Victoria Beckham brings a fresh face to the judges' panel, but the Boston auditions can't erase fond memories of Kris, Adam, and Allison
American Idol | Ryan braces for a bear-hug from Amadeo Diricco; Justin Williams enjoys some positive feedback; Katie Stevens performs for her grandma

There are hundreds of reasons to not watch American Idol‘s ninth season, and as EW’s resident Idoloonie, I’ve heard just about all of ’em from friends, relatives, and Twitter followers: No Paula, no Idol. Kradison broke the show. I can’t deal with another year of that overzealous table-banger. Simon’s heart isn’t in it. I’m still waiting for the producers to call Mishavonna Henson‘s name for the season 8 Wild Card round.

Okay, so that last one comes courtesy of the voices in my head (not that they don’t have a point), but the fact of the matter is, there are dark storm clouds congregating at the edge of Idol‘s perpetually sunny ratings forecast, not the least of which arrived when Simon simultaneously announced on Monday that he’ll abandon America’s No. 1 talent competition at the end of May, and launch the similar (but not identical) The X Factor on Fox in fall 2011.

Yet instead of panic and mayhem, it was business as usual for the Idol Machine during last night’s Boston-set season premiere, featuring guest judge Victoria Beckham, her peculiarly positioned lace headband, and her all-time favorite adjective ”nice.” In standard operating procedure, Simon delivered the funny, Kara delivered the ”I’d rather get tasered in the eye than hear this woman utter another word” annoying, and Randy delivered (surprise!) nothing of any real consequence. Wannabes got rewarded as much for their sorrow as for their singing. And a few folks proved so darn likable, they scored free round-trip tickets to Hollywood — return flight presumably redeemable during the first half of Hell Week only.

The only real shocker was the somewhat alarming fact that Ryan Seacrest didn’t lead into the opening credits with a dramatic ”This… is American Idol!” What next? A Project Runway premiere without Tim Gunn uttering ”Carry On.” A Bachelor telecast in which Jake doesn’t surreptitiously admire his own abs? Blasphemy, all round!

But in all seriousness, what does it matter that maybe only one or two of the 15 successful auditioners shown last night have a Kristy Lee’s chance at a Grammy of making it all the way to the Top 10? Or that I’m currently more attached to a shocking orange head-wrap than I am to any individual season 9 singer? If I’m hopping aboard an express train that will use as fuel my free time, my emotional stability, and my ability to make plans every Tuesday and Wednesday from January to May, I might as well start by looking on the bright side.

Which brings me to the subject of the best audition of the night — courtesy of Katie Stevens. Her take on ”At Last” contained the kind of smoke and swing (not to mention emotional depth) that few contestants (let alone teenage ones) would be able to pull off a capella. Yeah, the way the producers cut from footage of Katie singing for her Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandmother to a shot of her singing to Idol‘s judges was as subtle as a flare gun shot off in a linen closet, but at least in this case, raw talent managed to trump formidable back story. If Katie can do on a big stage what she managed to do in a tiny holding room — delight the judges, bring tears to Seacrest’s eyes — she could turn out to be a contender. I’m just surprised Cecile Frot-Coutaz didn’t hire a skywriter to covey Ryan’s final remark on the poised young woman: ”At 16, Katie Stevens is one step closer to becoming the next American Idol.”

NEXT: Tyler Grady gets it on

Similarly, Tyler Grady and Justin Williams brought tough-luck anecdotes to their auditions. The former arrived in bell-bottom jeans, a purple polyester shirt, and matching casts on both of his broken wrists, the result of an unfortunate tree-climbing (!) accident. (I blame the Ents, even though I have no proof.) Naturally, Tyler’s attire inspired an utterly clueless critique from Randy — ”Is this 1961?” — and had me preparing for a classic Idol train-wreck. I mean, seriously, it usually ends up one of two ways for a guy in retro garb doing spastic dance-moves in front of the confessional camera: Simon destroys their dreams and their self-esteem with one withering put-down, or the contestant and the judges end up having a group chuckle at the dude’s haplessness. But nope, this time around, the outcome couldn’t have been more atypical. Tyler opened his mouth and let out a growly, pitch-perfect take on ”Let’s Get It On,” one that was free of nerves and delivered with an unrushed cool that you could find on a shelf somewhere between Anoop Desai and Michael Johns.

