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'American Idol' Recap: They Love You, They Love You Not

By Kelsea Stahler, Hollywood.com Staff

It's appropriate that Thursday night's Chicago Auditions episode of American Idol opened with a shot of girl losing her mind as her friend exited the audition room. ""She made it! Oh my God, she made it!"" she screams, jumping up and down as if she's gained a lifetime of energy from her friend's small success. But it all comes crashing down when her friend tells her, the truth is that she didn't make it.

After meeting our judging panel in the season premiere, it seemed we'd learned their ways. They were necessarily ruthless, blunt, but encouraging. But in Chicago, they're unpredictable, crying tears one minute and crying foul the next. We had no idea that when the going got weird, they'd get the cruel giggles - which, in an audition setting is the most soul-wrenching kiss of death. We thought the days of picking a pretty face to go to Hollywood left with Jennifer ""Crushalot"" Lopez. This panel was on point. It turns out, we had no idea what we were talking about.

We also thought that by adding Keith Urban to the panel, we'd actually have Keith Urban on the panel, but midway through auditions, he's got to fly out for a show minutes after he finally helps us understand why he's there: he's a secret wealth of country music knowledge dating back decades upon decades. Oh, right. He's a country music super star. It's hard to remember that when he's sitting next to the glowing beacon of pop music that is Nicki Minaj.

Before Keith leaves, he gets to witness all the easy auditions... and all the worst of the Nicki and Mariah drama. In fact, they figure out their differences after he leaves. Poor country singer man. Let's hope all that time spent banging your head on your desk didn't leave a bruise.

First up is Mackenzie Wasner from Tennessee, who's got shiny blonde hair and smile like a Welch's Juice kid. The country flower isn't afraid of getting in front of the judges because her papa plays piano for Vince Gill and Gill lets her get up on stage all the time. That's right, she's a pure-bred showboater. Lucky for her, she's got the good to back it up. She belts out a little country song with a mix of strength and vulnerability, and Keith is so enraptured he unconsciously (alright I'm assuming that part because he looked hypnotized) let's out a ""yeeeah!"" and compares her to Leanne Womack while Mariah's doing everything she can to make and expression that simply says, ""Duh (darling)."" Just like that, cute little Mackenzie heads off to Hollywood.

After a brief interlude from the first contestant attempting to sing a Mariah song (""Fantasy"" ""sung"" by Austin Earles of Michigan), Nicki finds another opportunity o say she prefers someone awful to Mariah. It was funny and ballsy the first time she did in New York, but now she's just straight-up messing with a lifetime diva, and of all the divas, the one who's invented diva trademarks one through one million. Mariah has earned the right to be the best at what she does, and she's also earned the right to drive Nicki totally bonkers every time an auditioner comes in ready to lay rose petals and Queen Mariah's feet. But to Nicki's credit, some of these girls are a little nuts about it. We were all inspired by Daydream in 1995. Some of us even practiced swishing our hair like Mariah. Let's not all cry about it.

But, the tears keep coming. Especially from Kiara Lanier from Chicago, who's ""so grateful"" to perform for Mariah that she stops Mariah while the music legend is praising her for her beautiful voice, excellent range, and incredible control to thank her for giving her feedback. It's basically Nicki's nightmare, but the girl's pretty amazing so she concedes when it's time to send her to Hollywood.

Nicki's civility doesn't last long, however, and the fight that leaked to the Internet over the summer is soon instigated over something as silly as a little eye shadow. When Stephanie Schimmel, a pretty, blonde Wisconsinite with a touch of 1950s glam, stops in to sing a gorgeous, jazzy little rendition of ""Dream a Little Dream,"" the judges are all wowed with the exception of Nicki. After the votes are cast and Stephanie's got her golden ticket, Nicki says she likes her and in an explanation that is totally legitimate and not at all complete nonsense, Nicki says she didn't vote for Stephanie because they're wearing the same atomic glitter eyeshadow, so they're in competition. Did I write yesterday that these judges really knew what they were doing? Can I still alter that statement?

This nonsense throws Nicki and Mariah into a verbal duel after Mariah's famous ""This is what I deal with at my (forms air quotes) 'job'"" quip, leaving poor Keith sitting in the middle with no defense aside from various configurations of cat activities aimed at pointing out that he's literally in the middle of a catfight. ""She's been drinking catnip!"" he says before his little blonde head is almost lopped off. ""I feel like a scratching post!"" are the only words he can muster after banging his head on the table for 30 seconds. No wonder he needed a mini escape this episode.

But when the fighting stopped for a mere second, it was because of poor Melissa Bush who decided to perform her song while wearing whatever Elvis would have worn if he was a woman starring in a Saturday Night Fever and Xanadu crossover: a halter-top pink body suit with silver accents and stars everywhere they shouldn't be. Of course she's not a good singer, but it's not her outfit or her lack of talent that the judges (except for Mariah, who broadcast that she was not a part of the joke, so don't even think about it, darling) made fun of. It was her name. It's Bush. Get it? Like that thing that goes over a vagina? See how funny it is? We're definitely not used to hearing that name all the time after having a collected 12 years of history with a man named Bush in the White House. And we didn't hear nearly enough of those jokes for those 12 years.

Keeping with some sort of theme (maybe, kind of, sort of, not at all), we meet Gabe Brown bringer of homemade cookies for the judges and good cheer. (Literally, the guy's got jokes!) He's a hearty gentleman with wild hair, and when he starts singing ""Gimme Shelter"" like he's rocking out in front of a stadium crowd, you had to know Randy was going to love it. The guy's good, but he runs the risk of pulling a Casey Abrams and running out of places to take that screaming sound. Mariah, who didn't trust his cookies on first sight either, insists on hearing a softer song, but he still ends it his own rocker way. Nonetheless, all four judges send him through to Hollywood.

But clearly, we've enjoyed too much success. Even poor Xanadu girl wasn't spectacularly bad. It's time for the guy who lists what he does as ""computer animation, video production, and dancing"" and who spends his lead-in video throwing large wooden rods into Lake Michigan and hopping around. I'm not going to lie, I hate ""this guy"" and the point during every Idol audition circut when he must appear, but the character of ""unbelievable weirdo"" is an apparent Idol necessity. He sings (or recites like an auctioneer slurring his speech after 10 or so Red Bull Vodkas) ""One Week"" by Bare Naked Ladies, before moving on to ""Sailing"" for which he somehow gives his voice the quality of that laser beam that once threatened to saw James Bond in half. It was bad, and luckily Mariah had some resolute advice for the clearly misguidedguy: ""It's not for you... probably."" I suppose that was her effort to soften the blow, but that could mean he'll come back next year knowing all the words to ""One Week"" and possessing muscles no larger than his current ones because throwing sticks into lakes is not real exercise.

That's not the last thing poor Keith has to see before he heads out to his very urgent conflicting concert. Luckily, 15-year-old Isabelle Parrell stops in and asks him to sing a few lines of her audition song, ""Baby It's Cold Outside,"" with her, in a move clearly concocted by the same parents who dressed her like Meryl Streep at a luncheon. (She's 15! It's summer! Give the girl a sun dress!) Despite my quarrels with her wardrobe, Isabelle was actually very sweet and she had a great tone with a rather mature sound. Still, she felt a little subdued. Unfortunately, Randy is the only one who agreed with me, and the groupsent her through. She's sweet, but let's face it: she's going to get pummeled during Hollywood week.

As soon as Keith is out the door (or as the editors start splicing in scenes after his departure), Nicki lets her tongue roll out of her head like a horny wolf cartoon. Her series of catcalls ends momentarily with Griffin Peterson from Wisconsin, who is a certifiable babe. When it comes to his voice, he's a dime a dozen singer-songwriter type (we don't need another Tim Urban this season, you guys). But Nicki and Mariah are out of their minds with this guy, leading Nicki to roll out a lecture on how attractive, mildly talented men sell out arenas every day. With Keith gone, Randy is helpless to stop the lust train. And here, we thought these judges were doing so well. That boy is going to get swallowed whole in this competition.

Next: Will Nicki and Mariah really get past their squabbles?

Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler

[Photo Credit: Fox]

More:

Colton Dixon Live Blogs the American Idol Season 12 Premiere

'American Idol' Recap: I Heart the Judges

'American Idol' Auditions: 10 Things That Will Get You on TV

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With Nicki and Mariah so close, it only took one more agreement to bring them together: Curtis Finch Jr. He sings ""God Is Able"" with a smooth, luscious voice that may be one to watch for. He obviously gets a ticket to Hollywood, right before Nicki and Mariah have a moment of agreement and unity. But if you think that's permanent, you'd be very, very wrong.

Following all those good feelings is a string of more happy endings. (I know, I was shocked too.) Mariah Pulice bonds big time with Mariah over their shared name and the fact that they have both struggled with body image. Pulice explains that bullying drove her to anorexia, and that music is all that's kept her on a healthy track. Her sweet rendition of ""Let It Be,"" tinged with the reality of her struggle, wins over the judges, but it's unclear whether or not it will be enough when the competition gets tough. The stories of hardship continue with Brandi Neeley from Louisville. She was adopted by her aunt because her parents made some decisions that made them unable to care for her, we don't learn was those decisions were, but with a move this drastic, they must have been serious. The spritely blonde is one of the first to profess her love for a judge other than Mariah (it's Keith), and she sings ""Your Cheating Heart"" with the great big country voice Idol hopes for every year. She's solid, or as Mariah put it: ""Cool bean salad."" The mark of Mariah becoming a mother? Signs point to yes, but no matter what is going on with that phrase, we'll see more of Brandi in Hollywood.

Brandi is followed by the decent, but somewhat bland Josh Holiday who sings ""Back at One"" like he's in a Lawrence Welk variety hour; Courtney Williams from Mississippi, who's a cute 17-year-old girl with a big ol' voice; and Andrew Jones who sang ""Knock on Wood"" like a classic soul singer. Three more tickets to Hollywood come down the line and things are starting to feel a little more positive than expected in the audition room.

It should be time for an awful singer, but we get a sweet little story about Clifton Duffin who's never sung for his parents despite having a sweet voice. Ryan Seacrest sneaked them into his audition, so his mother could cry tears of joy hearing him sing her favorite song ""Superstar"" by The Carpenters. It turns out the judges aren't as heartless as everyone feared after the first episode. They send Clifton and his strong voice to Hollywood, where hopefully, he can work on his transitions a bit.

Ieisha Cotton quickly brings it all down, and brings the judges back to the land of snappy comments, when she tries and fails to sing ""Thankful"" with any shred of competency. Randy, who's clearly growing tired of all the posturing and the droning on by both Nicki and Mariah, cuts to the chase: ""Baby, you're tone deaf.""Way harsh, dawg. But also, that girl needs to hear it, especially since she's now confused by the moment Mariah got turned around and accidentally gave her a ""yes."" Luckily, the first ""yes"" isn't legally binding, and even if it was there were three no's to keep Ieisha from Hollywood embarrassment.

Here's where I should talk about how Johnny Keyser made his triumphant return after getting the boot last year. Johnny comes back with ""Try a Little Tenderness"" and it's nice, but it's the same as it was last year: he's hitting all the right notes, but he's not really feeling the song. But Johnny is in luck, because Randy loves when good singers give the show another shot, Keith is looking at him with dreamy eyes, and Nicki and Mariah are so charmed they start fighting again. It's just not a good sign when I'm more amused by how perfectly Mariah does the annoyed diva hair swipe than I am by the singer on the stage.

Before delivering a Les Miserables parody reel of terrible singers pulled from the lyrics of the most distressing Les Mis song in the entire score, Idol earned a little credit for pointing out how judgmental we are (because we've watched these audition episodes too many times and have been taught to be that way, but no biggie). Kez Ban is presented as nothing sort of a text-book Idol weirdo. She rocks an androgynous look, wears combat boots wrapped in caution tape, does tricks with fire, and is completely aware that someone as uncommon as she is a prime target for the ""blooper reel."" But when she steps in front of the judges and starts to sing, first ""Pinocchio"" and then a song she wrote with a friend, it's clear that Kez is immensely talented (though the part where she named her origin as ""North Carolina, Planet Earth"" had me worried for a second). Her old world vocals hearken back to classic singers like Billie Holiday without losing their modern edge. She's truly a great find, but I worry that mainstream America will balk at her unique appearance if she makes it past Hollywood week. I hope upon all hopes that I'm wrong.

Before we're free to go, two more singers cross our path. First, the worst: Ashley Curry a musical theater student who should really consider a new major. Or at least a vocal coach. Ashley attempts ""Mama Knows Best"" (which is quickly becoming the most overused song of the 2013 auditions) and she murders it, in the way that the song is now twitching on the floor in a bloody mess, and not in the sense that it was in any way fantastic. The thing about this girl is that she's got the pipes, but no idea what to do with them. It's something Nicki points out, suggesting Ashley work with a vocal coach so that she can use her voice instead of sounding like an SNL parody of a musical theater student. But things get weird when Ashley won't stop singing. The girl truly believes she's amazing and that these four people have just misheard her. When laughter errupts (so much so that Mariah has to face the window to keep from showing just how hard the giggles hit her), Ashley is in such disbelief that she just starts again until the security guard has to physically make her leave. Were the judges' reactions cruel? Absolutely. But anyone who continues to sing over the judges after they've told them ""no"" needs some sort of wake-up call that no one in their day to day life is willing to give them.

Finally, Idol completes its pattern with a tear-jerker at the end. Twenty-one-year-old Lazaro Arbos moved to the U.S. from Cuba, but developed a debilitating stutter that keeps him from making friends. As his parents explain, all he has aside from them is music. Naturally, it's an enourmous relief that when he sings ""Bridge Over Troubled Water"" he's got a nice, pleasant voice with some decent strength to it. Unlike Evan Ruggiero, who some fans thought cruelly cast out during New York auditions, Lazaro has a strong enough voice and a connection to his audience that earns him the ticket. His story simply earned him the final spot on the last day of auditions for dramatic effect, but it isn't the reason he's got a golden ticket.

With just two audition episodes down, it's clear there's a lot more to this brand new, spastic judging panel than we could possibly know now. But whatever they've got up their sleeves, I'm in. Between the honest (sometimes brutally so) feedback, the ruthlessness, and the fact that when at least one of the judges (Mariah) praises someone's voice she explains it in a way that actually says something other than gobbelty-gook roughly translated to ""I like it,"" this new panel is actually exactly what this show needs... as long as Nicki and Mariah keep their fighting from reaching the hair-pulling zone.

Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler

[Photo Credit: Fox]

More:

Colton Dixon Live Blogs the American Idol Season 12 Premiere

'American Idol' Recap: I Heart the Judges

'American Idol' Auditions: 10 Things That Will Get You on TV

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