The audition episodes of American Idol—the crisscrossing of the country in search of hopefuls that takes up the show's first few weeks—are the equivalent of expository dialogue, only in Idol's case that dialogue can only have a little bit of bearing on the plot that's about to come. Contestants with potential can get shine from the judges and subsequently turn into non-entities who don't even get a frame of camera time during Hollywood Week.
What the audition episodes are good for, though, is tracking each season's specific intent. In Season 10, for example, the producers thought they had another Kelly Clarkson on their hands with Lauren Alaina, a big-haired teen from Georgia with an aw-shucks demeanor and a sick cousin for whom she organized a fundraiser at the age of 12; she was christened by then-judge Steven Tyler as "the one," and she wound up coming in second. Last year, the drumming of the idea that A Woman Was Finally Going To Win This Thing began almost as soon as the first episode opened, and that through line finally saw its way to completion, albeit with muted results.
The through line for Season 13, so far, seems to address the space that Idol has not just in the singing-show landscape, but in the pop-cultural landscape as a whole. So far it's the only one of the singing shows on American TV to spawn multiple artists who have stuck in the pop-cultural firmament, having done so as recently as 2012; efforts by The X Factor and The Voice to launch galvanizing-force singers and groups have stalled. (X Factor-spawned girlband Fifth Harmony has some pretty ace tunes, although they—like the British acts they emulate—seem simultaneously behind and ahead of America's pop curve.) This season's highlighting of the contestants' potential to transcend their American everyday—hopefuls were largely introduced as they held up placards declaring their hometowns' tiny populations, or their current jobs—isn't just a clever way to get lots of shots of farms and little pink houses into the mix: It's also a sign that Idol's producers are remembering that it has a position of starmaking power unrealized by even its higher-rated competitor The Voice. Throwing judges who are more interested in promoting their on-cycle projects than they are mentoring contestants just muddies the waters.
Nowhere is this shift more apparent than in the hiring of Harry Connick Jr., whose belief in the ideal of American Idol shines through every time he dings a contestant for not using their voice properly, or for sabotaging their audition, or for being "funny" and wasting the audience's time. One contestant who described his loose-limbed singing as "jazzy" also inspired a riff by Connick on the word "pitchy," a longtime Idol sobriquet. "You don't know what it means," he said, and that impassioned sentence, an inveighing against not just the code words used by Idol but the code of Idol itself—that the judges are so all-knowing that they can just make up words on the fly to express their discomfort with a singer's performance—said more about where the show is going to go this season than any audition or panning of the crowd could.
In wrestling, there's the notion of the "smark"—the smart mark, the person who's able to suspend their disbelief while they're watching the show but who's well aware of the behind-the-scenes machinations leading to each individual result. If you watch Idol for more than, say, three seasons, you're inevitably going to become a smark of sorts—you'll see which types of contestants get booted off too early, you'll peg the WGWGs as soon as they walk into the audition room, you'll figure out which judges have been told by the producers to tone whatever they're doing down. Eventually, you're referencing Kristy Lee Cook's effort to save herself after a series of lousy performances by busting out Lee Greenwood's chest-beating "God Bless The USA" (it worked) and engaging in Kremlinology during "producer's choice" weeks.
Connick has appeared on Idol multiple times as a mentor, so he's worked closely enough with the contestants and the producers to get a feel for the way things work. Which is why his aggravation with certain Idol constants—the young singers who think that endless runs will make up for their technical inability, the comedy auditions that set up throwaway gags in the finale, the heartstring-pulling stories that are meant to overshadow a lack of performance finesse—is such a breath of fresh air, and the most heartening sign about this season. (He will also be a firecracker once the live shows begin next month; remember that these audition episodes are heavily edited, even if the plotlines they pick up might be entirely dead and buried by the time we see what's going on in Hollywood.) Is Connick the stand-in for the Idol smarks out there, the recappers and the bloggers and the tweeters? Not really: He's playing the game too, and if anything his position is similar to the one formerly possessed by Simon Cowell. He's a professional who's been around the music-business block; he knows how fickle trends in popular culture can be; he has a healthy respect for music and the people who make it at all levels. But he hasn't yet been as nasty as Cowell, with his critiques coming from a place of genuinely wanting to make things better. His gentle puncturing of the Idol balloon is a sign that the show has become mature, acknowledging its longtime fans and their frustrations with certain tropes that had just become non-entertaining while also believing in its ultimate mission to elevate one hopeful to pop stardom.
Last night's episode focused on auditions in Austin and San Francisco, and it was a little "funnier" than the season premiere. One dude came in with no shirt and suspenders and tried to ingratiate himself with the panel by impersonating Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell, then sang "Never Gonna Give You Up" (his name was Rick Rowling—get it?); another possessed a D'Angelo-like physique but absolutely no singing chops; one more claimed to be a "sound healer" and did a super-weird version of "Hallelujah." But those hopefuls who couldn't sing, which included the child of former Idol contestant Nikki McKibbin, were quickly dismissed, and the jokes surrounding them weren't flogged the way they might have been in previous seasons.
There were five hopefuls to whom I took a particular shine:
TK Hash. Introduced himself with a dead-on Obama impersonation; took on Fall Out Boy's "My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark (Light 'Em Up)" for his actual audition, a risky proposition. The machine-gun verses are tough to sing and can expose even the best vocalist's proclivity toward raging pitch; matching Patrick Stump's ability to hit the big notes is an extremely hard thing to do (I sing along with a lot of Fall Out Boy songs, so I know this). He made it through because of the way he ticked off boxes on what Connick called the show's "checklist"—charisma, vocals, ability to turn on the humor when needed.
MK Nobilette. A charmingly butch hopeful in a "Hakuna Matata" sweater singing "If I Were Your Woman"—what's not to love? (Spoilers have her going through to the Top 31.)
Quiandra Boston-Pearsall. She auditioned with her 15-year-old brother, whose performance of a song he wrote about stardom proved that the "rapping while playing guitar" trend is alive and well. It's not entirely right for Idol, but Quiandra's fiery performance fit right into the "it's a singing competition" mold and she made it through.
Jesse Roach. Her Guns N' Roses tank top showed off her tattooed arms, and it turned out that she was signed up for Idol by her neighbor, who was so entranced with Jesse's voice that she became a woman possessed. (The neighbor's line of work is never mentioned, which seems a bit suspicious.) Her buzzsaw voice and smoky charisma intrigued, and started the night's show off right.
Rachel Rolleri. Perhaps the spiritual opposite of Jesse, this 17-year-old's voice was as clear as a bell on her performance of Sugarland's "Stay," although she was way too obviously frustrated with herself when she had minor screwups. But when her confidence was there, she was spot-on.
And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Spencer Lloyd, whose dazzling smile and worship-leader background make him a shoe-in for the "young dude with a heart of gold" slot—he even sang a song by former Idol contestant Colton Dixon, who went from seventh place on season 11 to Christian-pop stardom. (See? Patterns!) He's one of the now-79 hopefuls who have passed through to Hollywood during Idol's travels from Boston to Austin to San Francisco. Next week the show hits up Detroit.
Here's Maura's piece on the season premiere of American Idol.
Maura Johnston will be providing in-depth American Idol coverage weekly at Noisey. She's on Twitter - @maura