American Idol Season 11 Premiere Recap: Midnight in the Garden of Good & Bad Auditions

Season 11 of American Idol kicked off with a reminder that, like East German Olympic speed-skaters of the 1970s, this year’s crop of contestants has been groomed for singing-competition glory with scientific rigor and a singular focus. They’ve been listening to renditions of “A Moment Like This” and “Flying Without Wings” from inside their mothers’ wombs. They executed their first Whitney Houston-style runs before the age of three. And if they’re not up to following in Scotty McCreery’s footsteps, then by golly, at the very least they can ably replace Ryan Seacrest — at half the cost and with three times the energy.

Yes, folks, Season 11 has been “10 years in the making,” the show’s producers reminded us. In other words, if you voted for Kelly Clarkson (and maybe Tamyra Gray) back in Season 1, then your graying hair, softening midsection, and/or deteriorating vision are merely mile-markers on our collective, decade-long Idol “journey.” As is Randy Jackson reaching new levels of annoying by trying to rebrand “Season 11” as “Season One-One.” (Dude, like all your “catchphrases” before it, “One-One” is simply not gonna happen. Didn’t I already warn you about this?)

But enough with superfluous details (like J.Lo rocking a poufy pink blouse with giant bow and pleated salmon shorts by “Seriously, WTF?” and Steven Tyler continuing his metamorphosis into a ’70s-era sitcom auntie in violet paisley blouse and flopsy hat).

After all, as Ryan so slyly put it, “There’s only one place where you can make your dreams come true.” (In a Ford. Drinking a can of Coca-Cola. Texting on your AT&T mobile device. And not on the road to one of those other singing competitions with swiveling red chairs and/or planetarium-style laser shows.) So let’s raise a toast to Uncle Nigel & Co. for introducing us to 16 Golden Ticket recipients from the Savannah, GA auditions over the course of the two-hour telecast, scaling back the emphasis on deluded/mentally imbalanced/obviously fame-seeking train wrecks, and including HALEY FREAKIN’ REINHART in the opening credits. (Okay, the obvious “let’s mock the West African guy’s accent!” interlude was grotesque in the extreme, but wretched habits die hard.)

On to the good stuff:

The journey begins with 17-year-old David Leathers Jr., and while subtitles tell us his nickname is “Mr. Steal Your Girl,” my ears hear a different moniker — “Mr. Still Your Girl” — that’s a little unfortunate for a kid whose voice has yet to change. Dapper David once beat Scotty McCreery in a childhood singing competition, or did he? “We both placed first and second,” he tells Ryan. That sounds kind of impossible. Did he actually win? “I guess you could say I did.” Nope, still not a definitive answer. Let’s get him into the audition room where J.Lo can deliver the news that every high-school senior wants to hear: “You look 12.” David belts out Century 21’s “Remember the Rain,” a complex song with huge leaps and dips, with the pureness of water straight out of the Brita pitcher, and then, at the judges’ request, gives an encore of Michael Jackson’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” that proves he can find the rhythm without the help of a rhythm section. The kid has chops, without a doubt, but there’s something about his striped tie and sunglasses and “ladies’ man” shtick that feels more America’s Got Talent than American Idol.

Perhaps signaling another season of youth, youth, and more youth — yes, Nigel, you can stop the aging process by surrounding yourself with fresh-faced teens! — we follow up with 16-year-old Gabi Carrubba, who tells us she’s been dreaming of this opportunity her whole life. (I told you they’ve been grooming these contestants from the incubator forward.) Gabi’s choice of song, Maroon 5’s “Sunday Morning,” strikes me as alarmingly sexual for a kid who’s still palpably excited about her second career as a champion tap dancer, but on the plus side, she doesn’t force a single note, letting her words drift dreamily along like leaves on a tranquil pond. “Where has she been hiding?” asks Randy. “She’s 16. She hasn’t been hiding anywhere,” says J.Lo, who may end up bludgeoning her coworker before April comes around.

