The Windy City singers inspire, while Keith Urban wants to crawl in a hole and die

By Annie Barrett
Updated January 18, 2013 at 11:57 AM EST

American Idol

S12 E2
  • TV Show

Happy sigh! I went into “Auditions No. 2” bracing myself for an even worse display of Diva vs. Diva than Wednesday’s premiere — and don’t get me wrong, the Mariah-Nicki Get Up Out My Face 2013 feud is still annoying. But the Chicago auditions showcased so much talent — 16 featured golden ticketers! — that the warring egos simply weren’t awarded enough screen time to completely muck up the episode. Plus, the Adler Planetarium was the best possible venue from which to provide a sweeping backdrop of downtown Chicago –home of the meat wave, deep-dish pizza and during the ’80s and ’90s, me. Gotta love that lake effect!

Pricey Real Doll Nicki Minaj continued to bulldoze the judging panel and call all the shots, which, just — huh? How and why? This is not pleasant. Sherbet Head has had plenty of solid critiques so far, but how has no one stepped in to remind her she is not the director of American Idol? Where the eff is the babysitter?!

Breathe. Good contestants. Here they are.

First up: Tennesseean Mackenzie Wasner, a darling, sickly sweet blonde with major Christie Brinkley face and just about the purest singing voice y’all ever did hear. I loved her mild-mannered dad — a piano-playing singer-songwriter who’s performed with Vince Gill for years but seems like the most unassuming creature on the planet. Vince has even called 17-year-old Mackenzie onstage. Her cover of “Whenever You Come Around” was lovely and perfectly pitched, but Nicki Minaj overdid it a bit with the whole “someone like you comes in this room once every few years” bit.

Chicago native Kiara Lanier, 21, would have gushed about how much Mariah Carey had inspired her (a fellow multi-racial human) for much longer had Nicki Minaj not brutally Kiara her off with one of her Nanny-est “So what are you gonna SING for us today?”s to date. the judges loved the way Kiara went in out of loud and soft with so much control on “The Prayer,” and Keith Urban mostly liked her sassy outfit (blue printed pants, cropped leather jacket). “You look great! This is the thing,” he announced. My, he learns quickly.

Lingerie sales associate Stephanie Schimel… do I even need to go on? She is through. I love when contestants audition with old-fashioned songs like “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” and the Milwaukee Dream Angel had a lovely tone, albeit one that could easily get drowned out by more powerful singers. Keith called Stephanie “a Carrie Underwood/Gwen Stefani blend,” and I guess he was talking about her voice but considering they’re all fluffy yellow-haired people, maybe not. Looks-wise, I was thinking The Bachelorette‘s Emily Maynard crossed with Playboy lifer Holly Madison. Nicki wasn’t wowed, which I actually understood.

“Doesn’t she look like a star?” wondered Keith. “I don’t think she feels like a star,” claimed the leopard-print DiscWoman, who then devolved into a RIDICULOUS motormouthed rant about how Stephanie was wearing the same ugly purple eye shadow as her, which meant they had a “rivalry,” but then Stephanie complimented Nicki so it was okay, and Mariah was like “Aw hell, this is what I have to put up with at my [AIR QUOTES] job,” and ugh seriously I can’t even go on, it’s all so meaningless and shouty.

“I feel like a scratching post,” Keith Urban softly admitted in a cry for help. No one could help him. Scratching posts don’t have the same rights as cats!

How about a nice “deep-tissue massage” from a delusional woman in an unidentifiable costume?

Please don’t go “Downtown,” pleaded Ryan and, a few minutes later, millions of viewers. But she did. It was awful.

NEXT: Let’s get baked! “I’m actually a baker,” revealed Iowa native Gabe Brown, and really are there any other words a cuddly, kind-hearted man ever has to say? Sold! to the hungry recapper on the couch. Gabe basically screamed his way through “Gimme Shelter,” but it was a controlled, well-tuned scream. Crazy, definitely. But good. And fun — upon Gabe’s first bellow, Keith Urban looked alive for the first time during his long and arduous tenure as a scratching post. “WOOOOOT! I LOVED IT!” yelped Keith, bouncing around in his seat. But neither cat would play with the eager puppy. Nicki begrudgingly admitted to Gabe that “when you do rock, I believe it,” and “it feels truthful to you.” Yeah! Rock god!

