the cast, since he said he's been a fan of Harry's since age 10. Anyway, it was worth the wait. Savion's original song, the brooding but folksy "Dark Side of Me," was actually great. "The other competitors are going to be very intimidated by you," Harry predicted.
Viviana Villalon, 19 – She covered Maroon 5's "Love Somebody" on the ukulele. Not since the awesome Lilly Scott in Season 9 has such a thing been seen on "Idol." Let's hope Viviana continues the awesomeness in Season 13.
Savannah Young, 17 - Britney Spears's "Toxic" has become a predictable cover-song choice by now, but Savannah's sultry performance showcased some soul. She may be one to watch.
Ben Boone, 22 – Jennifer said this audition gave her the "first goosies of the season" (ugh, yes, she's still saying "goosies"), but I didn't think Ben's cover of Alex Clare's "Too Close" packed nearly the same wallop as the intense original. His rendition felt lazy and throwaway. My goosies remained unraised.
Malcolm Allen, 19 – I ADORED this dude. He came in playing an invisible guitar, complete with imaginary whammy bar, to Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" (if "Idol" doesn't work out, he can always try the U.S. Air Guitar Championships), but he wasn't some nutter: He was good and funky! And funny, too! "I'm literally love with music; if I could marry it, I would," he declared. I fell in love with Malcolm. And so did J.Lo, who called him a "natural" and gave him a "triple yes."
So there you have it. I think this was a pretty superb episode, packed with promising talent (especially Sam Woolf, Austin Percario, Malcolm Allen, Viviana Villalon, and Munfarid Zaidi), solid judging, and good humor. If "Idol" can keep this up, then Season 13 will definitely shake off last season's curse.
Now for Thursday night's contestants.
It was a true full-circle (and family-circle) moment, 13 seasons in the making, when Tristen Langley, son of Season 1 finalist Nikki McKibbin, tried out for "American Idol" on Thursday night. "Second-generation 'American Idol'! This is something! This is history!" declared judge Jennifer Lopez as Nikki, as flame-haired as ever, proudly entered the Austin audition room with 15-year-old Tristen. It was definitely an "Idol" first.
Longtime "Idol"-watchers surely remember Nikki from the series' groundbreaking inaugural season…and probably feel pretty old to realize that she now has a son of "Idol"-qualifying age. Nikki was the fuchsia-dyed underdog, the rocker chick, the girl who nearly made it to the finale (placing just behind Justin Guarini and Kelly Clarkson) despite being the target of Simon Cowell's brutal criticism week after week. Nikki's career never quite took off, as she battled the music industry and her own demons; her most high-profile post-"Idol" moments were her appearances on VH1's "Celebrity Rehab" and "Sober House," on which she underwent treatment for multiple addictions. But that didn't discourage Tristen from giving showbiz and "Idol" a go this year.
It wasn't the first time that Tristen had appeared on "Idol": In 2002, at age 4, he attended one of the Season 1 live shows and gave his mommy a rose onstage. But this time, it was Tristen's turn to blossom.
Truth be told, Tristen's performance of Sublime's "Santeria" was just OK. Harry Connick Jr., aka "Hatchet Harry," Season 13's toughest (and best) judge, was right when he said, "If your mom weren't here, it wouldn't work for me." But I don't think J.Lo and Keith Urban wanted to disappoint one of the O.G. "Idol" contestants, especially one who's had such a rough life like Nikki…so Tristen squeaked through with two yesses. Now, like his mother, he's an "Idol" underdog. Will he prove Hatchet Harry wrong, just like Nikki did with Simon 12 years ago? Watch this space…
There were 32 other singers who received golden tickets in Austin and San Francisco this Thursday, some of whom impressed the judges — and me — a little bit more than Tristen did. Here are some other standouts from the rest of the episode:
Jesse Roach, 27 – I loved this girl. A tough-as-leather guitar chick in a sleeveless Guns N' Roses tee and sleeve tattoos, she seemed like a cross between "The Voice's" Grace Askew and Amy Winehouse, and she performed a K.T. Oslin cover that was raspy, sexy, and just plain cool. She just seemed real. "I think you could make records; I think you could be an artist," said Jennifer. "You have a lot of soul. You have a voice older than you are," mused Keith. Could a rocker girl finally win "Idol"? It's never happened before, but this is looking to be a very guitar-centric season, so maybe Jesse has a shot.
