Season 11 kicks off with some promising auditions in Savannah. Oh, kids!

By Annie Barrett
Updated January 19, 2012 at 07:50 AM EST
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Oooooooo-ee! It’s back! The show we grew up with! Ha, hardly. But these kids — oh, these precious little kids. They all have American Idol scrapbooks and colorful poster boards about their American Idol obsessions that they probably made for class. Ohhhh they’re so young. You’re pretty old, you know?

“Where were YOU when it all started?” Ryan Seacrest’s voice boomed out. I imagined him following that up with an enthusiastic yet mocking, “Which single-digit age were YOU in 2002? Hello? Ma’am?”

And so it begins. Welcome back, olds and kids who know how to read! It’s good to be back. Feels real warm in here. Let’s just pretend The X Factor never happened, okay?

A long and nearly tear-inducing (what? I’m excited!) montage of the past 10 seasons was set to “Forever Young,” which you are not. But come on, now. Do you really want to live forever, or do you want to get a golden ticket to Hollywood in hopes that just maybe you won’t crash and burn like nearly everyone else? Step right up. There’s plenty of room in this line of 10,000 toaster strudels baking in the Southern sun. If a 16-year-old from North Carolina can win, you can do that. You’re gonna go where Scotty McCreery went, dude! Remember, you can do anything.

The auditions kicked off in Savannah, where Steven was “beside himself with the talent.” I’d actually appreciate a Steven Tyler hologram for the live shows. J. Lo would get so pissed. Here we go….

David Leathers Jr. is also known as “Mister Steal Your Girl,” because when he sings all the girls in his vicinity flock around him and ask coyly, “Aren’t you the 12-year-old who once beat Scotty McCreery in a local competition?” He certainly is, and he’s become so famous that he needs sunglasses indoors. David had a solid high-pitched vocal on “Remember the Rain” and, after the judges’ pleas, “Never Can Say Goodbye” in the style of “a young Michael.” I think he’s good, it’s just that WOW is he tiny and I wonder if being a cute little kid with a high voice is just a gimmick he’s riding out. We’ll see. I’m left with two resounding questions. Will David Leathers Jr. ever hit puberty, and what if it’s during the season?!

Also, it’s just so luxurious to think about all the different leathers.

NEXT: Just lemme get a quick hug from Nigel and I’ll be on my way (TO FAME)Now, keeping in mind that anyone who refers to him or herself as a “champion” anything is annoying, champion tap dancer Gabi Carrubba, 16, delivered a clear and sweet vocal on “Sunday Morning” and has a refreshingly natural look. I like her, but the idea of the Idol beautification team swarming her to cake on the clown makeup and whiten her teeth when she’s already sooooo pretty makes me a little sad. Can we get a no-makeup clause on this girl? (Also of note: the Diaper Dancers — one of Gabi’s extracurriculars at age 1 — threw me off a little but to be honest, after watching Dance Moms on Lifetime there is pretty much nothing that can truly shock me.)

Gabi hadn’t journeyed from Connecticut just to sing. “Can I just give Nigel [executive producer Lythgoe] a hug really quick?” she asked. Oh sure, as long as it’s really quick. “Wow, what is this about?” wondered Randy. Um, kissing ass?

Shannon Magrane, 15 — six feet tall, size 11 foot, volleyball player — is a girl after my own heart. I was just like her at that age, except not cute/couldn’t dance. I’m surprised she could get down so well while singing. Tall women notoriously look like huge dorks when they dance, especially on elevated platforms. But this one’s got it all: Nerves of steel, ease of movement (save for the AMAZING moment during her victory lap when she smacked herself into the wall), and a dad who pitched in the world series. Oh, and apparently a decent voice. I wrote down nothing about her vocal on “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” but after watching it back, it’s not that the vocal was bad at all (in fact I enjoyed hearing that song a cappella); it’s just that she’s captivating for different reasons. As long as she doesn’t reveal herself to be a brat, I think people could really enjoy her.

Poor Steven, who couldn’t help himself, heard Shannon’s dad say “hot, humid and happening” and naturally made the connection out loud: “Just like your daughter.” [Needle on the record sound effect!] Pops didn’t like that, but I think Steven had already scored major points by acknowledging that Joe Magrane was a lefty. Flattery can come in so many forms.

