Set to the bittersweet “Forever Young,” the two-night season premiere of American Idol kicked off with a dramatic nod to its age. That is, we were reminded that when Kelly Clarkson took the crown 10 years ago this September, Season 11 contestants could have been as little as five years out of the womb.
This is Idol: The Next Generation.
But despite its crop of young (read: Idol-bred) contestants, the show still stands in stark contrast to the decidedly current talent shows launched since Scotty McCreery two-stepped his way into the Nokia theatre. The U.S. X Factor with its snap, crackle, pop of flashy production. The Voice with its mega star power. In comparison, Idol is the thirtysomething in the room full of teenagers.
Let’s be honest, though: Idol’s never been hip. In fact, for some critics and fans, it’s sometimes too vintage, with its limited themes and former judge who flaunted an affinity for 1990s style divas. Idol has always been just a little behind the times, a little plainer and a little purer than the music industry itself. (Lest we forget, this is what happens when Idol tries to be hip.) In some ways, the show exists on a plane all its own.
And I think that’s why, 10 years and several well-funded competitors later, Idol still has a place under the sun — and a huge one at that. Twenty two million viewers tuned into Wednesday’s episode, 7.5 and 10 million more than the premieres of The X Factor and The Voice amassed respectively. Idol’s format simply works, capable of withstanding producer and judge shakeups, an ever-evolving music industry and, most importantly, shifting generations.
In the season 11 premiere, Nigel and Co. thankfully milked the Idol formula in all the right places, playing up the organic sparkle that its competitors lack. They stuffed the three hours with as many good auditions from Savannah, Georgia, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as they could fit, and they skimped on the mentally unstable, delusional and /or Statue of Liberty-dressed contestants, a welcome shift from years past. (Last night’s episode featured one — check it: one — rejected contestant.)
The sob stories were also kept to a minimum, with none so riveting as to overshadow talent. To that point, there seemed to be an overall heightened focus on the talent — how refreshing.
No contestants blew me away, but I dug a handful of them, including:
- 16-year-old Gabi Carrubba, who bypassed the judges to hug Nigel Lythgoe off camera and sang “Sunday Morning” with an intriguing combination of purity and soulfulness.
- Schyler Dixon, who may have been overshadowed by the judges praising her brother, season 10 contestant Colton, but who made me sit up and listen, with a subtle, feathery-light performance of “Break Even.”
- Ashlee Altise, who bounded into the room with a “joy hop” and a larger-than-life personality, but proved that she has the chops to match her spunk with a feisty version of "Come Together."
- Samantha Novacek, who, as her sister “planked” in front of her (seriously?), delivered a solid rendition of “Like We Never Loved At All,” perhaps the best country audition we’ve hard so far this season.
- And southern boy Phillip Phillips, who has “Chosen One” written all over him — pimp spot and all —, but whose guitar-accompanied spin on “Thriller” wiped the floor with Andrew Garcia’s famed “Straight Up,” thanks to his electric delivery.
As for the judges, to her credit, Jennifer Lopez continues to carry the flag for the show’s earnestness, with her down-to-earth persona and sincere (albeit not earth-shattering) critiques. There’s plenty of room for this to dissolve into unhelpful cheerleading — see: the second half of last season — but for now, it’s heartening to see her so passionately engaged.
I’d suggest you also enjoy Steven Tyler’s hilarious incoherence and emphatic facial expressions while you can, because there’s a good chance he’ll sleep through the finals like he did last year. And Randy? Well, if he can’t find his groove after 10 seasons, I have no words.
One final thought: You can ridicule him for his hair, his height, his super human work ethic, his goofiness or his 14-year-junior girlfriend — but Ryan Seacrest is magic. Show me another host who can skillfully weave together moments of humor, joy, awkwardness and loss, all the while appearing genuine.
After the embarrassment that was Steve Jones, can we please start appreciating Seacrest?
Quote of the Night(s): “The spirits of the children of the woods snuck into you, and I like that.”
- Dude, who else?