Before we crack the books on Season 13, we’d like to introduce ourselves (again) for this season.
In case you didn’t tune in to Andrew’s Idol Series last season – here are his “qualifications” for reviewing Idol. First and foremost, he’s watched every single season. He’s been there through the highs and lows of this show, the good winners and the bad, the shock eliminations and the predictable ones. All this is to say that he feels like he knows what the show does right and what it does wrong and that he can, for the most part, predict the way things will play out. By way of music, Andrew was in the choir, the audition-only chamber choir and a band with his friends in high school, so he has been infused with all kinds of music, but wouldn’t consider himself anywhere near as talented as the people that make the finals of this show. That said, he can detect pitch problems and the like and feels like he knows, by now, what’s marketable and what’s not.
Andrew is joined this season by fellow staff writer Ashleigh. Ashleigh and Andrew (or Ashrew, as People Magazine will inevitably call us) met through Idol and a mutual love for Season 7 contestant David Cook. They have been friends ever since. Ashleigh has a far more extensive musical background, having attended college for music, participated in her own share of choirs and bands and with an ability to sing, play guitar and piano. Ashleigh, like Andrew, is also capable of the kind of brutal honesty, but objectivity that makes her the perfect pairing for him as we make out way through this, Idol’s 13th Season. While she can’t claim to have seen every single season like Andrew has, she’s seen most of them. Coming back to season 13 after a few seasons to cleanse the injustice of season 9 (her words, not Andrew’s), this prodigal daughter of the Idol machine is ready to lend her objective ear to the task.
So what’s different about Season 13? A lot. After Idol finally got their first female winner in 6 seasons last year: Candice Glover, they realized that the show needed a major overhaul. It wasn’t just about creating a blind, runaway train of a show, destroying everything in it’s path to get the winner they wanted. If Idol was going to compete with the up and coming NBC hit, The Voice, it had to find a way to make itself more accessible and less irritating. So, in a bold move, Idol sacked Executive Producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick and 3 of it’s judges: Nicki Minaj, Mariah Carey and permanent fixture since day one: Randy Jackson. All summer, we waited to see who would replace them and join the only remaining judge, Aussie Country Boy Keith Urban. In the end, Per Blankens, who produces the Swedish version of the show, took the lead and brought back the non-polarizing Season 10 and 11 judge who crowned success stories Scotty McCreery and Phillip Phillips: Jennifer Lopez, and the popular and charismatic mentor of seasons past: Harry Connick Jr., with promises of many more Season 13 changes waiting in the wings. We’ll talk about those as they come, but for now, let’s get down to those pesky judges. How did they do on their first two go-arounds and, more importantly, how deep did we wade into our Season 13 talent pool?
For the auditions episode, the two of us will pick five standout competitors each. Sometimes we’ll agree on a person or two, so given that we’ll review the first two episodes in one go, and spotlight anywhere between 10 and 20 of the people who received gold tickets this first week. First up are Andrew’s five picks from the Boston, MA and Austin, TX premiere on Wednesday night…
1. Marielle Sellers – “Grenade” (Bruno Mars) – We opened with a clip of this girl singing a song that, by now, we should all be sick of. But the dive right into singing was a great attention grabber and Marielle was pretty and intriguing and had an interesting voice that would fit well into the current scene. I personally think she could make a lot of old stuff new and interpret a lot of new songs in her own way so, for that reason, she makes my “one’s to watch list”.
2. Sam Woolf – “Lego House” (Ed Sheeran) – This kid had enunciation out the wazoo and it wasn’t grating like Angie Miller’s could be last season. Rather it seemed to create a certain tactile quality about the song that made me take notice of him. That, combined with the fact that he picked a current song and gave it a different spin showed a lot of promise. I’ll definitely be looking to see what he does come Hollywood Week because he’s young, talented and just cute enough to nab the teen girl vote.
3. Austin Percario – “Titanium” (Sia) – Speaking of teen girls voting, Austin was basically David Archuleta back for a vengance. Except, he had a stage mom instead of a dad and, like Keith said, he had just enough rasp in his voice to balance out the pop clarity that might make it run-of-the-mill. I think, if he can grow into his voice, he’ll be a contender, for sure.
4. Kaitlyn Jackson – “Another Angel” (Original Song) – For a young girl, writing a song about her grandfather having a heart attack without making it so cheesy you want to gag took some talent and showed that she’s interested in music beyond singing along to the radio in the car. Sure, her voice wasn’t anything spectacular and she could use a makeover, but if we’re picking kids based on their interest in music, I approve of her advancing to Hollywood, for sure.
