American Idol Season 10 Premiere Recap: These Kids Are All Right!

If you’ve turned on a television since the end of the Holiday Eating Season, chances are you’ve seen Jennifer Hudson belting the message that “it’s a new dawn, a new day, a new life.” And while the newly svelte American Idol alum’s rendition of “Feeling Good” is part of a nifty ad campaign for Weight Watchers, J.Hud could just as easily be shilling for Idol itself, which returned tonight for its tenth season with new judges, a new positive outlook, and a new obsession with vocalists who were just finishing up second grade when Kelly Clarkson was learning the lyrics to “A Moment Like This.” (Have fun swallowing that thought along with your Metamucil and your chewable calcium!)

Yes, folks, as sure as Justin Bieber’s hair is worth more than your car, American Idol is going to foist some sort of teenage dream onto the radio-listening public before summer arrives. How can I be so sure? Well, more than half of the 11 Golden Ticket recipients we heard singing during tonight’s telecast were 16 or younger. And each and every one of those kids had a megawatt smile, a polite demeanor, and the kind of hair Pantene wouldn’t hesitate to endorse.

But let’s go easy on Nigel Lythgoe & Co. this evening. Because while Idol once again partook of many of the audition-round behaviors that make me curse its very existence — playing up sad-sack background packages; not getting to an actual contestant tryout till 14 minutes into the episode; generally not allowing full-figured females within 100 yards of the judges’ table — I’ve got to applaud its newfound emphasis on Golden Ticket-worthy moments rather than school cafeteria-style taunts of those with deficiencies in hygiene, self-awareness, and (horror!) American accents.

What’s more, the radically altered judges panel — newcomers Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez, along with old dawg Randy Jackson — far exceeded my expectations, and even more remarkably, distracted my brain for the better part of two hours from any “I miss Simon Cowell” nostalgia. (Granted, we really have to wait till the live performance episodes kick off before we can label Tyler and/or Lopez as Idol successes; if even a one-time Oscar host and veteran standup comic like Ellen DeGeneres can crumble under the weight of telling Andrew Garcia that his shtick is up, then I don’t think it’s unfair to take a wait-and-see approach to either of this year’s neophyte judges.)

That caveat aside, I’ve got to admit that I was wowed by Tyler’s performance tonight, especially when I compare it to the handful of his media interviews I’ve listened to over the last few months. Just as new parents typically need a few weeks to learn the meaning behind their infants varying cries and grunts (“I’m hungry!” “I need holding!” “I have a poopy diaper!”), I expected we’d be spending the better part of the evening trying to crack the code of Tyler’s grunts and squeals and roars (“You were great!” “You were terrible!” “I have a poopy diaper!”)

Turns out, however, that at least in a pre-taped, carefully edited setting, Tyler might turn out to be the star of the panel. His grammar may be questionable — oh how I longed to Krazy-Glue the letters L and Y to the end of Tyler’s “You sing beautiful” critiques! — and the old dude’s blatant flirting with underage female contestants falls somewhere between unfortunate and abhorrent, but he’s got a tangible love of music and an undeniably gifted ear. I found it completely endearing the way Tyler let out spontaneous hoots during the night’s best auditions, as if he was just a carefree kid singing along at his favorite band’s concert. Isn’t that what music appreciation is supposed to be all about? And unlike so many reality TV personalities who stretch and strive and contort themselves into “wacky” posturing, Tyler’s every word comes across as genuine. He’s wacky in reality, not reality TV “wacky.”

J.Lo, for her part, needs to toughen up and learn how to give a firm “no” to young folks who ought to be going to college or learning a trade instead of wasting their precious energy on delusions of musical superstardom. But that aside, The Lady Lopez still proved a thoroughly charming presence on the panel, mostly because she seemed to be paying genuinely close attention to the contestants, and not using her newfound role on America’s most popular television program to turn the focus on herself. Plus, J.Lo’s not afraid to take control if necessary: When Randy wondered if the panel should vote on Robbie Rosen’s fate, even though there was no question he was getting a Golden Ticket, she did everything but wheel the kid’s luggage to the tarmac. “No,” she responded. “Hollywood! Bye!” Well-played, Jenny from the Block!

