American Idol: So it begins
Nothing broken and nothing to fix on American Idol was the message as Season 11 kicked off on Wednesday night.
There were new contestants and a new city, Savannah, Georgia, but the format was the same: show successful auditions, a few train wrecks, a few back stories. Toss in some humorous moments involving judges Jennifer Lopez, Steven Tyler and Randy Jackson, and host Ryan Seacrest (Steven and Randy getting their butts grabbed by an overenthusiastic female, Ryan playing along with a guy who did a bang-on imitation of him). Rinse, repeat.
The lack of change doesn't mean Idol's ignoring its competitors. With The Voice just a couple of weeks away from kickoff, it was clear in the opening montage that Idol is staking its claim to the competition show crown.
We were treated to plenty of clips of teenagers who were just tots when Idol launched in 2002 and had been dreaming of being on the show ever since. It's "the biggest platform the country has ever known," Ryan reminded us. "It's a new beginning, baby, Season 11 of the freshest, hottest show ever," chimed in Randy.
So take that, Voice and X Factor.
To be honest, the whole thing left me a little underwhelmed. Sure, we heard some good voices but nothing that had me on the edge of my seat. In a two-hour show that was jammed with commercials, we saw 17 full auditions, with a total of 42 people getting golden tickets to Hollywood.
The treatment of one contestant, West African immigrant Mawuena Kodjo, bordered on mean, I thought. It was obvious from the second he said he wanted to sing Rascal Flatts that he was going to be awful. Producers made fun of his accent, spelling out his pronunciation of Scotty McCreery onscreen as "Skatti Macrrrrrrrrrrr ?" Randy told Mawuena that his predictably tuneless version of "I Won't Let Go" was terrible then challenged him to go find people who disagreed with Randy's assessment, an obvious setup to make a little more fun of the 25-year-old. Aided and abetted by Seacrest, Mawuena returned with several little girls and an old man who claimed to like his voice. And the answer was still no.
And maybe I'm oversensitive, but Ryan's description of presumably gay auditioner Joshua Chavis going "home to finish his hissy fit" after he was seen crying, swearing and giving the cameraman the finger seemed a little snide.
We were also told at the beginning of the show that contestants this season will help tell their stories through their own eyes, meaning the chosen ones are toting around video cameras to record themselves. But after a handful of grainy, self-shot clips, it was back to business as usual.
And that business is finding a "superstar," or at least someone who can pull enough votes to win the competition and, with any luck, sell records when it's all over. We have to give Idol credit in that regard: Scotty, last year's winner, had a No. 1 debut on the Billboard 200 with his country album.
That being said, I liked Ashlee's voice and, as Steven put it, her spunk. Unlike last year's entry in the quirky girl with dreadlocks category, Naima Adedapo, Ashlee, 28, from Kinston, N.C., seems to have her pitch in control.
Other contestants I liked included David Leathers Jr., 17, from Fayetteville, N.C. (who told Ryan he beat Scotty McCreery in a talent contest in 2009). The dark glasses and the nickname, "Mr. Steal Your Girl," were corny, especially since the kid looks 12, but his high voice was the real deal.
Gabi Carrubba, 16, from North Haven, Ct., has a lovely voice and knows how to texture a song. And the champion tap dancer is cute as a button, too.
Shannon Magrane of Tampa can really belt for a 15-year-old. I'm wondering if her father, Joe, a pitcher with the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1987 World Series, will request a no-contact order for Tyler in Hollywood. After the Magrane family was invited into the audition, Steven appeared to silence the room by telling Joe that Boston was "hot, humid and happening, just like your daughter."
I really liked Schyler Dixon's take on "Breakeven" by the Script. In fact, I liked it better than her older brother Colton's version of David Cook's "Permanent." Colton just missed out on the top 24 last season and had decided not to audition again until the judges called him into the room with Schyler and cajoled him into it. Colton, who's 19 to Schyler's 17, seemed to clench his teeth when he sang and push some notes to extremes. But the judges were very pleased with him, while Jennifer Lopez somewhat dismissively told Schyler she needed to work hard. Both brother and sister, from Murfreesboro, Tenn., got golden tickets.
Lauren Mink, 25, from Winchester, Ky., has a pretty country voice and the most touching back story so far, as the director of a program for adults with intellectual disabilities. But honestly, I think I threw up in my mouth a little when JLo said in a high-pitched baby voice that Lauren had given her "goosies." You're over 40, Jennifer. How about talking like an adult?
As for the rest, Amy Brumfield, 24, of Gatlinburg, Tenn., can sing okay. I'm not sure how the whole living in a tent in the woods with her boyfriend thing will play out once she gets to Hollywood.
Overwhelmed 15-year-old Stephanie Renae from Orange Park, Fla., has the raw material, but Steven's right: she needs to learn how to inflect her vocals. It might have been kinder to make her come back next year.
I agree with Randy that WT Thompson will get eaten alive in Hollywood. The 25-year-old from Appomattox, Va., quit his job to audition and showed up with his wife six and a half months pregnant. He's not terrible, but he's not great either. He reminded me a bit of Michael Sarver from Season 8.
Let's be honest, Brittany Kerr, a 24-year-old NBA dancer from Charlotte, N.C., got through mainly because she's pretty. Her voice has no oomph.
And lastly, I didn't see what all the fuss was about Phillip Phillips, 20, from Leesburg, Ga. He's cute and it's sweet how much his pawn shop owner dad (also named Phillip Phillips) supports his singing. But I didn't find his voice good enough to make all the jerking around and fist-clenching and pained facial expressions tolerable.
Steven called him "Casey with a lightning rod," no doubt reminded of Casey Abrams' growl, but if Phillip was electric, comparing him to Casey is like comparing a flashlight beam to a klieg light for me.
Part 2 of the audition tour unfolds Thursday night in Pittsburgh, airing at 8 p.m. on CTV Two. And don't forget there's a special Sunday night episode, at 10 p.m. on CTV.
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(The photos of Ryan with Shaun Kraisman and David Leather are by Michael Becker for Fox.)