USA TODAY - You know American Idol has entered a new phase of its life when a guy who twerks while singing Over the Rainbow gets a ticket to Hollywood.
Troy Durden's the sort of guy the show would have relished humiliating in the past - confident, slightly goofy, just a smidgen of talent. Judges Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr. somehow talked him into twerking before he sang, and he didn't do it very well.
Then he sang. Over the Rainbow, completely out of the blue. He sang it well, too. But it wasn't till Urban suggested Durden do both at the same time that the magic happened.
Those sorts of unexpected combinations made Idol's 13th season premiere a joy to watch. Give some of the credit to the show's production team, which downplayed backstories except when they added context to the actual audition - as in the case of 15-year-old Kaitlyn Jackson, who had written a song about her grandfather having a heart attack during one of her performances. The producers also all but scuttled the freak-show auditions, instead highlighting cool but carefree razzle-dazzle burger flipper James Earl, who tried to sing like R. Kelly, Michael Jackson and Luther Vandross all at the same time and Lopez superfan Rolando Guerrero, brought to tears by his encounter with his personal idol.
New judge Connick deserves most of the praise for what promises to be a creative turnaround for Idol, though.
"I don't know what kind of judge I'm going to be, other than to say I have to be honest," Connick said early in Wednesday's show. By the end of the first day of auditions in Boston, though, he already had a nickname: Harsh Harry, probably earned for saying things like "You're growing up in a time where they have pitch-correction software, and you could really use it."
While Connick can be as tough as he needs to be (he also gave Lopez a music-theory lesson on pentatonics, the five-note scale favored by run-obsessed R&B, gospel and jazz singers), he's also charming, engaging and, when he wants to be, hysterically funny.
As for the contestants, Idol showed several worth rooting for, and a couple that might go deep into the competition. These were my favorites;
10. Munfarid Zaidi. In what might be the funniest Idol audition in the show's 13 seasons, this 19-year-old Pakistani student from Sugarland, Texas, wound up cradled in Connick's arm like a baby, singing a song with his head nestled into the judge's shoulder. Why? "Because I love him," Zaidi said with a perfectly straight face. It was like watching a musical segment of the improv show Whose Line Is It Anyway?
9. Lindsey Pedicone. This fresh-faced if slightly fragile-sounding singer got bonus points from me for pulling out Delta Rae's folk-blues stomp Bottom of the River. Connick seemed to dig it, too, drumming along on the table.
8. Kaitlyn Jackson. This 15-year-old likely won't last long when she has to start singing other people's material, but her song about her grandfather was pretty devastating, especially coming from someone her age.
7. Jillian Jensen. Even though she was shown only briefly in a montage segment, viewers of The X Factor will probably recognize her from that show's second season. (She had a backstory about being bullied, and she got cut before the live shows.) She's already got more than 158,000 Twitter followers, which will put her at a distinct advantage if she survives to the voting rounds.
6. Austin Percario. Percario, 17 going on 18 at the time of his audition, is desperate to escape the smothering arms of his stage mom. He comes across as a little affected, but he's got a voice that Urban describes as "Justin Bieber at 5 a.m." And that's not a bad thing.
5. Shanon Wilson. A hulking defensive tackle with a highly developed falsetto, Wilson offered an unexpectedly enjoyable audition.
4. Savion Wright. Wright, a tall kid from Jasper, Texas, with dreadlocks and glasses, got one of the premiere episode's few backstory segments, but just enough to establish that he got into music because of his ADHD. He came across as a likable kid with some songwriting talent to match his voice. He also told the judges that he had waited eight years to audition because he didn't think he was creative enough until now - an act of restraint that mightily impressed Connick. He's an easy kid to root for.
3. Marialle Sellers. Idol started its season with her, thereby immediately establishing her as the singer to beat. She's a 17-year-old black girl with an acoustic guitar and a Miley Cyrus haircut, singing Bruno Mars' Grenade - the sort of combination that could take her far. Curiously, though, the producers didn't give her full name during the show.
2. Malcolm Allen. Quick and creative, Allen saw all the other kids playing guitar, so he played air guitar as he sang Stevie Wonder's Superstition. If his performance hadn't convinced the judges of his seriousness, the tattoos on his arm - a keyboard on his left, the words "I Am Music" on his right - would have.
1. Sam Woolf. This freckle-faced teenager from Bradenton, Fla., is exactly the sort of contestant that the hardcore Idol faithful love. He impressed the judges with his rapid-fire version of Ed Sheeran's Lego House. Plus, he's got a supportive grandfather who will make a great recurring character.
All in all, Idol seems to be off to an unpredictably good start in its 13th season. What did you think of the show's new look? And which contestants do you think have the goods to get to the voting rounds?
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