Amy Brumfield, 24, had one of my favorite voices of the night — raspy and a bit Crystal-y on Alicia Keys’ “Superwoman.” Amy and her boyfriend live in a tent. Her whole backstory was based on the idea that succeeding on American Idol would get Amy out of the tent, but is that actually what she wants? She seems to really love that tent! And who wouldn’t — it had cabinets and colorful outer-layer-of-the-homestead tarps (thanks, Idol field producers) and a fire pit and a dog humping a slimy old mattress. “The only thing we can do is live in a tent in the woods,” explained Amy, but that’s not really true either, is it? Like, sometimes I find myself telling people “The only thing I can do today is rest up and use the internet,” but it’s really because I don’t want to shower. But I could shower. I guess this analogy doesn’t really work because Amy literally cannot shower. Anyway, Amy the hipsy wanted to make sure she’d be able to pitch a tent outside the Idol mansion if she made it through. “If that’s what makes you comfortable, go right ahead,” sneered J. Lo, who was slumming it herself in a shimmery T-shirt.

NEXT: The triumphant return of Colton “Don’t Make Me Sing” DixonUh oh. Cute grandparents. Stephanie Renae, 15, sang “Inside Your Heaven” by her childhood hero, Carrie Underwood. She was 8, people. 8! Her voice could be so much prettier if she wasn’t trying so hard, but again, she’s 15 and has had a scrapbook featuring a photo of herself watching Carrie on Idol that’s been drilling itself into her consciousness for half of her life, so how could she possibly take it easy? J. Lo commented on Stephanie’s “natural, beautiful vibrato” but then admitted her voice was too nasally. Randy Jackson (oh, hey dawg) had the sense to say no here. Steven suggested Steph “lay on a couple of words that mean something to you so you can get the inflection out,” so from now until Hollywood her parents can expect to hear “I AM THE NEXT AMERICAN IDOL” in many more tonal variations than they’re used to. Was anyone else distracted by the significant bruise under Stephanie’s right eye?

Steven immediately recognized his spirit animal in Schyler Dixon, 16, who is also a fan of feathered hair extensions. She quietly impressed with a soulful rendition of “Break Even” that I liked even though she kept turning “even” into a four-syllable word. But guess who’s got a (non-)famous sibling! Schyler had brought along her 19-year-old brother Colton Dixon, who’d been shut out of last year’s top 24. (The judges chose Brett Loewenstern in the final dramatic sit-down.) The Best Lead Actress in a Reality TV Drama pretended to a) remember Schyler and b) not know that Colton was her brother and that he was waiting in the wings. Hilarious! Upon learning that the judges demanded his presence in the room, Colton gasped: “Oh, no.” Oh, no, I’m totally ready to sing! How awful! Colton went with a bombastic cover of David Cook’s “Permanent” as his sister scowled in the corner. I preferred Schyler’s audition, but I can see a lot of the girls ‘n’ gays loving Colton. No matter what happens, Schyler wins the coveted title of the episode’s best occupation: “Student/Face Painter.”

The producers are clearly invested in Lauren Mink, 25, and I can’t blame them. She’s gorgeous, works as the director of a program for adults with disabilities in Kentucky, and is completely and instantly lovable. I was so happy to finally see a real adult up in the mix that I don’t remember too much about her version of “Country Strong” other than that it was soothing and on pitch — really just a comforting side dish to her solid personality. Lauren looks a lot like Christie Brinkley. Oh shoot. Is everyone watching American Idol too young to know who that is?

Are you doing the Joy Hop right now? I would, but unfortunately the only thing I can do is live in a tent in the woods. 28-year-old Ashlee Altise certainly livened up the premiere with her unique brand of…well, crazy, for sure, but I’m hoping it’s a good crazy. I was convinced she was just your run-of-the-mill legitimately crazy attention fiend before she eased seamlessly from a LOOK AT MY BODY twirl right into her audition song, “Come Together.” I often don’t mind crazy if the crazy in question at least knows what it’s doing. As long as people can sing, I’m good with them, at least during these first few weeks. So the fact that Ashlee was wearing some of the worst camo pants I’ve ever seen and TWO DIFFERENT SHOES was just icing on the nutty fruitcake for me.

