AMERICAN IDOL: Thousands of auditioners line up for thier chance to become the next AMERICAN IDOL at the United Center in Chicago, IL. Thursday, July, 12. / Barry Brecheisen/FOX
It's time for the second part of the American Idol 12th-season premiere. Join me here throughout the night as I blog about the Chicago auditions. -- Brian Mansfield
An "inspiring story of courage": Idol seems to be having a hard time launching this season. I've seen only a handful of people I think might have a shot at the semifinals and nobody, good or bad, who deserves to go viral.
Lazaro Arbos promises to be different. He enters the audition room dressed in a bright blue shirt and a shiny pink bow tie, and he's clearly nervous. When he speaks, he shows why. He has a horrible stutter, which started when he was young and got much worse when he moved from Cuba to Florida when he was 10.
For Arbos, speaking is "like a ro-ro-ro-ro-rollercoaster," he tells Mariah Carey. When he sings, though, the stutter goes away. And when he sings a tender, emotion-packed version of Bridge Over Troubled Water, Arbos has the judges in the palm of his hand.
"Just sing all the time," Keith Urban tells him. As the judges continue to praise Arbos, tears start streaming down his cheeks. As he hugs Carey, the singer tells him, "You're adorable. You're gonna do great."
The Miserables: It had to happen: A bad-audition reel spoofing Les Miserables. And, yes, they truly are "The Miserables."
And it's a great set-up for musical-theater student Ashley Curry. People tell Ashley that her voice is really good, and it's nothing like they've ever heard before. (Never a good sign on this show.) After hearing her shriek Jessie J's Mamma Knows Best, I'll know never to attend a production she's in.
"You sing in the theater?" Randy Jackson asks. "Is the sound off?"
"If you had the right vocal coach, you could do a lot with your voice," Nicki Minaj says, before letting out a big sigh.
The judges have a hard time critiquing her, they're laughing so hard. Curry takes their behavior in stride while she's in front of them, but, afterwards, she's clearly shaken and hurt.
C'mon Kez Ban, light my fire: Fedora-wearing fire performer Kez Ban likes attention, but if she's going to make the blooper reel in a way that would embarrass her family, she'd just as soon go home now, she says. She doesn't expect to win, but her swinging a cappella rendition of I've Got No Strings from Pinocchio intrigues the judges enough for them to ask her to perform one of her original songs with the guitar she brought. And it's strong enough that they're probably going to grant her wish -- to go to Hollywood.
"I can feel the realness in you, that you really are that person that you sing about," Carey tells her. Minaj loves the way she told her story.
"I like your voice a lot," Urban says.
Afterwards, she tells Ryan Seacrest, "If you want some excitement, you're going to have to wait till the shock wears off."
Can't imagine this woman will make the Top 40, but I would like to see her get some more face time in Hollywood. She's a scream, in a very deadpan sort of way.
Johnny Keyser returns: At 19, Ieisha Cotton is a professional dancer (and busts a few moves, at Urban's request). In retrospect, that's a blessing, because she dances much better than she sings Ashanti's Thank You.
"I was going to delicately suggest that you might want to stay more with the dancing thing," Carey says. Jackson's more forthright: "You're tone deaf." She almost gets a yes from a distracted Carey, but everybody else is a definite no.
Next up, another familiar face: Season 11's Johnny Keyser. "Got a girlfriend?" Minaj asks -- it's her go-to question for the cute guys. Keyser has prepared a blue-eyed soul rendition of Otis Redding's Try a Little Tenderness, which prompts Urban to say, "You're not going to be girlfriend-less for long." After a brief exchange between Minaj and Carey, Carey tells him: "You are a star, in my opinion. ... You have a gift, and I think you have star quality." But Carey's had enough of Minaj for today: In her world, Minaj apparently has graduated to She Who Must Not Be Named.
A slightly familiar face is back: It's time for Day Two of the Chicago auditions. "Let's hope that today is a good one," Jackson says.
