American Idol Season 12 Review “Auditions, Part Two”

It was off to Chicago for this episode of “American Idol,” the second of their audition shows. It was nice seeing Haley Reinhart, a Chicago native who was the contestant I pulled for in Season 10, but alas, was not the winner. (I enjoyed her CD considerably, though.) As literally no one I pull for ever wins, I have given up hope of that ever happening- though it finally did over on the “AI”-nemesis “The Voice” with Cassadee Pope. Who knows? Maybe this will be my year to finally pick a winner. (This is not to say I wasn’t won over by some past “AI” winners, notably Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood.)

We picked up with an epic fail by an auditioning contestant’s sister, who was waiting, phone in hand, family on-line, for the result. The poor girl was barely out the door before she was practically tackled by her sis, who happily announced her sister’s victory- only it wasn’t. Cue the wah-wah. Awkward!

Which leads me to today’s overall topic: is “AI” becoming a little too mean-spirited for its own good? I mean, they said at the end that 44 people got through to Hollywood, right? What number did we see that were actually quality performers? About ten, if my numbers are correct.

The rest? You guessed it. People that didn’t have a chance in hell of getting that golden ticket. Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t entirely blame “AI” for this. After all, TV’s a ratings game, and if you ask people why they watch the show, most will say because of the wackadoodles that audition. I even know some people who stop watching after the audition process, and could care less who wins.

Besides, at this point, it’s sort of arbitrary, isn’t it? I mean, even also-rans that place in the top ten have a decent shot of making it big, some even better than the winners of their respective seasons. Just ask Jennifer Hudson. Who needs an “AI” win when you’ve got an Oscar on the mantle? My only hatred of that whole thing was that it was a bittersweet moment, given what else happened to Hudson in her personal life, so that must have tampered her enjoyment somewhat, to say the least. My advice: go for that EGOT, girl! It won’t heal all wounds- nothing could. But that would still be a pretty good consolation prize, I think. Plus, you can really tell “AI” to totally suck it!

I digress. My point is, I know everyone loves to poke sticks at the freaks, but I wouldn’t mind getting a little more about the talent-side of things. I also cringe when someone who has this heartrending story to tell ends up not getting through. I mean, if they suck, they suck, but still, do I have to watch that? It’s like watching an extended version of one of those Sarah McLachlan dog commercials. Pass. I love animals, too, but do I have to watch them suffer? The same holds true for some of these contestants.

Not that they ignore the talented in favor of the troubled all of the time, mind you. But until they even out the amount of feel-good with all the feel-bad, sometimes “AI” makes me feel a little dirty afterwards, like I need a long shower.

The main offenders to me that night were the bits with Tesha Cotton, the dancer that did Ashanti (“Stick with the dancing,” said a curt Mariah); and Ashley Curry, who did the apparently much-covered Jessie J’s Mama Knows Best- that bit where she just wouldn’t give up and kept singing out of nowhere with the same song was just painful. The gang’s antics there were a bit much, what with all the cutting up and the daft Nicki suggestion to do a scene from a play instead of a song. Junior high, indeed.

Nicki might as well have been talking about the viewer when she said, “You got to prep people for that- you can’t sneak things up, you can’t do that- that’s a weapon right there!” Still, their behavior was worse, and whose heart didn’t break when Ashley’s mom said: “She’s got a golden ticket in her heart.” I get that some people need to hear the hard truths, but isn’t there a better way?

Yes, it was kind of funny that she kept singing over and over, as if she couldn’t quite process what was going on. Understandable when you’ve got the Nicki & Mariah Show happening non-stop at the judges’ table, now with wacky British accents! And that one guy’s Australian accent is just terrible. Can he be voted off the island? (Wait, what? He’s actually from there? Never mind. Next thing you know, you’ll be trying to tell me he’s married to Nicole Kidman or something.)

