You all know that American Idol contestant, the earnest teen who had all four limbs torn off by farm equipment, and his grandpa miraculously sewed ‘em back on using cornsilk and mud, but rushing back to the house they ran over their beloved alpaca with the tractor, and now the kid is doing it all in memory of Marshmallow?
Or maybe it’s the wide-eyed single mom who lost her high-school sweetheart to a pack of carnivorous sea lions, is supporting herself as a part-time chimney sweep and simply has to make it to Hollywood to ensure a better life for her adorable toddler son?
Good news, Idoloonie nation: Those sad sacks and their ilk — the ones who used to pollute the Idol audition rounds with their dewey eyes and “ripped from the Today show” tales of woe — appear to have followed Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey down the trash chute. Like a Phillip Phillips’ hit, they’re “Gone, Gone, Gone.” They’re out like Brian Boitano on his way to Sochi. (OK, OK, not that kind of “out”…I got a little carried away for a sec.)
Yeah, it’s possible (even probable) that some of the 25 (yes, ¡25!) Golden Ticket recipients we got to see from the Season 13 premiere (focusing on Boston and Austin, Texas) are harboring tales of woe that would fit right in at 1970s country radio, but at least for now, incoming producer Per Blankens is focusing his energies elsewhere. And, in a sign that is very, very, very promising for The House That Kelly Clarkson Built (and Is Currently Ruled by Candice Flippin’ Glover), Blankens is instead placing his bets on lots and lots of genuinely talented kids with dreams of music superstardom. Well, talented kids and a brand new judge who has somehow cracked the code on how to be simultaneously tough, honest, knowledgable, engaging, funny and self-depricating…without acting the least bit concerned about how many times (and how positively) he’ll show up when he gets his “Google Alert” email on himself come Thursday morning.
So let’s offer a warm Season 13 welcome to all the future Daughtrys and Fantasias, as well as debuting panelist Harry Connick, Jr., a man so sublime he’s almost managed to dislodge memories of human barnacle Randy Jackson from my brain. (Granted, my case of Dawg-induced PTSD will be that much stronger when Randy returns in a “mentoring” capacity later this season, but for now, I consider his absence a blessing on par with a winning MegaMillions ticket or a brand new pony on Christmas morning.)
Why am I so wild about Harry? Let me try to break it down to four moments from the premiere — so we can then move on to the contestants. (Because it is and should always be about the contestants.)
HE’S SMART — AND TOUGH — ENOUGH TO DISTINGUISH “GOOD” FROM “POTENTIALLY GREAT” | At least a half-dozen times tonight, Connick served up some variation on “you were good, but not good enough” that’s been missing from Idol since Simon Cowell’s heyday. Where Ellen DeGeneres might’ve predicted multiplatinum sales (and given a hug) to a gal with decent pitch but middling breath control and hinky phrasing, Harry takes the realistic approach. When Durann Cree delivered Carrie Underwood’s “Cupid’s Got a Shotgun” with enough vocal horsepower to place third in a high-school talent show, but not to survive Hollywood Week, Connick asked if she was used to being the big fish in a small pond — then voted
“no” (right after Jennifer Lopez gave her a “you have work to do” and a “yes”). In some circles, that might get Harry slapped with a “dream crusher” or “meanie” label, but I call him a breath of cold, bracing air. Not every dream needs to be coddled and supported — especially not when it’s actually closer to a delusion.
HE’S THE VOICE OF THE (SMART, DISCERNING, ATTENTIVE) PEOPLE | When 15-year-old Morgan Deplitch opened her audition with the lyrics, “You’ve got me down on the floor/So what’d you bring me down here for?” and then followed it up with the overtly sexual line, “If I was a blade I’d shave you smooth,” Connick noticably cringed, then told Morgan he was so thrown by her song choice that he found himself “creeped out.” (What a change of pace for a show that featured Steven Tyler ogling and salivating over teenage girls for much of Seasons 10 and 11.) Feminists, parents, people who aren’t on board with the sexualization of the under-18 crowd, people who have HAD IT with cultural conversation involving the words “Miley” and “twerking,” your cultural hero has arrived! Just as awesome? Harry’s failure to automatically bow down every time a contestant throws in a crazy run (or turns a one-syllable word to 10). Exhibit A: His side-eye over Madelyn Patterson’s super-fussy rendition of “Up to the Mountain.” JLo and Keith oohed and ahhed as the 22-year-old destroyed everything simple and beautiful about the Patty Griffin tune, but Mr. Connick was having none of it. “Some people are easily impressed by licks,” he said, before getting cut off by She Who Tried to Suppress Haley Reinhart. Madelyn, of course, got so excited by the Golden Ticket that Jennifer dangled that she failed to open her ear to Harry’s advice. “You will hear it in Hollywood,” he grumbled. Oh, you bet she will!
HE’S NOT AFRAID TO MAKE FUN OF HIMSELF | One of the final segments of the Season 13 premiere featured Idol hopefuls in holding rooms pointing out that Connick is, in most circles, the least famous person behind the Idol table, and perhaps the least famous person (aside from Paulina Rubio) to grace a network reality singing competition panel since Randy Jackson stepped down from his Idol perch last May. “Who’s the third judge?” asked one kid. “He had a music career before he was an actor,” explained another (apparently unaware that Connick’s music career is alive and well and probably still netting him copious amounts of cash). “He’s white, but he sounds black,” explained one contestant’s parent. But lest anyone think Mr. Blankens is beating up on the neophyte judge, Connick laughs easily about the way kids moon over J.Lo, or praise fellow panelist Keith Urban’s looks (and scent). He may not be the boldest-faced name in the pack, but methinks that could all change in the coming weeks and months.
