When it comes to reality television, American Idol is where my heart lies. As corny as that sounds, it is absolutely true. For ten years, I have watched every season, seen every episode, and rooted for god knows how many contestants to win. Not a single year has a favorite of mine won American Idol, and that still never stops me because at the end of the day this show is supposed to find superstars, and it has certainly lived up to its promise tenfold! After watching the premiere this season, I have figured out Idol‘s winning formula. Yes, you need an eclectic judging panel that spices up your television screen — and believe me, Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey do the trick plenty! But when it comes right down to why no show matches Idol in the ratings or in the charts — where it counts and why such shows should exist — the answer is simple and pure: our journey with the contestants is a personal one. X-Factor and The Voice put on these huge productions and force contestants to be stars before we even get a chance to know them. That seems phony to us, even though it’s probably what goes on more often than not in the music biz. With American Idol, we witness the natural progression that a contestant makes on their way to becoming a star, and that authentic process, powerful in its intimacy, is why we rush out to buy an American Idol winner’s first album in droves (…unless you’re Lee DeWyze). The long journey through the audition stage, to Hollywood, into the Semifinals, and voting every round of the Finals makes us feel as though we, as Americans, have helped pave their career for them. It’s a joint effort between talent on-stage and nationwide support that transitions the contestant from “you-and-me,” to superstar a la Kelly Clarkson. This is why American Idol is still the best of the singing competition shows, still the best reality show on television. American Idol, for better or worse, is an all-encompassing event that irrefutably lives up to its title. With that said, we now enter Season Twelve…
My Idol recaps are a bit different than my The Voice ones, so please bear with me as I explain. Instead of going audition by audition, I try to corral the top tier talent in a segment I like to call: Top 5 Contestants to Watch. I find this method to be a helpful tool in keeping track of early favorites throughout the subsequent trials leading up to “The Green Mile” episode. It’s always interesting to see how spot-on or wildly off-base I am with my selections. Part of the fun is seeing how they either uphold the honors I bestow upon them, or crash and burn…kind of like how they already do in the hellish nightmare that is Hollywood Week.
Before I begin the countdown, I am sure you are all dying to hear what my thoughts are on the new judges. Even if you’re not, I’ll spill the beans anyways. I am beyond impressed with each and every one of them, and yes that surprisingly includes “Gorilla Glued-to-his-Idol-chair-forever” Randy Jackson. The energy between the four of them is electric, and neither take too long to process their thoughts and deliver a credible critique. Mariah Carey reminds me of a female Yoda: so wise, all-knowing and adorably prickly, almost to a fault. Nicki Minaj: The human soundbite that I never want to shut up. Beneath all the craziness that is the Queen of Cuckoo is an alarmingly sensitive woman who actually cares about each person, hones in their own individual strengths and is never mean, even when direct. Yes, it’s annoying when she nosedives into British-talk, but she makes up for it by randomly referring to Keith Urban as “Keithy.” Yeah, I kinda love her.
Then we have the men, Randy and Keith. Randy Jackson still can’t come up with too many adjectives to describe a bad performance, but it’s good to see him still so relaxed and having fun after all this time. The Dawg has some bark to him, as he certainly does not let his high-profile celebs plow over his thoughts and words. Keith Urban, on the other hand, was born to judge. Not a single time throughout the entire week did I see him looking bored or uncommitted to his new role. He always took the time to listen to a performer, gave them the benefit of the doubt, and even when they were god-awful he let them go with some encouraging words that hopefully lessened the blow of being publicly humiliated in front of twenty million viewers. Keith’s compassion and intelligence when it comes to criticism are formidable assets for what just became my favorite new judging team in America. Bravo to the four of them! I don’t feel the need to blow up the
fake feuding between Nicki and Mariah, as the press has done enough of that nonsense already, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I ignore it entirely.
Without further ado, here are my Top 5 Contestants to Watch from New York & Chicago (Week One of American Idol, Season 12):
5. Johnny Keyser (Chicago Auditions) — I admit, I’m a sucker for people returning to Idol after being cut a season or two earlier. It makes me genuinely happy to see someone come back and fight for something they still unequivocally believe in. Getting eliminated so deep in the process must be mentally grueling beyond understanding, but those who return usually battle even harder, and even win some wars (see: Hollie Cavanagh and Haley Reinhart). Keyser, if you remember, was the young lad with the great voice, remembered most for singing even when one of his group-mates collapsed onstage in front of him. Thankfully, Keyser has come back to redeem himself where it counts: his talent. For his audition, Johnny tackles “Try a Little Tenderness,” perfectly conjoining the throwback and poppy sounds of his voice to great effect. Keyser needs to work on not overselling his onstage physicality — his bodily jerkiness and affections can be distracting and often cringe-worthy. Overall, though, Keyser is on his way to being in the top echelons of the competition this season if he continues with well-rounded and engaging performances like the audition found below.
