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Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 01/19/2012

‘American Idol’: Season 11 kicks off with auditions in Savannah, Ga.


Look who’s back! (Warwick Saint - Fox)

It’s year 11, the start of the second decade for “American Idol.” And, a few seconds into the show, we get how they’re going position themselves for these troubled times, what with “The Voice” and “X Factor” nipping at the franchise. We see a parade of “Idol” hopefuls performing on home videos back when they were kids, with audio quotes like, “this is what I’ve been waiting to do my whole life.” Another kids says “It’s like an icon of American society.” “American Idol”: steady, reliable, always there -- an institution, not like that pack of new guys. “American Idol”: The Mitt Romney of Singing Competitions!

This decade’s first chosen Audition City is Savannah, GA, and we see the judges arriving and show prepping with candid quotes like JLo saying, “I’m so happy to be back with Randy and Steven. They’re like my family now.”

Could she have known last summer during the auditions that she was fated to file for divorce from her husband, Mark Anthony? It’s eerie!

Steven Tyler’s arrival features a fun put-down of a local TV reporter who asks him how Savannah is treating him. “Great, but I didn’t know you knew her,” he responds. And Ryan brings it back on message, letting us know that “we’ll never stop believing in you.” “A new beginning, Season One-One, a new beginning!” Randy enthuses.

Everything seems pretty much like the old beginnings so far, though Ryan promises something new this year: contestants will be documenting their own journeys with the cameras in their phones which, if tradition holds true, will turn out to be some kind of phone company sponsorship thing.

First wannabe Idolette: 17-but-looks-12 David Leathers, Jr. who says that a couple year ago he beat “Idol” winner Scotty McCreery in some competition or another, and also assures us he’s known at school as Mr. Steal Your Girl. We see him sidling up to an older chick in the audition waiting room and extracting her phone number from her. He’s going to audition with 21st Century’s “Remember the Rain,” performed in the voice of a young Michael Jackson, prompting the judges to ask him to do some Michael Jackson -- and he’s through, though heaven help him if his voice changes.

Next up: 16-year-old Gabi Carrubba, who’s dreamed of auditioning for “Idol” her entire life. She enters the audition room and asks to hug – exec producer Nigel Lythgoe! Smart girl! Though she’s a championship tap dancer, her dream is to make Steven Tyler do his “happy face. She sings “Sunday morning” and he does, indeed, put on his happy face. JLo thinks Gabi sounds like Luther Vandross.

Lots of talent in Savannah – one of the best starts to the show ever, Ryan and Randy tell us. And if there’s ever a warning sign there’s Bad Singing Ahead, a statement like that on “Idol” is that sign. So after a medley of good-ish singers, next up is 19-year-old Jessica Whitely who sings “In This Song” by Charice, very loud, from the back of her throat, with all the conviction of someone who’s performed in pageants.

“Awful. I don’t even know if I’d call that singing,” says Randy, who is also signaling that Mr. Nice Randy from seasons past is dead and buried. Jessica vows to audition again in Texas. JLo wonders if someone can advise her not to make the drive.

Seacrest currently is in negotiations to determine whether he stays with “Idol” beyond this season. Not to worry – loads of people would like his gig, including Shaun Kraisman. Kraisman looks like Ryan Seacrest a lot and even sounds like Ryan Seacrest. “This…Is American Idol!” he gets to say repeatedly. We can imagine the offers pouring in after tonight from celebrity look alike services.

“Will you work for half of Ryan’s pay?” Randy Jackson asks. It would have been really entertaining if Shaun had opened his mouth to sing and looked like Ryan Seacrest but sounded like Luther Vandross. But no, his singing is probably like Ryan Seacrest’s, and he’s out.

Shannon Magrane, a big strapping 6-footer at only 15 years old, and pretty, too, turns out to be the daughter of former Cardinals pitcher Joe Magrane, so the judges invite the whole, large family to stand around her while she sings and – they are so white, and yet Shannon is so soulful singing Christina Aguilera’s “Something’s Got A Hold On Me,” it just shows how quirky a thing musical talent is. Lucky, Shannon can’t see her mother trying to upstage her by lip-synching behind her back. Shannon gets her ticket to Hollywood.

A parade of horrible audition, seen in brief clips, follows. “AI” used to really dwell on freaks, but not so much in this season -- or maybe they’ve just raised the bar on freak appeal.

We’ve seen homeless-shelter contestants on “AI” before but this is hitting a new low for pitiable: Amy Brumfield lives in a tent in the woods near Gatlinburg, TN, with her boyfriend. We get a video tour of her tent, boyfriend, and dog; it’s pretty primitive but the “American Idol” Documentary Unit is known for its unflinching investigative pieces and they’re not going to pretty up this one. Amy is perky and upbeat about her situation and by now we’re all praying that she can sing at least a little so she can check into a hotel in Hollywood on “AI”’s dime and take a nice hot shower. She can! She has an interesting, bluesy, raspy style, performing “Superwoman” by Alicia Keys. “The sprits of the children of the woods snuck into you,” says Tyler. “You’re a hipsy!” chimes in JLo. Anyway, Amy will get her shower.

Joshua Chavis, a young man from Camden, SC who dreams of singing the national anthem at a NASCAR race, is very tightly wound and looks like a promising candidate for – maybe the first contestant to have to be escorted out by security, is that too much to hope for? To let off tension he let’s out a scream before going to the audition room, then crashes into some scaffolding from the set. His voice is party-entertainment level and the advice he should really get is to channel his inner rage into his singing, but in rejecting him the judges aren’t specific. JLo just says he’s “not up to par,” but Randy, who’s really trying out for the role of The Punisher for Season One-One says “I’m going to help you out: Terrible.” Disappointedly Joshua leaves without a security escort but does shout at the camera crew to stop following him out into the parking lot and quite rightly, too, we think.