5. Jillian Jensen – “Not Over You” (Gavin Degraw) – After being turned down for Demi Lovato’s team on the X Factor during Season 2, Jillian’s back again with a vengance. She’s likeable, pretty and knows herself as a musician so if we’re going to throw a “mature singer” into the mix of young starlets, I think Jillian’s a great choice.
And Ashleigh’s picks for Boston & Austin were…
1. Keith London – “Roar” (Katy Perry) – Okay, okay. I’m running straight out the gate with a WGWG pick, but don’t cast stones at me yet: They’re an Idol staple for a reason! There’s something captivating about a charming guy with an acoustic guitar, and Idol never fails to deliver ones with juuust enough talent to reel you in and want more. Keith is no exception, and with an intro package that paints him to be just as much of a boy scout as he is a musician, you can already see the reel spinning. But Keith isn’t just an Idol fixture: he took one of the biggest ear worms of 2013 and made it fresh, interesting, and easy on the ears. Now sure, it’s easy to spot new depth in a pop number when you strip away the bells and whistles (as our sassy judges were quick to point out), but what’s not easy is to take a Katy Perry jam and make it more listenable than a Glee cast cover… which I think Keith did exceptionally well. Bravo, Mr. London.
2. Savion Wright – “Dark Side of Me” (Original Song) – This guy already holds a special place in my heart, because I too beat ADHD by picking up a guitar. Savion’s pre-audition package was chock-full of the heart warmers, and while it was a bit on the over-kill side to push so much focus on how “music saved him,” it was still an interesting story that will make him stick out in my mind. What made him stick out even more, though, was the fact that this guy can SING. Being one of the first members of what I will be calling “Harry’s Kids,” the long-time fan of Harry Connick, Jr. impresses the entire panel with an original song that highlights his excellent rhythm, melodic creativity, and perky tenor intonation. The judges ate him up with a spoon, pointing out his head-to-toe performance charisma and declaring him a hard-hitter in the coming competition. My spidey senses are telling me that this guy is gonna go pretty far. Maybe this year we’ll get a BGWG? (put the tomatoes away, you know you were thinking it, too)
3. Malcolm Allen – “Superstitious” (Stevie Wonder) – There is literally nothing I love more than someone who can make fun of themselves when they’re supposed to be taking a situation seriously. Malcom’s audition opens with “airy,” his trusty air guitar that he declares he doesn’t know how to play yet. Right away I assumed this was going to be a throw-away audition, and from the smirks and eye rolls at the judges table I’m pretty sure they did, too. But Malcom shocked us all with a silky smooth version of the Stevie classic, that came so naturally to him that you couldn’t help but wonder if that piano tattooed on his arm wasn’t wired into his soul or something. His overwhelming confidence could have come off as arrogance, but something about his delivery made me believe that this kid just knows what he’s doing. He’s another big one on my watch list.
4. Shanon Wilson – “I Want You” (Luke James) – I know, I know. We’ve seen this type before: The larger than life teddy bear with the voice of an angel. We know them well, and we know their fate: They’ve been destined to be fodder ever since Ruben took the win all the way back in season two. But if there’s one thing that I’m learning already in this season, it’s that it’s a season of nostalgia: Already we’ve gotten throw-back auditioners, old judges coming back as if they’re new ones, and second generation Idol contestants to remind us just how old this show really is. So why not let another big, silky-voiced singer make a run for the title? And if anyone was going to do it, I think Shanon would be an excellent contender. The football-player-turned-music-man delivered his pulse-checking rendition of “I Want You” heavy on the staccato, but more importantly, highlighted by a falsetto that made my jaw hit the floor. A man of his stature with a range that wide is destined for the Idol stage.
5. Munfarid Zaidi – “Crazy For You” (Adele) – Look, I seriously didn’t mean for my 5 picks to be all dudes. I love girl power just as much as the next person, but when you give me 2 hours full of powerful male performers, I’m gonna pick them all! Munfarid, however, was head-and-shoulders above the rest for me; my first runaway favorite of the season. Another member of “Harry’s Kids,” he proved that having a well-versed knowledge of the jazz-giant might mean you know a thing or two about vocal excellence. His rhythmic delivery of the ‘vintage’ Adele number had me clapping in my seat (seriously, I was sitting on my couch clapping: don’t judge me), and I swear to god he must have swallowed a flute before his audition in order to hit those perfectly tuned top-notes. To top it all off, his swept-up serenade of ‘no-one’ while Harry cradled him in his arms was just as on-point, and he didn’t even have his diaphragm to support it! I dunno, y’all. I’m gonna keep my eyeballs locked on this one. Hopefully Harry carries him all the way to the top 10.
