Even the most casual "American Idol" viewer knew all about the months-long feud/publicity campaign leading up to last Wednesday's premiere of "Idol" Season 12, starring new alpha-female judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj. The "leaked" TMZ video of their on-set war of (four-letter) words. Mariah's subsequent claim, to Barbara Walters, of Nicki-administered death threats and the need for beefed-up security. Nasty Nigel Lythgoe, "Idol's" executive producer, telling reporters that hapless new middle judge Keith Urban will serve as the "scratching post" in this TV catfight. Yes, before Season 12 even began, this show looked like "The Real Housewives Of Idol," or "Idol Shore," or "Bad Judges' Club." Was this really the new direction for this formerly feelgood, family-friendly program?
Well, now that Season 12's first two episodes have finally aired, the answer to that burning question seems to be...yes and no. There was no denying that Nicki and Mariah's clash of egos/hair/outfits/personal assistants did dominate the two-night premiere's proceedings in New York and Chicago. On Wednesday, Nicki called Mariah "something that starts with a B and ends with an itch" (although it seemed that Nicki was just snarkily rapping a verse of an old-school Missy Elliott song). Thursday's episode even featured a montage, set to "Stuck In The Middle With You," of Nicki and Mariah snipping and sniping at each other while put-upon Keith sat haplessly between them, banging his blonde head on the table and probably wondering why on earth he ever decided to quit "The Voice Australia" for this. I believe this segment was supposed to be funny. It wasn't. It didn't make me laugh. It just made me lunge for the mute button on my remote and the bottle of headache tablets on my nightstand.
But most of the time, thankfully, this whole she-said/she-said routine seemed very tongue-in-Nars-rouged-cheek, and done with a heavily falsh-eyelash'd wink. Mimi and Her Minajesty repeatedly giggled and grinned as they side-eyed each other across Keith's table space, and while I hardly got the impression that they became besties and went out for cosmos and mani/pedis after the "Idol" tapings (they'll probably never be more than frenemies, at best), there was never a moment when the show took a genuinely dark turn and I actually feared that a SWAT team of Mariah's reportedly newly hired bodyguards would spring into action and bumrush the set. If Mariah really did employ additional security personnel this season to protect her from the dastardly Nicki, then she obviously wasted her some of her $18 million "Idol" salary on such an unnecessary expense.
Wednesday's big premiere actually kicked off on a positive note, with a cold open featuring Season 11 winner Phillip Phillips, "the pawn shop worker turned into a megastar," crooning his triple-platinum coronation song "Home," followed by a montage of A-list "Idol" alums like Kelly, Carrie, and J.Hud scooping up Grammys, Oscars, and gold plaques galore. But ironically, the rest of the episode completely shifted the focus away from the contestants; I didn't spot a single potential Phillip or Kelly in Wednesday's mix. And really, isn't what "Idol" is supposed to be all about? Not superstar judges and their silly, possibly-fake, definitely-overhyped feuds, but the search for America's next potential superstar?
It was only when the auditions continued in Chicago on Thursday that viewers got to see some truly impressive new talent. So I wholeheartedly suggest that "Idol" producer Nigel Lythgoe scramble to drastically re-edit the next few audition weeks, to ensure that future episodes showcase more superb singers, like the ones listed below, and a LOT less icky bickering. Really, with a few salvaging tweaks, "Idol" actually could pull off a great Season 12--and that's nothing to argue about.
These were my favorite contestants from "American Idol" Season 12's controversial kickoff week:
Kez Ban - KEZ BAN MUST WIN. That is all. Yes, I thought Kez was going to be a trainwreck/joke contestant at first. She's an amateur fire-dancing street performer (which sure sounds scary); she makes balloon animals in her spare time; she freely admitted that she didn't expect or even want to win "Idol"; and she entered the audition room planning to sing the Pinocchio ditty "No Strings." So, you know, she wasn't exactly your typical Idol. But she became my idol once she sang, especially after she picked up her guitar and gave a second performance of one of her original songs. This chick was funny, interesting, self-deprecating, cool, weird...and talented. What a pleasant surprise that she wasn't just some one-woman freakshow. "I can feel the realness in you," said Mariah. "She's everything," raved Randy Jackson. "You're very captivating. You told your story so beautifully. I believe you. I want to pay to come to your show," gushed Nicki. Later, a stunned Kez stumbled over to Ryan Seacrest, golden ticket in hand, and confessed, "I had a feeling it was possible [that I'd make it through], but I thought that I was a little too bizarre." I think Kez Ban is just bizarre enough. Kez Ban for the win!