W.T. Thompson, 25, quit his job at a federal prison for a chance to audition, even though he and his wife Laura have a baby on the way. “It’s either a job or a dream, and I chose the dream,” he explained. Laura’s response was so bittersweet and filled me with dread: “It’s a dream, you know?” What a wonderful dream it is, to be six and a half months pregnant and have to deliver some shaky optimism to a reality television crew that’s suddenly camping out at your house. W.T. seems like a totally sweet guy and obviously he can sing or none of this would be happening, but the whole segment struck me as a bit too desperate and exploitative. I feel like basically American Idol just inherited the financial responsibility for that baby, and Steven was the only one who found this uncomfortable. I’m with Steven. In fact, Steven Tyler is my future ex-husband. Sorry, Erica Novak from Buffalo! Now please excuse me while I grab his ass. This recap’s about to go hands-free!

Aw, unsolicited groping is adorable. Where were YOU when season 11’s latest Steven Tyler-obsessed camera ho in heat grabbed Steven Tyler’s ass? Never forget.

NEXT: How much would a “Phillip Phillips” go for in a pawn shop? Can Brittany Kerr, the 24-year-old NBA dancer, please be related to Steve Kerr? I’d be so delighted. Anyway, she’s a beautiful blonde Carrie Underwood lookalike who was on pitch and good-looking during her cover of “Spoiled” by Joss Stone. Steven helpfully suggested she “push it out a little bit more” and I don’t think it’s totally out of line to note that Randy likely and sort of inexplicably had pooping on the mind when he would not let the the topic go. “What do you mean, help her get it out?!?!” he incredulously asked J. Lo after she’d encouraged Steven to be a little more explicit in his modest critique. Randy just really wanted to keep talking about that.

Dr. Tyler’s orders: “Listen to some old blues and when it comes tiiiiiiiiiime to siiiiiiiiiiing, project like that.” Sure, no problem. “Okay!” Brittany said peppily, taking care to lift up her cropped sweater and rearrange it because it had made the mistake of covering up most of her crispy fried abs. Jennifer Lopez is not a fan. I am though. She is HOT. (And it’s that easy!)

Phillip Phillips Jr., a 20-year-old pawn shop employee from Georgia, is a great big live wire. His father — Phillip Phillips Sr., of course — used the term “You just swell up, as a man!” to convey his pride in his son. So already we were off to a great start. For a few seconds before he started singing, Phillip’s demeanor reminded me of Jason Segel in that he’s sort of sheepish yet sneaky with a lot of talent up his sleeve. (Random!) He created his own rhythm in a curious but pleasing way on the overdone audition song “Superstition,” but then really fell into a groove once he picked up his guitar to play “Thriller.” I might like his guitar playing even better than his gravely voice, but both contributed to a solid “statement piece” for the end of the premiere. I liked J. Lo’s comment about the “musical electricity” coming out of Phillip — and so did she because she said it twice.

We got a fancy name-on-screen moment of glory for some of the rest of the kids who won a golden chance to make my day: Brianna Faulk, Neco Starr, Molly Hunt, and Elise Testone. There were 42 golden ticket winners in all, most of whom erroneously had not thought to hug Nigel Lythgoe. I particularly enjoyed the heavyset guy in the pink plaid shirt who howled like a wolf to the delight of a pack of girlfriends. He’ll be fun if we ever see him again.

Line of the night: “Are you a runner?” –an old man on the street to West African hopeful Mawuena Kodjo

Esteemed colleague email interlude:

Well, duh. Wouldn’t you?

“You know you’re gonna be a star, right?” J. Lo was shown asking a contestant ever so gently. Oh please. They all do.

Welcome to season 11, everyone!

Tonight and every Wednesday and Thursday, be sure to join MJ Santilli of MJsBigBlog.com, who will be hosting EW’s live blogs during every season 11 telecast. Why watch alone when you can watch with us? It’s not like you live in a tent.

Read more:

Ask Annie anything about ‘Idol’ (or whatever) in the video player below. To see her answers to previous questions, click on the text links below the picture.

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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