Long story short, lay off the “hilarious” Les Miz parodies with bad singing and concentrate on, I don’t know, people with actual talent, maybe? Like Kiara Lanier, an Illinois native that shared a multiracial background with Mariah, but, alas, no Camp Mariah papers to present. Never the mind.

She did an excellent soul-injected version of “The Promise,” which could use it, as it is a Celine Dion song. Nicki gave it a triple, quadruple, quintoplet, sixoplet, yes for me,” at least half of that I’m guessing isn’t real. (“What?” says a confused Kiara. I feel ya, girl.) But hey, I admire her enthusiasm. Lanier is through to Hollywood.

Also going onward and upward is Stephanie Schimel, a cute Wisconsin native that melted my heart with a sweet-as-pie version of Mass CassDream a Little Dream,” which is a song apparently both Mariah and I both love. See? We have something in common, after all!

Actually, it was Nicki’s turn to be a little grating this time around, thought MC is the master of passive-aggressive bitch-giving without hardly even saying a word. You could tell Nicki was slowly getting to her limit of dealing with her, because there wasn’t near as much sweet-talking to those that didn’t quite make the cut as on the previous episode. Clearly, things are going to get worse before they get better there- if they get better, which is a big if.

That said, some of her antics were confusion-inducing, even by her standards, what with the faux Cockney accent and all. “Wear wearing the same color eye shadow and we have a rivalry and that is war!” Alrighty then! Poor Stephanie looked like she was visiting a mental ward and trying not to set the crazier patients off. Thankfully, she got enough to get through, so her stone face was justly rewarded.

Also quietly charming was demurely pretty Isabelle Parell, a 15-year old from Indiana, who did the completely inappropriate lyrically for her age “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” as a duet with her crush-buddy Keith, clearly excited to have something to do besides referee MC & NJ. (Her girly-girl note to Keith was adorkable.) Keith was so charmed he forgot he even gave his opinion, which makes sense because I can’t remember him giving his opinion on anything this episode, either, and not a lot from last night’s show, either, for that matter. No matter, Isabelle makes the cut, as well she should.

Amusingly enough, just as he was starting to make an impression, off Keith goes- or should I say “Keithy”- leaving the core group to soldier on, with Randy moved to keep an eye on The Breakfast Club, Gleason-style. There will be no sniping on the Dawg’s watch! Yeah, dream on. Luckily for him, a string of sexy guys keep Nicki occupied enough to keep her off MC’s weave. It was amusing to see her drool over a racially diverse group of hunky fellas, looking like a sexy Jungle Cruise operator, or maybe the safari director for Lady Gaga.

My fave moment of the sexy time montage came when Mariah compared one contestant to the Beebs. “No honey,” purred Nicki. “Bieber don’t do this to me.” Well thank heaven for small favors. Even NJ would be no match for the worst enemy man has ever known: the jealous Bieber fan. (Although the Chris Brown support group might give them a run for their money. Those gals don’t mess around, unless it’s “50 Shades” of play, if you know what I mean, and I think that you do.)

The temporary time-out on baiting MC went south around the time Curtis Finch, Jr. showed up. “Do you know what it’s like to meet Mariah Carey for the first time? So monumental.” NJ didn’t even try to hide her scathing insincerity. Fortunately, Finch came to “sang,” and in no time, everyone was on board for his soulful and unabashedly spiritual rendition of “God is Able.” Even Randy’s casual name-dropping couldn’t derail this superlative audition, and yeses were given all around.

They continued for Mariah Puluce, who bonded with MC over their namsies- it’s the 62nd most popular name, dontchaknow? (Uh, no it’s not.) I could tell Nicki was about ready to pounce: safari time, MC!- but the new Mariah stopped that noise dead in its tracks when she revealed her sad tale of anorexia and the toll it took on her life for years on end, and how music saved her life. Thank God she could sing. She got three yeses, well deserved. What a sweetheart.

