American Idol Season 12 Premiere Recap: Prepare for Shock and Claw Tactics [Updated]

ashlee felicianoWhen Nicki Minaj’s eyebrow speaks, you’d better pay attention.

Sometimes it raises itself up — like a King Cobra — threatening to strike out at those who dare to disagree with its master. Other times it furrows comically, framing a sarcastic side-eye directed at the stream of divaness emanating from She Who Has Sold As Many Albums as Everyone Who’s Ever Come Off of Idol Combined*. (*At least that’s what Ryan Seacrest tells us.)

Occasionally, it softens, because it understands that just because a 15-year-old boy with no singing talent has the nerve to be Asian and wear thick-framed glasses on national television doesn’t mean he should be pilloried in the public square while the town bullies administer a wedgie of cataclysmic proportions. (In fact, sometimes, all this kind of kid really needs is a hug.)

Once in a while, it spazzes out — because it’s not getting enough attention underneath the cotton-candy wigs and band-leader hats and 20-ply false eyelashes, and it really, really, really likes getting attention.

Still, after watching American Idol‘s very promising Season 12 premiere, I’m pretty certain of one thing: No matter how Nicki Minaj and her expressive eyebrow perform over the next several months, she’s not going to “save” the show from its annual ratings slippage — oh how 99 percent of programs wish they had those kinds of problems! — nor will she “destroy” The House That Kelly Clarkson Built. Ditto for The Lady Carey, she of the gigantic voice, fragile ego, keen ear and penchant for delicious bitchery. Or the other new judge, Keith Urban, who’s got great hair and a sweet, thoughtful demeanor. (Randy Jackson, well, he always has the potential to ruin everything.)

My point here is — and every die-hard Idoloonie knows this — Fox’s ubiquitous singing competition will always live or die based on its contestants, not on its all-star panel.

This message was reinforced, in a maniacal stroke of genius, in the opening seconds of Season 12, with a quiet shot of a lonely stool in the center of a concert hall. Cut to an acoustic guitar. An amp. An old-fashioned mic. And Season 11 winner Phillip Phillips, singing “Home,” the monster hit with the “ooooh ooooh-ooooh ooh-ooh-ooh” chorus you’ve had stuck in your head since McKayla Maroney landed that spectacular vault during the 2012 Summer Olympics. And then, finally, the voice of Ryan Seacrest, booming the reminder: “Last summer, you turned a pawn-shop worker into a mega-star!” Yes indeedy! (Quick poll: How many times have you played “Home” on iTunes? My playcount stands at 53.)

Okay, so maybe Seacrest’s declaration that “together, we’ll take the journey that defines a nation” stepped over the border of hyperbole and into the land of utter absurdity, but by his own admission, the host with the most has been “tired for 10 years,” so let’s cut him a little bit of slack (something Emmy voters never seem to do).

But back to the contestants…since that’s what it’s really all about. The Season 12 premiere gave us extended footage of eight promising Golden Ticket recipients — including a few voices with possible superstar potential. Better still, for the first time in Idol history, we saw multiple examples of the judges voting “no” to moderately talented auditioners with super-compelling backstories. Jessica Rose Kartalis, the girl who got her audition invite from Carson Daly in a Kia from Randy in Staten Island struck out by performing a banal original track (I flinched when the opening line had her staring at the object of her affection from a park bench). And as for handsome Evan Ruggiero, whose leg was amputated in an effort to save him from bone cancer, he’d have easily gone to Hollywood if J.Lo and Steven Tyler had encountered him in Seasons 10 or 11, but ultimately, the judges realized the kid needed more seasoning. His “I’m Yours” was too crisp for a song that’s 50 percent groove, while “Wanted Dead or Alive” needed 3/4 of a cup of ugly to transcend the sterile manner in which it was delivered. And who can argue with a more selective Hollywood Week crop?

Sure, there was the annual Let’s Make Fun of a Guy With a Foreign Accent interlude, but there was also an end-of-episode tryout involving a radiant young woman and her medically complex foster siblings that had my eyes spilling over with tears (and I don’t think it’s merely because my hubby and I have been fostering kids ourselves for the last couple of years).

Anyhow, let’s dive in to a quick rundown of the non-jokey/non-humiliation-centric Season 12 auditions from New York’s Lincoln Center.

Going to Hollywood
* Tenna Torres, 28, attended Camp Mariah as a girl, and as we learned from Chicago (the musical, obvs), “when you’re good to mama, mama’s good to you.” In other words, as Tenna launched into a bell-clear if slightly overwrought rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend,” her former camp counselor looked on lovingly, her eyes welling up with tears of pride. (Burning question: Does Camp Mariah still exist? And does it make me a bad recapper that I’m just too lazy to Google it?) Whatever the case, Tenna is the kind of potential Idol winner to whom Mariah could point with pride, especially if her Season 12 set list includes “Hero,” “My All,” and “One Sweet Day.”

* Next up we saw a montage of two guys and one gal scoring Golden Tickets to Hollywood — but Uncle Nigel didn’t even bother to put their names on the screen. Which probably means two of ’em will be cut on Day 1 of Hollywood, while the show’s producers will spend the next four months relentlessly hyping the third.