Isabelle Parell - I LOVED THIS QUIRKY GIRL. Quirky girls 4ever! I loved everything about young Isabelle, from her cute outfit seemingly pulled straight from a "Style On The Street" pictorial in Lucky magazine, to her lusciously jazzy/bluesy voice, to the pure gumption it took for her to turn her audition of "Baby It's Cold Outside" into a duet with Keith Urban. (She held her own, by the way, and remembered all the lyrics even when Keith couldn't.) How is this girl 15 and already so cool? I was never that cool, sadly, and I probably never will be, but I can live vicariously through the awesome Isabelle, my new girl crush. Mariah praised Isabelle's "nice, humble, adorable quality." Nicki told her, "You came in here poised; I love your tone, and I love your attitude." All the judges gave her yeses. I hope this girl makes it to the live shows...and that she duets with Keith again once she does.
Stephanie Schimel - Okay, this girl had me really excited. When she started dreamily warbling "Dream A Little Dream Of Me" in her honeyed, sexy drawl, I got total flashbacks to Season 8's tattooed indie girl Megan Joy, in the best possible way. Stephanie was cool, she was cute, and there was something very special about her. "I thought your voice was really pretty," remarked Mariah. Keith went crazy for Stephanie's "Carrie Underwood/Gwen Stefani blend." Only Nicki "wasn't wowed," surprisingly (I actually agreed with most of Nicki's critiques last week, but not this one). Nicki was outvoted, thankfully--three yeses to her single no--and then some sort of fight about pink eyeshadow started. Don't ask me to explain. All I know is the bickering seemed to confuse and spook Stephanie, who practically ran out of the audition room. I hope it didn't scare her off for good, because I want to see her again in Hollywood.
Kiara Lanier - Kiara once sang for President Obama, but she seemed even more excited to be singing for her idol Mariah. (Kiara explained that, being multi-racial, she related to Mariah growing up and was happy to see a superstar that "looked like me.") But Kiara performed like such a pro, it didn't seem like anything, or anyone, could faze her. She somehow turned Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli's "The Prayer" into a cool neo-soul song, and I instantly liked her. "That's a big song, and I was really impressed," said Randy. "You have so much controllllllllllll," purred Nicki. Mariah called Kiara a "beautiful girl" with "huge potential." Keith compared her unique voice to Aaron Neville's and told her, "You came ready to be a star." I think Kiara was born ready, and this Obama-girl certainly has my vote.
Angela Miller - Incredibly, Angela has struggled with hearing problems her whole life, but that didn't at all hinder her ability to sing beautifully, according to my own two ears. Her cover of Jessie J's "Mama Knows Best" was really strong--Randy even declared it one of the best auditions in New York. Nicki raved that Angela had "that thing that makes me feel something in my soul." Mariah adored the natural tone and texture of Angela's voice. Keith called her an "easy yes" (that sounded a little sleazy, but he meant that in the best possible way). I can't wait to hear more from this girl, no pun intended.
Lazaro Arbos - Just when it seemed like Mariah and Nicki were about to brawl like a couple of scorned women on a particularly heated love-triangular episode of "The Jerry Springer Show," this guy came along to turn the show around and remind viewers (and hopefully the judges) what "Idol" is supposed to be all about: giving kids a much-needed break and making talented people's dreams come true. Yes, it was sappy and manipulative (cue violins here), but it was just the sort of sap and manipulation the show dearly needed. A Cuban immigrant with a severe lifelong stutter, whose speech problems became even more pronounced after he moved to the States at age 10, this shy, sweet 21-year-old struggled to make it through even a few syllables of his nervous introductory conversation with the judges. But once he began singing "Bridge Over Troubled Water," he wasn't troubled at all: He warbled the Clay Aiken-popularized Simon & Garfunkel classic with nary a trace of speech impediment. It was impossible not to root for the guy, and impossible to not be impressed by his brave performance. It really was a special "Idol" moment. And ironically, the squawking judges were finally rendered temporarily speechless...by someone who had difficulty even speaking at all.
And so, for a few blissful, minutes, there was peace on "Idol." We'll see how long that lasts...especially since this week, the auditions will move on to Charlotte, North Carolina, where that infamous, TMZ-leaked Mimi/Minaj meltdown actually went down. Uh-oh.