Justin also got the ”sympathy edit” from producers, who focused on his successful fight against cancer from seven years ago rather than on his participation in season 8 Hollywood Week alongside fellow ”White Chocolate” members Kris Allen, Matt Giraud, and Asia Morrison. Did Randy, Kara, and Simon really not recognize him (unlikely!) or did some crafty Fremantle/Fox gnome manage to leave any mention of his prior Idol acts on the editing-room floor? Either way, I felt like the details of Justin’s medical triumph cast an undeniable shadow over his pitch-perfect but slightly twee delivery on ”Feeling Good.” (Was it me, or did the rendition lack the wallop of Adam Lambert’s more aggressive season 8 interpretation?) Still, it’s not hard to understand why the judges sent Justin forward, or why the producers gave him plenty of pre-commercial-break promotion: With his spiky hair, carefully manicured stubble, and Crest-white smile, dude looks like he’s one styling session away from a major-label album cover. With so many attributes to inspire, did anyone else find it a little odd that the best Victoria Beckham could do was declare he had a ”nice voice, nice face, nice presence, and nice smile”? Randy, please bequeath the woman your unopened Thesaurus!

Two other potential semifinal prospects emerged last night — and if scientists could magically combine their DNA, then Leah Laurenti and Ashley Rodriguez would form a terrifying super-contestant. As it stands, though, both ladies have some work ahead of them if they want to see their photos in an opening-credits montage next to Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood.

Of the duo, Ashley — who bears a striking resemblance to season 6 champ Jordin Sparks — is perhaps the more promising. Her rendition of ”If I Ain’t Got You” was quite pretty, but a little nondescript, and as I sit here and type this recap, it’s Ashley’s sparkling personality, her inherent star quality, and what appeared to be some eight-inch red spike heels that remain in my mind. Kara’s critique kind of said it all: ”You have the look and the voice to be very commercial.” In other words, is her instrument distinctive enough to stand out when she’s pitted head-to-head against the best undiscovered vocalists in America? Possibly not.

Leah, meanwhile, may actually have what it takes vocally — there was nothing safe or forgettable about the way she tore into ”Blue Skies” like a cheetah into a baby impala — but her energy level comes to a screeching halt the minute the music ends. Oh, and girlfriend may have not have been exposed to secular music as a kid, but I bet there are more flattering ensembles in your average Cabela’s catalog than that too-short, too-drab skirt and ill-fitting gray top she was rockin’.

NEXT: Backstory central

The remainder of the nine successful auditions that aired last night can be broken up into two groups. You can file Bosa Mora, Amadeo Diricco, Joshua Blaylock, Mike Davis, and Maddy Curtis under the heading of ”Don’t Tell Anyone, But Simon Cowell Is a Secret Softie!” As for Jennifer Hirsh, Claire Fuller, Jess Wolfe, Luke Shaffer, and Benjamin Bright, they get filed away under “Kris Allen Commemorative Underdog Slot for Auditioners Who Get Unceremoniously Lumped and Dumped into Rapid-Fire, Pre-Hollywood Packages.” (Whew!)

Bosa, Joshua, Mike, and Amadeo all represented variations on a similar theme: The charming young man who makes for good television, as long as he’s not singing alongside a future David Cook or even a future Chikezie Eze. Seriously, do you remember anything about Bosa’s audition other than his mom’s gorgeous and elaborate head-wrap, and his dad’s tearful reaction to the golden ticket? Did mild-mannered Joshua realize that his Idol dream began and ended with the judges’ bemusement at trying to turn him into a roaring alpha male, and not with his fine but forgettable take on ”God Bless the Broken Road”? Quick: When reminded of Mike’s ”I’m pretty sure I got a date with Kara” quip, can you remember what song he performed?

Oh, and Amadeo, I enjoyed your audition package most of all. Declaring that tasty-looking meal was prepared by ”my dear mother,” inviting America to your family’s home for a weekend dinner party, and crushing a giddy Ryan Seacrest in a testosterone-fueled outpouring of ”you’re goin’ to Hollywood” joy — all priceless TV moments. I just hope that when you’re cut during the first round in Hollywood Week, you’ll lovingly frame that golden ticket and keep it on your office wall, not crumple it up in a flurry of frustration or anger. You may not be a music superstar, but you’ve got one heckuva star personality. And we’ll always have ”Hoochie Coochie Man,” okay?