For Night Two, we started in Austin and by the end of the episode we were in San Francisco. Here are Andrew’s picks for the second night of auditions…
1. Jesse Roach – “Do Ya” (K.T. Olsin) – Following another cold-open audition, we had this girl with her black guitar and her overeager neighbour in tow. But I have to thank her neighbour for bring her to us. I love myself a good female rocker and Jesse seems to know music and know her voice, which is very unique and almost has a Crystal Bowersox from Season 9 quality about it, minus the sweetness. I think, as I said to Ash, she’ll be the kind of person who can sing a song you’ve heard a million times and make it sound totally different and that’s going to be a strength for her in the coming rounds.
2. Spencer Lloyd – “Never Gone” (Colton Dixon) – What better way to appeal to the Idol audience than to sing a semi-obscure, but still current Idol alum song? Don’t be fooled though – Spencer knows Colton and Season 12 alum Angie well, so the song choice was definitely an ode to his friend and his interpretation of it, while not vocally on fire (as Harry rightfully pointed out) was just good enough to combine with his image and make him a marketable threat on the show.
3. Caitlin Johnson – “Something’s Got A Hold On Me” (Etta James) – I was actually surprise by Keith’s staunch no to this young girl. Sure, I agree that at 15 she probably needs more time to grow in to her voice, but I thought her audition showed a lot of potential when she really dug into the song and started snapping, I was digging it. Will she make the finals? Probably not, but sometimes it’s better to let someone with talent dip their toes in the Idol talent pool.
4. Tristen Langley – “Santeria” (Sublime) – Son of Season 1’s Nikki McKibbin. I wasn’t sure what to expect with that introduction, but Tristen sounded like your typical teenage boy who picked up a guitar and learned his favourite song. I agree with the judges that I doubt he’ll make it very far, but how can you deny the son of a woman who came in third place? You can’t. Maybe Tristen will learn something from the whole experience and grow.
5. Adam Roth – “Hallelujah” (Leonard Cohen) – The “sound healer” that closed the night definitely seemed like one of those weird auditions that was going to derail as soon as he opened his mouth, but like Keith said, his take on an overdone ballad was interesting, if a little unpredictable. But he made some cool vocal choices that had me agreeing with the judges decision to send him to the next round, and that’s always good.
And Ashleigh’s picks for Austin and San Francisco were…
1. Selena Moreno – “Try” (Janice Joplin) – I try not to be fooled by a blatant Idol gimmick, but give me a break: everyone loves singing siblings. So when Selena and her twin sister Sierra walked into the audition room together, I was ready to be entertained, while simultaneously awaiting the eye-rolls. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to find that both ladies sang beautifully, giving the judging panel a reason to perk up and pay attention. This was one of the most interesting auditions of the two-night premiere for me, if only because it set a precedent for the type of judgments that we should expect from Harry: objective, thoughtful, and a liiiittle bit merciless. His judgements were sound, though: Selena had the body language, the power, and the energy to sell herself as a viable Idol contender. Her sister was just along for the ride (but hey: David Cook was just ‘along for the ride’, too. Don’t give up hope, Sierra!)
2. Aranesa Turner – “Pure Imagination” (Wonka Soundtrack) – I’m 99% sure that Idol is trying to doom Aranesa as fodder this season, what with her 30 seconds of screen time, mixed with another, far more flamboyant auditioner’s offering, but the important thing is that this girl got 3 yeses and her ticket to Hollywood. Her gentle, smoke-infused version of the classic Willy Wonka tune was beautifully delivered, and her gorgeous grin added a comforting vibe to the hypnotic, 30 second sound byte. Jennifer cut her off by simply telling her she was a good singer, and Harry just stared at her with a sleepy grin that said it all. I really wish we would have gotten to see more, and I’m crossing all of my fingers that she’ll be a feature in the Hollywood rounds, because I see a lot of potential in her.
3. Briana Oakley – “Stay” (Sara Bareilles) – Okay, yes. I see the Jordin Sparks similarities. However: let me remind you of Jordin’s chronic pitch problems, as well as her lack of control over her intonation at this stage of the competition. Briana may embody the same traits that got Jordin through the first rounds of Idol, but if you ask me, Briana has a lot more to her. Her perfect pitch, her control, and her sheer volume already rank her higher in my books than the season 6 champ. This audition also yields another interesting critique from Harry, who once again points out how much a singer’s form and body language can contribute to a winning performance (Ugh, can you tell how much I love this guy already?). I really enjoyed Briana’s delivery of the emotional Sara Bareilles number, and I sincerely hope that the judges lay off of the Jordin Sparks comparisons when it starts to matter later on in the competition.