Nerves are getting the best of 15-year-old Stephanie Rene, who was a kid the year Carrie Underwood won “Idol.” But she pulls herself together and sings a song through her nose for the judges. And yet, they appear to like it, though they did notice the nasal bits. Randy’s the only judge with the sense to say “no,” which means Stephanie goes to Hollywood.

Schyler Dixon auditioned with her brother last year but is auditioning alone this time around. The judges tell her to bring brother Colton into the room and then proceed to fawn all over him. Each sibling sings, after which Schyler is dismissed with a curt “you’ve come up a couple notches,” while Colton is told “You’re amazing!” This will be good training for Schyler as she enters the workplace in the entertainment industry. They’re both given tickets to Hollywood. “Well, that was unexpected,” Schyler says, understandably irked.

Lauren Mink seems very nice, is cute and blonde, a little old by “Idol” standards, but works with people with disabilities, and is a talented country singer. The total package, as they like to say on this show. “Goosies!” JLo yips when Lauren’s performance of “Country Strong” is over. She’s Hollywood bound.

Mawuena Kodjo has traveled all the way from West Africa. “Well, that’s inconvenient,” Ryan snarks – our first clue that Mawuena is not about to get the loving, back-in-the-village-documentary treatment from “AI.” Plus, of course, the producers have subtitled him. And, Ryan does a double take when Mawuena says he’s going to sing a Rascal Flatts song, which is apparently impossible because – well, he’s from Africa. Not too xenophobic or anything.

Mawuena hits the audition room and he’s not a good singer. “Dude, it was really terrible,” says Randy, and when Mawuena protests mildly Mawuena wants to prove them wrong. Randy laughs at him and tells him to “come back with some people. Prove me wrong, dawg.”

So “AI” is gonna treat us to one of its traditional Torture the Clueless bits, sending Mawuena out in the streets of Savannah to audition for random people, until he finds three polite little girls who nod their pretty blonde heads that, yes, Mawuena sings okay. Back to the audition room with his witnesses only to have Randy quickly dismiss him again, and rewards the kids’ politeness by telling them to “work on your ears a little bit.”

Ashlee Altise does a kid of funky bunny hop.” I invented the joy hop just for being joyous and happy,” she says. She sings “Come Together” passably but makes up a lot of points on energy and she’s through.

We meet W. T. Thompson at home in the fields of Appomattox, VA, walking with his wife, who’s six months pregnant and – how about we lay out the whole back story here for your scrutiny: Wife six months pregnant, W. T. quits a steady job as a prison guard to audition for “AI” even though employers initially offered to give him time off. Wife still six months pregnant, W.T. he’s doing it to chase his dream now because after they have the kid (in six months), he couldn’t leave a steady job. He sings Little Big Town’s “Boondocks.” He’s a B-minus. Split decision from the judges, Steven Tyler says ‘yes,’ Jennifer Lopez is a “no,” and Randy Jackson tells him he’s going to get “eaten alive,” but we don’t learn till he hits the hallway that he’s through to Hollywood. And yet, we all know it’s a Go To Jail card for W. T., sooner or later.

Next up: A sequence about how young girls find Steven Tyler hot -- an “AI” tradition that gets harder each year as Steven’s face crashes more and more, but hey, it’s a creepy-fun part of the show so we’re rolling with it. Some serial kissing of Steven by various and sundry (even a grandma), culminating in an audition from Erica Nowak from Buffalo, NY who, in pre-audition, says Tyler is her “future ex-husband” and “it will be hard to control myself” in a room with Tyler. “I think you guys should have a hug,” Randy says in the auditio room. It’s a chaste one, until Erica grabs Tyler’s heinie. “You better sing good,” Tyler jokes. She doesn’t, but she does get to give Randy a hug and heinie squeeze on the way out, and declares herself a winner for having two celebrity cheeks.

Riding this surging wave of hormones, the producers next bring out Brittany Kerr, an NBA Dancer in Charlotte, NC, so we’re primed for another hottie, though she seems kinda demure in person in the audition room. “Yes!” says Tyler in a strained voice, before she even sings. She performs Joss Stone’s “Spoiled” and it is kind of smoky, though more Liquid Smoke. But we already know Brittany is going to coast on the “Blonde Cheerleader Can Sing!” amazement factor. JLo turns Brittany down but Randy and Steven put her through. Steven advises her to “listen to some old blues” to amp up her intensity, while legions of men in the audience are thrown into a reverie of “Blonde Cheerleader Listening to Old Blues!”

Last audition of Savanna has got “Idol” written all over him:

*Scruffy white guy with guitar? Check!

*Memorable name? Phillip Phillips, Jr., 20. Check!

*Hard-working, humble background? He helps his dad in a pawn shop in Leesburg, GA. Check!

*Cute, supportive family? Dad says he’s “so proud…it just makes you bust!” and mom flirts with Ryan in not a desperate stage-mom kind of way. Check!

And he’s a good looking, kid too!

Phillip sings Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” with the all-in intensity and gruff voice that signals the real “Idol” deal. And he plays guitar well, on an encore of “Thriller”. “It’s like you have electricity going through your body,” JLo enthuses.

Related reading:

Winter TV Press Tour 2012: Ryan Seacrest coy about his ‘Idol’ future

Interactive: “American Idol’s” decade of hits and myths

Last season: Scotty McCreery named “Idol” Season 10 champion

By  |  06:00 AM ET, 01/19/2012

 
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