And Randy, well, at least he kept the “yo, yo, yo, what’s goin’ down, dawg?” shtick to a minimum. If going third in the judges’ rotation keeps the man from stammering and stalling, then here’s hoping he remains on the right side of my TV screen from now through late May.

But enough about our judges: As any good Idoloonie will tell you, a season is only as good as its contestants! And while I can’t say that any magic rainbows appeared before my eyes during tonight’s show, there were at least a half-dozen wannabes who, based on raw vocal talent, would’ve easily cracked the upper half of the Season 9 finals. Let’s run down the 11 Golden Ticket holders from most to least promising:

Robbie Rosen (pictured, top right) | I’m not sure the producers did any favors for this adorable 16-year-old by revealing he’d spent time in a wheelchair when he was five years old. Tough-luck backstories can help a contestant stand out from the pack in the early part of the season, but ultimately, you want to be remembered for your vocals. Luckily for Robbie, his rendition of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” was not only pitch perfect, but struck that hard-to-hit zone of sounding original without completely decimating a classic melody (especially tricky when covering the Fab Four). And while the kid’s helmet hair and trip-to-the-mall duds won’t exactly be vote magnets once the competition is placed in the public’s hands, that might just mean we’ve got a jaunty style transformation to look forward to in the weeks and months ahead.

Brielle von Hugel (pictured, bottom left) | I know, I know, another super-young front-runner means another opportunity for Randy to repeat the mantra “and she’s only 16!” for the next 20 weeks. And another sob-story audition package — Brielle’s father overcame throat cancer within the past year — means some rejected auditioner watched from her couch tonight and screeched at her dad, “If you really loved me, you’d have developed a life-threatening illness to catch the producers’ eyes, too!” (Too dark?) Yet while the Dawg and Jennifer both expressed their concern that Brielle’s voice needed work, I absolutely loved the restraint she showed on her rendition of “Endless Love.” Granted, if I was one of Brielle’s parents, I’d have vetoed that gray-green dress with the plunging neckline in favor of something a wee bit more age-appropriate, but I liked the courteous note she struck as she left the audition room, telling the judges “It was an honor meeting you.”

Travis Orlando (pictured, top left) | Our third (but by no means final) 16-year-old with a hardscrabble background, Travis didn’t hit a single sour note while testing the waters on both “Eleanor Rigby” and “I’m Yours.” I’m not quite sure why Randy insisted the young man needed to “shake out the whole vibe,” seeing how Travis’ dark-rimmed glasses and nifty red t-shirt (emblazoned with the message “It’s Gonna Be Fantastic”) came together to create a crisp urban hipster effect, but I suspect we haven’t seen the last of this Bronx native.

Devyn Rush | This singing waitress at Ellen’s Stardust Diner in Manhattan impressed the panel with a jazzy rendition of “God Bless the Child,” yet while it’s apparent that Devyn’s got a powerful instrument, I thought she infused the song with too much theatricality and not enough raw emotion. Plus, as J.Lo pointed out, in today’s record business, you need to have the look, the attitude, and the wardrobe to go along with your raw talent. Or, as Steven summed it up, “Someone’s gotta take her clothes shopping.”

Caleb Hawley | It’s always refreshing to see an uptempo audition number, and the shaggy-maned soul man showed great energy on “Hallelujah, I Love Her So.” I worry, though, that there were a few too many cracks and strains in Caleb’s vocal — and not in a good way. Another one who’ll need a little TLC from the Idol vocal coaches and wardrobe department.

Melinda Ademi | Yep, apparently Idol wants to get a bulk rate for backstage tutors this year, seeing how this contestant is 16, too. Melinda, whose family fled Kosovo when she was a young girl, certainly has decent chops and good looks in her corner, but her rote choice of Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You” felt a little Season Five, for me for you.