4. David Luning – (Original Song) – I love a good contradiction, and our friend David here seems to be a walking contradiction with a guitar strapped to his back. The quiet, laid back California kid tore into an angst ridden, folk-infused number that he wrote, and I immediately knew that his offering was not what the Idol PTB were historically known for favoring. However, stranger things have made their way to the Idol stage, and the gritty soul searcher made a great case for himself with his intensity and stylish delivery, and earned a golden ticket despite mixed reviews from the judges. I was surprised that they let him through, given the fact that they seem to already have a pretty good idea of what his weaknesses will be once he gets to Hollywood, but I have faith that David will deliver. I have seen contestants like him make it through to group week and stand out amongst a sea of predictable sway bots, and I sincerely hope that our Bay Area Boy has the same luck. Let’s just hope I’m not yelling “ROBBBBED. HE WAS ROBBBEEEDDD” by the end of semi-finals.
5. MK Nobilette – “If I Were Your Woman” (Gladys Knight & The Pips) – MK was another contender that was lumped in with a group of auditions, and once again I’m left wondering if these edits are done strategically. The long-suffered Idol conspiracy theorist within me tells me that everything that we see on this show is done with a motive, and I just hope that when it comes to the unique, contemporary contestants like this, it won’t serve as a nail in her Idol coffin. MK delivered a powerful and unique version of a well-loved number, and I was very impressed with her quiet confidence and blatant authenticity. It’s dangerous to throw around the word ‘original’ on a show like American Idol, but I really do think it’s appropriate in this instance. She’s one of my early favorites.
It’s not difficult to see that the 79 contestants that have earned golden tickets so far have covered a wide variety of styles and vocal offerings, and that is very clearly thanks to the so-far-so-good critiques that have made their way across the judge’s table. The decision to clean house on last year’s panel was a good one, if this first week is any indication, and Keith Urban’s sweet demeanor is complimented nicely by the two replacements. We’re happy to see a return to the original format with a three person panel, and Jennifer Lopez seems to be settling nicely into Paula’s old seat. Harry Connick, Jr., while met with a resounding question mark from most casual Idol watchers when he was announced as a judge, is quickly making a name for himself on the panel, and “Dr. No” is reminding everyone in America why he has always been one of Idol’s favorite guest mentors.
Thus far the critiques have been fair for the most part, and the variety of singers that have made their way through is proving that this restructuring might turn out to be the best move that Idol has made in a long time. Harry is leading the way with a thirst for excellence in the performers that he’s sending through, and is simultaneously challenging his fellow judges to follow his lead, thereby significantly raising the standard that is making it through to the next round. They all seem to be looking for different things in their performers, too, which is adding to the unique quilt of talent that we’re going to find in the Hollywood rounds. Keith tends to gravitate to the unique sounding contestants, asking questions that have more to do with their style and delivery than with their actual vocal offering. Jennifer seems to be about the likability factor, urging contestants to stay quiet when they’re done singing so as not to ruin the moment before the make their critique. Harry is looking for flat out excellence in performance; vocal accuracy, impressive form, and confidence that can only be found in those that have been taking themselves seriously enough to know that they’re talented. Perhaps most impressive is the coach-like commentary coming from the panel, with tips that caution performers against meekness, against giving away their performance flaws, and against lazy or incorrect singing habits. It’s a wonderfully refreshing twist on the catty behavior that the panel was riddled with last year, and we think this is going to be a great way to pull viewers back in.
With auditions continuing next week, it’ll be interesting to see how the season progresses; will season 13 turn out to be the lucky or unlucky number that Idol watchers have been waiting for? And how long will this honeymoon phase lasts before we’re throwing things at the television and telling people to shut up? But the cheesiness and frustration with bad song choices or bad critiques is half the fun, right? We think so, and we certainly hope that you’ll come along for the ride as we continue to offer you our two cents. Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you next week!
About the Authors
Andrew Rogers is Editor and staff writer here at ‘The Hudsucker’. He is a 25 year old law student who lives in Halifax during the school year and Toronto the rest of the year. Besides Law, his brain capacity is taken up by reality show trivia, video game walk-throughs and food factoids. Andrew is also happily in a relationship with an American boy named Elliott. Follow him on Twitter as @sublymonal.
Ashleigh Stokrp is Senior Editor and staff writer here at ‘The Hudsucker’. Priding herself as a ‘Jack of all Trades,’ Ashleigh has always been one to expand her horizons and try to be that person to help someone accomplish something. A singer, a writer, a counselor, a designer, a consumer of culture; there are few things that she doesn’t consider herself interested in. With a degree in psychology and a background in graphic design under her belt, Ashleigh is currently expanding her life-repitoire with a career in app building; distributing apps and producing content on Apple and Amazon’s digital newsstands. Follow her on Twitter as @anakedlight.