Last night’s American Idol was allegedly all about the drama that ensued when Nicki Minaj decided to walk off set during the auditions in Charlotte, N.C., but if anything it signaled a shift for the show. Historically, one of the biggest points of tension between the judges and the hopefuls has been about “who you are as an artist”what demographic box you want to stick yourself in before you foist yourself onto the world. (Season 11 winner Scotty McCreery, who was on hand for the Charlotte tryouts, is a perfect example of a singer who’s laser-focused on his target demo; his constant flogging of Josh Turner’s “Your Man” showed how he was a preternaturally young flirt, ready to have his cheeks pinched by the same fingers that texted in votes for him. He did look a little more grown-up las tnight, though!)
But bringing Nicki Minaj onto the panel changes that outlook by a substantial margin. Yes, Keith Urban is definitely a country star; yes, Mariah Carey remains one of pop’s reigning doyennes. But Nicki’s aggressive Nicki, after all, came up on the mixtape circuit, and early on was known for her raunchy style ; at the end of last night’s episode, though, she was posing for pictures with a three-year-old who idolized her verbalizations. Call it a not-so-subtle testament to her starpower (and, as MJ Santilli noted, a really good edit), but it also could be seen as the show trying hard to let the viewing (and, more importantly, voting) audience know that pop music is made up of all types of people.
The setup for the argument came not with the TMZ footage that led the episode, and not even with the shots of a slightly downcast Nicki that peppered the show’s first hour but with the audition of Taisha Bethea, a 21-year-old North Carolina resident who’s in a band and who called herself “the girl… who would just sing really loud all the time.”
She reeled off “Folsom Prison Blues” and “You Oughta Know”; the Johnny Cash song was a bit overwrought, but her style fit the Alanis Morrissette track quite well. An important detail that this thumbnail description doesn’t quite reveal: She’s African-American. This might be why Mariah Carey said that while she was “interesting,” she couldn’t quite wrap her head around what Taisha was going forbut Nicki insisted that picking a genre to work in wasn’t as important as her voice and style. “Because you’re a black girl, you’re not doing the typical R&B kind of runs,” Nicki said. (This might have been a dig at Mariah, but who knows.) The panel wound up being split, but Taisha made it through thanks to Keith Urban being the day’s deciding vote. (Charlotte, country, majority rule, or something like that.)
After a brief montage of disagreements, Summer Cunninghama blonde from Georgiacame in and sang a big-voiced version of “Lean On Me” that Nicki liked a lot. But then Summer said that she had grown tired of doing “the country thing,” which understandably irked Keithbasically calling one of the judges’ preferred styled of music passé and soullessand sparked an argument over whether or not country is her passion, who she really wants to be, and so on and so on.
And this irritated Nicki to no end: “For a moment I thought it was, like, a country music debate. Why are we picking her apart because of a country comment? You guys make comments about everybody in popular music all day nonstopnot you, Keith, Randy and Mariah. I feel like we’re scaring her into lying. She said what she said; she has every right to say that and feel that.” (This is a somewhat abridged version of what Nicki said because there was a lot of crosstalk going on.) She continued: “We’re making them change their minds. Watch the playback and you’ll understand.”
Summer made it through after even more bickering by the panel, but Randywho really seems newly empowered this season by his status as Top Dawg and surviving the tenures of Ellen, Kara, Steven, and Jennifer, not to mention Simon and Paulasnapped as she left, “Just trying to help you a little bit30 years, a little help. Insight.” Nicki, who is the panel’s relative newcomer, understandably bristled at this and peaced (“That was my move!” Mariah protested when Nicki bounced), launching a thousand gossip-blog posts about on-set turmoil.
Normally you’d think that Nicki’s attitude would result in an unsympathetic edit, or even some jokes at her expense during the rest of the show; instead we had one auditioner asking the judges to not fight, a cute bit about Nicki’s tendency toward bestowing nicknames on all the contestants, and an extended montage on how the karaoke-bar-worthy Brad Harris once called himself “Ba’kon” and how that fact made Mariah Carey have visions of pork love during his audition. (Keith also made an early exit, but it was for the purposes of supporting wife Nicole Kidman at glitzy New York gala, and not any sort of Big Statement.) Nicki’s positive edit might be in her contract, and she’s certainly livened up the proceedings more than any other incoming judge the show has seen in the past few years (sorry, Steven Tyler, whose spectral voice served as standout singer Candice Glover’s Ghost Of Idol Rejections Past), but given Idol‘s attempts to not only re-establish itself as the singing competition in the era of The Voice and X Factor, giving her a wide berth might also be indicative of the producers trying really hardand, perhaps, despite itselfto embrace the idea of developing an artist, instead of plucking a prefab type off the shelf.
Then again, the audition by Jimmy Smith, a wavy-haired guy who walked in with a country-idol demeanorand whose steady gaze as he sang “God Bless The Broken Road” absolutely pierced the screenmight be a sign that even though the powers that be really want to mint another genre-melding Technicolor star in the Minaj mold, the viewers at home might shred those plans and call and text en masse for another sweet-looking guy with a tender voice. According to spoilers, Jimmy makes it through while Summer and Taisha don’tso perhaps the out-of-the-box thinking that’s so important to Minaj, and that’s caused so much dramatic tension in the first three episodes of the show, falls by the wayside as the actual drama of the competition comes to the show’s forefront.