American Idol Recap: Do the Fight Thing

candice glover idolGodzilla vs. Mothra. Batman vs. Joker. Coke vs. Pepsi. Michigan vs. Notre Dame. Randy Jackson vs. the English language. These are the rivalries that define the modern age. They’re long-standing. They’re heated. And pretty much everybody’s got an opinion on ’em.

And now we’ve got…Nicki vs. Mariah? Divas, pleeeease.

On tonight’s episode of American Idol — centered on the Season 12 auditions from Charlotte, NC — a pair of wannabe alpha judges stomped and roared in an effort to establish dominance. Show insiders trumpeted the imbroglio months before it happened. Fox’s promo department heralded it as must-see TV. But when you break it alllll the way down, who gives a flying frog about millionaire celebs bickering and cussing and throwing shade? Not me (even if, to be honest, I kinda understood and appreciated Nicki’s position in the dustup — especially since half her vitriol was directed at the unspeakably irksome Randy Jackson.)

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To put it another way, after 11 prior seasons of ratings dominance, you’d think Idol‘s producers would know the magic ingredients to the show’s success are the future Kelly Clarksons and Joshua Ledets and Brooke Whites of the world.

And the funny thing is, despite a lackluster opening hour, the Charlotte auditions actually delivered plenty of that amateur-singer-with-superstar-potential magic (along with a series of hilarious Nicki punch lines). Over the course of the episode, we got to see extended footage of 15 Golden Ticket recipients — including the fabulous Candice Glover, cut inexplicably during the Season 11 rounds but back in full-voiced glory for a chance at redemption. Wahoo!

Anyhow, with that in mind, let’s say no more about the carefully edited Nicki-Mariah blowout — indeed, we didn’t see the more explosive, expletive-filled shakycam footage that hit the Internet back in October — and instead focus on the talent. Who knows, maybe the contestant-centric vibe will prove contagious to Idol’s producers and judges? (I know, my optimism is really just delusion wrapped in a pashmina of goofy metaphors.)

Going To Hollywood
* Keith Urban stole the adjective right out of my brain when he described Brian Rittenberry‘s tone as “husky” (as well as cool), but the guy whose wife beat Stage 4 cancer made a few odd choices with his notes (or maybe he just veered off pitch) on “Let It Be.” I’m not sure I’d have given him a Golden Ticket, but I suppose the show needed to do something for the dude’s family after Ryan Seacrest grilled his wife about having a “hall pass” for Keith Urban — in front of their grade-schooler son.

* Jimmy Smith‘s “Bless the Broken Road” came off like a first-rate mimeograph of Rascal Flatts’ original, but I would’ve liked the judges to make him tackle a second tune to see if there was anything truly unique about his tone or delivery. (My money would be on “probably not.”) As for what prompted Randy to shout “let them eat cake in Hollywood!” as Jimmy left the room, well, that’s as much a mystery as whether or not Nicki’s hair actually was made of delicious cotton candy.

* We got a one-two-three of quick hits from Sarina-Joi Crowe, Haley Davis and Na’chelle Fullins-Lovell, but I’d be lying if I said any of them struck me as potential Hollywood Week standouts, let alone Top 20 material. Of course, the editors limited Na’Chelle footage to a series of “Mariah Dog Whistle (TM)” notes, without giving enough lyric or melody to decipher what she was actually singing. Even worse? We didn’t get to see if Nicki dubbed her “Nacho.”

* Please tell me I’m not the only one who briefly thought Randy was being sent back to 4th-grade English class when producers put him on a school bus to give Isabel Gonzalez a pass to the auditions. (I hear your rebukes of “Don’t insult 4th graders like that, Slezak!”) Then I had a good chuckle imagining Uncle Nigel asking Mariah to deliver the news. (“Daahhhling, you know I only do limos!”) But while Nicki declared she could listen to Isabel riffing all day, I found her tone to be ever so slightly strident, her power a little muted when she reached the ends of certain phrases. In the interest of brutal honesty, I’d rather see her come back and audition for, say, Season 15.

* I rolled my eyes right along with Ms. Minaj when Randy got all confused by Taisha Bethea describing herself as a rocker, then auditioning with a strongly sung “Folsom Prison Blues.” I mean, no one accused indie rocker Paul McDonald of having an identity crisis when he covered the Johnny Cash tune in Season 10, but then again he wasn’t a young black woman. Asked to bring out a second song, Taisha tried out Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” to less impressive effect, and Mariah said she simply couldn’t wrap her head around it. Why? Because the Lilith Fair era is over? Because only white guys with guitars slung over their shoulders should want to make aggressive music? Nicki made a salient point that it was nice to hear a black girl do something besides “typical R&B runs,” but I’m sure all it did was make Randy think “salient points have no place on this panel.” Oh, come on, I’m kidding: RANDY DOESN’T KNOW WHAT ‘SALIENT’ MEANS! The vote ended up split, two yesses (Nicki, Keith) and two nos (Mariah, Randy) but Keith had tiebreaker status for Charlotte, so on to Hollywood Taisha went.

* Okay, I said I wasn’t going to discuss “the fight” anymore, but since it erupted during Summer Cunningham‘s audition, I’ve got to reopen the door. In a nutshell, Summer chose to cover “Lean on Me,” but put a little bit of a country twist on it with some yodeling and a few twang-y breaks when she reached for the high notes. She sounded really great — not that anyone will ever remember it now. When she told the judges she’d “tried the country thing” but was hoping to move in a more soulful musical direction, Keith suddenly looked chillier than Nicole Kidman’s desperate housewife in The Others. “It’s like saying ‘I did the brain-surgeon thing!'” he huffed, and so of course, 15 seconds later, Randy used the offending expression again, telling Summer he could see her doing “the country thing more than anything.” (Discussion topic: Is the Dawg incredibly obtuse, or the craftiest sociopath ever?)