The hits kept coming — Keith was so smitten by his “Baby It’s Cold Outside” duet partner Isabelle Parell, 15, that he forgot he had already praised her following the audition. Her voice is very smoky-cool but I wish it was even more distinctive because I just think she’ll get lost in the crowd in Hollywood. This is someone I’d want to watch on-screen 24/7 — like Mariah said, Isabelle has this humble and adorable spirit you don’t see that often, plus an exquisite “droopy in a good way” face. She was basically a giant drop of fresh dew with a Victorian lace overlay — a pure delight, but probably not the next American Idol.

Let’s not forget Mariah’s first comment to Isabelle: “I think I was very happy to hear a Christmas song, because [haunted, knowing crescendo] I love Christ-MAS!” Good lord.

Isabelle’s dad was funny, grilling the camera guys on how much action they got due to their sexy, sexy jobs.

Anyone else vote for Owen?

“Bieber don’t do dis to me!” Griffin Peterson is a 22-year-old Cheesehead with no girlfriend, and Nicki Minaj probably would have scurried over to molest him physically instead of just verbally had she not feared her meteorite hat might fall off and render her a melted pile of galactic matter with no connection to her home planet. Kid sang one tiny verse of “Washed By The Water” and the cats had decided he could sell out arenas purely on the basis of being a hottie. Maybe they’re right! He really was cute, with a Phillip Phillips everyman allure. (A lot of people have that, actually. I might start calling them Phillips Heads.)

I’m a huge fan of friendly, boisterous Curtis Finch Jr., who recognized an optimal improv moment after Randy exclaimed in wonder that he had just called Smokie Norfolk the night before. “Well next time you talk to him, Randy, you tell him God Is Able….” and he was off singing. Nicki, Randy, and Mariah (the scratching post had to jet off early for a concert) totally dug “Finchy'”s smarts and right away you can tell he’ll be a favorite.

The Gospel hand is up! Finchy had the runs, and Mimi approved.

NEXT: Don’t you dare make me cry — I’m wearing 800 layers of makeup! So I pretty much lost it during Mariah Pulice‘s anorexia backstory, and I’m guessing most women watching did, too, because we’ve all either been there or had to watch a friend, sister, teammate, or you name it deal with this terror. Eating disorders are all around, and I like that Idol tugged at the heartstrings in a not too exploitative way. Mariah’s “Let It Be” was surprisingly strong and on-pitch for someone who’d just been crying. I’m not sure it’s a standout voice, but the segment as a whole was such good TV.

Eventually, Mariah’s entire support system trickled in to congratulate her, and a blonde woman was thrashing her fists at the judges, “Thank you for giving her a chance! Please, thank you so much” It was fascinating to watch Mariah and Nicki struggle to make sense of such an outpouring of raw emotion from the proletariat. You could tell they might have wanted to just join in and sob openly — but that’d mean an extra hour to fix makeup, which would halt production….so the only thing to do was cover their faces with their scary talons and avoid eye contact, taking only occasional peeks. Ah, the humanity!

Shall we brighten things up? Oh, gladly. Louisville fireplug Brandy Neelly‘s cover of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” was inspired and like nothing I’ve heard during an Idol audition, so for that alone she’s one of my faves. I feel like she could be versatile beyond country, and apply that twang in her voice to rock or pop. She’s sassy without seeming like she’s deliberately acting so. That’s always refreshing.

Now, a trio of quicker-hit yeses as the “stars were just beginning to appear” on Day 2. I ended up cringing at Josh Holiday‘s botched falsetto at the end of his “Back at One” verse, but that’s precisely what Mariah seemed to love. He’s cute enough and I think I spotted abs when he leapt off the ground in triumph. I guess if they like him that much, they’ll fix his hair (serious case of Ambiguous Pet On Head) and take advantage of his eager-beaver blind faith. Courtney Williams (“Who’s Lovin’ You”) and Andrew Jones (“Knock On Wood”) scored even less screen time. Courtney’s vibrato was the best of the episode, and Andrew brought some much-appreciated rhythm and energy to his foot-stomping performance. Randy made a hilarious “eek!” face when Andrew ruined everything by saying “I wanna be a star for you, Randy.” Dude, this isn’t The Voice! There are rules.

