With all the alterations on the judges panel, it was good to see that the basic format of "American Idol" had not changed for Season 12. Contestants still stepped onto the slightly raised audition platform and performed for the judges' approval and/or amusement. Some were good. Fewer were excellent. But the greater segment of hopefuls were the usual hopelessly delusional. Still, even the excellent and the godawful couldn't distract totally from the drama brewing on the other side of the judges table.
The so-called feud that viewers keep hearing and reading does not exist started as soon as the judges were seated at the New York auditions. Carey eyed Minaj's major domo hat and said she hadn't known they were allowed props. Minaj took exception, asking why Carey was eye-ballin' her hat. Words were said, some sub-vocally and then Carey said, "If she called me something that begins with a `b' and ends with an `itch,' I rebuke it."
It was that kind of distinct haughtiness that would be Carey's attitude throughout. Minaj would be quick to pounce, quick with a rejoinder throughout. The panel's other rookie, country singer Keith Urban, had the decidedly unpleasant position of being seated between the sneakily snotty Carey and the very vocal Minaj, his handsome features and quiet good nature still not enough to calm the savage beasts to either side. And "Idol" mainstay judge Randy Jackson? No help to the trapped Urban, he laughed his way through most of it, aggravated the commentary at times, and made a few mock shocked remarks.
But there were actual moments when the hissing and sniping was forgotten. Such distractions tended to be very good or inexplicably bad -- in true "American Idol" tradition.
First, the good:
Frankie Ford sings on the subway for quarters and he's willing to do anything to get that gold ticket to Hollywood. But he throws himself off two lines into the immortal Eurhythmics song "Sweet Dreams." And just when you think the judges are going to tell him it just isn't his time, the young man started up again and delivered a melodic version of the new wave classic.
Angela Miller can't hear very well, having 40 percent hearing loss in one ear, 20 percent loss in the other. But she has persevered. And despite what might be considered a disability in an industry dependent upon sound, nails Jessie J's "Mama Knows Best."
Sarah Restuccio is a less stockily-built Skylar Laine without the Mississippi drawl. She's an ATV-riding, arrow-shooting farmgirl from -- wait for it -- the blueberry capital of the US: New Jersey. (What? No, really.) She wowed the judges with a spot-on rendition of "Idol" success story Carrie Underwood's "Mama's Song." Judge Jackson wanted to hear more, so she laid down a quick-fire version of Nicki Minaj's "Super Bass."
Ashlee Feliciano had the most heart-touching backstory of the night. She grew up in a family that had adopted children with severe medical problems. But as special as that might have been, her performance of Corinne Bailey Rae's "Put Your Records On" won over the judges ears. Their hearts had already been won and they invited the entire family in to hear their four yeses for Hollywood.
And in true Susan Boyle fashion (and who doesn't have those moments of doubt these days when the goofy or the strange-looking or perhaps even over-hyped contestant is singled out before their audition?), one be-turbaned young man, Gurpreet Singh Sarin, had a surprisingly mellow and melodic voice. He rattled off Maroon 5's "Sunday Morning" like a be-turbaned Adam Levine with a beard. But Urban thought his voice might not be strong enough for the competition, leaving the deciding vote to Minaj. Sarin, whose nickname is "The Turbanator," lobbied his singing, telling Minaj that he had turbans for all occasions. Minaj, referring to Sarin as "Turb," put him through to Hollywood.
There were, of course, those that nearly made it. The most notable -- and easily the most inspiring backstory -- was that of Evan Ruggiero, a young dancer that lost a leg to cancer. But he had fought back, learned to tap dance with his prosthetic, and aspired to still become an entertainer. His first performance -- a Jason Mraz tune -- was a bit flat. But when he unslung his guitar and belted out Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive," even Urban couldn't help chiming in Richie Sambora's high-pitched "wanted" second-part in the chorus. And still, all the judges agreed that he should hone his skills and return next year.
And then there were the bad-to-awful:
But "Idol" has always attracted the delusional as well as the inspiring and the truly talented. Season 12 had its version of William Hung, one James Bae, who practiced in his bedroom to get that concert feel and wanted to be the next Justin Bieber. His Bieber imitation was so atonal and off-beat, it prompted Urban to utter perhaps the most caustic line he would emit throughout the premiere: "What other skills and talents do you have?" But Bae left happy, getting encouragement from Carey and Minaj, not to mention a hug from the latter.
Self-described "ladies man" Benjamin Gaisley showed up at the auditions in a vinyl Michael Jackson costume (think: "Thriller" red with black vee-ed jacket). He admitted the host Ryan Seacrest that the suit was a couple years old. Topped off with a black jerry-curl wig, Gaisley was a portly parody of the King of Pop. His suit making almost as much noise as he did while doing what he undoubtedly called singing, he entertained the judges by singing and dancing. Minaj seemed to be enjoying the performance until Gaisley delivered a hip-thrust that dropped her jaw. Urban hid under the judges table. Still, Minaj was so transfixed, she asked Gaisley to sing a second song.
Albert Cheng showed up and belted out who knows what from "Phantom of the Opera," but he went up in an atonal reedy falsetto that most likely had the plate glass behind the judges vibrating. Minaj quipped, "Your range is better than Mariah's!" Carey, who has a five-octave range, did not appear amused. Perhaps she rebuked that remark as well.
Note to future "Idol" contestants: Don't be so obnoxious you blow your shot at auditioning. Remember the back-and-forth over Minaj's hat? It might still be going on today had not Michael Buonopane not simply strode out on stage belting Queen's "We Will Rock You." It sort of put the judges off a bit. It certainly stopped Carey and Minaj from their bickering. Judge Randy Jackson pointed out that the contestant didn't seem to need the judges. But Buonopane's problem didn't seem to be that he couldn't carry a tune, it was that he couldn't decide on what he wanted to sing and never slowed down enough to let the judges interject a few comments and questions. Sure, he made a noticeable entrance, but at what cost?
Season 12 is beginning to look like a lot of familiar with a new set of judges. And it could be a winning combination -- if the Carey Minaj feud/not-feud doesn't get out of hand. Everyone already knows what's coming when the auditions reach Charlotte, North Carolina. (If you've forgotten, take a trip back to October 2012 with TMZ.) But that doesn't mean that Carey and Minaj are always snarling and hissing. Of course, at the Television Critics press conference held a week before the premiere, executive producer Nigel Lythgoe said that the judges were constantly "angry." However, producer and reps were also quick to point out that much of it was over wrangling over the contestants and not petty shots at each other. But if that were true, petty showed up at the "Idol" premiere.
All that being said (and shown and edited), Minaj made the comment that she thought the panel gelled "in a weird, crazy way."
Still, the new panel provided for some interesting television. And Minaj's debut on the show wasn't the end of "American Idol" as some had feared she might be. She actually came off as conscientious, thoughtful, and determined to do a good job without destroying the dreams of those auditioning. As for the contestants, a few also lend hope that "Idol" just might produce its first female winner since Jordin Sparks in 2007.
"American Idol" will air the second part of its four-hour premiere on Thursday, Jan. 17, at 8 p.m. (EST) on Fox Television.