'American Idol' Finds Peace In The South (Sort Of) - Rolling Stone
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‘American Idol’ Finds Peace In The South (Sort Of)

Nicki Minaj


This is where it all happened,” host Ryan Seacrest ominously intoned at the start of last Wednesday’s “American Idol” episode. Ryan, of course, was referring to Charlotte, North Carolina, the infamous audition city where catfighting alpha-female judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj went from frenemies to full-on enemies–and some intrepid TMZ spy was conveniently on the scene, flipcam in hand, to document what went down. Last Wednesday, viewers finally found out what really happened to set off the feud heard ’round the Interweb back in October.

But the real question was…did viewers even care anymore?

I admit I was torn. And just a little curious. Yes, there was a part of my inquiring mind that naturally wanted to know what all the fuss had been about. What exactly was it that made Nicki stomp off the set, spewing expletives like Steven Tyler on a bad day? What drove Mariah to post the single drawn-out word “whyyyyyyyyyyyyy” on Twitter (only to delete the tweet moments later)? And what made Mariah run off to her buddy Barbara Walters, scandalously claiming that Nicki had violently threatened her? With a gun?

But then there was another, much larger part of me that was so over it. (Like, to quote Carrie Bradshaw, I needed a new word for “over.”) I just wanted the show to keep calm and carry on…and keep its focus on the contestants.

Anyway, about an hour into Wednesday’s episode, one of those contestants, a mild-mannered young girl named Summer Cunningham, unwittingly found herself at the center of this controversy. When Summer somewhat offhandedly told judge Keith Urban that she “did the country thing” already, an insulted Keith got a little mad (well, mad by Keith Urban standards, not by Nicki Minaj standards), quipping: “That’s like saying, ‘I did the brain surgeon thing.'” This prompted fellow judges Randy Jackson and Mariah to question Summer’s true musical calling, and poor Summer quickly, somewhat desperately backpedaled, claiming she was actually a huge country music fan who practically grew up on a farm and came out of the womb sporting a cowgirl hat and spurs.

So Nicki looked increasingly annoyed during this long-winded exchange, making her famously GIFable faces and tugging agitatedly on her pink My Pretty Pony wig. When it finally came time for Nicki, who supported Summer from the get-go, to speak, she grunted: “Sheesh, for a minute I thought this was a country music debate! Why are you picking her apart because of a country comment? It’s like you’re scaring her into lying!”

“We’re trying to help her, instead of talking about her outfit,” snarked Mariah. Then Randy bragged about his “30 years of experience.” And that was it: Nicki strutted off the set in frustration, practically threatening to quit the show–and apparently soon after, the outtake from this outburst was all over TMZ’s YouTube channel. And the rest was history, or herstory.

So there you have it. Yes, that’s all that happened. Move along, people, no major scandal to see here. This exchange–at least in its heavily edited, made-for-TV format–really wasn’t unlike the heated debates that transpired between Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul, or Simon Cowell and Kara DioGuardi, back in the day. It was just a disagreement, and one that involved Randy at least as much as it involved Mariah. If this edited version of the altercation had been all that America ever saw, it would have been no big deal. It might have even been interesting. And really, this is all America should have ever seen. That “leaked” footage (which was far more damning and shocking than what Fox aired) should have never “leaked” in the first place. The ensuing fallout over the past months did nothing to help this show, only generating icky vibes, turning off longtime viewers, and creating a lot of conclusion-jumping Nicki haters (seriously, folks, give Nicki a chance)–all before Season 12 even began.

I have one more point to make before we all, hopefully, leave this incident behind forever and ever and ever and ever. I didn’t expect to side with Nicki here, but I kind of did. It has always annoyed me too when short-sighted talent-show judges have forced singers to choose and remain in a lane, when in the real world, mega-artists like Bruno Mars, Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga, Adele, Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift, Beck, Madonna, Tina Turner, and even “Idol’s” own Kelly Clarkson have successfully crossed genres. So I fully understood why Nicki defended Summer’s supposedly controversial choice to sing country music mixed with some soul, and I understood why Nicki got upset. (In case you care: Summer did receive a golden ticket to Hollywood, after all that.) Did Nicki need to walk off the set? Did she need to swear? Of course not. The woman definitely has to control her temper and be more professional in the future. (I’m already worried about Nicki’s potentially censor-provoking, five-second-delayed behavior on “Idol’s” live shows. Yikes.) But honestly, she’s probably not the first tantrum-tossing reality judge to storm off the set in a huff. She’s just the only one to do so within spitting distance of a secret TMZ camera-person.