Ditto Brandy Neelly, whose parents had abandoned her, with her Aunt stepping in to raise her. Keith returned just in time to witness another fan take a stab at a country standard, Hank Williams’ “Your Cheating Heart.” Her performance was as sweet as the days are long, and may well have been my favorite so far, and I’m not even a big country fan. This 17-year old blonde cutie is a keeper, and everyone agrees.

There were also some shenanigans with the camera operator, in which we learned that apparently, camera-guys get all the girls. “Camera guys are considered kinda hot,” says the aforementioned Isabelle’s mom, all but growling like a naughty cougar. Cue a cut to the goofy-looking camera-guys, with a corresponding “vote for the hottest!” phone number under their respective names. Um, no. (Although, at least “AI” is making fun of its own, I guess. They couldn’t have picked on Ryan, though? Just sayin’.) I might go easier on the guys if it weren’t for all the camera-baiting montages of them harassing poor people who had tanked the audition. Not too cool, bros- that’s no way to score points with the ladies.

The next day brought a more subdued Nicki, who dressed far more demurely than we’ve seen her thus far. She looked- dare I say?- kinda classy. Can’t say I was minding it. Everyone seemed refreshed, and we got a 1-2-3 punch of three consecutive contestants getting a pass. I personally liked Courtney Williams, who did a bang-up job of the old Jackson 5/En Vogue intro-ing “Who’s Loving You?” which just happens to be another song I’d marry if I could. Andrew Jones version of Eddie Floyd’s oft-covered “Knock on Wood” (my fave version can be found here) was pretty decent, too- loved the handclap self-accompaniment. It was like a more successful version of what the “We Will Rock You”-guy did on yesterday’s show. Josh Holiday rounded out the pack, with a decent version of Brian McKnight’s “Back at One.”

The good fortune continued with the oddly-named Clifton Duffin, who didn’t look like a Clifton Duffin, to borrow a phrase from Nicki earlier in the show. No matter. He did a great version of the old Carpenters-by-the-way-of-Luther Vandross track “Superstar,” best-known to “AI” fans as winner Ruben Studdard’s signature song. (Birmingham natives, represent!) Personally, I was introduced to the song by these guys. Now that’s a diffent interpretation!

Duffin had never sung for his parents before, which they confirmed, but they finally got their chance when Ryan serendipitously brought them in under the radar to hear it for themselves. They were clearly floored, and super-proud, which is exactly the type of moment “AI” desperately needs more of. After all that, how could they not give him a go-ahead? (He was really good, so it wasn’t just peer pressure, as it were. Secret Squirrel no more!)

The good vibes couldn’t possibly last, and they didn’t. As Johnny Keysner did a so-so rendition of Duckie-anthem “Try a Little Tenderness,” Nicki tried to moderate the judges’ panel (“Mr. Jackson, if you’re nasty” she introduced Randy, amusingly), introducing everyone one by one. MC wasn’t having it, trying to talk over her. Nicki tried to explain what she was doing: “I was going to say ‘Carey’ [next].” Mariah: “And I was about to say ‘beep’” (She actually said ‘beep,’ I wasn’t censoring her- which was adorable, but still passive-aggressive.)

An interesting contestant by the name of Kez Ban from NC was next. This was another entry that had train wreck all over it, and I tensed up wondering how the show and the gang would handle it. The back-story was another in the vein of “you can’t make this stuff up,” with Kez professing that she was a street performer that played music and worked with fire in her act. Plus, balloon animals!

Things did not start out promisingly, with Kez wisely warning “AI” not to edit together footage of her so that she looked ridiculous in her bio package. I like this girl already. Still, her androgynous look made me wonder if they would make something of her being admittedly gender indeterminate, and I mean that in the best way. Once again endearing herself to me, Kez nipped that whole noise in the bud by announcing that it was a stage name and that she was actually named something else which confirmed her gender right off the bat as female. Speculation ended!

