The judges set up in Chicago, where the talent appears to go up a notch and the ongoing verbal war between Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj sees more flare-ups.
The second part of the two-night season premiere of the twelfth season of "American Idol" got off to a roaring start in Chicago Thursday evening (Jan. 17). It also ended with a heart-tugging tale of impediment and the healing power of music, not to mention introducing a great new voice to America. At the same time, viewers were treated to Round Two of the brewing feud/not-feud between rookie judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj.
One thing is certain: Season 12 of "American Idol" is different. It is also far more entertaining than it has been in years past, especially when it comes to the judges. In fact, there hasn't really been any kind of true taking of sides or fellow judge bashing since Simon Cowell left the show. And, sad to say, the show has suffered greatly from the overabundance of camaraderie on the judges panel. But, as viewers have been told time and again, the judges soap operas are not the focus of the show. Of course not. That would be the contestants...
Back to why we really watch the show. Singers like Mackenzie Wasner. Wasner is the daughter of Vince Gill's keyboardist and co-writer of the song she auditioned with: Gill's "Whenever You Come Around." The judges agreed that she definitely has full package potential and unanimously handed her a gold ticket to Hollywood.
Kiara Lanier once performed for President Obama at a birthday fundraiser and actually got to sing "Happy Birthday" to the president. But that won't get her to Hollywood. However, her performance of Celine Dion's "The Prayer" certainly would. And did. Urban thought her vocal runs were comparable to Aaron Neville's.
Stephanie Schimel performed "Dream A Little Dream Of Me," the 1930s classic, and got her ticket. However, he acceptance wasn't unanimous. Judge Minaj said she didn't "feel" that Schimel was a star and was the lone holdout, which sparked one of several verbal flare-ups in the Windy City, a continuation of the words wars that began at the New York auditions. Minaj made a comment about not giving Schimel a "yes" due to rivalry -- she and Schimel had the same eye shadow color. Carey called her out and then disclaimed that she didn't want to upset anyone there.
Urban tossed in, "Sure you do." The remark was as pointed as it was surprising, coming from the guy who had basically sat still in his unfortunate position between the feuding women and listened to constant bickering from both sides in New York.
One of the hopefuls from the Small Town Auditions Tour, Gabe Brown, showed up with cookies for the judges. Apparently, Brown's a baker. He's also a hard rock belter, his voice an amplified Jimmy Barnes, a throatier Brian Johnson. His rendition of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" was pure amplification. Urban loved him, but Carey wanted to hear something softer, so Brown dropped Steel Dragon's "We All Die Young" (from the "Rock Star" movie soundtrack), a tune that started strong and quickly went back to were he'd finished with the previous song -- screaming. Still, found believable, Brown got a ticket to Hollywood.
When Urban has to leave to perform a concert, the three-judge panel continued without him. Minaj seemed intent on flirting, asking a couple of the guys auditioning if they had girlfriends. She even asked one guy if that was a hole in his pants down there. He fired back, "Why you looking?" That brought Minaj's jaw down in surprise.
Curtis Finch Jr. had the three judges embark on a spiritual journey and another Mariah (Pulice) grounded them again with her tale of defying death and an ongoing battle with anorexia, one that she was currently winning. Both move the judges. Both get gold tickets.
There were a couple of retry auditioners as well. Brandy Neely, a 17-year-old who had actually made it to Hollywood twice before, hit the trifecta Thursday night with a powerful rendition of Hank Williams' "Your Cheating Heart." It very well could have been the best performance of the Chicago auditions.
Later, Johnny Keyser, who tried out last season, impressed the judges with Otis Redding's "Try A Little Tenderness."
Perhaps the strangest audition on "American Idol" came in Chicago as well. Kez Ban, a fire performer, said in confessional that she did not think she could win, but she really only wanted to go to Hollywood. So, with six-string slung across her back, she stepped in front of the judges table. Although she came off as very quirky, Ban's singing of "I've Got No Strings" from "Pinocchio" was enough to get the judges to ask for an acoustic performance. An original she said she co-wrote with a friend, Ban won the judges over and got her ticket out west.
The Chicago auditions even had an Andrew De Leon moment. Clifton Duffin was auditioning and his parents, who were there to support him, had never heard him sing. So while he gave a good performance of Luther Vandross' "Superstar," his mother's favorite song, host Ryan Seacrest had his parents stand to the stand to hear him (without his knowledge). Before it was over, everyone was in tears. Judge Urban said that he was moved watching Duffin's parents watch their son sing.
As is usual for "American Idol," they saved the best backstory for last. Enter: Lazaro Arbos, a young Cuban immigrant with a somewhat debilitating stuttering problem. It is severe and he has a difficult time telling the judges his story, but viewers also learn that Arbos' difficulty became so severe when he first came to the US (at around the age of seven), that he could barely talk. He grew up virtually friendless, his parents said, and turned to music for solace and inspiration. And well he did, because when Arbos forms a melody with his vocal chords, the stuttering impediment vanishes. He performed a moving version of Simon and Garfunke's "Bridge Over Troubled Water." The judges' words of encouragement and unanimous round of yeses had the young man tearful with gratitude.
All the above average singing talent aside, "American Idol" auditions would not be complete without those that appear before the judges in all their deluded glory. And Chicago had its fair share of those individuals. There was Melissa Bush, a massage therapist who dressed in a pink skin-tight jumpsuit with silver spangles and did her best to hack Petulia Clark's "Downtown" to death. And there was Kevin Navity, a young man inspired by Vanilla Ice. If that wasn't a signal he was going to be on the verge of terrible, his actual frantic performance of Barenaked Ladies' "One Week" sent the message home. And then there was Ieisha Cotton, a professional dancer that saw her rendition of Ashanti's "Thank You" prompt the judges into endorsing her dancing career.
There was also a montage segment, a parody of "Les Miserables" called "The Miserables," where several contestants were depicted committing untold auditory crimes on various songs. But that was actually a set-up for musical theatre student Ashley Curry. Her excited shouting in a relative song-like structured way had the judges ducking and leaning, looking every bit as if they were being bowled over by a gale-force voice. When the judges suggested a theatrical soliloquy, Curry surprised them with a third try at singing Jessie J's "Mamma Knows Best." The young lady was escorted from the stage by security...
All in all, Chicago yielded a sizable amount of talent. The judges issued 46 tickets to Hollywood. And, just as in New York, after some initial friction, the Carey-Minaj feud (or whatever it is) seemed to dampen a bit. (But viewers know what's coming when they get to Charlotte, N. C.) But when all is said and done, it might be fair to say that the new judges line-up is an intriguing mix of passion, sincerity, and at least two individuals quick to defend themselves and/or lash out at their colleagues. The shows do not appear as formulaic as they had seemed to become in the past. And despite the apparent bickering between Minaj and Carey -- Urban said he felt like a "scratching post" -- there is a fun element to the show that has been missing for quite some time.
"American Idol" airs on Wednesdays and Thursdays on Fox Television at 8 p.m. (EST).
(photo credit: American Idol, Fremantle North America, Fox Television).
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