Quiandra Boston-Pearsall, 17 – Two friends entered the audition room; only one left with a golden ticket. Quiandra's 15-year-old "little brother" Jamiah, who auditioned with an original, semi-rapped song, didn't seem quite ready for prime time, but he took the news of his rejection with a maturity that proved he might have the thick skin needed to make it in this biz later on. However, the confident Quiandra, who boldly told the judges, "I'm gonna show you how it's done," had the goods. I'm interested to see if she can apply her gospel stylings to songs outside her wheelhouse.
Megan Miller, 23 – Megan brought lot of lungpower to her cover of Carrie Underwood's "Last Name," but her performance seemed labored. Keith gave one of his best critiques ever when he told Megan, "If it sounds like a lot of work to get [the song] out, it takes the same work for the audience to listen to it." Harry worried that she'd blow her voice out, although she assured him that she performs several times a week with no issues. Ultimately, Harry appreciated her work ethic, and along with the other two judges, gave her grudging yes — but said, "I'll be shocked if she has a voice in a month." We will see if Megan even makes it through Hollywood Week, let alone a whole month — but regardless, I just didn't think she was all that memorable.
Spencer Lloyd, 19 – J.Lo, a woman known for liking younger men, immediately had eyes for this handsome fella. "I love him!" she announced as he entered the audition room, before he'd even sung a single note. Then she predicted, "Girls are gonna love this." Eh, she's probably right. But if we're being honest (as in, like, Connick-honest), Spencer's cover of ex-Idol Colton Dixon's "Never Gone" was, as old judge Randy Jackson used to say, just a'ight for you for me for you. It was a generic performance. Of course J.Lo gave him a yes, but Harry said, "You seem like a really sweet guy, and you're ridiculously handsome, but the part that's missing for me is you're an OK singer." Keith agreed, but called Spencer "entertaining." Then Harry finally admitted, "You're going to bring something to 'American Idol' that needs to be there; it's an image thing." Basically, Keith and Harry put Spencer through because they knew a cute face like his would be good for ratings. Wow, any attractive, marginally talented male who tried out for "Idol" last year, when producers all but rigged the show in favor of the female contestants, really picked the wrong season. There were cute boys last year that sang better than Spencer, but didn't even get past Hollywood Week.
Marlon Lindsey, 27 – Six years in the Army put this crooner's "Idol" dreams on hold. Was he worth the wait? Well, yes and no. He had tons of charisma and heart, and lots of potential, but there was a grating quality to his "Change Is Gonna Come" performance. Let's see how he does in Hollywood, which is its own kind of bootcamp.
T.K. Hash, 28 – After doing a pretty convincng impersonation of President Obama that probably would've earned him a ticket to Vegas on "America's Got Talent," T.K. belted out Fall Out Boy's "My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark" (awesome song choice) and commanded the room. It wasn't the vocal performance of the day, but his personality was off the charts, and he really sold the song. Harry loved his likability factor. Jennifer loved his energy. Keith loved his confidence. Looks like T.K.'s approval rating just went up! Maybe soon we will see if he can rock America's vote.
John Fox, 20 – A Texas worship pastor who started writing church songs at age 6, John came across as more of a musician, a singer-songwriter type, than a star. But I suppose when you grow up in a town with a population of 1,100, shyness is to be expected. There was no denying that his voice on Bob Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love" sounded lovely, so warm and inviting and natural — with "authority," as Keith put it. Let's hope that some time in Hollywood brings out John Fox's foxy star quality.
Rachel Rolleri, 17 – This gorgeous guitar girl came in with a confidence that belied her years, and her "Cher-thick tone," as Keith so amusingly put it, sounded great on Sugarland's "Stay." There was even a keening, Crystal Bowersox-like quality to her voice. She made a few flubs, but what was annoying about those flubs was the way she acknowledged them, unprofessionally pulling faces and rolling her eyes. That's when she finally did seem like an awkward teen. It was cute the first time, but by the third time, the shtick had gotten old, and the judges called her out on it. But they gave her a chance anyway. Rachel needs to develop a better poker face in Hollywood. If she gets that under control, she could go far.
Remi Wolf, 17 – This former Junior Olympian ski-racer gave up the sport to pursue her true passion, and I think she made the right decision. Her sultry, throaty cover of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On," described as "raw and primitive" by Keith, really wowed me, as did her awesome Edie Brickell/'90s-era Julia Roberts hair. This Wolf could attack the competition.
M.K. Nobilette, 20 – An androgynous Bieber-haired girl in baggy fatigues, M.K. readily admitted, "I don't look like someone who looks like how I sing." Then out came this gorgeous, gorgeous voice. J.Lo called her "authentic." I just call her awesome. I can't wait to see more from this girl.