Up first, it's Brandy Neelly, a two-time Hollywood contestant that Idol Chatters first met after her initial Nashville audition for Season 10. Neelly, 17, was raised by her aunt in Louisville, and she's a bit starstruck by Urban. "Since I was 9 years old, I have wanted to be the next American Idol." She auditions with Hank Williams' Your Cheating Heart, taking some nice liberties with the melody that show off both her power and her vocal chops.
"That's a great song choice, just the way you did it," Urban says.
"My grandpa used to sing it," Neelly replies.
"Bet he didn't sing it like that," Urban tells her.
Minaj is impressed, as is Carey. And Jackson, "I loved it from note one." She's going to Hollywood. Again!
If you want to see Neelly's first interview, from 2011, here it is:
Josh Holiday impresses the judges, too, as he sings Brian McKnight's Back at One. "I don't think anyone in the competition sounds like you, and I think it's an exciting sound," Minaj tells him.
Vintage soul choices help several contestants, including Courtney Williams, who sings the Jackson Five's Who's Loving You, and Andrew Jones, who delivers a foot-stomping rendition of Eddie Floyd's Knock on Wood.
As for Clifton Duffin, not even his parents knew he could sing. They say they've never heard him sing. "I didn't feel as confident in it," he tells the judges, so he didn't want to share his voice with anyone else. But he's going to sing one of his mother's favorite song, Superstar. He could use some practice, but there's a lot of raw material to work with. And his mother's blown away.
"I loved it, and I really enjoyed your journey, because I could relate to it," says Carey, who spent a lot of time as a youngster singing by herself. Urban says he has a "diamond-in-the-rough voice." He's going to Hollywood, by unanimous acclamation.
Minaj gets the power of the story, too. "My mother never heard me rap before I made it," she tells Randy as the Duffins leave the audition room.
Feeling the spirit: Curtis Finch Jr. wants to sing Smokie Norful for the judges, and he couldn't have made a better choice -- Jackson just called the gospel singer the night before. When he hits a falsetto run, Carey raises her hand as if ready to testify. Jackson and Carey break into applause when he's done. "OMG, let's hear it for the boy," says Minaj. It's maybe the most accomplished voice we've heard in three hours of auditions this year -- watch out for this guy.
Mariah Pulice is a recovering anorexic, and she still gets tearful when she talks about her struggle. "When I got really, really, really sick, I stopped singing," she says. "Anorexia engulfed everything in my life." She doesn't have the most impressive voice, as she sings The Beatles' Let It Be, but it's emotional and effective, well suited to her choice of material. Carey -- who has already bonded over their shared name ("It's the 62nd most popular name!" she exclaims) -- is in tears. "You touched me," she says. "I know what it's like to have to sing through tears. It's really difficult." Pulice is a unanimous choice for Hollywood. "This feels beautiful," she says afterward, holding her golden ticket. "I feel beautiful. For the first time in so long."
The women have their way: Fifteen-year-old Isabell Parell is skipping school to audition, and she hopes Urban will sing the male part of Baby, It's Cold Outside. He agrees, and he even likes the note she wrote at the bottom of his lyric sheet that says he should send her on to Hollywood. Carey thinks she has a humble, adorable quality and found the Christmas song refreshing. Minaj sees star potential, though Jackson doesn't -- he's outvoted three to one.
Urban has to leave the auditions to make a concert, but Minaj is ready to hold down the fort -- and flirt with the male contestants. This leads to the exchange of the night:
Minaj: "Is that a hole in your pants?"
Contestant: "Why ya lookin'?"
Griffin Peterson, though, doesn't need a hole in his pants to get attention. His version of Needtobreathe's Washed by the Water impresses the female judges mightily.
"You look and feel to me like a star. You just have something that lights up." But Randy doesn't get it. "Are you freakin' kidding me?" Minaj replies, adding that she believes he has the potential to go against any current teen heartthrob. Jackson votes no, but he's overruled by Minaj and Carey.