There was definitely an awkward, “Where is he going with this?” comment with Keith, who asked her if she had a significant other, which she immediately flagged as inappropriate, and rightly so, though Nicki had certainly been doing just that all day. Said Keith, clearing aiming for Blake Shelton-adjacent cornpone humor: “I’m just wondering if you have any old flames.” Wah-wah. Don’t quit your day job, Keithy.

After a charming rendition of the Pinocchio standard “I Got No Strings,” Nicki was charmed, but Randy needed some convincing. Wise move, as we wouldn’t have gotten her superlative guitar-accompanied original, which was stellar. She got the go-ahead, and I had to laugh when she commented on how bizarre the judges’ behavior was. Pot, meet kettle.

We ended on the sweetest of notes when chronic stutterer Lazaro Arbos auditioned. Barely able to get a sentence out edgewise, you really felt for the poor guy, who parents confirmed that he hadn’t fared too well in the friend department because of the ailment. Remarkably enough, though, when he sings, the stutter goes away. This, of course, would account for naught if the guy couldn’t sing his way out of a paper bag, and I think this time everyone held their breath hoping it wouldn’t suck. It didn’t.

Belting out a wrenchingly emotional take on “Bridge over Troubled Waters,” Laz knocked it out of the park, leading Keith to stop with the jokes and sincerely declare that Laz should “sing all the time” instead of having to deal with his unfortunate ailment. Amen to that. It was almost enough to make one long that real life was like a musical, and I’m not a big fan. I just wish “AI” would focus more on making the musical something like this and not “The Miserables.” We shall see.

What did you think of “AI” tonight? Tired of contestants getting sand kicked in their faces? Wish they would accentuate the positive? (That one was for all you musical fans out there.) Have a favorite contestant yet? Sound off below in the comments section!

About The Author

Mark Trammell is the resident entertainment critic at UAB, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he is also a Graduate Student and does a vid-cast movie review show. His impossible dream is that "Twin Peaks" will one day be resurrected and pick up where it left off. Until then, he drowns his woes in anything remotely similar, from "Buffy" to "Lost" to "Pretty Little Liars." This has not always been a good thing-cough, "Ringer", cough- but now at least it can help pay the bills.

  • Jon S.

    The show stunk. The “EPIC FAIL” moment was so contrived/fake that I can’t believe ANYONE would believe that was anything other than staged. Nikki Manaj annoys… Mariah is a trainwreck… Keith is the only decent new judge. The contrived and publicized “feud” between the two cackling blowhards is annoying to the point where I’m “THIS CLOSE” to giving up on Idol.

    • Mark Trammell

      I found the feud amusing at first, but it’s already getting old. I don’t doubt that some of the stuff that happens is contrived- note my dubiousness of the whole “meta” bit on the first show with the guy imagining he’d made it through, only to find it’d been a “dream.” Obviously, they had to shoot that the way they did, which makes it a complete fake. So I agree with you that some stuff is clearly staged.However, Keith barely registered with me. He seems like a nice guy, to be sure, but I think when he does try to get noticed, he tends to get a little silly, and we’ve got plenty of silly to go around with Mariah & Nicki. The thing is, none of their antics, Keith included, are particularly funny, which is a problem.

  • JT

    I loved the show last night,It had everything needed for the audition rounds.Good back stories for the contestants.judges communicating and interacting with the contestants, Average singers being chosen but who knows anything in these rounds,The show really starts during Hollywood week

    • Mark Trammell

      I liked the first show more than the second, but I do wish they’d back off some of the more train wreck-ish stuff. It just seems mean-spirited to me now. Don’t get me wrong, I am the first to admit if used to be a draw early on, but now I just end up feeling bad for them, especially if they have a sad back-story. And you’re absolutely right: I liked a few singers just fine, but where were the attention grabbers? There has to be someone in the, what, 100 or so people they chose over the last 2 auditions that are worth seeing, even if they don’t have touching back-stories. I think you’re right…Hollywood week can’t get here fast enough. I do like Nicki as a person more than I thought I would…though she needs to lay of that silly Brit accent!