HE’S GENUINELY HILARIOUS | After his “no” vote to Stephanie Petronelli got vetoed by J.Lo and Keith, the New England Patriots cheerleader called in three of her (equally scantilly clad) teammates for a joyous leaping, hugging celebration. “That’s a ‘yes’!” Harry quickly reversed. “If there’s four of ‘em, it’s a ‘yes’! I didn’t know that was part of the package!” Still, nothing could top Harry’s interaction with the day’s final contestant, Muhfarid Zandi, the rare auditioner who was more excited about meeting the jazz star than either of his fellow panelists. “I read your Wikipedia page every day before going to sleep,” Muhfarid admitted, before Harry locked him in a massive hug that had Keith requesting Muhfarid perform in Harry’s arms. “If you blow us away on the first song, I’d like to pick you up and hold you like a baby on the second,” offered Harry, upping the ante. And when Muhfarid slayed a jazzy Adele ballad, it was J.Lo who giggled, “I feel a cradle coming on.” The resultant rendition of “No One” (pictured above) is going to go down as the stuff of Idol legend. “I’m bringing him back to my hotel,” said Harry, carrying Muhfarid out the door. Honestly, who could say “no”?
Anyhow, let’s get back to names (other than Harry Connick, Jr.) that could/should be a little more widely known by the time April showers begin to fall, let’s talk about THE HOPEFULS! As I said before, the two-hour premiere featured extended footage of (if I counted correctly) 25 Golden Ticket recipients from among the 24 who advanced from Boston and the 21 who advanced from Austin. That’s undoubtedly the greatest number of good singers per hour since I started recapping the show back in Season 4.
The focus on actual talent — and the inclusion of not a single prankster in Statue of Liberty drag, not a chicken costume, and not a single example of Randy Jackson making fun of a “foreign sounding” name or Asian accent — made the 120 minutes zoom by. (And in an attempt to kick start a New Year’s weight-loss program, I wasn’t even drinking my usual Sauvignon Blanc!)
Of course, I’d be lying if I tried to pretend I had something profound (or even vaguely worthwhile) to say about every single vocalist who scored a Golden Ticket tonight, so let me instead rank my personal Top 10 from Episode 1 of Season 13:
11. Muhfarid Zandi, “Crazy for You” | He desperately needs styling help, but come on — the kid really can sing. And choosing “No One” to perform in Harry’s arms? Genius!
10. Ben Boone, “Too Close” | Was I the only one getting early Lee DeWyze vibes off this fella? (Lest we forget, Lee’s audition was montaged with the great Crystal Bowersox, so perhaps Savannah Young’s “Toxic” and Vivian Villalon’s Maroon 5 cover are worthy of a rewind?)
9. Austin Percario, “Titanium” | OK, so he’s a weeeeee bit affected, but Keith was exactly right that he’s got an instrument that sweeps from pretty pop perfection to something unexpectedly haggard. Bonus points if the adorable teen’s rise to fame leads to the end of the Bieber Era.
8. Savion Wright, “The Dark Side of Me” | As close as we got to a hardscrabble backstory was Savion’s struggle with ADD, but he showed some creativity by auditioning with a self-penned ditty that showed a little bit of soul and a little bit of introspection. Plus, as the judges noted, anyone who’s wanted to be on Idol for eight years — but waited and practiced and waited until feeling fully ready — is not your average contestant.
7. Kaitlyn Jackson, “Another Angel” | Any 15-year-old with the musicality and poise to stand in front of the judges with her guitar and belt out a personal ballad about her grandpa’s brush with death has my immediate attention. “She’s smart!” said Harry. “It’ll be fun watching her week to week.” Can’t disagree with that. No, sir.
6. Lindsey Pedicone, “Bottom of the River” | The lilting quality of her tone isn’t the kind that typically thrives in the Idoldome, but there was something sparkly and enchanting about what she did with an underrated Delta Rae jam that makes me want to hear more.
5. Marialle Sellers, “Grenade” | You know when Idol opens the season with a contestant — and puts her in front of the opening credits — she’s gonna be pretty damn good. And while I heard nerves creep in on a few extended notes, Marialle’s expressive (and gorgeous) face and expressive (and, yeah, gorgeous) voice made me feel like she was fully engaged with every nook and cranny of her song.
4. Keith London, “Roar” | Yeah, he had a stumbling start, and indeed, my new BFF Harry opined that he’s “not a good enough singer,” but I found myself agreeing — ugh, I do hate this sentence now — with J.Lo. There was something about Keith’s almost brogue-like inflection that gave Katy Perry’s booming pop nugget an upgrade. It didn’t hurt that he’s awfully cute, too, did it?
3. Jillian Jensen, “Not Over You” | Robbed by Demi Lovato during Season 2 of The X Factor, the gravel-throated gal displayed greater vocal control and more confidence in her second stab at a Fox reality singing competition. Hey, maybe her “mentor” did her a favor, after all!
2. Sam Woolf, “Lego House” | 17-year-old who lives with his grandparents showcased beautiful character and flawless phrasing despite his selection of a rhythmically tricky and fairly wordy jam. If Idol‘s going to have another “white guy with guitar” winner, he could be the one.
1. Malcolm Allen, “Superstition” | “OOOOH, BETTY!” That’s the nonsensical first thing that I blurted in the midst of Malcolm’s deeply felt Stevie Wonder cover — which, along with some killer air guitar, showcased perfect pitch and a wicked sense of musicality. I loved the way this fella (who looks like a young Billy Porter) openly admitted to how seriously he takes his music, and his admission that he’s envious of his competitors who’ve already mastered guitar.
With that, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of the American Idol Season 13 premiere? What did you think of the new judges’ panel? And who was your favorite Golden Ticket recipient? Take the poll below, then sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol-related news, recaps, interviews and videos, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!