Anyhoo, with all that mercifully out of the way, last Wednesday’s episode picked up in the second hour, with several standout auditions, a couple of genuinely heartstring-plucking sob stories, and Randy even telling one singer, “You’re what this show is all about!” (Hey, Randy, tell that to “Idol” producer Nigel Lythgoe, who nowadays seems to think that this show is all about tabloid-baiting, gossip-mongering, and lowest-common-denominating.) One of the many promising singers who auditioned in Charlotte even memorably told the judges, “Please don’t fight! It makes me sad.”

And the judges seemed to heed that wise contestant’s advice the following night, Thursday, when the show moved on to another Southern city, Baton Rouge, for a blissfully feud-free episode focused entirely on the contestants. How refreshing, huh? Let’s hope this means the “Idol” judges have finally found peace.

Here are the contestants who really stood out to me last week:

Charlie Askew – Yes, that’s apparently his real last name, and truly, I couldn’t think of more appropriate surname for this self-described “socially awkward” 17-year-old. Diagnosed by his own doctor as having “Charlie Askew Syndrome,” this unclassifiable, adorkable misfit with the ginger Loewenstern locks, sweet smile, and unabashed love of music instantly charmed me (and all four judges) the moment he shyly shuffled onto the set looking like a Calvin & Hobbes cartoon sprung to three-dimensional life. To loosely quote what Paula Abdul once told David Archuleta, I wanted to squish his head and hang him from my rearview mirror. And when Charlie started singing the intro of “Breakthru” by Queen, I fell even more in love with him. True, his voice was more of a pure theater style–when he attempted to rawk out, his performance got a little strained, a little shouty–but “Idol” could use a little theater this season, right? It can’t all be everyman coffeehouse crooners all the time, right? Right? “Your tone is not of a gender, and I mean that in glowingly complimentary way; it’s like Bowie,” marveled judge Keith. Randy called Charlie “a seemingly dark, strange-but-cool guy.” But I didn’t think Charlie was dark at all–I thought he brought a wondrously rainbow-brite light to the show, and I can’t wait to see him again. And is it too soon for me to start hoping for a Season 12 finale showdown between Charlie Askew and last week’s fire-throwing eccentric, Kez Ban? Probably, but I’ll dare to dream.

Maddie Assel – Nominated by her fun-loving, Mardi-Gras-reveling grandma, this also-adorakble 17-year-old with the Felicity corkscrew curls and geek-chic glasses wowed with her bluesy version of the Beatles’ “Oh! Darling.” (Is it also too soon for me to start being a Season 12 shipper and hoping that Maddie and Charlie date? Or at least duet? They sure would be cute together.) Though Maddie’s phrasing was a little off, I still adored her Reinhart-esque rasp (Maddie cited Season 10’s Haley Reinhart, along with Adele and Beyonce, as her chief influences). “You got some power there,” said Nicki. Four yeses later, Maddie was out in the lobby, celebrating with Ryan Seacrest and her wacky grandmother like a Bourbon Street tourist. (I only wish Grandma Assel had received an honorary golden ticket, because I bet that lady would be waaaay fun to party with in Hollywood Week.)

Isabel Gonzalez – What is it with contestants named Isabelle or Isabel on this show? They’re all awesome, for some reason. This stunning, sassy, sweet-natured 16-year-old, who was nominated by her aunt (a new twist this season), wowed with her poised rendition of “Nothing Could Ever Change This Love” by Sam Cooke. She could very well be America’s next sweetheart. “Four seconds after you started singing, I was like, ‘Let’s just vote yes!'” said Keith. “I’m head over heels in love with you,” gushed Nicki. “You are so adorable. People are gonna fall in love with you,” said Mariah, who likened Isabel to a young Phoebe Cates (and thus had me dreaming about Isabel covering the entire Fast Times At Ridgemont High soundtrack during Hollywood Week). Upping the adorability factor here? When Isabel exited the audition room, her waiting relatives attacked her with celebratory Silly String. Imagine how cute the Gonzalez family would be at the Season 12 finale!