4. Ashlee Feliciano (New York Auditions) — I cannot tell you how many countless — and irritating — renditions of Corinne Bailey Rae’s “Girl, Put Your Records On” I have heard on this program. None, and I mean none, compare to Ashlee Feliciano’s version. She took her time, went places in the melody I did not expect but was grateful for the exploration, and was personable enough to never forget. It’s so wonderful when you can root for somebody that deserves every inch of mass support. The girl and her parents adopt special-needs children that many would have abandoned out of sheer frustration. Ashlee’s amazing parents should be proud that they have a daughter who is blowing away America with both her voice and noble character. Stunning audition; exceptional human being! What more could we ask for in an American Idol?
3. Lazaro Arbos (Chicago Auditions) — A story that’s difficult to hear is made even worse when you see the tragedy play out in front of you. Lazaro Arbos is a young man crippled with stuttering, but when he opens his mouth to sing, there is a temporary cure. For those brief minutes, it’s as though the stuttering is gone forever and Lazaro is just a regular kid who loves the life he’s been given. Although that is clearly not the case once the song is over, American Idol should be commended for giving Lazaro a platform that provides the ultimate form of escapism. Lazaro’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was soul-piercing, and I’m sure touched millions of hearts watching at home. Yes, we have to be realistic in knowing that Lazaro’s journey on Idol may be an impossible one, but at least his audition felt like the greatest of victories. Here’s hoping that Lazaro — whose angelic voice reminds me of a less-theatrical Clay Aiken — continues to wow and impress as the season goes along. Sob story or not, Lazaro’s singing voice is masterclass.
2. Isabelle Parell (Chicago Auditions) — Just like many believe in the notion of “love at first sight,” sometimes it only takes a single glance to know that you’re looking at a future superstar. That was the case this week with Isabelle Parell, a girl whose spontaneous “Baby It’s Cold Outside” duet with Keith Urban was endearing on so many levels. I love risk takers and contestants who know themselves front-and-back. Isabelle Parell is both of those, but what makes her a stunner in my eyes is that her charm never ceased and that sparkle of stardom never dimmed throughout the course of the audition. I can see Isabelle in films, television, you name it. Her magnetic appeal is made even greater by the fact that her retro, smoky-toned voice is so velvety slick and perfect. Add her beauty and style to my pile of praise, and you have yourselves a potential winner on-hand. America, watch out for Isabelle Parell. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
1. Christina “Isabelle” (New York Auditions) — At the end of the day, all I want to see is the most talented person top this list, and that individual is…Christina “Isabelle.” Here is a girl who is classically trained from Berklee College of Music, but you would never have guessed it by her non-elitist demeanor. The woman is a pro but her shyness automatically makes her more approachable to viewers, and the fact that she has lost so much weight will probably inspire many young girls across the country to do the same in a similarly healthy manner. Christina “Isabelle’s” version of “Summertime” was unreal in technique. The way she slid her voice from one note to the next, like maple syrup falling into each groove of a waffle, was beyond delicious. Christina’s school did her proud, and thankfully Christina “Isabelle” has a personality to boot that will prevent her from getting an early dismissal like similar technical goddess, Pia Toscano. It’s too early to tell if Christina “Isabelle” will make it to the Top 24 but from a purely objective standpoint, she’s got the strongest, most rangy and dynamic voice of the bunch that we’ve seen this week. Therefore, I cannot fight against the truth that sometimes technique, when performed with passion and conviction, trumps all else in the professional world of music. Watch below if you don’t believe me.
Thank you for reading, everyone! Please sound off below on whether you agree or disagree with my selections of the Top 5 Contestants to Watch from the Chicago & New York Auditions. Please share your “five to watch” as well in the comments section. Until next week, au revoir!
Tags: american idol, american idol recap, American Idol Season 12, fox, Johnny Keyser, Keith Urban, Lazaro Arbos, mariah carey, nicki minaj, Randy Jackson