After endless weeks of prep, "American Idol" finally went live Tuesday (February 23), offering fans of the show the first look at the top 12 female performers as well as new judge Ellen DeGeneres, who quickly established that she will be offering up plenty of good advice mixed with comedy chops and support.
DeGeneres, who seemed uncharacteristically nervous at times, set the tone early, setting up a video gag explaining why she was on the opposite end of the judges' table from Simon Cowell, explaining that he "wants" her via a doctored clip in which he appeared to be feeling her leg under the table during Hollywood week.
And then it was on to the real business of the night as preschool teacher Paige Miles, 24, went first, growling her way through a peppy, gritty cover of Free's classic rock staple "All Right Now."
"I think out of all the girls you have the best voice," Cowell said, before blasting her for the poor choice of what he called a cheap wedding-singer tune. Kara DioGuardi loved the soulful take on the rock song, also praising her chops.
One of the season's early audience favorites, 22-year-old student Ashley Rodriguez, took on Leona Lewis' "Happy," offering up a breathy, dramatic and sometimes off-key version of the song by one of Cowell's protégés.
"Big song, but there were definitely moments that weren't great," DioGuardi said, suggesting the classically trained singer should try to surprise the judges with more offbeat choices. "It is predictable — I'd like to see you step out and do something that's a whole different vibe," DeGeneres said. Cowell was unequivocal, calling it clumsy and saying Rodriguez was actually going backwards, losing her originality as she progressed in the competition.
Wine sales rep Janell Wheeler, 24, the all-American blonde with the strong, smoky voice sang Heart's big ballad "What About Love," starting out rough and a bit off-key and then settling into a more comfortable groove as she hit the chorus. "Wasn't my favorite song choice for you," Randy Jackson said, noting that the tune is hard to make your own. Ellen said she loved the song choice and liked how Wheeler moved onstage, while Cowell said she gave it 100 percent effort but only delivered about 60 percent.
Like many of the night's singers, Cowell counseled Wheeler to do something that is clearly this year's theme: find a way to make the song your own.
That was easy for former street busker, 20-year-old Lilly Scott of Colorado, who took on the Beatles' "Fixing a Hole," strumming her guitar and singing the classic in a jazzy arrangement that was a bit off in a delightfully quirky way. "I think that's what we're talking about," DeGeneres said with a big smile, praising Scott's unique voice and style. Cowell called it the best of the night at that point and gave Scott props for choosing a song she liked rather than one she suspected might get her through to the next round. He cautioned, however, that he still doubted her star power, drawing the season's first throaty boos from the studio audience.
Iowa college student Katelyn Epperly went the Beatles route as well with a bluesy take on "Oh! Darling," while rocking a leather minidress and bunching her signature golden curls in a very '80s-Madonna style. "Even though there were elements of that song where you were beginning to scream the song and it was very messy, I actually like you," Cowell said, dubbing her quirky and interesting and giving a thumbs-up to the brave song choice. "You know your voice very, very well," DioGuardi added, properly guessing that Epperly had been singing her whole life but questioning her slightly glammy makeover. Randy said she nailed the proper tone and, frankly, liked the makeup.
Haeley Vaughn, the 16-year-old high school student and budding country star who celebrated making it to Hollywood by getting a nose piercing, made it a Beatles trifecta, choosing a strummy, Duffy-esque version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" that was big on personality but sort of sloppy. Kara said she was all over the place vocally but her infectious energy shined once again, while Cowell called it just plain terrible. "You were like a wind-up doll that never stopped smiling throughout the song," he said. "It was for me just a complete and utter mess."
When host Ryan Seacrest wondered how opinions could diverge so widely, DeGeneres quipped, "If it was a mess, it was a hot mess."
Trying to make it through a second time after just missing the semifinal round last year, Texas' Lacey Brown, 24, took it down a notch with Fleetwood Mac's tricky "Landslide." Trying to give the tune a jazz-crooner makeover, Brown was shaky at times and the judges let her know about it. "I thought that was terrible ... it was pitchy all over the place," Randy said. Ellen agreed and Cowell called it depressing. "And worse than that, it was kind of indulgent," he said, speculating that she's still trying to figure out who she is.
After waiting most of the night to hit the big stage, Miami's Michelle Delamor went big, taking on Alicia Keys' "Fallin,' " throwing in some of her own bluesy runs during a solid performance that helped establish her after a low-key Hollywood week. "That was fantastic," Ellen said, noting that it almost seemed too easy and that Delamor might want to push harder. Cowell called it very professional, if a bit predictable, and praised her look, guessing that she did enough to get through to the next round.
Los Angeles waitress Didi Benami has jumped out as an early audience favorite and nailed her sweet spot with Ingrid Michaelson's "The Way I Am," slipping easily into the singer/songwriter ballad with her signature crisp vocals. "I think you are a good singer," Cowell said before calling the song dreary, the performance forgettable and faulting her for being another Duffy/Adele clone. Randy's problem was that he didn't feel any star quality and Ellen said she probably needed to be less low-key on the first live show.
Siobhan Magnus, a glassblowing apprentice from Cape Cod, Massachusettes, has carved a lane as this year's eccentric, and she proved it again singing Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" in a froggy croon that was interesting but not her best effort. Though she settled into a groove by song's end, Cowell said the song was a bit dark and didn't live up to Magnus' previous efforts.
Kara wasn't feeling the song choice, but loved the oddball quality and the in-the-moment feel of Magnus' performance and DeGeneres said she liked it so much that she momentarily forgot that she was watching a singing competition.
The season's female front-runner was one of the last ones to grace the stage and Ohio mom Crystal Bowersox, 24, blew it out with a strummy acoustic guitar and harmonica-assisted ramble through Alanis Morissette's "Hand In My Pocket" that energized the studio audience and once again showed off her powerful vocals.
"I love your originality as an artist ... I just love your honesty," Jackson said, a sentiment seconded by DeGeneres, who added that Bowersox is the kind of exciting artist people want to see more of. Cowell brought her back down to earth, saying he loves her whole story and sound but that there are thousands of buskers just like her all over the country doing Alanis covers that sound just like the original.
Last up was 17-year-old high school student Katie Stevens, who emoted through one of the only contemporary-ish songs of the night with Michael Buble's "Feeling Good," growling the song's lyrics and working the stage like a jazz diva years her senior while throwing in some Christina Aguilera sass. "It was good, it was great, you have a great voice ... but you're 17; it was very conservative," said Ellen, who would have preferred something more modern and younger, a criticism Cowell agreed with, adding that he found her annoying, pageanty and too old-fashioned.
We won't find out which two girls go home until Thursday, but it's the boys' turn to shine Wednesday night.
Who do you think nailed it tonight and who do you think deserves to go home? How did Ellen DeGeneres do during her first show? Let us know below!
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