"Forget what you know...for the best is yet to come," declared the bold lettering at the start of the "American Idol" Season 10 premiere. Yep, "forget" is right. You know how "Dallas" basically negated an entire season by writing it off as Pam's year-long bad dream? Well, I was kind of hoping that "American Idol" would do the same this week--you know, that it'd kick off the season with a benevolently beaming Bobby Ewing in the shower, reassuring jaded viewers that Season 9 never really happened. Either that, or Ryan Seacrest would open the show with a flourish of a "Men In Black"-style memory-erasing pen, thus obliterating troubling recollections of last year's Worst Season Ever from even the most remote recesses of viewers' cerebellums.
OK, that didn't happen. But as newly appointed and lavishly hyped judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler--or J.Lo and S.Ty, as I affectionately call them--took their seats at the judges' table for the first time Wednesday evening, it was most definitely a slate-cleaning TV moment. This would indeed be a new "Idol." But would it be an improved "Idol"? Well, anything would be an improvement upon Season 9, really...but as two superstars searching for, well, the next superstar, J.Lo and S.Ty still faced a supersized task, working against a backdrop of lowered expectations, raised doubts, and the glaring absence of the flat-topped icon who'd been at the (cold, black) heart of the show for nine years, Simon Cowell.
[Idol' surprise: What role Ryan Seacrest originally auditioned for]
So, how did they do? Well, Steven had me at "hello"--or more specifically, he had me the first time he let a curse word slip during the show's cold open. And the second time. And the third. And that was just, like, the first 10 minutes. There were more bleeps going on than in an episode of "The Osbournes." It sounded like Morse code up in there. I always believed this lady-looking dude would be 24-karat TV gold (seriously, how did it take him this long to go the reality route?), and now that I've seen him deliver, I officially predict that Kid Rock, Joe Perry, and any other anti-"Idol" Tyler haters will soon be swallowing their words. I'm sure even Simon would be impressed with a Tyler zinger like "Did you eat a lot of paint-chips as child?"
Really, if Steven can keep up his rock 'n' roll circus act--which so far involves liberal use of bizarre mixed metaphors; plenty of flirting, even with 16-year-olds, that makes Simon's interaction with Bikini Girl look positively chaste; and randomly accompanying contestants with shrill Aerosmithian backup vocals--"American Idol" will do for him what VH1 and MTV did for his fellow rockers Bret Michaels and Ozzy Osbourne. He'll have a whole new career on his hands. Forget who wins this year: The star of "American Idol" Season 10 will be Steven Tyler.
But what about J.Lo? Well, she declared right off the bat that she's "not in the business of crushing people's spirits." Boo! We all know this woman has a big diva rep. So I for one didn't want to see her nicey-nice good-cop act, watching her feign agony over having to reject contestants as she cried out, "Why did I sign up for this?" But I warmed to Jennifer as the episode went on. She exhibited genuine chemistry with the judges (of course she related well to Steven--those two look very eerily alike, if you squint); she clearly served as a role model for the many fawning, blubbering contestants who claimed she was the entire reason they got into music; and by the show's end, she'd let a little bit of her brittle wickedness show through. So she did all right, dawg. After a series of career stumbles (including a literal one at the American Music Awards), not to mention a poorly received new single this week, "Idol" is a good move for Jennifer, I think. Like Steven, she too may have a new career ahead of her, no matter how many box-office bombs she drops or record labels she gets dropped from.
[Read more: Eight big changes to 'Idol' this year]
I admit that, much like a dog waiting sad-eyed by the door for his master to return from vacation, at first I sat forlornly by my TV set pining for Simon, my eyes scouring the screen for any sign of a bottle-brush haircut or too-tight T-shirt, my ears perked up in hopes of hearing just the slightest hint of a familiar British brogue. But Steven was entertaining enough to make me barely miss Cowell, and then I realized that "Idol" isn't supposed to about the judges--not Steven, not Jennifer, not even Simon. (And certainly not Randy.) It's about the contestants. And with the highest audition turnout in the series' history this season (120,000), I deeply desired to believe producer Nigel Lythgoe's repeated emphatic assertions that Season 10 would be bursting with would-be Clarksons, Underwoods, Hudsons, and Lamberts, true idols in every sense of the word. So I finally forced my attention away from J.Lo and S.Ty and their unnervingly identical visages, and instead focused on this evening's crop of New York/New Jersey hopefuls--all the while trying to remain hopeful myself.
There was a notable lack of wackjob auditions, an obvious ploy to prove Nigel's proud claims about this year's cavernous talent pool. I assumed I'd miss all the prospective William Hungs and Larry Platts a lot more than I actually did. Instead, I was swept up in Steven's whooping, catcalling excitement, and I got excited myself over a couple cool contenders. But still, there were enough rejects to inject a little humor into the episode--during those rare moments when S.Ty or the questionable fashion choices of New Jersey's orange-tanned contenders weren't doing so, that is. Belching, Taylor Hicks-dancing Michael Perotto, aka the "paint-chips" guy, was worth a giggle or two, but it was Japanese Michael Jackson impersonator Yoji Pop, with his vivacious performance of Miley Cyrus's "Party In the USA," that stole the show. With his flailing MJ dance moves (his "Smooth Criminal" lean actually impressed J.Lo) and Elvis-meets-Duran Duran pompadour, Yoji was a one-man party in the USA, Japan, or any other country for that matter.