Ashley Smith – Like the aformenetioned “wacky” Kez Ban, Ashley was set up to seem like a trainwreck/reject at first, with her head of Barbie hair that looked like one of Nicki’s beat-up wigs and an over-caffeinated personality that made her seem like she’d found the show’s secret Coca-Cola stash and had mainlined it right before entering the audition room. When she announced her intention to sing Carrie Underwood’s “Cowboy Casanova,” I wasn’t expecting much. I certainly wasn’t expecting her to sound so lovely. “I enjoyed you. I really did. There’s something about you that’s very effervescent,” said Mariah. “That sounded really, really pretty,” cooed Nicki, who nicknamed Ashley “Blondie.” (Not since Flavor Flav has a reality star come up with so many bizarre contestant nicknames.) “I couldn’t look away. I loved that you sang Carrie Underwood. All the juxtapositions were thoroughly entertaining to me,” said Keith. “I always say, if you can sing, you can sing anything,” said Randy, totally contradicting what he had told Summer Cunningham earlier. But whatever, at least the Dawg came around to that way of thinking in time to give Ashley a great big YES. The other judges agreed, and so Ashley was dispatched to Hollywood, the city where this bubbly Blondie so clearly belongs.

Candice Glover – Candice was a promising contestant in Season 11 who was cut during the Vegas rounds–much to my chagrin, and the chagrin of many “Idol” viewers who thought she was a real R&B diva in the making. (Female R&B was almost entirely unrepresented in last year’s “Idol” semifinals, sadly.) But it seemed that this year, Nicki, Keith, Mariah, and Randy might be more willing to give Candice a shot than Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez, and the clearly long-term-memory-challenged Randy had been. After all, the new judges gave her a standing ovation when she auditioned this time with Duffy’s “Syrup And Honey,” even saying it was the best audition they’d seen so far this season. “I’m obsessed with you. I want to skin you and wear you,” raved the always soundbite-ready (if not exactly PETA-friendly) Nicki, adding, “I wish you had something out now I could listen to.” Mariah joked (or maybe she wasn’t joking), “Can we listen to you for the rest of the day?” And then Randy told Candice, “You’re exactly what this show is about.” That’s right, Randy. Let’s have a lot less feuding, and a lot more Candices, on future episodes. Please.

Ja’Bria Barber – Ja’Bria’s shtick, if you can call it one, is she likes to hunt frogs and eat their legs. Grossssssss. I was getting total flashbacks to that Beavis & Butt-Head “Frog Baseball” cartoon (splat!), and Nicki’s special nickname for Ja’Bria was “Frog Killer.” All of this left a bad taste in my mouth, pun wholly intended, although the girl did possess a certain plucky charm. But then Ja’Bria opened up her own mouth to sing, and all was forgiven. Let’s just say she did not have any sort of frog in her throat. Her cover of Bonnie Raitt’s “Pride And Joy” was a real joy, so it’s no wonder that Mariah decided to “give her a pass on the frog thing.” Randy told Frog Killer (um, I mean Ja’Bria), “You got a little spunk in you. You got a little crazy swag. You’re not scared. I like that.” Nicki called her “a big piece of cutie pie.” Obviously, Frog Killer killed it!

Seretha Guinn – Okay, so we can all agree that the contestant who walked in with a Hello Kitty doll and sang the “Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air” theme (how very Reed Grimm of her!) deserves to make the top 20, right? If that wasn’t enough, Saretha also walked in with her adorable 3-year-old kid (a massive Nicki fan), a gripping sob story (a boyfriend who almost died in a major car accident), and a huge amount of talent. Her “Fresh Prince” audition was fun, while her second song, the more serious “How Do I Live,” showed her depth and versatility. Randy said he was “blown away” and compared Seretha to the almighty Whitney Houston. Nicki called Seretha “incredible” and a “superstar,” before posing for photos with Seretha’s daughter. Cuteness and warm ‘n’ fuzziness ensued. It was the perfect way to end Wednesday’s episode, which had had started off on such a negative note, and this segment was hopefully a sign of kinder, gentler “Idol” episodes to come.

Burnell Taylor – Hyped as the big breakthrough audition at the end of Thursday’s episode, this Hurricane Katrina survivor with the huge musical family and huge booming voice was worth the wait. His rendition of “I’m Here” from The Color Purple would have impressed even Fantasia. “Burnell made me cry! That tone is ridiculous,” said a misty-eyed Mariah, fanning her fake eyelashes. And her nemesis Nicki was equally moved. “That is what we came for. I feel like we’ve been flying all around this country for that,” Nicki raved. Keith was equally enthusiastic, declaring, “Somewhere there’s a spotlight, just waiting for you to walk right into it.” Um, I think that’s what Burnell just did.

Parker out.

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