NEXT: Ryan desperately wants Clifton Duffin’s parents to adopt him Clifton Duffin, 22, had never sung in front of his parents. Crazy! Well, not really — I’m sure they might have seen him perform in ensembles and things like that, but he seemed like a relatively shy guy who’s not the type to roam around the house showing off. His dad seemed the same way and I just found this three-person fam so compelling and sweet. I feel like I’ve met this family thousands of times. Suburban Chicago, man. Good people. Salt of the earth. For some reason I became obsessed with Randy’s handshake with Clifton’s dad — the way he looked straight into dad’s eyes and called him “sir.” Any time there’s solid (not played up for the cameras) human interaction between the plebes and the celebs, I just go bonkers. Always have. I’ll study it — like, in slo mo — extensively. It’s sort of sick. I’m not well. Sorry, this is boring. Who cares about my viewing habits?

ANYWAY, Clifton chose one of his mother’s favorite songs to make the major TV moment even more profound. Clifton’s strong, clear, controlled voice trilled out “Superstar,” his parents gasping at their son’s raw talent from the sidelines as their Precious Moments benefactor Ryan Seacrest videobombed them from behind.

“My work here is done.”

UPDATE: OMG. Life is complete.

Hey, here’s a familiar face. Johnny Keyser, 23 — he of the chiseled jawline and two of the biggest, bluest peepers you could possibly imagine — tried out a little tenderness on the judges. I liked him! I barely remember him from last year, but liked the way he kept this Otis Redding cover pleasantly upbeat with some ferocious, in-it-to-win-it snaps. Once the alien queen generously allowed beta diva “Carey” to speak, Johnny broke into tears as she called him “a star, in my opinion.” He was probably just relieved to have the attention back on him. Nicki was aggressively awful here, telling Mariah “You’re dismissed” (?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!!) and focusing on her own bitchery against Mariah so hard that the best hackneyed critique she could offer Johnny is that he had a “twinkle in his eye.” WEEEEEEEEEEEAK.

Okay, wow. Best audition of the night, the season, maybe even a couple seasons, maybe even ever: Kez Ban is a mighty weird lady, a true individual, a fire performer who writes her own songs. What’s she doing here? (She barely knew the answer, either, which made all of this even better.) Kez Ban sang an original tune called “Wandering” and really came alive once she’d seamlessly picked up her guitar and started playing — all, remarkably, within about five seconds during the song! The ’90s teenager in me wants to call the folksy alto a hybrid of ani di franco and Aimee Mann. All I know is I want to listen to a whole album of hers, right now. She’ll never fit into this show and I won’t trick myself into believing that would ever work. But it’d be great if she could get signed via exposure on Idol, or at least develop a larger local following. Gah, imagine if every audition they decided to show was like this!

What the hizzell is with the judges asking whether people are in relationships? Nicki was doing it to all the hot guys and then Keith of all people grilled Kez Ban right away. Rude and weird and not the point. Stop that. Not a good look.

NEXT: Stammertime Last up was the much-promoted miracle story of 21-year-old ice cream scooper (!) Lazaro Arbos from Naples, Florida. Born in Cuba, his profound stutter began at age 6 and only intensified after he moved to the U.S. at 10. There were times he couldn’t speak at all, and his mother had to say everything for him. Eventually, she recalled, “I would just say ‘Sing to me! Sing to me!’”

“Since he is always alone and has few friends,” said his father, “music is his life.” (This is when I really started to sob.)

Sure, Lazaro’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” cover was not objectively the best vocal in history, but man did it pack a punch as all the tension everyone (judges, viewers, Lazaro) had felt during the speaking portion of the audition melted away thanks to the power of music. He has a beautiful tone and a good sense of light and shade, taking care to end the verse at a just-soft-enough volume. The stutter disappears when he sings — “You should sing all the time,” suggested Keith Urban. Ah, if only life was Les Miserables! (Just in this case.)

Whew! Crying can be fun. I feel like a jerk admitting this, but I do enjoy a side dish of human suffering along with my songs. (MY STORIES!)

Oh, and this is totally Colton’s sister, returning contestant Schyler Dixon.

I’m guessing she did well.


Indeed! You just did.

Your thoughts on “Auditions No. 2”? Discuss!

Follow @EWAnnieBarrett

Read more:

Lazaro Arbos: Best ‘American Idol’ audition ever?

Season 12 premiere recap: Mean Girls

‘Idol’ premiere ratings are down

‘American Idol’: 12 Wishes for Season 12

Mariah Carey gets the Nicki Minaj phone call: A very special ‘American Idol’ dramatization

Ask Annie anything about ‘Idol’ — or whatever — below.

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