"Life can change … in a heartbeat," "American Idol" reminded us Wednesday night as it kicked off a new season with a fresh batch of hopefuls, a greater focus on the positive (fewer prolonged looks at the cringe-inducingly untalented and delusional), a few added production bells and whistles (a pre-audition peep at contestants in "The Chamber," new postcard-like city name backdrops, an interactive Twitter poll), more accompaniment (lots of guitars — and a ukulele) and, most notably, a revised judging panel.
On "Idol," as recent seasons have shown, the mix of judges can change in a heartbeat, too. And if last year's combustible concoction — which included distinctly non-BFFs Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj — proved nearly toxic, this season — which finds Keith Urban as the only direct holdover, joined by back-after-an-off-season returnee Jennifer Lopez and new judge Harry Connick Jr. — may provide the tonic.
The three judges combined to create an easygoing vibe that also didn't lack for spice and flavor. Connick, who finally put forever judge Randy Jackson out of his misery at the judging table, was the key ingredient. Jackson, bless his well-meaning heart and overused terminology, never seemed quite comfortable sliding into Simon Cowell's chair, where he was apparently expected to provide the voice of experience and tough love.
Connick, however, seems determined to summon his own considerable musical expertise to provide real, honest feedback to the contestants — as well as his fellow judges, teaching Lopez, not to mention the rest of us, about pentatonics (the key to the five notes singers do runs on, he explained), just for example. "What's wrong with challenging America?" he asked.
Indeed. And Connick's affable, self-deprecating, dad-like humor and flair for what will play well on TV (he has Emmys in addition to Grammys on his shelf, don't forget) will help those lessons go down easy. He not only swapped puns, knock-knock jokes and silly quips with the pleasant, apparently sweet-smelling (according to at least one contestant's mother) Urban and gently suggested that Lopez and her "goosies" were too easily impressed, but he also made a funny running gag of being less recognizable to and adulated by the show's young contestants.
While J.Lo got contestants who couldn't believe she was looking at them — or that they were looking at her — and were moved to tears by proximity to her fame and beauty, Connick got youthful singers struggling to remember his name and offering comments like, "My mother loves you." Ouch.
Except for one fan. Munfarid Zaidi, 19, raised in Texas, born in Pakistan, couldn't have cared less about Lopez and Urban. "I read your Wikipedia page every night before going to sleep," he told Connick, who then promised to cradle Zaidi in his arms like a baby while he sang a second song if the singer wowed them with the first. Zaidi did his part, singing a finger-snapping, jazz-errific version of Adele's "Crazy for You," and so Connick did his, scooping up Zaidi and rocking him like an infant before carrying him over to snatch up his yellow ticket. The other judges — and the rest of us — were tickled pink.
Zaidi's amusing turn before the judges was one of several memorable auditions on Wednesday, when "Idol" looked to Boston and Austin, Texas, for talent and handed out a total of 46 golden tickets to Hollywood. Other standouts included:
—Marielle Sellers, a 17-year-old singer who tried out with Bruno Mars' "Grenade." (She actually auditioned in Detroit, but was highlighted in the show's opening sequence.) "You are going to be a nightmare for the others in this competition," Connick predicted.
—Sweet-faced, grandparent-raised Florida 17-year-old Sam Woolf, whose fast take on "Lego House," prompted Urban to label his pitch "incredible" and Connick to declare, "My daughters are going to go absolutely crazy for the kid."
—Ethan Thompson, 23, who may be this year's answer to Phillip Phillips
—Eighteen-year-old Lindsey Pedicone, whose smooth tone made Connick gush, "We're grooving over here."
—Jillian Jensen, a 21-year-old singer whom "X Factor" fans may remember as the contestant whose story of being bullied made Demi Lovato cry in Season 2 of that show.
—Austin Percario, a 17-year-old pop-star wannabe with a stage mom, whose raspy-clean voice Urban suspected sounded like "Justin Bieber at 5 a.m."
—Kaitlyn Jackson, who, though only 15, auditioned with a song she'd written herself about her late grandpa. "She's smart and she has heart," Lopez said.
—Cute handyman Keith London, 21, who made Katy Perry's "Roar" purr and J.Lo say he'd made her like the song even more.
—Big dude Shanon Wilson, a 24-year-old former football player whose vocals floored the judges much as his mere presence seemed to have done to Ryan Seacrest in the pre-audition waiting room.
—Savion Wright, a 21-year-old Texan who waited to audition until he felt he was ready, and showed how ready he was with an original song. "The one thing that came to mind that you are really going to have to work on is how to be nice to people," Connick told him, "because the other competitors … are going to be very intimidated by you."
—Twenty-four-year-old valet parker Justin Fira, whose golden ticket to Hollywood meant "I'm done parking cars, baby!"
—Madelyn Patterson, 22, whose "Up to the Mountain" earned a "double yes" from Lopez.
—Viviana Villalon, 19, who played Maroon 5's "Love Somebody" on the ukulele. Yes, she did.
—Ben Boone, 22, who gave Lopez her "first goosies of the season."
—Twenty-one-year-old Malcolm Allen, whose "Superstition" showed he was talented and interaction with the judges ("I'm literally in love with music. If I could marry it, I would," he told them) showed he was funny and charming. "So natural for you I want to throw this pen at you," Lopez said, strangely. Thankfully, she didn't chuck her writing implement, but gave him gave him a "triple yes" instead.
Thursday night, in Part 2 of the Season 13 premiere, we'll get more Austin auditions and a move to San Francisco.
Did you have any favorites from Part 1?