‘American Idol’ Recap: Tensions Simmer in the Windy City

"American Idol" in Chicago (FOX)

American Idol” took Chicago for its second night of premiere-week auditions, and it became clearer where the judges’ panel hierarchy stands. (Hint: The judge that refers to “Idol” as their “job”—in air quotes—cannot be touched by the cretins below her.) Meanwhile, when the judges weren’t eating all the scenery at the planetarium, the few contestants they actually paid attention to did some good things, like sing “Pinocchio” and make balloon animals. We also got a look at what doing well on “Idol” can do—or not do—for a person when we were reminded of two former Chicago contestants: Jennifer “Oscar” Hudson and Haley “NoIdeaWhoYouAre” Reinhart. And we got the best sob story this whole week, when an ice cream scooper discovers he has carpal tunnel and is forced to leave his job for a career in music, or something.

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Since the judges are all anyone cares about at this point in “Idol”s adolescence, let’s start there. It’s clear Mariah Carey has the upper-hand in whatever conflict there is between her and Nicki Minaj. When she’s not getting effusive compliments from contestants, Mariah’s doing a pretty good job of complimenting herself. One girl, Kiara Lanier, told Mariah how much she inspired her as a multiracial woman, then did a fine job singing Celine Dion’s “The Prayer.” (Hollywood.) Mariah’s feedback? “I think you’re a beautiful girl. Haha, thank you.” She thanked herself. Why? Cause when you’re Mariah Carey, that’s what you do.

Another girl, named Mariah Pulice, shared her story about battling anorexia. Even that topic Mariah was able to make about herself. “I know what it’s like to have to sing through tears, and it’s really difficult.” She also knows what it’s like to be named Mariah, and that’s really difficult, too, as she never knew any other Mariahs growing up. She’s been there, ok?! (Hollywood.)

She and Nicki did seem to get along occasionally tonight, with Nicki even calling Mariah “M” at one point. Nicknames, a good sign. But that’s all well and good, until the arms start waving. And they did when Johnny Keyser, a Season 11 Hollywood reject—the one that made J. Lo go crazy for his chiseled wax figuresque face last year—returned. (Hollywood.) Mariah’s clapping, Nicki’s flailing, Mariah’s telling Nicki that she wants to curse at her but can’t because kids are watching, Nicki’s making shocked eyes, no one knows what anyone’s saying, “dahhhling” is repeated over and over. That’s basically what a catfight between these two looks like.

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Next is Keith Urban, the only other judge that seemed to inspire any kind of affection from contestants—15-year-old Isabelle Parell asked him to duet on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” weirdly, in July, and it was kind of cute. (Hollywood.) But while his comments are sweet and he seems nice enough, he might as well not even be there. At one point, even HE forgot that he had already spoken his feedback to a contestant. And they expect US to pay attention?

Randy Jackson is doing what he can to hold down the legend of “Idol.” He’s really a lesson in resiliency. How to make so little impact that you can just get by in a job for 12 years while everyone else at the office is self-destructing on an annual basis. Notes from Randy: lay low, name drop. Tonight, he reminded us how many famous friends he thinks he has. When he told the soulful Curtis Finch, Jr. that he just called Smokie Norful, the singer of his audition song. (Hollywood.)

There’s definitely a “The Voice” quality to some of this year’s auditions—people who probably never would have even gotten seen in years past, like Kez Ban, a lanky androgynous street performer who refers to her chin as her “chinny chin chin” and fire dances not in an ironic way, but has a raspy, jazzy voice and a knack as the guitar-strumming troubadour. (Hollywood.) Or Gabe Brown, an Iowan who was actually bussed to the audition in Chicago, an overweight baker who belted out words like “rape” and “murder” (he sang “Gimme Shelter”). (Hollywood.) And Lazaro Arbos, a 21-year-old ice cream scooper whose stutter makes it almost impossible for him to even say he’s from Cuba. (Hollywood.) This season of “American Idol” should be subtitled “All American Rejects.”

That’s not to say there weren’t some bad times, in which the judges proceeded to basically laugh in the contestants’ faces. Whether the contestants deserved that treatment or not, I’ll leave up to the viewers to decide, because I’ve still never quite figured out which of these people are delusional and which are playing a joke on us.

Melissa Bush would be the worst of that lot. In a bedazzled pink pantsuit, the massage therapist blinded Ryan when the sun hit her outfit. Her rendition of “Downtown” was a little scary, but Nicki tried to stay positive. “You’ll always be my Bush, but the answer is no.”

Actually, Nicki seemed to really try to say positive things to the dreadful auditions, taking one of them by the ears and telling him she loved him. Really? That seems a bit far-fetched. Makes you wonder about her credibility.

Other lowlights of the night: Ieisha Cotton, who got the distinction of being called “tone deaf” by Randy Jackson, and making Mariah so confused that she gave her a yes, then took it back and made it a no. And Ashley Curry, the prettier of a pair of twins, but obviously the one without the smarts. Said her sister: “She never stops singing, ever.” Ashley had to be escorted out of the audition after trying the same song three times, and having her voice referred to by Nicki as a “weapon.” Actually, Nicki could probably use that weapon in the next catfight.

Random thoughts:

Nicki speaks British sometimes, and then Mariah does, too. It’s another blow to the credibility thing, but at least it’s a nice bonding moment for two ego-riddled celebrities to play tea party while someone’s lost $30 million.

Where’s Ryan Seacrest? He’s got fewer lines in annoying announcer-speak than usual, and his biggest moment of the night was an awkward exchange with Kez Ban about paperwork, in which he gradually backed away from her in discomfort. I guess that’s all he’s got left in him after 12 years.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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