AMERICAN IDOL: Featuring host Ryan Seacrest and new judges Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj and Keith Urban, along with returning judge Randy Jackson, the 12th season of AMERICAN IDOL begins with the exciting two-night premiere Wednesday, Jan. 16 (8:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) and Thursday, Jan. 17 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT). Pictured L-R: Randy Jackson, Mariah Carey, Ryan Seacrest, Nicki Minaj and Keith Urban. / George Holz/FOX
Welcome to the first Idol Chatter live blog of American Idol's 12th season. I'll be updating posts on this page throughout the Wednesday premiere show. Hope you'll join me here and comment often! -- Brian Mansfield
Saving the best for last? It's time for the last audition of the night, so it'll be a tearjerker. Ashlee Feliciano's family fosters and adopts medically complex children. Her parents have three biological children (including Ashlee) and have adopted four more through the foster-care system. Feliciano seems sweet, the kind of woman you hope gets good things.
Her version of Corinne Bailey Rae's Put Your Records On is certainly a good thing, confident and sure and in the pocket, and Feliciano jumps between her registers with impressive ease. "I don't think you understand what you just did," says Minaj, who thinks she'll inspire the show's young female viewers. Carey sees lots of potential, and Urban loves her nasal lower register. Jackson brings in the entire family so the judges can share their decision with them.
"Oh, Ashlee, that's a yes," Urban tells her.
The Turbanator. One of the best voices we've ever heard, and we only get three notes? Uh-oh, time for a back story.
Brett Holt is a huge American Idol fan - he has auditioned seven times in the past. "I challenge anybody in America to take me on in American Idol trivia." Seacrest challenges him, and he does OK, though he does think it's Season 13 (that's OK, so does Seacrest). Brett has auditioned seven times in the past - will this be the lucky day? For the briefest of seconds, it seems like he might. But then his version of Nat King Cole's When I Fall in Love goes off the rails. Then goes further and further off. But the student of American Idol finally gets his face time - now he's a trivia answer of his own.
Next up: Gupurpreet Sangh Sarin, who changes his turban with every outfit (today it's lavender). He's got 40 or 50 turbans, which means he changes his headgear the way Danny Gokey did his glasses. Let's see if he's got Gokey's chops. At the very least, he has studied Indian classical music.
Actually, he does, doing a surprising soulful take on Maroon 5's Sunday Morning. Then Randy gets him to sing a few Indian scales. Minaj doesn't think he has a standout voice, though, and Urban worries that his voice may be a little too light for the competition. Carey digs him, though, and gives him a yes. Jackson's going to give him one more shot. But Urban says no, leaving Sarin's fate in Minaj's hands. Sarin tries to win her over by telling her he has a marigold turban the color of her hair. Danged if it doesn't work. "Turb! You're going to Hollywood."
Music of the night: Albert Chang works as a receptionist for a medical clinic in New York. Ryan wonders what he likes to do when he's not in the office. And Albert doesn't have an answer for him. "Sing," Seacrest suggests. And so he does, having chosen the title song from The Phantom of the Opera - and it's truly a harrowing experience, especially when he jumps into his high, squeaky voice. "Your range is better than Mariah's!" Minaj exclaims. For future bad contestants, she channels her inner Simon Cowell, putting on a British accent for so long that Mariah's afraid she's going to start doing it.
Angela Miller has 40% hearing loss in one ear and 20% in the other. Mariah wonders how that affects her singing. Miller tells her that she has to turn the monitors up incredibly loud when she's on stage. But it's not a problem for an a cappella rendition of Jessie J's Mamma Knows Best. "I haven't felt that for the whole day," Minaj says, "that thing that makes me feel something in my soul." The other three agree. "She's got real PO-tential," Jackson tells the judges after Miller leaves.
Shattering expectations: Rozanna Shindelman, a 21-year-old from Staten Island, N.Y., doesn't usually sing in front of people, except for her parents - who say they give her chills. They hear her singing To Know Him Is to Love Him before the judges and just look enraptured. But Jackson doesn't: "Dude, it was bad." Shindelman asks, "Was it really that bad?" Urban seconds Jackson's opinion: "Yes." Shindelman's audition is the first of a whole series of bad auditions where the judges struggle to break the news gently to the deluded wannabes.
Maybe 17-year-old blueberry farmer Sarah Restuccio will change things. She's a country singer who auditions with Carrie Underwood's Mama's Song. The judges look intrigued, but the guys, at least, might be on the bubble with her - until Randy asks for a second song, and Restuccio says she can sing Superbass. She launches into a rap that has Minaj rocking, but the other three judges are mystified. Is she a country singer or a rapper or what? Minaj, who has already said Restuccio could be a "humongous" country star, totally gets it: "She's every little girl! There are so many girls that identify with her that comes from where she does. â?¦ I don't think her doing Superbass means she wants to be a rapper. â?¦ She doesn't have to choose anything." (BTW, my 11-year-old daughter totally agrees with Minaj - she's ready to start voting now.)
Ben, the four of us need look no more: Day Two begins with a guy named Benjamin who looks like Rerun from What's Happening going to a costume ball as Michael Jackson. He's going to sing "two love songs for two beautiful ladies." Carey and Minaj's smiles soon turn to giggles, especially when he thrusts his hips toward them as he sings. "You obviously love Tom Jones," says Urban. All four judges are laughing hard, but they slowly learn that, despite his curly black wig and shiny red suit, Benjamin actually thinks he can sing.
Frankie goes to Hollywood: Shira Gavrielov had a No. 1 hit in Israel when she was younger, and she makes a great impression on the Idol crowd. Minaj loves her choice of song - Amy Winehouse's Valerie. It's a quick yes for her.
