Mariah Carey, from left, Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj and Randy Jackson at the… (Michael Becker / Fox )
Before introducing the new all-star judging panel with high hopes, and presumably at great cost, for Season 12 – Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj, Keith Urban and sole holdover Randy Jackson – "American Idol" tried to reassure us it was the same old show.
There was last season's winner, Phillip Phillips, in his ratty old T-shirt and jeans, sitting on a stool, strumming his acoustic guitar and singing his comfort-food-like hit, "Home." There was a montage of "Idol"-launched superstars: Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson. There was Ryan Seacrest's familiar voice, welcoming us "home."
But no matter what Seacrest cooed in our ear, it wasn't the same old "Idol." Both the judges and the talent -- in New York City, fuhcryinoutloud -- seemed stiff and uneasy. Perhaps, in time, they'll soften up, but, like a new pair of jeans, the first night of auditions was a little uncomfortable to sit through.
It wasn't because of the much-hyped Carey-Minaj feuding, either. The tension between the two, as one might have predicted, had been oversold. Sure, there was a bit of gentle teasing, genuine toe-stepping and self-parodying diva posturing, along with some clucking from Urban about being caught in the middle, but nothing more than one might expect when you assemble a panel in which at least half the judges are used to being the most famous person in any room. (I'm excepting Jackson for obvious reasons and Urban because he's married to Nicole Kidman – which, with all due respect, arguably doesn't prevent him from being the prettiest.)
In any event, the crosstalk never got louder or more alarming than the sunset-colored wig – marigold, one contestant poetically called it – that Minaj wore for the second half of the two-hour season premiere. And the talent rarely got more exciting.
Those who made it to Hollywood on "day one" of "Idol's" New York stop included Tenna Torres, a veteran of the Fresh Air Fund's Camp Mariah who brought photos to prove it; formerly overweight Berklee College of Music student Christina "Isabella," who wants to show that, no matter your shape, size or body type, "ff you have confidence in yourself you can go far"; slender Israeli beauty Shira Gavrielov, who had a No. 1 hit in her home country before moving to the U.S.; Frankie Ford from Flatbush (Brooklyn), who left school to pursue music and has been earning a buck busking on the subway. Urban got the honor of uttering the musical cue line, "Frankie, you're going to Hollywood, man."
"Day one" sacrificial lambs included Michael Bounopane, who wandered in with a stream-of-consciousness riff on "We Will Rock You"; James Bae, a 15-year-old Justin Bieber wannabe who Carey thought should consider DJ'ing and Minaj kissed; Evan Ruggiero, a self-described "one-legged tap dancer" whose dreams of stardom survived bone cancer and may also survive the judges' "no"; and Jessica Kartalis, a teen "nominated" for "Idol" by her mother whom Jackson went all the way to Staten Island to collect, only to subsequently reject her.
The clunker-contestant parade continued on "day two" with Benjamin Gaisey, whose wig may have been no more ridiculous than Minaj's, but whose plastic tracksuit was much louder; Rozanna Shindelman, whose mom will apparently remain her biggest fan ("Dude, that was bad. I mean, that was bad," Jackson unkindly informed her); medical receptionist Albert Chang, who got revenge in advance by admitting he had no idea who the show's judges were; and "Idol" buff Brett Holt, who Seacrest noted had finally gone "from studying 'Idol' history to becoming a part of it."
Happily, "day two" also brought some talent: New Jersey blueberry-farm girl Sarah Restuccio, who confused the male judges and earned admiration from Minaj and Carey by singing a country song as well as Minaj's "Superbass"; Angela Miller, who despite hearing loss in both ears seemed to have the best pitch and tone of the night; thoroughly charming Indian singer Gurpreet Singh Sarin (a.k.a. "The Turbanator"), who tipped the vote in his favor by comparing his colorful turbans to Minaj's wigs, telling her that "we're both very vibrant people"; and last but not least, Ashlee Feliciano, whose family fosters and has adopted kids with medical issues, whose voice was almost as sweet as her whole mien.
What did you think of the new judges -- and this season's first batch of contestants?