Viewers of American Idol know that Chicago has been a lucky city for the show: Jennifer Hudson, Haley Reinhart and season nine winner Lee DeWyze all hail from the area, and Thursday night’s show crackled with anticipation.
“I am hoping to see some amazing talent,” Mariah Carey said as she entered Adler Planetarium, a curious spot for auditions.
Of course, the show produced Reinhart in the flesh as she greeted the hopeful contestants with a flashy smile and a pep talk.
“I remember when I was sitting in that seat over there,” she said.
Of course, the passive-aggressive tension that began at the New York City auditions was bubbling under as well, as the insults and swipes between Nicki Minaj and Carey continued before (and during) the audition process.
Take, for example, the atrocious audition of Austin Earles, a 19-year-old from Lakeview, Mich., as he proceeded to destroy one of Carey’s hits, “Emotion.” Carey wanted to cut it off, but Minaj seized the opportunity to stick it to her.
“I would love to constantly hear that every day,” she said, as the bickering continued.
“I swear I feel like a scratching post,” Keith Urban said during a montage, set to a cover of Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle.”
That doesn’t mean the show doesn’t have its light moments. Minaj’s ogling of the male contestants with her standard pickup line, “You have a girlfriend?” is making for some rather amusing on-camera magic.
“Is that a hole in your pants?” she asks one guy.
“Why? Ya looking?” he fires back.
That said, it was nice to see some levity in the show, as well as sisterly solidarity of Carey and Minaj over over Zac Efron lookalike Griffin Peterson, who possessed a handsome face and vocals that underwhelmed Randy Jackson.
“Dude, I don’t get it,” he said.
However, he was overruled by Minaj, who insists that Peterson did more for her than Justin Bieber ever did and that women would flock to his concert in droves. At least on this issue, the women were in agreement.
The second-night premiere episode in the Windy City also blew in some familiar faces whom faithful viewers may recognize: season 10 and 11’s Brandy Neeley, season 11’s Johnny Keyser (who famously kept singing when a girl in his group fainted on stage), season 11’s Curtis Finch Jr., a member of third-place finisher Josh Ledet’s Hollywood Week group and Colton Dixon’s sister, Schyler (she earned a Golden Ticket, but they did not show her audition).
Although it’s great to see people get a second chance, the new blood is going to give them a run for their money. Here is how it played out:
Mackenzie Wasner, from Tennessee, whose father, Pete, is a prominent Nashville musician. As a matter of fact, he co-wrote the Vince Gill song she auditioned with, “Whenever You Come Around." Wasner, pretty, poised, and rocking some purple eye shadow, is already a showbiz professional — her first gig was in kindergarten singing the “ABC” song. She said her father is “my own American Idol judge" at home. Carey was captivated, saying, “There’s a star power there.” Minaj was impressed and told her that it was “like listening to your first single.” Urban compared her to Dolly Parton and Lee Ann Womack, adding, ”You got this great mix of strength and vulnerability.” Wasner was put through with an emphatic “POW!” from Carey.
Kiara Lanier, from Chicago, looks like a star and already performed a high-profile gig singing for President Barack Obama for his birthday party. “He hugged me,” she gushed to Ryan Seacrest. Her choice of song, Celine Dion’s “The Prayer” is a “big song,” according to Jackson, but Carey said she handled it with control and what was described by Carey as a “soft and pretty” vocal. “You’re a beautiful girl and I love the way you went in and out of loud/soft,” she said. Minaj was taken by Lanier’s sense of style: “You look great,” she said. Urban compared her nuances to Aaron Neville, which was a spot-on assessment She earned her Golden Ticket.
Stefanie Schimel tries a soft and sultry version of “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” which Carey called “really pretty.” Urban found her to be an interesting “Carrie Underwood/Gwen Stefani blend,” but Minaj, threatened by Schimel’s similar choice of eye shadow, “wasn’t wowed.” “I thought your voice was pretty, you’re pretty, but nothing jumped at me. … I don’t think you feel like a star.” Minaj, however, was the lone “no” vote and Schimel was on her way to Hollywood, uttering The X Factor’s CeCe Frey Iine that critique is “a good thing.”
Iowa rocker Gabe Brown, a baker bearing gifts of cookies, was discovered during the show’s new auditioning method of finding talent through small-town bus tours. Brown bears a resemblance to Idol alum Chris Sligh, but that is where the similarity ends. Brown simply wails on a cover of the Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter,” and the judges are excited, as the show hasn’t found a legit rock guy a la James Durbin in auditions yet. Carey wants to hear something softer, and Gabe complies, but he can’t help howling at the moon at the end with a cover of Steel Dragon’s “We All Die Young” (MAJOR bonus points earned with me for referencing a Mark Wahlberg movie — Rock Star. Can Brown pretty please do “Stand Up and Shout” next???) . “When you do your rock thing, I believe you,” said Minaj. Urban points out that “guys with big massive belting voices have big hearts.” “You don’t need a microphone,” said Carey.
Isabel Parrell cajoles Urban into singing the male part of “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” She has a sweet and breathy tone. Carey loves it because it’s a Christmas song. Urban is charmed that she wrote a note at the bottom that instructed him to send her to Hollywood. Minaj says she looks like a star, but Jackson is the lone dissenting vote. 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.
