In the season premiere, ''American Idol'' goes to Prince's home town, Minneapolis, where the three judges -- and guest panelist Jewel -- suffer through a mixed bag of auditions

By Michael Slezak
Updated January 17, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST

”American Idol”: The decline of the Midwest

When the new season of American Idol kicked off tonight from Minneapolis with 21-year-old Jessica Rhodes’ poor but by no means unbearable imitation of Jewel’s ”You Were Meant for Me,” I found myself momentarily puzzled.

Why her? Sure, the Mall of America makeup artist brought with her a whiff of Eau de Hot Mess, the way she started to weep before even catching a glimpse of Simon, Paula, and Randy, as well as her personal idol, guest panelist Jewel, who mainly pinch-hit for a strangely sedate (draw your own conclusions from my choice of adjective) Paula. And then, of course, there was the matter of Jessica’s skirt, the one that started out formfitting and denim before changing its mind and morphing into a gauzy catastrophe.

But as far as bad auditions go, she wouldn’t crack this show’s top 100. You can’t group her with the gimmicky fame whores, like the ”urban Amish” dude who was so tiresome and self-aware I’m not going to bother checking my DVR for his name, nor the truly damaged individuals who inevitably cast a slightly nauseating pall over Idol‘s early weeks.

And yet the more I think about it, Jessica Rhodes’ audition was the perfect starting point for the next five months of Idol-mania. In this context, the lyrics of ”You Were Meant for Me” perfectly summed up the kind of low-grade delusion that keeps this show humming (off-key) until the real talent takes over with the top 32 (or 12, if you’re more Simon than Paula): ”Dreams last for so long, even after you’re gone,” Jessica warbled. ”I know you love me, and soon you will see….You were meant for me, and I was meant for you.”

Except, oh boy, Jessica is most certainly not meant for Idol. In fact, if music could take out a restraining order, she’d probably have to keep a distance of 20 feet for the rest of her natural life. As Randy gently told Jessica, ”You don’t have to be a singer,” Simon brilliantly added, ”The good news today is you found out you’re not going to be.”

Ahhh, welcome to season 6 of Idol! Eleven minutes in, a dream is dead.

And yet, not quite as dead as it should be. As Jessica’s family hugged and consoled her post-rejection, she defiantly declared, ”I’m not gonna stop.” In other words, she probably fancies herself the next coming of season 3’s seventh-place finisher, Jennifer Hudson, ready to receive her standing O’s as she belts out, ”And I am telling you I’m not going,” when what she really needs is a friend or relative to grab her by the shoulders and say, ”And I am telling you that you are going to stop making a fool of yourself.”

Apparently, that kind of honesty is hard to come by nowadays. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have had the pleasure of experiencing Jesse Holloway’s ”unique vocal range” while he did to ”My Heart Will Go On” what that infamous iceberg did to the Titanic. It’s always fun when a contestant huffs, ”You’re entitled to your opinion,” after getting a bad critique — as if having qualified for high-school chorus puts him on equal footing with the panelists who are being paid to decide his fate.

Tonight’s hardest audition to watch, however, came courtesy of 16-year-old Jason Anderson, the singer-juggler who almost had me hurting for him as he sobbed into his mother’s shoulder, his orthodontic device hinting of another Ugly Betty in a world of Halles and Angelinas. But then Jason had to go and ruin it. Responding to a relative’s observation, ”You’re only 16,” he angrily barked back, ”I wanted to start out famous!”

Um, guess what, kiddo? That’s not how it works. Every once in a great while, somebody comes into the world sounding like Aretha Franklin or Frank Sinatra or Kelly Clarkson. The rest of us have to slum it. We go to school. Pay attention. Work hard. Find something we’re halfway good at and hope that somebody will pay us to show up five days a week and do it.

As Jason ranted in the hallway, the producers executed the night’s finest bit of camerawork, panning to fellow contestant Brenna Kyner (pictured), whose facial expression was a mixture of horror, befuddlement, and perhaps just a trace of amusement. No, Brenna couldn’t sing to save her life either, but the self-declared biggest fan of Idol knows train-wreck TV when she’s staring at it.

Speaking of which, don’t you kind of wish Idol‘s producers would work on a slightly more satisfying talent-to-torture ratio in these early rounds? Yeah, I was mesmerized (and laughing pretty heartily) while Tashawn Moore gave a stream-of-consciousness take on Prince’s ”Kiss,” but seeing as 17 singers made it from Minneapolis to Hollywood, why did we only get to see seven successful auditions?

If I were a betting man…actually, I am a betting man, so here’s two bucks that says we did not see the season 6 winner perform tonight. Ranking tonight’s top three, I’d hand the gold to Sarah Krueger, who delivered a disarmingly lovely ”Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” while maintaining a refreshing normalcy that kind of reminded me of Kelly Clarkson. I also got a little misty-eyed watching self-described former crack-baby Denise Jackson belt out ”And I Am Telling You,” although she needs to learn that not every note needs to be sung at full throttle. And while her fellow 16-year-old Matt Sato suffered from much the same problem on ”California Dreamin’,” I’m looking forward to seeing how (or if) he grows in Hollywood.

The rest of tonight’s successful auditions suggested the judges may be factoring in personality as much as vocal chops when handing out golden tickets. How could you not like the charming Jarrod Fowler after watching him take first prize in the USS Ronald Reagan‘s internal Idol competition? But Jewel’s warning about ”pitchiness” during his rendition of ”Bless the Broken Road” was totally on target. Even less ear-licious was perky reservist Rachel Jenkins, whose ”His Eye Is on the Sparrow” did not exactly keep its eye on the correct key. Worst of all, though, was Perla Meneses. Okay, her hips may not lie, but they also do not mask one of the weakest voices to make it to Hollywood in the last few seasons. Unless, of course, you dig cut-rate Shakira impersonations.

Yeah, okay, so I’m being harsh. But I’m still a harmless kitten next to the producer who jammed the left-hand door of the audition room, preventing scads of Idol rejects from making a dignified exit. But don’t feel too bad for ’em, folks. There’s a lesson to be learned in even the worst humiliation, at least if you’re paying attention. In this case, sometimes there are worse things than getting a door slammed in your face. Like trying to make a quick escape through one that’s locked.

What did you think? Did Randy’s sudden bout of crankiness strike the right chord or did it feel off-key? And have you spotted anyone who’s good enough to make the final 12?

Episode Recaps

American Idol

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.

  • TV Show
  • 16
  • 574
  • ABC