Rachel Zevita | J.Lo confirmed she’s a hardcore Idoloonie by remembering the season’s first auditioner from her previous attempt at the show back in season 6. Or maybe La Lopez just remembers the time Rachel was a musical guest on my old EW Web series Idolatry back in 2007. Happy reminiscing aside, though, Rachel’s rendition of “Hallelujah” didn’t strike me as the sort of performance that would get her past day one of Hollywood Week — which is precisely the fate she met back in season 6.

Kenize Palmer | I wasn’t a big fan of Idol lowering its age limit to 15 for season 10, and I still need more convincing after watching Kenzie lend her massive pipes to Carrie Underwood’s “We’re Young and Beautiful” as if she were applying a pick-axe to a brick wall. As Steven said, before caving to pressure from Randy and J.Lo and saying yes to a Golden Ticket: “I wasn’t feelin’ the pizzazz.”

The remaining three contestants to advance to the next round tonight all entered the audition room looking like comic relief, but proved that you can’t necessarily judge a CD by its label. As a proud resident of Jersey City myself, I groaned at the producers’ decision to do a whole Jersey Shore-themed segment that wound up focusing on Tiffany Rios, a busty woman with two huge silver stars somehow attached to the front of her bikini. But after Tiffany whiffed trying to cough up a weakly written original ditty, she switched gears and belted Laura Branigan’s “The Power of Love” with such speaker-shattering intensity that I actually caught a little bit of feedback in the audio mix. I know the woman was moved to tears at the sight of Jennifer Lopez, but I’d have DQ’d her simply for dropping to the squatting position midway through the chorus. Actually, I wouldn’t have let her into the audition room in that outfit of hers: To me, a bikini top paired with gray slacks and a black jacket is not only in poor taste, but also a strong indicator that when the chips are down, a contestant probably values 60 seconds of airtime more than a potential singing career.

As for Ashley Sullivan and Victoria Huggins, well, it’s hard for me to say with certainty whether either lady had any awareness she was straddling the line between Golden Ticket and pure gimmick tonight. Surely, Ashley couldn’t have thought the producers were taking her dreams too seriously when they filmed her emerging gleefully from a Port-a-Potty, but then again, her rendition of “Gimme Gimme” was so maniacal — and her breakdown in front of the judges was so over-the-top — that I honestly question whether or not Idol producers should have put her fragile self on air in the first place. Then again, I suppose if I ran Idol and I’d gotten a contestant loudly declaring, “Mainstream needs to get with Liza Minelli!” I’d have looked for a way to get him on the airwaves, too.

And finally we come to the curious case of aggressively perky 16-year-old Victoria (pictured, bottom right): I felt like I’d taken a giant bite out of a Serrano pepper the entire time I was watching this girl crank the volume to 10 and jazz-hands her way to a Golden Ticket. Somewhere beneath the horrible, unending burning sensation, though, you know some good flavors are lurking, and Victoria’s “Midnight Train to Georgia” was exactly that: Sung with potency, emotional connectedness, and lovely whisp of falsetto on the “whoo-hoos.”

Even if you include Victoria in the mix, we only got a handful of train-wreck auditions tonight, and even most of those typically repetitive interactions yielded a few funny moments. There was the woman who sounded like a dehydrated, off-key Grace Jones. There was the boy scout whose straw hat and green plaid shirt was ridiculed by the judges, but honestly, I didn’t think his duds looked any worse than most of the guys who advanced to Hollywood. And finally, we had Steven looking up at Michael Perotto and asking, “Did you eat a lot of paint chips as a child?”

Funniest line of the night, though, goes to Japanese dancer Yoji “Pop” Asano, who (vocally) butchered Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” while simultaneously delivering some dance steps worthy of that Paula Abdul series from the Thunderdome. Asked at the end of the day if he was, in fact, a Miley fan, however, Yoji simply could not tell a lie. “Not really,” he explained. And just like that, I dissolved into laughter. Thanks for a good time tonight, Idol, and welcome back!

What did you think about Idol‘s season 10 premiere? How about the show’s new credits, and new giant ‘Idol‘ logo? Share your thoughts below, and to get all my news and commentary — as well as updates on how you can become a cohost of TVLine.com’s new video series, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV.