Clay Aiken had a point. The former "American Idol" contestant (second place, Season 2) and onetime congressional nominee (Democrat, North Carolina) caused a bit of a foofaraw this week when he tweeted his dissatisfaction with the show's current panel of judges.
"Well ... now I know why the ratings are down," Aiken wrote in response to the show's final season premiere on Wednesday, calling Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr. "boring" and chiding them for failing to react more emphatically to an untalented aspiring contestant.
Although I cannot, in all honesty, say I miss Cowell's brand of self-satisfied nasty, Aiken's irritation with "Idol's" current judging panel is not unjustified. On Thursday night's episode, the judges consistently spoke over or physically interrupted the auditions of some of the season's more promising contestants, preventing the us from being able to hear and respond to them ourselves. Lopez's steady flow of commentary prompted one talented performer to express concern that he had completely flubbed his audition. But Connick is clearly the worst offender, employing the broadest array of disruptive tools: leaving in the middle of one audition ("Keep singing," he told the confused contestant) and in the beginning of another, only to reappear behind the singer and frighten him with a bear hug at a key lyrical moment.
What's more, in one instance, Connick expressed a willingness to put through to Hollywood a contestant who was a complete train wreck: She insulted Urban, repeatedly forgot her lyrics and came across as woefully adrift. Thank goodness for Urban, who seemed as aghast as the rest of us at Connick's shockingly low standards. "You so don't seem ready for this at all," Urban told the contestant, Californian Sarah Hayes, 26, of Middletown. "Emotionally, physically, mentally, everything was just unstable."
So much for all that talk about setting a higher bar than ever for the show's farewell season.
Successful contestants from Thursday's episode, which scanned for talent in Little Rock, Ark., and San Francisco, included:
Cameron Richard, a 15-year-old from Raceland, La., who hasn't let being born with a cleft palate stand in the way of his dreams. The judges gave him lots of love for his rendition of Ed Sheeran's "Give Me Love." Lopez said she loved his voice and his passion, and Connick said he looked "like a young Paul McCartney" when he sang.
Daniel Farmer, 24, from Memphis, Tenn., who set out to impress Lopez, especially, with his resonant, vocal-run-filled performance of D'Angelo's "How Does It Feel," and succeeded. "You know, for me, funny and sexy go together," Lopez told Connick, as Farmer was singing. "There is a confidence for both." Connick and Urban warned the passionate young man about vocal-run overkill, but all three voted to put him through.
Dalton Rapattoni, a 19-year-old School of Rock vocal coach from Dallas, who excited the judges even more with his unorthodox, singer-songwritery take on "The Phantom of the Opera." Lopez admired the way Rapattoni blended "soft and hard" into something "really unique and special." Urban commended his artistry. And Connick said Rapattoni's audition had been one of his favorites ever "because he took that song and sang it the way he wanted to sing it."
La'Porsha Renae, a 22-year-old mom and call-center worker from McComb, Miss., who escaped an abusive relationship and found inspiration in her incredibly adorable 7-month-old daughter. She brought her daughter to the audition and handed her over to Lopez before singing a soulful "Creep" by Radiohead. Urban loved her "fresh take," and he and his fellow judges admired Renae's vocal runs. Urban predicted she'd give the other singers in the competition a "run for their money" or, he quipped, "some vocal runs for their money." See what he did there?
Trent Harmon, a 24-year-old Mississippi cattle rancher who observed that, to make it in music, you have to leave the farm. "You can sing to cows all you want. I been doing it for a long time," he said. "They don't clap. They don't care. They don't buy albums." Lopez talked all the way through Harmon's performance of "Unaware" by Allen Stone, which seemed to unsettle Harmon, but then she reassured him that she'd only been expressing surprise that he was an R&B, rather than a country, singer and that she was "blown away." Connick said that, "bar none," it was his "favorite audition" so far and called Harmon a "natural talent."
Brooke Sample, a 28-year-old waitress from Tucson, Ariz.., whose penchant for apologizing was played for laughs, but who proved she had nothing to be sorry for with her take on the Dixie Chicks' "Cold Day in July." Lopez thought America might eat up Sample's self-deprecating charm – like, let's say, a salad slathered in ranch dressing. But Connick thought Sample should unapologetically leave the "sorry" behind. "You owe yourself a little confidence," he said.
Californian Olivia Rox, a 15-year-old from a "family of entertainers" in Aurora Hills. (Her dad is jazz saxophonist Warren Hill.) Rox showed off her own musical chops with Bruno Mars' "When I Was Your Man," accompanying herself on the piano. Connick called her an "extraordinarily talented kid." Urban added that he found her "unique" and "refreshing."
Jessica Clark, Ameet Kanon and Kayla Mickelson, whose individual successes prompted Connick to worry at the preponderance of talented young women in the contestant pool. (That's a worry?)
Melanie Tierce, a 21-year-old student from California, who gave Lopez "goosies" and brought Urban to tears with her performance of "Rise Up" by Andra Day. Connick, who had, for mysterious reasons, gotten up and walked away from the judging table mid-song, nevertheless called it an "absolutely stunning" performance, "one of the best auditions I've heard in three years as a judge."
Malie Delgado, a 20-year-old morning-radio host from Anchorage, Alaska, who also happens to be Miss Alaska 2015 (and, if YouTube doesn't lie, a former contestant on "The X Factor"). Her rendition of Gretchen Wilson's "Chariot," on which she also rapped, prompted Lopez to call her a "super strong" performer with a "great voice," Connick to say something about a "dog fight," and all of the judges to declare her a "star."
Brandyn Burnette, 25, from St. Louis, Mo., who played the piano and sang an emotionally and vocally resonant original song called "Lost," a risky choice that paid off. Ryan Seacrest, who had been sitting in for Connick at the judges' table, which freed Connick up to sneak up on poor Burnette from behind as he performed, said he had "felt the emotion" and was "impressed." "I'd like to think you're the first guy that's ever had four yeses … this season," Urban said.
Krysti Jewell, 15, of Arcadia, whose family freely admitted to being "obsessed" with "American Idol" and may well be, as they said, its "biggest … fans ever." Her father looked as if he might faint when the whole family was welcomed into the audition room to meet the judges. And when his daughter miraculously made it through with her (not great) take on Jesse J's "Mama Knows Best," he declared it to be "the greatest moment in our whole lives -- other than when she was born."
Tristan McIntosh, 15, of Nashville, whose audition brought the two-night premiere to a close on an emotional note. The talented teen's mom, a major in the Army who has been deployed overseas, made a surprise appearance after her daughter wowed the judges a performance of Mickey Guyton's "Why Baby Why" that Lopez said gave her "goosies" on both her legs and her arms and reminded her of her good friend Alicia Keys. "Do you really think I would miss this?" McIntosh's mom told her teary daughter. Later, Lopez said, "She might win. I'm just saying."