Lamentably, Yoji didn't make it through. But here are the successful auditioners who caught my ear and eye this week:
Caleb Hawley - My favorite male singer of the episode, this soulful rocker had Steven drumming on his desk and hollering up a storm. Caleb's belty, bluesy take on Eva Cassidy's "Hallelujah" (not the overdone Leonard Cohen song--that came later) showed a lot of potential, and really, Caleb is only one David Cook-esque makeover away from total heartthrob hotness. Summon in the stylists and watch the girlies swoon in no time, I predict.
Ashley Sullivan - During her bio package, this goofy girl openly declared her love for Britney Spears. And to loosely quote Britters, this girl's got your crazy. A nutcase of Tatiana Del Toro-esque proportions with a brash Broadway persona and a mission to be the "first show tunes pop star," Ashley's manically bug-eyed, neck-vein-throbbing performance from "Thoroughly Modern Millie" was borderline-terrifying...but man, it was darn entertaining. Two crazies like S.Ty and A.Sull on the same TV screen excites me to no end. I doubt she'll make it past her first Hollywood Week meltdown, but I look forward to drama while it lasts. I'm also pretty sure Vote For The Worst has already picked this chick to be their Season 10 posterchild. With a catchphrase like "Mainstream pop needs to get with Liza Minnelli," how could they not?
Devyn Rush - Simon Cowell was never much of a fan of singing waitresses, but if he'd stuck around this season, this woman would have served him some humble pie on a plate. Devyn's scatty, sassy performance of "God Bless The Child" reminded me a bit of Megan Joy's promising early audition from Season 8, and it whetted all the judges' appetites for more. "That was delicious," purred Steven. Yes, Devyn also needs a makeover ("Someone needs to take her shopping," advised Steven), but her voice was one of the tastiest of the episode. I'm hungry to hear more.
Travis Orlando - A nice 16-year-old Bronx boy who spent much of his childhood living in shelters when his father's illness rendered his family homeless, Travis is the kind of contestant people root for. And I do think this boy with the Bruno Mars-ish good looks and honey-covered vocal cords is one to watch. It seems his years of hard living have lent him a mature, soulful voice that belies his age, and yet during his audition he demonstrated a plucky spirit, a youthful optimism not crushed by his tough times. I personally preferred his rendition of the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" over his second song, the done-to-death "I'm Yours" by Jason Mraz, but regardless of what this guy sings, I've got a feeling America will eat it up.
Rachel Zevita - A young soprano who made it through in Season 6 before being cut on the first day of Hollywood Week, little Rachel is all grown up now. She was a four-eyed nerd five years ago, but this girl cleans up nice, and she's blossomed, swan-like, into quite a stunner. But has her voice evolved too? Well, Jennifer actually remembered Rachel's first appearance on the show, and while she was underwhelmed by Rachel's 2011 audition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"--aka The Most Oversung Song In "Idol" History, a song even Cohen himself doesn't want to hear anymore--she put Rachel through based on her earlier promise. Personally, I'm glad Rachel got another chance, and hope she stays in Hollywood a little longer this time.
Briell Von Hugel - A lovely young lass inspired by her doo-wop dad, this girl has "Idol" written all over her. Besides delivering a sweetly stirring performance of "Endless Love" and exhibiting what seems to be a genuinely pleasant personality, she has the made-for-TV sob story (her singing father got throat cancer, but pulled through based on his desire to one day see his daughter compete on "Idol") that viewers will just adore. "I beat cancer, and she's going through to Hollywood," Daddy Von Hugel declared proudly. Aw.
Robbie Rosen - Steven said this 16-year-old kid had the best voice in New Jersey after hearing him warble the Beatles' "Yesterday." That might be overstating things, but with his heartstring-tugging sob story (he was wheelchair-bound as a child), all-American-boy looks, butter-smooth boy-band voice, and what Simon used to call "likeability factor," he seems certain to go far.
Melinda Ademi - Yes, yet another sob story. Luckily, so far this season's sad-sack contestants have the voices to ensure they won't have to coast by on sympathy votes. This girl--like Briell, Travis, and Robbie--can also sing. I was rooting for this Kosovo refugee all throughout her emotional bio piece, cheering on her pursuit of the ultimate American dream, and thankfully her performance of Alicia Keys's "If I Ain't Got You" was the payoff. She didn't disappoint me.
Tiffany Rios - The obvious Snooki of this competition, this loud and proud, hairsprayed Puerto Rican bombshell was eager to show off her, um, assets to the judges. She likened her "non-stick-figure" booty to her idol J.Lo's, and boldly tore open her shirt in the middle of her self-penned novelty song to reveal a star-spangled bikini top. ("Why do you have jujubes on your ooh-ooh-bees?" queried a confused but clearly amused Steven.) Fortunately, Tiffany buttoned up and dropped the sexy shtick for her second song, Celine Dion's "Power Of Love," and proved she actually can sing. I just hope that in Hollywood Week's group challenge, this crazy lady is in the same ensemble with Ashley Sullivan. And that they wear matching star-studded bikini tops. That'd be crazy-awesome.
Victoria Huggins - This painfully precious 16-year-old cutie definitely lived up to her cuddly surname. A pageanty, princessy Pollyanna with a Minnie-Mouse-on-helium speaking voice, Victoria seriously annoyed me...until she sang "Midnight Train To Georgia" with an unexpected amount of throatiness and maturity. Dang! I just hope Steven remembers that Victoria really is only sweet 16 and possibly never been kissed. His flirting with Vicky was kind of...icky.
And so, there you have it. I'll wait until "Idol" has a finalized top 10 before I decide whether or not it can survive all this season's shakeups...but so far, I'm surprisingly encouraged, and I can't wait to see what sort of talent turns up Thursday in audition stop #2, New Orleans.
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