"American Idol" made it crystal clear on Thursday (January 16) that things are different this season.
Thirty minutes into the episode, a gag contestant -- like dozens of gag contestants viewers have watched over the years -- was on his way into the audition room. Ryan Seacrest caught up with the singer -- who was wearing sunglasses, cut off jeans, red suspenders and no shirt -- and asked him what his plan was. "Instead of, like, singing good, to sing really bad, and help promote my movie career," the goofball -- identified as "Rick Rowling" (as in Rickrolling, get it?) said. Seacrest told him he should sing well instead. "That goes against my plan though," he said.
When he made it in front of the judges, Rowling proceeded to tell a series of really bad jokes that were met with crickets by Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick, Jr. (To hammer the point home, producers added in the sound of actual crickets.) He then sang a few tone deaf bars of Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" -- because of course that's what he sang -- before being practically booed out of the room. When he attempted to sing another song, Connick refused to let him, "because you disrespected the process." And just like that, Rowling was sent packing.
Now, the likelihood of this contestant being a plant and this entire scenario being a set-up is as high as a tour bus hangout session between Willie Nelson and Snoop Lion. But the point was obvious: This is a new "American Idol," mock contestants won't be tolerated, and the show's not going to waste viewers' time on buffoonery. It was as much a message to the audience as it was to the show's previous team of producers.
In another segment, Seacrest sat down with the judges at the end of the Austin, Tex. auditions and asked the judges how they were feeling and how everyone was getting along, something that desperately needed to happen last season. To make this even more like therapy, they were seated on couches during the questioning. "Are there any issues with the family?" Seacrest asked Lopez, referring to her fellow judges. "We're good!" J. Lo replied. We believe this is what's referred to as a breakthrough.
Indeed, this is a warmer "Idol," a more down-to-business "Idol." Again the focus was on true singers with real talent, and time was spent on honest, technical critiques rather than in-fighting between the judges. Connick proved himself yet again to be the hardest member of the panel to please, with a BS radar that goes off far more than J. Lo's or Urban's. And aside from "Rowling," only one other contestant who was clearly bad was allowed into the room, and J. Lo's laughter didn't line up with the show's new M.O.
"Idol" reached another milestone during the episode when the show's first second generation contestant made it to Hollywood. Tristen Langley, the 15-year-old son of Season 1 finalist Nikki McKibbin, auditioned with his mom at his side, singing a chillaxed version of Sublime's "Santeria." His vocals didn't impress Connick but the other two judges gave him a pass, and if you've been watching "Idol" since the beginning you just felt a lot older.
Other standouts from Austin included 20-year-old John Fox, a worship leader from Magnolia, Tex., whose version of Bob Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love" opened the show; Megan Miller, a 23-year-old belter from Ethel, La., whose "impassioned rasp" (those are Urban's words) lit up Carrie Underwood's "Last Name"; and Spencer Lloyd, a worship leader from Bryant, Ark., who showed his "Idol" fandom by working out Colton Dixon's "Never Gone."
In San Francisco, the panel gave golden tickets to M.K. Nobilette, a 20-year-old San Franciscan who auditioned wearing a Hakuna Matata sweatshirt; Emmanuel Zidor, a 24-year-old airline ramp agent from Miami who crawled into the audition room singing on his hands and knees; Briana Oakley, a 17-year-old from Antioch, Calif. who also auditioned in Season 12 and won the judges over with her take on Sara Bareilles' bouncy "Stay"; and Adam Roth, a 28-year-old "sound healer" who dressed in all white linens and was like a cross between Jesus and a professional wrestler.
In all, 33 golden tickets were handed out, bringing the two episode total to 79. Next week, the judges head to Detroit for the first time since Season 2 to find out what the Motor City is made of -- and not to be Rickrolled.
What did you think of "American Idol's" Austin and San Francisco auditions? Let us know in the comments!