* Love her or hate her, you’ve got to respect Nicki for refusing to pretend that she doesn’t have an 11-page dossier on every single person whom the producers plan to release into the audition room. As Christina “Isabelle” took her mark in front of the judges’ table, Nicki said she was surprised to have read that the “amazing, beautiful and confident” woman in front of her had ever struggled with weight and body-image issues. But Christina’s talents ran far deeper than merely looking good and feeling gorgeous: Her rendition of Gershwin’s “Summertime” was rich and complex, showcasing a dreamy tone and a willingness to play around with the melody (as she did with a sweet and high ad-lib on the phrase “your daddy’s rich”). Christina told the panel that she’d modeled herself after Mariah and Celine tradition, but as Keith astutely noted, you could hear the humanity pouring out of Christina in a way many strictly technical balladeers fail to accomplish. And that quality could help carry her a long way in the Season 12.

* Shira Gavrielov had a No. 1 hit in Israel as a teenager, but her slurry imitation of Amy Winehouse on “Valerie” ranked no better than eighth (out of eight) for me among the premiere episode’s Golden Ticket recipients. I may be wrong, but I suspect a scientific study might reveal some correlation between the inadequacy of Shira’s tiny white booty shorts and the way her voice worked the corner at the intersection of Strained and Fatigued. Put on some pants the next time you’re planning to be on television, girl!

* Frankie Ford is used to singing for change on the New York City subway, so he was well prepared to be heard above the din of Mariah and Nicki squawking insults at each other (as well as the sound of Randy Jackson asking himself questions about where he stood on various contestants going to Hollywood, since no one else really cares about the Dawg’s opinion). And after a false start in which the likable kid got choked up from the emotions he felt at the opportunity before him, he rallied and delivered a rendition of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” that was unexpectedly daring in terms of pitch and melody. Nicki was right that he doesn’t have the best voice of Season 12 — Frankie’s tone veered toward a whine at the high end of his register — but the fact that he’s already striving for more than karaoke and his intention of “outworking everyone here” make me curious to see how he’ll fare in Hollywood.

* If Sarah Restuccio‘s audition package gave you a sense of deja vu, perhaps it’s because all those images of the 17-year-old riding her four-wheeler and shooting her bow and arrow and declaring her love of mud were all Single White Femaled from Season 11’s Skylar Laine. (Warning to Sarah: Go anywhere near “Stay With Me” or “Gunpowder and Lead,” and we’re going to be talking restraining order.) The blueberry farmer’s version of “Mama’s Song” probably would’ve gotten her a Golden Ticket despite not all the big notes standing up 100 percent straight (hey, she’s gorgeous, and that still counts in Nigel’s world), but it was her followup take on Nicki’s “Super Bass” that will make this an audition to remember. Randy, of course, responded to the shift from country to rap by waving his hand and shouting “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. I’m confused,” but Nicki wasn’t having his small-mindedness. Farmgirls don’t have to confine themselves to a single genre, she argued, and Sarah’s willingness to show such opposing sides of her musical personality will only make young female viewers identify with her, Nicki noted. Pastel-er heads prevailed — and Sarah’s goin’ to Hollywood!

* I liked the matter-of-factness Angela Miller used to convey her partial hearing loss to the judges: No tears, no sweeping strings, no questions about her general self-worth were required to give the panel a heads up about the challenges she’ll face in the competition. But while the judges went totally wild for Angela’s cover of Jessie J’s “Mama Knows Best,” I’d have preferred the 18-year-old to show a little more finesse with the tune, maybe not feel like she needed to be cranked up to 10 from start to finish. Keith made a good point, however, that Angela engaged the judges by slinking toward them and not standing frozen stiff on the stage, and when you add that to the fact that she didn’t hit a single bad note, it probably means that I’ve reached the nitpicky portion of this recap.

* Speaking of which, did Randy really need to let out a loud, doltish “wowwww!” as Sikh contestant Gurpreet Sing Sarin entered the audition room. Yo, yo, yo, dude, what was the “wow” about? “Wow, you’re wearing a turban”? “Wow, you’re of South Asian descent but there’s nothing in my notes to indicate I’m supposed to giggle through my fingers at your beard and funny voice”? “Wow, I still have a job after 11 prior seasons of incompetence”? Sometimes, Idol really is the worst — and I haven’t even mentioned Randy demanding the guy break out some traditional Indian-style music (because that skill’s really gonna draw in voters later this season) or the producers superimposing glowing red eyes over Gurpreet and labeling him “The Turbanator.” Um, yeah, the brown-skinned guy with the beard and turban really needed to be portrayed as a soulless killing machine in front of 20 million viewers. Mariah and Nicki, to their credit, got excited about Gurpreet’s penchant for matching his turbans to his outfits, with the former panelist sounding like a Project Runway guest and hailing Gurpreet’s “lavender moment” before he launched into Maroon 5’s “Sunday Morning.” I liked how Gurpreet infused his audition with finger-snapping rhythm, and how his jazzy inflections added some sensuality to the lyric. And while Keith was right that the guy’s voice was “light” compared to some of the other New York auditioners, it was nice to see Mariah stand up for a different kind of tone and convert Randy and Nicki to the cause.

* I could write a whole paragraph praising Ashlee Feliciano and her family for their work with medically challenging foster kids, but in this instance, I think it’s more important to credit her for breathing fresh life into “Put Your Records On,” a track that’s been covered 10 too many times on reality singing competitions. Ashlee showed off terrific textures to her instrument as she groweled her way through the verse, then reversed course and hit a series of hypnotic high notes on the chorus. Ashlee’s upper register has the delicate beauty of a hummingbird gathering pollen from a spring blossom. Oh, and I just realized my metaphor took a turn for the ghastly in that prior sentence.

With that, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of the American Idol Season 12 premiere? What did you think of the new judges’ panel? And who was your favorite Golden Ticket recipient? Sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol-related news, recaps, interviews and videos, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!