As the judges quizzed Summer about what type of music she listened to as a kid and tried to steer her back down a dusty country lane, Nicki remained oddly silent, grimacing irritably till she finally expressed anger that her fellow panelists were scaring Summer into claiming a position/genre that wasn’t her own. “We’re trying to help her as opposed to talking about her outfit,” Mariah snapped back. Nicki then told Mariah she should “watch the tape back and you’ll understand.” Mariah got indignant — “Really? So you watch the tape back every night?” — but when Randy started popping off about his “30 years” of experience, Nicki dropped an f-bomb and stormed off the set. Congrats, Summer, you’re through to Hollywood! Alas, though, I think it’s too early to congratulate Idol for retiring the worn-out idea that amateur singers with little or no music-business expeirence nail down a specific sound/genre before they can have a Golden Ticket to Hollywood.

* Keith said he could hear potential “through the nervousness and dry voice” of Navy reservist Brandy Hamilton, but let’s be honest: The judges kinda sorta had no choice but to give a Golden Ticket to the first brave soul to audition for them the day after Nicki and Mariah’s feud went nuclear. Brandy’s “All I Could Do Is Cry” was passionate, albeit not quite ready for primetime, but her parting words to the panel — “Please don’t fight; it makes us sad” — should be put on a plaque and mounted to the Idol judges’ table for the remainder of Season 12.

* Ashley Smith looked like she was getting set up as a joke contestant when the show’s producers introduced her eating a sandwich and praising its deliciousness. (Not that there’s anything wrong with sandwiches. Just ask Jeff Mauro!) But the contestant dubbed “Blondie” by Ms. Minaj infused Carrie Underwood’s “Cowboy Casanova” with effortless soul and rhythm — and Mariah was right, girlfriend’s got an “effervescent” personality to boot. With her nose ring and runaway hair and social-butterfly ways, she’s probably the kind of jelly for which Uncle Nigel & Co. aren’t quite ready, but if she gets cut before group rounds, it’ll be a crime against television.

* I vaguely remember Janelle Arthur from Season 11 — which I’m pretty certain is more than Randy can say — but on the silver-linings tip, had she not fallen short of the finals a year ago, we wouldn’t have gotten to hear what was a pretty mesmerizing take on “Where the Blacktop Ends” (mashed up with “Walkin the Country” for good measure). There’s a quiet charisma to Janelle that makes me think she might be a serious contender to follow in the footsteps of Underwood and McCreery, and should Ken Warwick get obsessed with the idea of a 2013 reworking of From Justin to Kelly, she’s got good comic timing. I particularly liked her raucous “Well, honey, you better open it up!” after Seacrest threatened to not open the audition-room door unless she’d earned a Golden Ticket.

* Rodney Barber used to be homeless and now gives to charity half the money he makes while singing on the streets of Charlotte. Nice guy. Big, booming voice. But way too uncontrolled and blast-y to get past Day 1 of Hollywood Week. (Here’s hoping the national TV exposure earns him more moolah in the future, yes?)

* Not to encourage Mariah and Randy to go overboard with the standing ovations this season, but really, who could stay seated after Candice Glover‘s epic rendition of “Syrup and Honey”? If J.Lo were there, she’d have squealed “Goosies!” (and then, of course, cut Candice without so much as a word of explanation in the Vegas round…like she did after Candice slayed “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” with Jessica Sanchez and DeAndre Brackensick). I could go on and on about Candice’s flawless phrasing, the way she balanced power and finese, her almost tactile emotional connection to the song, but instead I’ll quote Nicki Minaj: “I’m obsessed with you. I wanna skin you and wear you. I’m not even worthy to critique you.” Ditto!

* It’s a shame the judges and producers spent so much time on Ja’Bria Barber‘s peculiar pasttime of “frog-giggin'” (code for stabbing bullfrogs on a spike, then cutting off, frying and eating their delicious legs), but if she were a white male and shot deer for kicks, I bet she wouldn’t have been treated in quite such odd-duck fashion. ANYhoo…Ja’Bria’s inclination to sing “Pride and Joy” — and even her understanding that she was doing “Bonnie Raitt’s version” (an indicator she knew it was originally Stevie Ray Vaughan’s tune) hinted at a musical knowledge and confidence you might not expect from a 16-year0old diva. The fact that she hit every note while adding some sway and sass (I’m not even sure J.Hud could’ve been so convincing warning, “you mess with him and see this woman get mean”), makes me hopeful she’ll fall closer to the Allison Iraheta end of the teen-contestant scale than the Katie Stevens/Thia Megia side.

* And finally, we had Young, Gorgeous Mom With Sad-But-Hopeful Backstory (aka Seretha Guinn), who had me hooked the second she said she was singing the theme from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Thank heavens it was on-point, too, since Seretha’s cutie-pie Nicki-obsessed 3-year-old daughter London was leaning against mommy’s leg while she sang it. I didn’t think it was necessary for the judges to ask for a second tune, especially since it was clear from her soundtrack jam that Seretha has a cool, jazzy style and hits her notes with surgeon-like precision, but why hold a sleepy version of “How Do I Live” against her when it’s so much more fun to blame Randy? (Side note: Little London bringing a bear called Dun-Dun for her idol Nicki, whom she’d also dubbed Dun-Dun, has to be among the Top 10 most unabashedly adorable moments in Idol history, yes? Discuss!)

And with that, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of the American Idol Season 12 Charlotte auditions? What did you think of the Nicki-Mariah bout? And who was your favorite Golden Ticket recipient? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments. And for all my Idol-related news, recaps, interviews and videos, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!