We then get a a quartet of quick-hit Golden Tickets — don’t you wish Nigel had given us, say, three more of these mashups, allowing us to see another dozen vocalists? — and two look like they might have Top 24 potential. Neco Starr, whose name sounds like the love child of Nikka Costa and ’80s R&B act Atlantic Starr, knows how to rock suspenders and drops a powerful “Grenade,” while Elise Testone uses her rough and ready instrument to rip her way through “Get It While You Can,” a Janis Joplin ditty that can’t be easy to pull off  a capella. Meanwhile, the three seconds of Brianna Faulk belting the Idol Anthem of Doom, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” isn’t enough to form a real opinion, while Molly Hunt (any relation to Leslie?) proves a tad too affected on “You’re No Good.”

Las Vegas casinos probably already have short odds on 15-year-old beauty Shannon Magrane, who like Jordin Sparks before her is the daughter of a pro athlete (World Series-playing pitcher Joe Magrane), but while there’s something unexpected about seeing a young girl surrounded by her 43 siblings belting out an Etta James scorcher like “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” I felt like the rendition lacked emotional depth. Then again, I should probably give Shannon a second look, since it can’t be easy to keep your focus immediately after witnessing Steven Tyler look directly into your father’s face and say that Savannah is “hot, humid, and happening — just like your daughter.” (Rated E… for Ewwww!) J.Lo’s attempt to defuse the tension — “What a beautiful family!” — is funnier than any line in her last three rom-coms. But despite Steven’s gaffe, the award for the worst judge stays with Randy, for thinking that he can fulfill his job requirements by grabbing a word or phrase from the ether and repeating it over and over again. “World Series! World Series! World Series! World Series!” J’enough!

We then transition from “child of privilege” to “child of the earth:” Amy Brumfield is a 24-year-old from Tennessee who lives in a tent with her boyfriend because they can’t afford the $100/week it would cost to stay in a hotel. And yet somehow, Amy’s optimism — “we cook soup over the fire pit, and we enjoy it” — makes her hard-luck story far more palatable than the usual three-hankie groaners Uncle Nigel loves so much. When Amy reveals that she’s “never been dressed as well” as the black number with rhinestone trim that her boyfriend’s mom got for her, (and which somehow makes me think back to the Mandrell Sisters’ show), I can actually feel my cynical, reality-hardened heart begin to break a little. Thankfully, Amy’s rendition of Alicia Keys’ “Superwoman” is informed by her life experience; she feels every word of the song to her core, and there’s a Bowersoxian lilt to her voice that’s very appealing, too. Amy may not have the most polished voice from Season 11’s opening night, but as Steven so aptly puts it, “the spirit of the children of the woods snuck into you.”

To my chagrin, the next audition finds me siding with Team R****, as the veteran judge gives a “No” vote to nervous 15-year-old Stephanie Renae on the basis of her pretty but underwhelming cover of “Inside Your Heaven.” J.Lo points out that Stephanie needs to overcome her tendency to sing in a nasal tone, while Steven instructs her to “lay on a couple words that mean something,” but neither one has the courage to tell this girl she needs a few more years of experience before she’ll be ready for the big dance.

I’m hoping the judges don’t come to that conclusion about Schyler Dixon just because her older brother Colton Dixon happens to also have received a Golden Ticket to Hollywood this year. Uncle Nigel carefully edited together a couple of vaguely unjoyous reaction shots of Schyler in an effort to create a sense of “sibling rivalry” with Colton — who, along with Jaycee Badeaux, was the final guy cut before the Season 10 Top 24 (in favor of cannon fodder Brett Loewenstern). Colton alleges that he’s just accompanying Schyler to the Season 11 tryouts, but you know these kids had to be sophisticated enough to realize the judges would demand to see ’em both, and that the resulting footage would make for good TV and increased airtime, yes?

Anyhow, Schyler goes first and her rendition of The Script’s “Break Even” shows off a warm wisp of a voice that is distinctive and unique and full of emotion. Colton is rock-solid, and rockin’, on David Cook’s “Permanent,” but my visceral response is not the same as the judges. They all seem to think of Schyler as an opening act to her big brother, but to my ears, she’s equally (if not more) ready to compete for her confetti shower. I just worry that her “surly sister” edit means that when the two of them eventually make it to the Green Mile episode — and this being Uncle Nigel, you know he won’t be ablel to resist the urge to rip a family apart on the altar of the church of Nielsen Ratings — her journey will end in tears of agony, while his will end with tears of redemption.

