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'American Idol' recap: It's back, but is it better?

All right. Here we are. American Idol is entering its 10th season, but now minus not one, but two of its original judges, the personalities who helped make the show. So what's it going to be like without Simon and Paula? We'll just have to see.

It's clear they're trying to spin it like it's all about the contestants and has nothing to do with the judges. (That's what the half-hour pre-show with all the previous Idol winners talking up the show was supposed to do, anyway.) And as we begin, the on-screen graphics declare: "This isn't our show ... It's YOURS!"

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Ryan Seacrest introduces not the new judges, but "the new dream-makers." Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler says he's doing this because he loves music so much and wants to find "a Janis Joplin for a new era." Jennifer Lopez wants to find the next big star, but she's nervous because she's "not in the business of crushing dreams." Oh, you'll get used to it, J.Lo. We all do.

The first singer we meet is Rachel Zevita, who auditioned in season six and made it to Hollywood, but didn't survive the first cut there. As a young teen, she stunned them with her operatic voice, and Jennifer actually remembers her, which shocks the heck out of Rachel. Tonight, she sings a fairly subdued version of "Hallelujah," and the judges all seem a little underwhelmed. But they still like her and decide to give her a shot. Steven: "Let her in the door, water that flower, and let it grow!" Lest there be any doubt, Steven is not the new Simon.

A guy named Caleb comes in, and I was thinking he might be the first disaster, but he busts out with a soulful tune that has Steven drumming on the table and singing along. They love him. He's in.

Next, we have our first 15-year-old contestant (they lowered the age limit this year), Kenzie Palmer. She's nice enough, but not super memorable. Even so, the judges love her poise for her age and send her on through.

Then there's a montage of yes, which so far is the judges' table's favorite word.

But it can't last forever. A young woman named Achille yells her way through her audition, and the judges realize they have to start saying no sometime. Steven straight-up tells her, "You've got no notes." Jennifer struggles, but finally says no.

Tiffany Rios has clearly decided to work the Jersey Shore angle and gives a demonstration on how to do Jersey hair. Then she goes into the audition and charms the judges for a bit, especially after she tells Jennifer she can't even look at her because she's her lifelong idol. Hugs! Anyway, she adjusts her jacket and reveals her crazy bra top with giant silver stars and sings an original song (noooo! kiss of death!) that includes the line: "America needs me for higher ratings on TV." For some reason, they decide to let her sing another song, and she goes with a little Celine. Her voice sounds a lot better, but I have averted my eyes from the TV, and when I look back, I realize she's in histrionics central. Take it down a notch, Ethel! They tell her as much. Jennifer says that she can sing, and she needs to believe in that instead of all this gimmickry because "you want to be taken seriously." She's going to Hollywood, hopefully with a real shirt.

Next we see a montage of badness, followed by a montage of J.Lo struggling to say no.

Baltimore gets its first shout-out when Melkia Wheatfall, a 27-year-old mom from Maryland, gets on stage and slaughters a song, leading the judges to their first easy no.

Robbie Rosen is the next auditioner we meet. He's 16 and super-smiley and born to do this. We get some back story about how he had a condition that left him wheelchair-bound for a while, but he overcame it. All the while, he was singing, even humming before he really knew words. (He also drops the strange fact that his parents don't have any photos or videos of the time when he was in a wheelchair because "they didn't want to remember me that way." That really bothered me. But anyway ...) He sings "Yesterday" with a really restrained, nice touch, and the judges all adore him. He's going to Hollywood!

Chris Cordiero is a Boy Scout who is 18 and despite a lot of confidence, it turns out he can't sing. No yellow ticket for him.

Michael Perotto has a nervous burping problem that's really nasty. He sings "Proud Mary," and it's just all over the place and weird. The judges are pretty straight-forward about it being bad. Steven has his meanest line so far: "Did you eat a lot of paint chips as a child?" But it's Randy Jackson telling him to stop singing and that he isn't good that really gets Michael down. He thought they were simpatico since they've both dropped some weight. No such luck.

Ashley Sullivan is a little ball of awkward and charming energy. Her idol is Britney Spears, but in front of the judges she sings a showtune from "Thoroughly Modern Millie." Her voice is great for musical theater, but seems like a weird fit for Idol, which they tell her. She tells them she wants to be the first "showtune pop star." "Pop needs to get with Liza Minnelli!" she tells them. She literally gets down on the floor and starts begging, which is not a good look, but she's charmed Jennifer and Steven and gets her golden ticket. Randy goes on the record as saying they've lost their minds.

Victoria Huggins is a sugary sweet 16-year-old from North Carolina. And I do mean sugary. She interviews that it's not normal for a 16-year-old to want something very much, and the editors do a hilarious cut to teenagers telling the Idol judges, "I want this so much." But seriously, just hang out at the DMV/MVA for a while and tell me that 16-year-olds are indifferent about wanting things.  She is videotaping every single moment. Randy says she is giving like a pageant speech, and she freaks. She sings "Midnight Train to Georgia," but she rushes it a lot until the end. They still just love her. She's weirdly funny and charming. She gets a golden ticket.

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Melinda Ademi is the last person of the day. She is from Kosovo, and her parents are refugees. They compare getting a ticket in the green card lottery to getting a golden ticket. Her parents are adorable. Thankfully, her voice is lovely, and she gets three quick yes votes from the judges.

Devyn Rush is a singing waitress in Times Square. They ask her if she is going to disprove the myth about singing waiters and waitresses, and she says that's a loaded question. I don't know what that myth is, but she is good. Steven says it was "delicious, the dessert to the lunch." Jennifer says she didn't expect that. Randy says it was like a bait and switch with her jeans and T-shirt look. They tell her she needs to start packaging herself more as a star, the total package. She's gets a ticket.

Yojipop (pictured above) says he has been imitating Michael Jackson since he was 2, no wait, since before he was born. But he decides instead he wants to sing a Miley Cyrus song. It turns into a remix of him singing Miley and doing MJ dance moves. I have no idea what just happened.

Montage of badness.

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Brielle Von Hugel is a small-town girl in New York. She's the daughter of a doo-wop singer who has been fighting throat cancer and is now cancer-free. She sings "Endless Love" and sounds quite lovely. Steven tells her she has a beautiful voice and then they have her go get her dad. Steven says yes. Jennifer says she has some work to do, but she says yes, too. Randy agrees on both counts.

Tonight's final contestant is Travis Orlando, another 16-year-old. He grew up in the Bronx surrounded by gangs and violence, and lived in shelters for a while after they lost their home when his father got sick. They're not in the shelter anymore, but he still wants this so he can help his family. He sings a bit of "Eleanor Rigby," but they stop him pretty soon. Steven says he wants to hear something else. Travis says he'll sing Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours," then calls it "typical," which cracks me up. Randy says he needs to loosen it up a little. Jennifer likes the unique tone of his voice. Steven says yes, too, and he gets that ticket. His family runs in and they all freak out. Jennifer tells him to "really bring it in Hollywood."

51 made it from New Jersey to Hollywood.

So ... what did you all think? I think overall, it was a lot less mean and a lot fewer stunt auditions. (Though the New Orleans previews indicate that might change soon. Stunt-wise, I mean.) It's interesting watching the new judges get their footing, and it's kind of refreshing that everyone on the panel knows so much about the music business and performing.

I was expecting to miss Simon more. I'm so conflicted!

Photo courtesy of americanidol.com

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