Emmanuel Zidora, 24 – This guy didn't even wait to reach the podium before he started his audition: He walked in wailing a theatrical rendition of Beyoncé's "Sweet Dreams." Harry remarked, "Good entrance," though J.Lo was a little skerred. Emmanuel certainly knew how to grab his audience's attention, but it was an over-the-top stunt that could have backfired. Luckily, he showed his (slightly) more subdued side when he sang his real audition song, "I Believe In You and Me." Either way, it was nice to see this guy exhibit so much unflappable confidence, considering that his 7th grade music teacher once told him he'd never make it on "Idol." Emmanuel got three yesses, and instantly burst into tears. I hope he can keep his emotions in check and stay confident during Hollywood Week, because I really want him to prove than mean old teacher wrong.
Caitlyn Johnson, 15 – The judges were floored to learn this Amazonian blonde's real age. Harry was convinced she was a "32-year-old New Yorker named Beth Goodwin." Nope, she's just a sweet young ranch girl from Oregon. Her cover of "the Christina Aguilera version" of Etta James's "Something's Got a Hold on Me" showcased her big ole voice, which again belied her years, but there wasn't a lot of originality to her performance; it sounded like an Xtina imitation, albeit a good one. Harry told her she wasn't ready, of course. But the other two judges put her through. I guess we will soon find out how ready Caitlyn really is.
David Luning, 26 – David the NoCal indie-rocker was (surprise!) my favorite of the night. This is a guy I'd buy records from. Looking like Snoopy's cool beatnik cousin Spike in his floppy hat, and sort of seeming like the lovechild of Season 10's lackadaisically cool Paul McDonald and last season's quirky fire-juggler Kez Ban, the rebellious troubadour auditioned with a broodingly dark original song that showcased true, gritty talent. All of the judges were impressed, but none of them were sure if this guy was right for "Idol." Keith said he feared David would be crushed in Hollywood by technically better singers, though he said David's "staunch originality" might help him stand out. Harry said David's "misanthropic and down" style was all wrong for a shiny happy show like "Idol." But in the end, the judges gave him a chance. I am thrilled they did, but I worry that David will struggle when he's forced to sing other people's material. Make this guy do a group number of, say, a Lady Gaga song, and he may be a goner. But I hope not.
Selena & Sierra Moreno, 22 – These twins must be fraternal, because not only did they not look that much alike, but they had very different singing/performing styles. Selena belted Janis Joplin at the top of her lungs; the visibly shaky Sierra reined it in for an understated cover of Beyoncé's "1+1." Selena was definitely a better performer, but Sierra's voice drew me in more. Harry thought they made a mistake trying out together (twins are a common gimmick on shows like these), barking, "One of you is clearly the better singer; as a set, you won't make it." Selena ended up getting two yesses, however, so she'll now be heading to Hollywood alone. But honestly, I don't think either twin was totally deserving of a golden ticket.
Briana Oakley, 17 – Regular "Idol" viewers may remember Briana from last year's "American Idol." True TV addicts may even remember her from "America's Most Talented Kids" in 2009. Clearly, Briana is not a quitter. After getting cut in Hollywood last season, she tried, tried again, despite being devastated by the rejection. ("I'm relentless," she explained.) Her Sara Bareilles cover this week was very good, with superb pitch and control, so this time, she may go far. Will she go as far as Season 6 winner Jordin Sparks, to whom she was compared by J.Lo? We shall see.
Adam Roth, 28 – I still can't decide if Adam was a joke contestant or an awesome contestant. Probably a bit of both. His whole beardy, hippie-dippie, yoga-pajama'd act, as some sort of "sound healer" in touch with all his chakras, was like something out of the Mike Myers box-office bomb Love Guru, and when he flashed Keith some creepy devil's-eyes, he suddenly didn't seem to be all about peace 'n' love 'n' unicorns 'n' rainbows. There were moments of promise in his cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," but I don't know if I can get past his new-agey gimmickry…or the fact that he said this song was written by "Co-Hann." Facepalm.
So that wraps up "Idol's" big two-night Season 13 premiere. So far, I'm very impressed with the talent this year, although the producers did seem to frontload the season with more amazing auditioners on Wednesday's kickoff show. Still, Jesse Roach and David Luning alone made the entire episode worthwhile for me.
What did you think of Wednesday and Thursday's auditions? Let me know in the comments section below!