American Idol, one of the biggest hits in this history of television, debuted modestly on June 11, 2002. The show began it's initial run with the now-infamous audition phase of the compeition. The producers aired far fewer audition episodes for Season One than they do today – just one single episode devoted to the nationwide auditions, as opposed to an average of eight such episodes in the most recent three seasons. AI1 also brought America two hosts: Ryan Seacest who has remained with the show ("Seacrest out!") to become a star in his own right, and Brian Dunkleman, who left after first season to puruse his dream of obscurity.
The thirty Semifinalists were split into three groups of ten. Each week, three out of the ten performers would move on to the Final 10, where one by one (well, mostly) they would be eliminated until only the winner was left. The first nine finalists were selected by the public vote, and the tenth from a "Wildcard" episode where the judges chose the final Finalist.
Notably, the semi-final rounds during this and the second season used only a piano as backing for the contestants, effectively limiting their song choice capabilities and hiding (or highlighting) their lack of creativity. Particularly in this season, perhaps due to budget constraints, the song choices in the semi-finals sat firmly within the Motown, Soul, and 60s Pop era.
First to perform was Tamyra Gray, singing Jennifer Hudson's... er, rather, Jennifer Holiday's Oscar winning song And I Am Telling You from Dreamgirls. She milks the song for all it's worth, exudes confidence, energy, and gives the song the quality of defiance it needs, and the judges tell her so. Simon editorialized that the competition shifts from this point on to finding great talent (i.e., marketable, skinny hot girls and pretty boys) and will be much more harsh in terms of assessing the contestants. He told Gray he found her "sensational," as did the Idolsphere upon review — she nearly earned herself a show-stopper with an 88.
Gray is followed by Jim Verraros, singing Nat King Cole's When I Fall in Love, which he also sang at his audition. The performance is technically fine though, there's much wanting in terms of energy and emotion. The judges pan the young man, but none moreso than ever-lovable Simon, who notes that should Verraros win the competition, "[American Idol] will have failed." Verraros earns a 26 and after Simon's evisceration of him he surely won't be making the finals. Right?
Adriel Herrera "made Paula blush" at his initial audition, calling her "hot" which of course, Paula loves. Herrera performs Edwin McCain's I'll Be with strong technical ability, and his tone is surprisingly masculine, so his voice certainly stands out amongst the overall Top 30's male entrants. Paula says that she didn't detect any signs of nervousness. Randy calls the performance good, and Simon says he's "a star" because he can sing in tune and is a pretty, pretty person. The performance earns him 3-stars at a solid 58.
Rodesia Eaves and Debra Byrd are conflicting with some aspect of the song in Eaves's pre-performance package. Eaves doesn't even seem to like the song she's chosen (though she later tells the audience she's grown to like the song.) Then why is she singing it? It's The Monkees' Daydream Believer. Applying her soul quality to such a cheesy arrangement of a familiar song is ill-advised at best. Randy is over the moon about Eaves's "urban, hip-hop, gospel" vibe which would be understandable if Randy had actually payed attention. Simon calls her "terrible" and doesn't understand why she performed that. Notably, Randy or Paula do not stick up for Eaves in any way. The performance earns the first 1-star rating ever, an 8.
Natalie Burge was nervous as all get-out. Her song choice for the night is Patsy Cline's Crazy. All signs of her nerves are gone, which actually hurts her performance. Vocally she's strong and clear but the interpretation is completely off. "Crazy" isn't meant to exude confidence and strength, it's a song about somebody who hates herself for continually loving somebody who doesn't love her back. Simon nitpicks the song choice because Burge is 17 and song is two or three times her age and Simon wouldn't know what to do with her as a recording artist. It has more to do with her inability to interpret the song than anything. "Crazy" earns a 42 rating.
Brad Estrin is singing James Ingram's Just Once, to use the term loosely. The "singing" is, in fact, completely wretched. The beginning is out of his lower range and he never manages to get completely in tune for one phrase. He ends the song with a run that is synonymous with the word "no." Randy hated it, and would've rated it three out of ten. Simon compares it to winning a "Chilean karaoke" after saying he tries to imagine the contestant singing as the winner while they perform. Estrin nets a 7 approval rating, somehow "beating" out Eaves as worst of the night and winning the award for the most sarcasm quotes I've ever had to employ in one paragraph .
Slim, pretty female Ryan Starr is up next. The judges have always been impressed by her looks. However tonight, she decides to bring a sultry sophisticated voice to the stage, and growls and belts her way through Nat King Cole's Frim Fram Sauce. Her outfit is terribly strange in context to the song, but she nails her performance. It's interesting, slightly quirky and an incredibly good match for the piano-only backup plus her voice. Despite the song's being obscure to most viewers, Starr manages to bring enough life into the performance that it shouldn't matter. Unless you're the judges. Paula is amazed and says she now knows who Starr is and that her personality came out in the performance. Randy has a completely opposite reaction and repeats Simon's comments to Burge about not know what to do with Starr as a recording artist with songs like that. Simon agrees with Randy and calls her cabaret. Note to Simon: when there's only a piano as backup, it's likely to come off cabaret. Starr manages to earn herself a 61 despite the criticism of Randy and Simon, and it turns out to be the second-highest rated performance of the night.
