As somebody who’s been covering American Idol since the days of Bo-vs.-Carrie — don’t judge me, but I was staunchly #TeamBo — I’ll admit I’d hoped to begin my recap of the show’s farewell-season premiere by quoting Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” (No, current Idol contenders, none of whom were born prior to 1985, Janet Jackson did not originate the lyric, “Don’t it always seem to go/ That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”)
But after Wednesday night’s Season 15 kickoff dealt us the possible/likely implosion of a young couple’s marriage, yet another not-so-subtle attempt by Harry Connick Jr. to spin his judging gig into an ABC Friday-night sitcom and a particularly pointless promotional spot for The Kim and Kanye Reality-Industrial Vomplex, maybe it really is time to pave paradise and put up a parking lot.
OK, OK, I swear on the Fantasia Barrino songbook — and Haley Reinhart’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” — that I don’t 100 percent endorse that blasphemous declaration.
The music business, the reality TV landscape, the color and texture of Ryan Seacrest’s locks have all changed considerably since The House That Kelly Clarkson Built was erected in 2002. And yet there’s still something undeniably alluring about the idea that one more ridiculously talented kid from the intersection of Nowhere and Never Gonna Be could use Fox’s reality singing competition as a springboard to a legitimate chart-topping, Grammy-nominated, household-name type of career.
And so we tune in. And then tune out (with horror!) when Kimye make their unwelcome appearance (and make laughable Keith Urban’s claim about Idol bucking the trend that there are “not a lot of shows you can watch as a family”). And we’re all done with this show, dagnabit! But then along comes an off-the-grid teenager (whose family only runs its generator during Idol episodes… or so they claim) with her cello, her originality and her outsize confidence and, suddenly, we’re wondering — Lorax-style — “unless…”
BUT LET ME NOT GET WEEPY! (I can listen to Melinda Doolittle’s rendition of “Home” if the urge takes over.) And let me not say another word about the last five minutes of the hour being devoted to Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” and his wife’s carefully rehearsed amusement.
Instead, let’s weigh in on the 14 hopefuls who are bound for Hollywood Week after tonight’s one-hour launch — ranked in order from least- to most-promising.
14. Lee Jean, “I See Fire” | Sweet kid with decent guitar skills and a heartbreaking backstory about the death of his teenage brother. None of which, however, was really enough to overcome what Harry Connick Jr. himself noted were issues with “basic singing in tune.”
13. Josiah Siska, “Ghost Riders” | Classic country lover hit some impressive low notes on his Johnny Cash cover, but there wasn’t any real depth, emotionally speaking, in his occasionally wobbly performance.
12. Reanna Molinaro, “Leavin on Your Mind” | Aside from Harry Connick Jr. hijacking her audition by judging it in handcuffs, you won’t remember much of this New Mexico police officer’s Patsy Cline cover by the weekend.
11. Jordan Sasser, “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” | He may not have deserved his wife’s vitriol after he got through to Hollywood and she didn’t — I mean, that bit about how he danced with their baby while she sang had me hoping her next TV appearance will be on Iyanla: Fix My Life — but I’m not sure he deserved a Golden Ticket based on his overwrought Celine Dion cover, either.
10. Laurel Wright, “Follow Your Arrow” | Shown in montage, this returning auditioner was solid — and picked a fine song – but not especially memorable.
9. Michelle Marie, “Blue” | Of course producers kicked off the Season 15 auditions with a hyper 15-year-old dropping sound bites like “American Idol is what I’ve built my life off of” and listing the show’s 14 prior champs. Dubious as that description might sound, though, the tutu-wearing kid’s rendition of “Blue” was sweet and Evian-clear — although it was about as distinctive as bottled water, too.
8. Kerry Courtney, “Black Sun” | Kerry — who shares his story of losing his mother as a teen — presented a curious conundrum. Technically, his performance was riddled with flaws, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t occasionally hypnotizing. J.Lo’s right — dude could use 50% fewer menacing facial expressions, but I’d rather see his kind of unique style in the Top 24 than some soon-to-fizzle 15-year-old with no artistic POV whatsoever.
7. Sonika Vaid, “Look at Me” | I agreed with the judges that her straightforward style and lack of reliance on runs was refreshing, but I didn’t hear enough genuine fire in her phrasing and delivery to make me agree with their assessment that she’s a potential winner.
6. Shelbie “Z” James, “Last Name” | Shout “Hey y’all!” if you remember Shelbie from Season 5 of The Voice. (She performed “Last Name” there, too!) The spunky cosmetologist hasn’t lost an ounce of vocal horsepower since her brief run on NBC’s reality show, but she also hasn’t learned much about the power of dynamics, of not cranking her volume up to 10 and staying there through the duration of a performance. Here’s hoping she proves a quick study of light and shading in Hollywood Week.
5. Shevonne Philidor, “Latch” | One of three returning contestants relegated to a montage, but what I heard of her gruff, fiery tone left me rather intrigued.
4. Lindita, “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” | Kosovo-born personal trainer was oblivious to Harry’s shady comment about enjoying how she sticks to the melody, but honestly, her Xtina-inspired runs, while excessive, were pretty damn on-point. Better to swing for the fences and pull your shoulder muscle than to bunt with nobody noticing, yes?
3. Joshua Wicker, “Stay” | Handsome worship leader with a verrry pregnant wife really did sing Rihanna’s best ballad like he’d written it himself (Keith really is astute, when he’s given a chance to talk). And while he maybe overdid it by 10 percent with the squeaks and breaks in his vocal, it’s always easier to dial back than to create something from nothing. If the judges put him through to the voting rounds — and he reaffirms his ability to sing in tune on the live stage — he could go very deep into the competition.
2. Kory Wheeler, “Bennie and the Jets” | Last year’s Golden Ticket recipient got squeezed into a three-person montage, but I loved the soul and spot-on pitch he brought to a song that — in Idol lore — was a tribute to Haley Reinhart’s Season 10 breakout moment.
1. Jeneve Rose Mitchell, “Chainsaw” | Back in Idol‘s early seasons, an Oregon farm girl living “off the grid” would’ve been fodder for Simon Cowell’s cruelest barbs. In 2016, though, The House on Which Fantasia Raised the Roof is more inclusive — with plenty of room for Jeneve’s cello, overalls, boots and cowboy hat. Thank goodness, too, seeing how her funkalicious fiddling, lightning quick phrasing and ability to capture the humor and feistiness of her lyrics were mesmerizing. Jeneve may not win the whole thing, but she sure won the night.
On that note, I pass the mic to you! What did you think of the American Idol Season 15 premiere? Grade it in our poll below, then hit the comments with your thoughts! Oh, and please come back to TVLine all season long for wall-to-wall Idol coverage — plus a brand-new season of our not-quite-Emmy-nominated Web series Reality Check starring yours truly and the incomparable Melinda Doolittle!