I've been relatively silent over the course of the past several weeks since American Idol's return. To tell you the truth, I'm not a big fan of the audition rounds. Yes, I poke a lot of fun at Idol and its contestants, and you would think that the audition rounds would be like my snarky crack. Instead, I find myself irritated by the clearly joke auditioners and by the producers' manipulation of my tear ducts. Yes, I cry everytime some hopeful talks about overcoming cancer/prison/poverty/death of a loved one/gang violence/hang nails, but I do so with a mix of cynicism. All suspense is stripped away from these contestants. Logic tells me that the producers are not going to go above and beyond to produce a package (including home visits and family interviews) for someone who sucks. As soon as I see that the producers have gone on location and hear that sappy background track, I know this person is going to walk out with a golden ticket. Each episode has a person or two that I think, "Oooh...potential!" and then they never show up again. Or they show up in Hollywood and kinda suck. I hate that we are only shown a small fraction of the overall talent headed to Hollywood and that in the much larger fraction that is ignored we could be missing early glimpses of our actual American Idol. (Remember how Kelly Clarkson and Kris Allen flew under the radar for so long? Wouldn't their journey have been even cooler if you could have thought, "Hey! I remember when that ragtag kid showed up at auditions!!"?)
Yes, the auditions had their moments. The absence of Paula prompted the producers to bring in celebrity judges who ranged from pretty smart and savvy (Shania Twain, Neil Patrick Harris) to delightfully bitchy (Katy Perry) to downright useless (Joe Jonas . . . or one of those Jonas boys. I don't know. He didn't really talk much.) Once again, Randy proved that he is like your uncle who was cool in high school but is completely out of touch with what's going on today, using outdated slang and showing a lack of knowledge about modern music. (He kind of reminds me of that scene in Billy Madison where Billy returns to the high school he once ruled but is now seen as a ridiculous fool rather than the cool 80's dude he once was. Yeah, that's Randy Jackson.) He's also made it clear that his "thing" for this season is going to be taking percentages to ridiculous levels of hyperbole. Kara vacillated back and forth between dumb and irritating. And Simon was Simon . . . only slightly more bored looking. I felt like he clearly missed having Paula to bounce off of. I mean, when Neil Patrick Harris is basically able to take over the judging table and call for votes, you know Simon's heart just isn't in it.
Last night was, for me (oh, God, I sound like Randy -- for me, for you, dawg) the real start of American Idol as 180 or so hopefuls filed into the Kodak Theatre and had their moment on the stage that will feature the eventual winner in just a few months. Added to the excitement of getting to meet our potential new Idol was the fact that the arrival in Hollywood also brought the arrival of new judge Ellen Degeneres. I will admit, my hopes were not high. I am a fan of Ellen. I love her standup. I understand that her talk show is a delight. (I'm really not much of a talk show fan, and Ellen is on when I'm at work. I could DVR it, but I know it would just pile up since I don't have time to watch it every night.) I worried, though, that Ellen's lack of real musical knowledge would continue Idol's slide away from being a singing competition into being a personality/style competition. With Simon already having one foot out the door, would Ellen be enough to keep Kara and Randy from driving this train off the ledge into ridiculousness?
It's still a bit early to predict the fate of the show during the Ellen Era with much confidence, but I will admit to being surprised with her performance last night. I thought that she brought a tremendous amount of intelligence and thoughtfulness to her role as a judge. She was able to temper her criticism with enough tact to keep from being cruel but not so much that it becomes pandering. She called them like she saw them with consideration but honesty. I thought she and Simon had a nice, complimentary chemistry. I foresee disagreements between them, but I see them being much more civil and respectful than similar spats with Paula and the other idiots at the table. Will Ellen be able to stay so thoughtful and tactful as the stakes get higher? Who knows? But I thought she held her own well last night and continued to prove that Randy Jackson is an idiot and that Kara DioGuardi needs to step up her game.
As for the singers, there were several performers last night who made me sit up and take notice. More than once, I found myself uttering, "I want to download that!" My favorite of the night was, hands down, Andrew Garcia's beautiful, accoustic re-imagining of "Straight Up." Yes, as in Paula Abdul's "Straight Up." It knocked my socks off. I am a fan of that mellow Jack Johnson/John Mayer/Jason Mraz/etc vibe, and Garcia's performance had me itching for more. LOVED IT!
I also quite enjoyed the performances from Lilly Scott (love that jazz girl vibe and I can't wait for the Idol stylists to get their hands on her fried, dyed locks and help her become the chanteuse she deserves to be), Crystal Bowersox (who kind of reminded me of a folksy Janis Joplin), Didi Benami (who charmed me with her audition "Hey Jude" and kept me charmed even though she DID choose a Kara-penned tune -- at least it wasn't that "Climb Every Mountain" crap Kara foisted on Adam and Kris last year!), and Janell Wheeler (who was rocking a nice Cobie Callait vibe for me). I'm rooting for these kids because they all kind of have the sort of sound I really enjoy (folksy/jazzy/mellow/etc) and they all seem like good kids who are true to the spirit of the show -- undiscovered talent that just need the right moment to happen. You all may remember last year my lobbying for Kris Allen and Allison Iraheta because of that very thing. Did Adam Lambert really need Idol? Well, probably, but he did just fine without winning the title. Kris and Allison needed that spotlight, that attention, and, in Kris's case, that title to help him have access to opportunities he never would have before.
Of course I know that the odds are that at least one of my faves from last night will go home brokenhearted before I get a chance to speed dial on their behalf, but I must admit to being much, much more hopeful about the next couple months than I was a year ago at this point. The judges did a good job of getting rid of the ludicrous this year (unlike last year when we had to contend with Tatiana and Norman Gentle all the way through the semifinal rounds!) and keeping some kids who show tremendous promise and make my ipod excited about what's heading its way over the course of the next couple months.