Did you know Mariah is the 62nd most popular name in the world? Apparently so, as Mariah namesake Mariah Pulice, a recovering anoerexic, tells her heartbreaking story of her struggle with the disease. The whole package reminded me of Jillian Jensen’s bullying story on The X Factor, and it sets up her powerful audition of The Beatles classic “Let It Be.” "I know what it's like to have to sing through tears. It's really difficult,” said Carey. All judges, touched by her story, sent her through, and Pulice said she felt beautiful for “the first time in so long.”
Curtis Finch Jr., a tutor from Missouri, who was a member of Josh Ledet’s Hollywood Week group, came in ready to take the judging panel to church, and he did it with Gospel singer Smokie Norfu’s “God Be Able.” This impressed Jackson and the panel, who sent the season 11 hopeful back to Hollywood. Can we get an amen?
Brandy Neely is another returning Hollywood Week contestant, but this time she gets to audition in front of her favorite artist: Urban, whose record she bought when she was just 9. The Kentucky teen impressed with Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” a song her grandfather used to sing. She’s off to Hollywood once more, but will she make the cut this time?
Johnny Keyser, the Florida contestant who was cut in Hollywood Week last season, then teased as a potential wildcard (only to be passed over for Jermaine Jones) returned for another shot, this time auditioning with Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.” Keyser is still as handsome as he was last season, and Minaj commenced flirting immediately, while Urban predicted Keyser won’t be “girlfriendless for long.” Jackson, of course, kept the focus on singing, and said that he likes “when people come back. … You show that you really want it.” He just hoped that Keyser did the necessary work so he didn’t “crash and burn” again.
Kez Ban, a self-described “fire performer,” had no problems being interviewed on camera, but warned that if she was going to be used in a blooper reel that would embarrass her family, she was ready to bail! Whoa! Ban, decked in a fedora, is quite possibly the quirkiest entry into the competition thus far, and her audition of Pinocchio’s “I Got No Strings,” as well as an original, are revelations. Ban is quite simply an amazing vocalist, with an interesting voice and delivery that is indie and cool, and versatile, to say the least.” I can feel the realness in you, that you really are that person that you sing about,” she said. Plus, after earning a ticket to Hollywood, she deadpanned to Seacrest that excitement won’t come until the “shock” wears off, then bitched about doing paperwork! More Ban, please producers! She must survive Hollywood Week!
The last singer of the night is always a tearjerker, and Thursday night was no different. Lazaro Arbos, a Cuban-born contestant, has a terrible stuttering problem. It’s so bad, his parents said the boy doesn’t have any friends. However, he has music, which is always a powerful healer. When he entered the auditioned, he told Carey that speaking was like a “ro-ro-ro-rollercoaster,” but then he proceeded to sing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and the stutter completely vanished. That is what music is all about! "Your story is very, very inspiring," said Carey. " I think you brought a really great vibe into the room." Four yeses to Hollywood, and waterworks all over Twitter.
Massage therapist Melissa Bush (no relation to President George W. Bush, as Minaj unearthed) reported for duty in a horrid pink and silver jumpsuit -- NOT a good fashion choice. Her gift to Jackson, “Get Down DAWG,” was a nice touch, but the girl was interrupted after she opened her mouth and delivered a painful rendition of “Downtown” by Petula Clark, prompting Urban to retort, “Check, please.” Minaj tried to be pleasant, “You’ll always be my Bush,” she said, which disgusted Carey.
Iowa's Kevin Bavity -- who admits the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a musical muse (?) -- tells Minaj he loves computer animation and dancing before launching into a glorious rendition of “One Week” by Barenaked Ladies. It starts almost normal, but as he continues, the song mutes into something that Jackson describes as a “bad auction,” complete with a subtitle treatment. Minaj can’t get enough, and asks him to sing something else. Bavity responds by desecrating Chicago homeboys Styx’s “Come Sail Away,” and he is promptly shown the door.
Professional dancer Iesiha Cotton seems to think she is auditioning for So You Think You Can Dance, and shows off her moves before slaughtering Ashanti’s “Thank You.” Carey, holding back laughter, said "I was going to delicately suggest that you might want to stay more with the dancing thing.” Jackson, whom I love more and more each episode, bluntly stated, “You’re tone deaf.” SNAP!
Finally, you knew it had to happen: an Idol bad singers montage inspired by Les Miserables — “The Miserables.” This was pure comedy, and set the stage for the worst and most hilarious vocal of the night -- Ashley Curry, who takes on “Mamma Knows Best,” by Jessie J. This was NOT the inspiring vocal we heard of the same song in New York, and it was so spectacularly sung in the key of a screeching cat that Carey had to get up from her chair as she couldn’t contain her laughter. “You sing in the theater?” Jackson asked. “Is the sound off?” The best was when Carey and Minaj had a little fun with the theater major, encouraging creating a scene from Cinderella as an improv. Classic.
Honorable mentions: Clifton Duffin, whose parents never heard him sing until his audition of Luther Vandross’ “Superstar,” prompted an interesting revelation from Minaj: “My mother never heard me rap before I made it.” Interesting. Also through: Josh Holiday, Courtney Williams, Andrew Jones and a slew of other people whom producers didn’t bother to show one second of audition time.
So what do you think Worshippers? Who were your favorites tonight? Who will cut it in Hollywood? Let us know in the comments below!