We open on Ryan Seacrest, alone and gleeful in the bowels of the American Idol set. He hits his mark with a grin (which must have its own mark by now), tells us that this year things will be different, and emerges onto the stage to screaming chaos.
Here we go again.
There is no better mark of how irrationally bloated singing shows have become than the fact that it takes seven weeks of auditions, trainwrecks, sudden death rounds, semi-finals, semi-sudden final death roundhouse kicks to the soul, and “I’m just a small town girl/boy with a dream and/or disorder” montages to get to American Idol’s Top 10. Keeping up with American Idol this week meant keeping up with almost six hours of content. It’s exhausting. It’s also why I accidentally and completely forgot American Idol existed after this season’s underwhelming premiere. Six hours a week was more than I was willing to commit to a new judging panel of the same old forced dramatics, not to mention Randy’s steady stream of “yo yo yo dawg, that was tight, y’know?”s (which I can only take for about six seconds before I have to smash things).
But I was curious despite myself to see if the new judging panel had settled in at all, or if it would maybe translate better on live TV. The answer to that seems to be a resounding, “….sort of!” Randy is still a catchphrase-spouting caricature of himself, but the new kids have found their grooves, for better and for worse. Keith Urban is happy to give vague compliments made sweeter by his soothing Australian accents (I don’t make the rules), though he is markedly harder on the men than the women. Mariah Carey has accepted her role as benevolent living legend, which suits her even if she’s not fit for live TV; her compliments come paired with industry speak about “relevancy” and “multi-platinum potential,” rambling on until the Idol theme music plays her off.
Nicki Minaj, though, is the real surprise of this panel. The glimmer of humor and empathy she showed in the premiere has apparently grown since, making her the most dynamic person on the panel by a mile. The contestants might want Mariah’s approval more, but they clearly adore Nicki, and she loves them right back. “You are,” she tells nervous country singer Janelle with a bat of her anime eyelashes, “a little marshmallow I want to eat.” Neither Janelle nor I need to know what in the hell that means to know it’s a compliment. For all her glitter and meticulously crafted candy pop image, Nicki’s earnestness is much appreciated on a show that long ago went on autopilot.
The results show is another surprise. Yes, it’s far too long at an hour and a half, but Seacrest keeps it moving. The men are gathered first backstage. Seacrest appears with an envelope and informs them he’ll be reading their names there, at which point he’ll take the lucky winner to the stage and reveal the result to the waiting audience and judges. It’s unclear if this will be the format going forward, but I hope it stays if only because watching Seacrest try to steer the careening contestants in the right direction is hilarious.
In order, the advancing men are: Nashville native Paul Jolley (Seacrest: "you did it, bro!"), the adorable Burnell Taylor ("you got it, man!"), feel-good gospel singer Curtis Finch Jr. ("your palms are soaking wet!"), bilingual crooner Devin Valez ("you did it, man!"), and the only person I remember from the premiere for his startling transition from stutterer to melodious singer, Lazaro Arbos ("How's your heart? Pounding?"). Each sings a “victory song” before being shuttled off to the side for the next result. With the exception of Lazaro’s disappointing “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” the guys seem much more comfortable than they did during the performances that got them through to the Top 10. Even Curtis, whose “I Believe I Can Fly” practically had the judges foaming at the mouths, loosens up.
Seacrest then rounds the top ten women up to pare them down to five. One of the more startling revelations I had from watching the live performances this week after seven weeks of Idol radio silence. Almost all of them were women of color. In fact, most of the men weren’t white, either. Exactly three of the top twenty contenders choose country music as their preferred genre. It certainly didn’t look like the American Idol I’ve grown to expect.
Anyway, Seacrest allows the following women out from backstage: Janelle Arthur ("So, third time’s the charm?"), Candice Glover ("I like your victory dance"), Angie Miller ("C'mon c'mon c'mon, congratulations!"), Amber Holcomb ("Don't pass out"), and finally, Kree Harrison ("Don't worry, you're supposed to feel emotional when these things happen"). I would have swapped the blander Janelle out for Aubrey Cleland, but otherwise, it’s a solid group. Not that you would know this by their victory songs; Candice and Kree nail theirs, but the rest are either too overcome or there was a sound issue because, yikes. I expected better from Angie, whose piano bashing and earnest Miley Cyrus face made her a favorite, but I forgive her if only because she has the best answer to Ryan’s routine, “how do you feel?” needling: "I don't want to talk about it! I just want to keep crying!" Even Keith agrees; he gets genuinely overwhelmed about the chances American Idol makes possible after she finishes her song. And you know he’s serious, because you can actually see the trail of his tears streaking through his makeup (Kidman taught him well)!
Once Kree crushes the last performance of the night and the confetti’s coming down, it’s easy to remember how American Idol became so huge in the first place. Then Seacrest steps out from behind the Top Ten’s group hug and reminds us to tune in next week, same time, same place, and don’t forget to download the Idol iPad app to cast your ATT&T American Idol “supervote,” which means you get a grand total fifty votes to distribute amongst your favorite contestants OR you can just heap them upon one lucky recipient and on second thought, maybe I’ll just come back in seven weeks.
- Coke has seriously stepped up its promotion game. It now appears that Ryan Seacrest does his backstage interviews inside a Coke bottle, "I Dream of Jeannie" style.
- Poor Charlie “Awkward Turtle” Askew. Seacrest clearly had no idea what to do with someone whose dark secret is the universal angst of "I smile because I feel like I have to" and not something like, “I was robbed at gunpoint for my oxygen tank…BY MY MOTHER."
- I get the sense Mariah doesn’t particularly like judging — she’d much rather just listen, and if it’s good, throw up her hand all, “well, what the fuck else is there to say to that?”
- Fun fact: The Goo Goo Dolls' "Iris" is one of Nicki Minaj's all-time favorite songs.
- Fun fact, the second: You only get a stylist if you make it into the Top 10. We’ll be seeing ya, denim vests!
- Randy starting every judging session with "yo yo yo" can't be unheard. Kind of like Bob Saget starting every episode of "How I Met Your Mother" with, "Kids…"
- Mariah Carey Sartorial Tips of the Week: Navel-gazing halter top, bedazzled bra straps.
- First Judge to Speak, Always: “First of all, you look great.”
- "The trumpets sound when you walk in a room, baby."
- "When I looked at you in that mint green shirt and said your name, what were you thinking?"
- Ryan to Devin, backstage in almost total darkness: "Did you picture this moment?" Devin: "…no."