The last contestant for Day One, Frankie Ford from Flatbush, was adopted at age 8. He sings on the subway to make money, which is actually pretty good experience for a singer who wants to learn to connect with an audience. Enough people told him that he had skills that he decided to audition. With the Eurythmics' Sweet Dreams. But he gets nervous, starts the song too hard, then has to stop. He regains his composure, and it's very different. He reinvents the song, with a remarkably strong yet subtle approach. The looks on the judges' faces change from concerned shock to big smiles. "I believe in you, man," Jackson tells him. Carey says: "What I think you have is an inner glow, which is always beautiful to see." Minaj doesn't think he has the best voice she's heard, but she believes people will want to hear more from him - from his voice and his story. He's in - and deservedly so.
A key mistake: One of Idol's twists this year was to let family and friends nominate contestants. Then, Jackson goes on the road to check them out. The first singer to get surprised is Jessica Kartalis of Staten Island, N.Y., who gets a pass to go straight to the judges. Jackson asks for an original song, and Kartalis' choice begins a cappella - which is a problem, because she starts the song in the wrong key, then sounds horribly out of tune when she starts playing her acoustic guitar. It's an audition-killing moment. Carey tells her she felt bad for her, but she's clearly not ready. (Takeaway lesson: If you're going to start a song a cappella, make sure you get your note first. It's only a strum away.) Oh, well, at least she didn't have to wait in line.
The one-legged tap dancer: Since she wanted to be a singer and she knew how much image plays into that career choice, Christina "Isabelle" dropped 50 pounds before leaving Duluth, Ga., for Berklee College of Music (my alma mater) in Boston. Her rendition of Summertime has a lot of heft, though. "OMG," says Minaj, who believes she'll go far in the competition. Urban wonders who she's been listening to, and she points at Carey. He's impressed by her "natural," "human" voice. "I think it was a great choice and something different (huh?)," says Carey, who'd like to see her explore more. Four yeses. "This proves that anyone - shape, size, body type - if you have confidence in yourself, you can go far," Christina says afterwards.
The next contestant, tap dancer Evan Ruggiero, was shooting for Broadway at age 18 - but was diagnosed with bone cancer a year later. "When you get diagnosed with cancer, everything stops," he says. Your life goes from career goals to staying alive. He went through 16 months of chemo and multiple surgeries, but the cancer recurred. Doctors told him they needed to save the dancer's life by amputating his leg. "Just because you have a disability doesn't mean you can't be the next American Idol," Ruggiero says. His take on Jason Mraz's I'm Yours is serviceable, but it's not especially impressive. Jackson gives him a little leeway, asks him to play something on the guitar: He chooses Bon Jovi's Wanted Dead or Alive. This tune suits him better - he just might have a shot, especially with that back story. Urban even adds the second vocal line, then says: "That's more in your wheelhouse," he says, but he's not sure the star factor is in place yet. Minaj is impressed with his ability to adapt to tough circumstances and thinks he has the potential to touch a lot of people - but just not on this show, this year. Ruggiero takes the rejection in stride: "Maybe I touched someone out there who's watching this," he says. "This isn't the worst that could happen to me."
Baby, baby, he's bad: James Bae's a 15-year-old Justin Bieber wannabe from Long Island, N.Y. "I sing in my room, thinking it's a concert, getting ready for the real one," he tells Urban. Unfortunately, nobody in his room has told him that his rendition of One Less Lonely Girl is completely tuneless. Taking a cue from the headphones Bae wears around his neck, Carey wonders if he has ever considering DJing. "It's artistic, you can still deal with music, but you don't necessarily have to be a singer," she says. They turn him down, but Minaj takes a moment to give him a few words to let him down easy. "I won't ever forget you," she tells him, in a moment that shows just how human she can be behind the Barbie-doll get-up.
Tenna Torres has got a friend: Hey, Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj do have something in common - they're both Mean Girls fans. But it's not long till they bring out the claws, in what's clearly going to be one of the season's recurring themes.
Next hopeful: 28-year-old New York singer Tenna Torres. "I've been listening to Mariah since I was 5 years old," says Torres, who attended Carey's Camp Mariah and actually sang for her at age 13. Carey makes a huge fuss over Torres' pictures of the two of them some 15 years ago.
All the judges make a fuss over Torres' rendition of Carole King's You've Got a Friend, which is a sold mix of power, control and melodic invention. "If we could have somebody like this come out of this moment of Idol 12, I would be personally proud," Carey says. Urban finds her patience and pace refreshing. "Welcome to Hollywood!" Jackson tells Torres. Carey asks for copies of the photos.
Back in the New York groove. This year's first audition show takes place in New York (Thursday's will feature Chicago). The judges take their seats and get to work - which means Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj are mixing it up over Nicki's fuzzy accessory.
Michael Buonapane stomps in riffing on Queen's We Will Rock You. It gets the judges to stop their bickering, but I don't think it makes a particularly good first impression. He doesn't do much better the second time around, spinning around in some sort of bizarre clogging dance-chant. "Let's say no, be friends," Randy says. "It's not you, it's us."
This year, American Idol has a great way to start the season - just show last year's winner, Phillip Phillips, who's on his way to having the best-selling single in Idol history. Phillips plugs in his guitar and begins singing Home.
"They say home is where the heart is - so welcome home," Ryan Seacrest says as he recaps the history of the Georgia pawn-shop worker. "History has shown that an Idol can do anything," Seacrest says, going over some impressive sales and awards numbers the Idols have put together collectively over the years.
Then, it's time to introduce the judges: Returning original dawg Randy Jackson; country singer Keith Urban; pop star Nicki Minaj; and ("last but not least") diva queen Mariah Carey. Can this group improve on the crew from the past two years, which were often entertaining but more often repetitive?
Maybe, maybe not. It's good to know, though, that the contestants will react the same - both good and bad. Some things never change.
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