I’m also not overly optimistic about the long-term chances of Lauren Mink, a sparkling delight of a human being who is shown at her day job working with people with intellectual disabilities while Ellie Goulding’s version of “Your Song” plays in the background. Pretty much everything happening on my TV screen tells me I should vote for Lauren (for Idol, for Homecoming Queen, and maybe for U.S. Senator), but her rendition of “Country Song” is more solid than spectacular. She’s got an appealing sliiiiiide to her voice, but it’s not nearly as memorable as the sight of Lauren’s mom tugging Lauren’s skirt to a more modest level during her post-tryout interview with Seacrest.

There is no such restraint during my favorite audition from the season premiere — Ashlee Altise, a woman bold enough to describe her attributes as “funk, energy, and confidence.” To be honest, she has me at “funk.” Or rather, she has me at “joy-hopping,” her patented (and pretty fierce) personal dance move that she breaks out when she’s excited, overwhelmed, or ready to get down with the git-down. “Can I outdance J.Lo? I can give her a run for her money!” says Ashlee, whose swagger never once borders on arrogance. I find myself unable to scribble a single note during Ashlee’s ugly-beautiful, funkdafied spin on “Come Together,” as I’m throwing both hands in the air and shouting ridiculata like “Honey, work!” Naturally, this means Ashlee will be eliminated in Hollywood Week, and I’ll be referencing her name in Idol recaps for the next 10 years.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Ashley (Category Fierce), former prison guard WT Thompson and NBA dancer Brittany Kerr seem a little underwhelming. WT chose his “dream” over his “job” even though his wife is pregnant with their first child. (Cut to WT’s mother-in-law at her weekly pinochle game: “…and in THIS economy!”). And while his rendition of Little Big Town’s “Boondocks” is in tune, it’s not strong enough to warrant abandoning a weekly paycheck and health insurance coverage. “The things that are wrong with his voice can be fixed!” insists J.Lo, who still hasn’t been told that not every modern “recording artist” gives 15% of his or her income to Auto-Tune.

Brittany, meanwhile, commits the crime of being a stone-cold hottie, and therefore Uncle Nigel makes sure the camera slowly and luridly pans from her toes all the way up her torso as she sings Joss Stone’s “Spoiled.” (I’m surprised they didn’t just stop at her neck and leave the camera at breast level!) Randy and Steven leer and giggle like 10-year-old boys who’ve just grabbed the Victoria’s Secret catalog out of the mailbox, while J.Lo breaks out the rare dissenting vote. “She’s not gonna survive for a week.” She probably won’t, but I’d still rather hear her sing live than Rihanna or Katy Perry or J.Lo herself. Is that enough for a Golden Ticket? Discuss!

And finally, we come to Phillip Phillips, the final audition of the day. Steven, who a year into the job might be finally realizing that the closing spot is usually reserved for especially talented or especially gimmicky singers, tells J.Lo that he’s got a feeling about this one. And it turns out the pawn-shop employee with a cute plaid shirt, charming smile, and toussled hair is pretty dang talented. Phillip’s a capella rendition of “Superstition” is mildly to moderately possessed — as if the music itself has taken hold of his soul and is trying to work its way out of his body — but he shines even brighter when the judges allow him to grab his guitar and jam out to “Thriller.” I’m not sure that after two cover tunes, I’m ready to join Randy in hailing Phillip as a “true artist,” but I’m definitely excited to see what he does next.

“We came! We won! We saw! We are!” yells Randy, trying desperately to create a moment for himself on a day where 29 out of 30 contestants were probably more excited to see Nigel crouching in the corner than they were to meet the “third judge.” J.Lo, unable to contain her confused disdain, crinkles her nose and asks “What?!” before beating a hasty retreat. For once, Jenny from the Block has the right idea.

What did you think of Idol‘s season premiere? Who was your favorite? Did you disagree with any of the judges’ decisions? Sound off below, and for all my Idol news, interviews, and recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!

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