It's just a shout away: Iowa rocker Gabe Brown comes bearing gifts -- he's a baker, and he's got cookies. "I like your chances," Urban tells him. Brown's a shouter, picking the Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter for his song. It's more than a shout away, but the judges seem to enjoy it.
"Honestly, can you do something a little bit softer?" asks Carey. It's a good question, but Brown's choice is Steel Dragon's We All Die Young, which builds quickly to a scream. Minaj finds him believable as a rock singer. Urban likes him, too, saying that he's found guys with those big voices also have really big hearts. Eventually, all four judges decide to send him on to Hollywood, but I can't imagine that he has the versatility to last long there.
Up next, it's Kevin Navity, who got into music with Vanilla Ice and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (Make of that what you will.) He's confident, but he doesn't "want to come off as cocky." He's also into computer animation. And dancing. Which might more accurately be called almost-hand-standing. Hopefully, he can sing Barenaked Ladies' One Week better. Now, I don't know all the words to the song, so maybe he's got them right -- but I don't think so. In fact, the producers subtitle his performance, and it's eventually total nonsense, the verbal equivalent of whacking away at a keyboard.
"I feel like I'm at a bad auction, and Kevin just tried to sell me an old motorbike I don't want," Jackson says. Minaj suggests a second song, and Navity does a nasally version of Styx's Come Sail Away. In the end, Navity takes his rejection better than some of the other singers.
The tension rises. OK, so not everybody in Chicago has Mackenzie Wasner's chops. Austin Earle's bleached mohawk is more impressive than his voice. Maybe Kiara Lanier, a Chicago college student, can get the bar back up. After all, she sang for a President Obama birthday fund-raiser. She auditions with Celine Dion's The Prayer, using a sweet, controlled vibrato and a remarkable head voice.
"When you can only hear wows, you know that that was pretty freaking pretty," Minaj says afterward. Carey believes she has huge potential. "I love that way you went in and out of loud and soft, and you didn't do it in a typical way," she says. Urban compares her runs to Aaron Neville, which is a pretty insightful observation.
Stephanie Schimel follows Lanier, singing Dream a Little Dream. It's a little shaky, but she wins over the judges, with Urban calling her a "Carrie Underwood-Gwen Stefani blend." Minaj, though, is underwhelmed. Keith asks, "Don't you think she looks like a star?" Minaj replies, "I don't think you feel like a star." But Schimel gets through on a three-to-one vote. "I don't like you any less," Schimel tells Minaj. Minaj attributes her less-than-enthusiastic reception to a "rivalry" caused by the two of them wearing the same eye shadow. Carey's not having any of that and lights into Minaj. Urban just closes his eyes and shakes his head.
"I don't want to make anyone upset here," Carey says later.
"Sure you do," says Urban.
Massage therapist Melissa Bush shows up in a shiny pink-and-silver jumpsuit. This, I might suggest, is never a good sign. She also brought a yellow "Get Down DAWG!" T-shirt as a present for Randy. She sings a song I don't recall hearing on the show before -- Petula Clark's '60s hit Downtown. Unfortunately, she doesn't sing it well. By the end, her pitch is faltering badly. The judges can't even think of what to say. Bush seems quite surprised and on the verge of tears, especially when Urban says, "Check, please!"
Chicago starts strong. Tonight's first contestant comes with a pedigree: Mackenzie Wasner's father is a member of country singer Vince Gill's touring band. She auditions with Gill's hit Whenever You Come Around -- which her dad wrote with Gill (Pete Wasner also co-wrote Gill's hit Don't Let Our Love Start Slippin' Away). Carey sees a star power that can be honed. Minaj thinks she might already be beyond a competition: "That sounds like listening to your first single," she says. Urban and Jackson both note how difficult it is to sing Gill's songs well -- of course, Mackenzie has probably had some practice over the years. She gets through to Hollywood easily -- and now it's time for the show to tease upcoming fireworks from Carey and Minaj. Hang on.
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