The 12th season of American Idol opened not with Nicki Minaj, Mariah Carey or Keith Urban, but with Phillip Phillips singing his triple-platinum hit, "Home." It was a not-so subtle reminder that Idol produces not only results but big, bankable stars, including Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson and, of course, Phillip Phillips, the pawn-shop worker who was swept to the heights of international superstardom by the hands of Idol voters. But only time and a seemingly endless stream of cover songs will tell if this season will produce a star of Phillip, Kelly or Carrie's magnitude.
Before we can get to the contestants, we have to address the judges. The surprisingly snoozy Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler have been ushered out and replaced with Minaj, Carey and Urban, who gives the show some country cred, even though he's Australian. Rounding out the panel is Idol mainstay and pitch policeman Randy Jackson. It's a fiery mix of talent and ego that should make for a dynamic season.
This season, Idol kicked off their audition cycle in New York City, ensconcing themselves in the Time Warner building. The first contestant to perform is Michael Buonopane, who walks on stage delivering a rousing if somewhat over-the-top rendition of Queen's "We Will Rock You" while dialing into his personal mental radio station (not a euphemism) and offering up a reggaeton beat that makes Nicki shout, "Sing it, Papi!" But that's the only encouragement Michael will get from the judges. As he trudges away under a mountain of rejection, Nicki and Mariah start their bickering with a montage of Mariah being a diva and Nicki throwing some serious eye-rolls her direction. It's just a tantalizing appetizer leading up to the throwdown between the two during the Charlotte auditions.
The next contestant, Tenna Torres of Queens, is an alumni of Camp Mariah, which is exactly what you think it is. Randy asks her to sing, but Mariah doesn't want any distractions from the photos that Tenna brought of Mariah. Tenna is a talented singer and there's no doubt that Mariah is voting yes, and so do Keith, Nicki and Randy.
New York manages to produce a parade of worthy singers who make it through to the Hollywood round, but this is Idol, and too many talented contestants in a row can only mean one thing: time for a clunker. By the time James Bae appears on camera, we know we're in for the tired tradition of the annual tone-deaf Asian contestant Idol wheels out every year. The 15-year-old from Long Island is a rapper, pop artist and Justin Bieber fan with fake glasses, which is a shtick he probably swiped from Heejun Han last season. Bae is terrible, but also incredibly boring. The judges don't even bother laughing at him; instead they simply intone "no" and try to get on with their day. Nicki, however, stops him and makes him believe that even though he can't sing, he is special. She holds his hand and makes him believe it. It's strangely touching, and a hopeful sign of the mentoring process for the season to come.
Christina "Isabelle" is a statuesque blonde who, as a semblance of backstory, admits to struggling with her weight, although I for one am more curious about her expansive use of quotation marks. She then belts out a version of "Summertime" that makes Nicki spell out "O.M.G." Keith thinks Christina is a natural singer. While Mariah didn't look impressed during the performance, once Christina confesses to being a Mariah fan, Christina is going to Hollywood!
Next up is Evan Ruggiero, a talented singer and dancer who was Broadway-bound until he was stopped short by bone cancer at age 19. He survived, but lost a leg in the battle. This hasn't stopped him from tap dancing or singing a Jason Mraz song on national television. After proving that he has the sob story and decent singing chops, in a move sure to prove that Idol is trying something different this season, the judges say no. That's right, they turned down a guy with an inspiring backstory who can sing. What show is this?
Then Idol introduces another change to the audition process: nominations. Jessica Kartalis, 19, was nominated by her mom and, after Randy Jackson takes a boat to Staten Island to surprise and vet her, she gets the chance to perform in front of the judges. But she wonks up her own song by singing in the wrong key and the judges turn her down, too. This is definitely not Paula Abdul's Idol any more.
Shira Gavrielov had a Number One radio hit in Israel before moving to New York to make her dream of being the American Idol come true. She's a good singer; more impressively, she wears micro-shorts onstage, so she is going to get her chance, even though some conspiracy theorists may not like the fact the Idol may not be American.
Frankie Ford from Brooklyn used to sing on the subways for money. He starts to sing "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" by Eurythmics, scraps it, starts over and comes back bigger and better. The judges happily usher him through to Hollywood as he promises to work 110 percent. Nicki thinks he really has a story to tell (unlike the one-legged tap dancer, of course). After breaking the good news, Keith can't help but blurt, "Frankie go to Hollywood!" So, apparently Keith is going to be that guy this season.
Day two of the Idol auditions start out badly with a kid clad in an all-vinyl Michael Jackson suit and curly wig. The most notable thing about Benjamin Gaisey's performance is that the squeaks of his vinyl suit acted as a metronome for his song. Randy cuts him off, announcing: Your voice is terrible. Benjamin sighs sadly as he squeaks off into the sunset.
Rozanna Shindelman's voice gives her mom chills, but once the Staten Island resident starts singing, the judges have a different kind of chills. Randy, who is apparently wearing his grumpy pants, flat out tells her it was bad. She goes home, and Nicki sighs that crushing dreams isn't as easy as she thought it would be. This revelation is followed by a montage of people losing gracefully, not so gracefully, and flipping off the cameraman.
Sarah Restuccio is a farm girl from New Jersey, complete with the establishing shots usually reserved for Southern belles. (In fact, they may have just reused the shots of Skylar Laine riding an ATV and shooting arrows from last season.) Sarah sings a decent version of a Carrie Underwood song, but resident country expert Keith Urban isn't convinced, so she busts into an Idol-themed rendition of "Super Bass" that wins Nicki over by repeating her rapid-fire flow back at her. It's impressive, but her split personality performance confuses the judges. They all vote yes anyway.
In Idol's continuing pursuit of finding the next William Hung, they introduce us to Albert Chang from Queens who is as awful as you expect. His rendition of "Phantom of the Opera" is truly earsplitting. Serving as a palette cleanser is Angela Miller, an 18-year-old with hearing loss who sings the heck out of a Jessie J song and moves on to the next round. The Idol trolling of well-meaning contestants continues with Brett Holt, who is auditioning for the seventh time. He's hopeful that this year he will make it to the next round with his rendition of "When I Fall In Love." In a strange, animated semi-dream sequence, his dreams are crushed.
Gurpreet Singh Sarin is dubbed "The Turbanator" due to the fact that he has 40 to 50 turbans that he matches to his outfits. He's trained in Indian classical music, but that doesn't translate well to belting out Bruno Mars covers. Eventually it's only the promise that he will match his turban to Nicki's wig that ends up sending him through to the next round.
Ashlee Feliciano gets the judges' panel and the entire viewing audience in tears as she talks about how her family – they're better than yours – adopts and fosters "medically complex" children. Plus, her version of Corinne Bailey Rae's "Put Your Records On" is pretty spectacular, and even this brave new Idol can't resist that combination.
At final count, 41 contestants are moving on from New York to Hollywood. See you tomorrow when we head to the Windy City.