As for 16-year-old Maddy, whose nerves trembled through an otherwise lovely rendition of ”Hallelujah,” whose deep affection for her four brothers with Down syndrome had me eyeing the Kleenex box, and whose final declaration (”I really enjoyed singing for you”) slayed me hardest of all, would it make me the worst person alive to say that I wish the judges had voted ”No” on a golden ticket? Because the thing is, the girl actually has poise and charm and real talent — or as Simon would explain it, she’s not ”annoying” like so many young contestants — but she could use a couple years to hone her gift, to build her confidence, to have a legit shot at the Idol crown. Maybe I’m overthinking it. Maybe in a world where Norman Gentle got an all-expenses-paid trip to L.A., this ninth kid in a string of 12 siblings deserves a Fox-sponsored vacation and a taste of the dream. If nothing else, maybe she’ll set an example for attention hounds like Pat Ford, that 17-year-old who sang ”Womanizer” and proved Simon’s point about the grating qualities of a teenager mugging for the cameras.

Now before we get on to the bad auditions, let’s give some quick impressions of the rapid-fire golden-ticket holders, since, as Kris proved last year, sometimes they’re well worth reviewing: Jennifer Hirsh’s choice of a skat-fueled ”Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead!” ranks in the top five coolest Idol audition songs of all-time, although I’m not 100 percent sold on her actual performance; Claire Fuller, with her long brown hair and blue tank top, was giving me major Ann Marie Boskovich vibes (she was a season 8 semifinalist, for the uninitiated); bespectacled Jess Wolfe was impressively soulful on that short snippet of ”People Get Ready” and could be a dark horse. On the guys side, dishy Luke Shaffer’s semi-British accent on Secondhand Serenade’s ”Fall for You” made me think of a less warbly Josiah Leming (not a bad thing), while Benjamin Bright’s ”All My Lovin” might’ve been a better fit on Barbershop Idol than our current programming choice.

NEXT: Simon’s glory time

The remainder of the episode, though, turned out to be a time for Simon and Kara to shine — albeit in very different ways. Kara ended up as the object of ridicule while facing off against the most hapless contestants. Have the show’s producers decided to give her the ”buffoon edit” until she gets educated about Studio 54 and the music of early Aerosmith? I couldn’t fathom, for example, why the show was opening with (and spending way too much time) on midriff-exposing Janet McNamara and her obsession with the Idol video game until she mistook Kara for Paula Abdul, then later referred to her (in an interview with Seacrest) as ”the Kara girl on the left.” Later, when trying to reprimand the surly Andrew Fenlon, Kara seemed to suddenly start spouting a mixture of dialogue from a bad late-night Cinemax film and ABC’s SuperNanny. ”You need a spanking! You need a spanking! That’s what you need. You’ve been very naughty!” she shrieked. Oh would that Posh Spice had given her a time-out in a corner of the audition room!

On the other hand, the cranky British judge truly seemed to revel in his role as a voice of reason to the deluded Boston ”vocalists.” Simon mistreatment of Norberto Guerrero — he of the Winger-meets-Army of Lovers coif, silver sequined vest, and chin-strap beard — stung a little, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh at this succinct assessment: ”You sing like a three-year-old girl, you dress like LaToya Jackson, and you have a beard.” That settles that, then. And I almost gave a standing ovation when Simon explained to anime-loving, kimono-wearing Mere Doyle that by crushing her music dreams, he was giving her the best news of her life. His eventual follow-up — ”I would love to fly to the moon, but I can’t. [Brief pause.] Actually, I could.” — was so flawlessly executed, I almost wished for Simon’s sake he could’ve gotten up, exited the room, and ended his Idol run right there. I mean, I hate to see the guy go, but after so many seasons of service, he’s going to be hard-pressed for a better parting shot than that.

What did you think of the season premiere? Did you feel Paula’s absence, or, like me, did you barely notice it? (Well, except that in the absence of the ”Straight Up” singer’s constant interruptions, Simon actually got to finish his sentences.) Did any of tonight’s singers strike you as potential winners? And how did Victoria Beckham rate as guest judge?

Episode Recaps

American Idol

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

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