Last night, the 12th season of American Idol kicked off in New York (and New Jersey; the cattle-call auditions were actually held at the Prudential Center, located across the Hudson in Newark). For those viewers who appreciate the dramatic arc of the season more than the chance to point and laugh at the vocally challenged, the first weeks of Idol can be a bit of a slog; the audition episodes can seem endless, thanks to them employing the same jokes, overwrought Ryan Seacrest narration, and Fox’s attempt to goose ratings by scheduling these shows in every nook and cranny of its schedule. But something about last night’s season opener felt a bit snappier than previous years. Perhaps it was the Mean Girls interplay between new judges Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey; maybe it was the New York setting, which brought not just subway-singing hopefuls, but guitar-toting Staten Islanders and a lot of people from Nicki’s home borough of Queens. Or maybe it was a sign that the producers are actively trying to break the show, in hopes that it won’t be seen as a fading star by the fickle American populace. In honor of this being the 12th season, here are a dozen observations about last night’s parade of hopefuls.
1. The producers love the Nicki-Mariah interplay so much, you could hear them rubbing their hands and thinking “Catfight!” This is obvious from the TMZ leaks, and the myriad interviews, and the way their arguments were peppered throughout the show, from the opening argument about Nicki’s “accessories” on down. While I would love for Mimi to bring her dog along to one of the auditions just to make a point, I hope this doesn’t turn into a mini-Kara-vs.-Bikini Girl thing on the regular.
2. The powers that be will do anything to prevent WGWGs—White Guys (and Girls) With Guitars—from getting too far in the competition. Two back-to-back auditions with solid backstories—the charming Evan Ruggiero, who lost a leg to bone cancer, and Taylor Swift lookalike Jessica Kartalis, who made the Idol cut after her mom submitted a YouTube testimonial—were given the heave-ho after being told they weren’t right for the competition. True, Ruggiero’s performance of “I’m Yours” had some oddly enunciated Rs, and Kartalis botched her audition when Randy at the last minute asked her to incorporate her guitar, but it seems like the inclusion of those two rejections, as well as the overwhelming number of people who made it through while leaning away from the singer-songwriter spectrum (particularly the pass-through of the utterly charming Frankie Ford, a subway singer who also had to engage in a do-over), sent a message: No matter how compelling a person’s story might be, a guitar for now will be seen as a reason for a demerit.
3. Randy Jackson might finally be taking his charge as “senior judge” seriously. Nicki said the most last night, but the most withering of the judges was Randy, who dispensed with the mealy-mouthed “dawg”s and straight-up told contestants when he didn’t like what he was seeing. Will he continue his tough-guy schtick when the live shows start? Based on past seasons, probably not, but it’s always nice to hope.
4. Keith Urban is pretty charming! Although his status as Idol‘s first judge from the country-music world might be a bit moot, given the clear bias against guitars.
5. “British Nicki” could be a decent replacement for Simon Cowell. Her cutting remarks were even more so when she talked as if she were from old Blighty—even though she apparently learned how to do so from watching old videos of Scary Spice. Girl power!
6. Then again, so could regular Mariah. Cowell’s old canard that Idol was a “singing competition” was never, of course, entirely true—just ask any of the melisma-crafting female singers who were passed over for guys with plainer technique. But that didn’t stop Mariah from busting it out as a reason for downvoting a contestant, and her comments about other hopefuls made it clear that she takes the “good voice” charge extremely seriously.