Justinn Waddell has chosen Percy Sledge's When a Man Loves a Woman and his tone is completely wrong for the song. It's thin and nasal, and not a fraction of soul is expressed in the performance. Paula says he did well but that there were better performances Waddell has given previous to this one. Randy notes the odd outfit and then the show abruptly cuts to Simon, who says the outfit gives Waddell a specific image, and that he chose a song he would never be able to sing better than the original (true), and that there are better singers, and ends by saying Waddell has a great image and "well done." Which... what? Waddell nearly manages 2-stars somehow, missing out by two points with a score of 18.
Kelli Glover is up next, and she too had issues with song choice. She hates both of the songs she's got in front of her so she calls her mom who tells her to sing I Will Always Love You by Dolly Parton. Who is this Whitney Houston? Did she do a cover of this song at some point? Glover begins the song a capella, a la the Whitney version, and sings it fine except when she gets into her higher register, where she places the entire song in her nose. She belts certain notes out well, but goes back in her nose and the changes are jarring. Randy says Glover made a terrific song choice but manages to get in some fairly interesting technical critques of her voice. He says Glover went sharp in her head voice, stayed in her throat at points, and when she's out of breath she goes into her nose to extend the notes. This may be the first and last time Randy is ever useful for seven seasons, so take it in now, people. In her interview with Seacrest and Dunkleman, Glover says that you have stay true to the original with that song and unfortunately, no one corrects Glover about it being a Dolly Parton original because that would be awesome. She gets a mark of 54.
Last but not least is Christopher Aaron who has chosen Still in Love by Brian McKnight. His voice is also fairly breathy and thin, but he knows how to control it and demonstrates good choices with tone and phrasing, unlike the other men in the competition thus far (sans Herrera.) The problem is that the song isn't particularly memorable with just a piano backing, and there isn't an Idol bigness that the voters will respond to. Randy says Aaron sounded amazing and made him say "damn." Paula talks about his "quiet confidence" and says he has the voice of an angel. Simon says Chris hasn't shone in this competition... until now. The red room erupts into cheers which is annoying. Dismiss Simon as an idiot when he's mean, but be ever so gracious about good comments? Idol, meet sour grapes; sour grapes, meet Idol. You're going to be great friends for a long, long time. Chris nets a 49 as his final grading.
The Results Show:
It's good to know that nothing about the results show has really changed much. It was a filler-fest then, and it's still a filler-fest today. However, on the first three seasons of AI, contestants advanced into the finals rather than being voted out, so there was a slightly more positive atmosphere. Until a weak singer advances. But this never happens on American Idol, because it's completely fair and unbiased. Oh. Right.
The ten contestants are seated on the Teal Sofa Of Great Tension and all want to make the walk across the studio into the Metallic Chairs Of Uncomfortable Safety. According to the internet reviewers and critics of AI alike, the three finalists from this group should be Gray, Starr, and Herrera. But what do the judges have to say? Their first pick is unanimous: Tamyra Gray. Brian ask the judges for their opinions AGAIN. The judges aren't budging. After a boring Ford commercial, Brian and Ryan announce that the first person to advance... is Tamyra Gray! Gray is shaking in relief and excitement, and Simon affirms that the public made an excellent choice.
Tamika, an angry reject from the auditions, is brought out to belittle the semi-finalists who are all better singers than her. She says she could've done a better job on "Daydream Believer" than Rodesia Eaves (though according to the performance rating, you'd be hard pressed to do worse.) She wonders "what the hell" frim-fram sauce is, tells Jim Verraros he sucks and... yeah, nothing no one else has already said. Eaves and Verraros make lame attempts at retorting. Ryan and Brian ask the contestants if they have any questions for the judges. Natalie Burge asks if the judges have any regrets about the comments they make to the contestants. Simon admits that his mouth runs at a faster pace than his brain, but sums it up by saying, in essence, if you don't want him to be mean, don't suck.
Ryan and Brian turn our attention to a pre-recorded video of judges choosing for the second slot tonight. Randy and Paula say Christopher Aaron, while Simon chooses Adriel Herrera. After Brian asks AGAIN, Randy and Paula stick with Aaron while Simon notes Ryan Starr's possibility as a dark horse selection, despite a lousy song choice. And so it shall be, as Ryan Starr is the second finalist to advance. Ryan freaks out at the news and begins crying and finally answers that frim-fram sauce is.. a sauce put on food. Good job, fact-checkers!
Ryan and Brian are still trying to do filler. Brian then asks the judges who will advance. Randy says Aaron while Paula and Simon give a bid to Adriel Herrera. Ryan and Brian attempt a lame schtick, then announce that Jim Verraros has won the third and final chair of the night. The contestants, namely Burge, flip at the news, in a good way (or do well enough at pretending so). Verraros himself is shocked! Shocked! Seacrest asks Simon what he said about Verraros. Simon says that the public are entitled to vote whomever they want through and while Simon respects the vote, he doesn't agree with it. Somehow, as it is with this show, the public didn't even agree with the public's vote.
The most notable thing to happen during the credits is that everyone but Kelli Glover is hugging each other and when somebody gives a hand of comfort to her, she bats at it like it's a wasp.
...by "Phan", WNTS contributor