Contestant Jimmy Smith auditions in Charlotte, N.C., on 'American… (Michael Becker / FOX )
You know that big blow-up between Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey we've been reading about for months? "American Idol" finally showed it to us Wednesday night, as the auditions zoomed through Charlotte, N.C., and it turns out it was actually between Minaj and the whole panel. The tiff was touched off by a Keith Urban comment and it was a Randy Jackson dig that prompted Minaj to get up and leave the judging table. But I guess "Minaj clashes with all the judges" wouldn't have made for good "catfight" headlines.
The trouble started after contestant Summer Cunningham sang "Lean on Me," and then irritated country star Urban by saying she'd done "the country thing for a while."
"That's like saying, 'I did the brain surgeon thing,' " Urban said. "You're either a brain surgeon or you're not."
So was Cunningham a country singer? Cunningham, who ultimately made it through to the next round with four yeses, tried to smooth things over by saying she wanted to do country but blend in some soul. But Carey and Jackson weren't entirely satisfied, grilling her on her commitment to the genre.
That set Minaj off. This "country music debate," in which the other judges had picked Cunningham apart over a comment, had "scared her into lying," she griped, adding that they'd see what she meant when they watched the tape.
At this point, Carey did get a little snippy, but it was Jackson who pushed back hardest. "Thirty years, a little help, insight," he said, positioning himself as the voice of experience.
"Oh, you're right. I'm sorry. I can't help her. Maybe I should just get off the ... panel," Minaj responded quite calmly, an apparent expletive bleeped, as she walked off set.
"That was my move. I was going to walk out the next time she ragged on me," Carey said.
"I was gonna walk out," Jackson chimed in.
"I'm done," we heard Minaj say off-screen.
But the next day, everything was more or less back to normal, though we were reminded of the scuffle by one sweet contestant, Brandy Hamilton. After being put through to Hollywood, Hamilton turned back to admonish the judges. "Please don't fight. It makes me sad," she said.
Others moving on to the next round (there were 37 in all) included Brian Rittenberry, a young dad whose wife beat stage 4 appendix cancer and whose "Let It Be" had an appealing raspiness; Jimmy Smith, a tousled blond with a sweet tone; Isabel Gonzalez, an adorable high school student who was nominated by her aunt and whose look one of the judges compared to a "young Phoebe Cates"; and Taisha Bethea, whose disparate song choices confused some of the judges but who ultimately squeaked through with a split decision.
And that was just Day 1. Day 2 success stories featured the aforementioned Brandy Hamilton, a Navy reservist whose rendition of an Etta James song Carey called "A-plus"; wacky Ashley Smith, who wowed with Carrie Underwood's "Cowboy Casanova" and a personality Carey deemed "effervescent"; and Janelle Arthur, who got her start as a kid performing a "young Dolly Parton" at a theme park and impressed the judges with her take on Urban's own "Where the Blacktop Ends."
Also making it through were Rodney "The Voice of Charlotte" Barber, who has overcome homelessness and now helps others get back on their feet; Candice Glover, who was cut in Vegas last season but got a standing ovation and high praise from the judges this time around; Ja'Bria Barber, who kills frogs and fries up their legs for snacking, but sings beautifully all the same; and Seretha Guinn, who came with a adorable 3-year-old daughter (carrying a Hello Kitty doll for Minaj), a heart-wrenching backstory (her boyfriend was almost killed in a serious accident), and a winning voice, which she displayed by singing the theme to "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air."
Nixed singers included Naomi Morris, a woman who designed her own spiky bras, and Joel Nemeyer, a guy who sang lying flat on his back, among others, but all in all, as the wise and well-spoken Minaj said, the judges found some "top-, top-, top-, top-notch" talent in Charlotte.