Welcome to Charlotte, North Carolina, the secret race car capital of the U.S. and the home of the constructive communication meltdown. Yep, you read that right.
From minute one of the Charlotte episode, it would seem that the producers of American Idol are brushing up on their storytelling techniques. Starting the episode in media res, or in the middle of things a knock-down dragout fight so big, they had to bring the guys from TMZ in to explain it is our introduction to our first stop in the Southern U.S. We don't immediately find out what made Nigel Lythgoe come through the set waving his arms and commanding everyone to go home, but we soon will... dunh dunh dunh.
Luckily for you, I'm not a fan of saving the good stuff for chronological order, so let's talk about this meltdown, shall we? Sure, North Carolina is home to a lot of Idol winners like Scotty McCreery and Fantasia Barrino, so we should probably on the lookout for the person who could take it all this year, but that fight! It's commanding my brain and no amount of Scotty waltzing around the racetrack in Charlotte, running into long-lost middle school friends, can distract me.
The day starts off as cheerful as can be, and Keith in particular is happy and chipper, goofing around with Nicki before delivering the kiss of death to the panel. "This is going to be good," he says. Yeah, good for us at home, not so good for y'all, Keith. After lunch, the judges are all a little testy, even Keith who's apparently tired of being dismissed as just "the country guy." When sweet blondie Summer Cunningham is dumb enough to disparage country in front of Keith, saying she's "done the country thing" and she's now seeking "something with a little more soul." Big mistake, little lady. But at the same time, who'd have thought it would be Keith's ego that set this whole thing in motion? It is, and Keith is instantly annoyed, likening the girl's innocent, yet flippant commentary to a professional insult. "It's like saying I did the brain surgeon thing," he says. Whoa, Keith. We get it, Country music is an intricate profession that requires hard work and dedication. It's not brain surgery though, my friend, no matter which way you angle the scalpel.
That's where Mariah and Randy come in, helping to ease the tension by helping young Summer, who sang "Lean on Me" with an unmistakable country music staple: the (young) LeAnn Rimes yodel. (That age distinction is essential. Have you seen that woman's Twitter lately?) They give the girl a "yes" and send her through to Hollywood on what seems like the condition that she not fight her natural knack for country and stop trying to become the next Adele. Why else would she sing so country and still insist she's more "soul"? We can hear you, lady, and you're no soul singer.
Randy and Mariah do their best to mentor this little lady, but it doesn't sit right with Nicki, who's tired of all this country music talk. If it's not about Taylor Swift loving "Super Bass" it's not for her, and she sits in her corner of the panel like a petulant, sleepy child until Mariah asks her to speak. "I didn't know we needed to have a country debate," she says. Nicki is miffed that her fellow judges (but "not you, Keith") are "picking apart" contestants and telling them what they'd be best suited for when she'd rather let love rule and have everyone do whatever they want in a creative free-for-all, which is nice in theory, but not in practice. Randy, who's been in the business for 30 years and makes a point of reminding Nicki of that, knows a thing or two about coaxing a good artist onto the right path. But it's that "30 years" comment that sends Nicki, the youngest voice on the panel, into a fit. It's the last straw and her apparently fragile ego is crushed, shutting down production for the day and leaving a crowd of confused auditioners like refugees in the bowels of the racetrack facilties.
This is the Idol the episode seems to want us to believe we've signed up for. But it's only a fraction of what the new panel has to offer, and frankly, it only adds to their effectiveness as an entertaining, yet informative entitity.
Immediately after the meltdown, we return and we're suddenly in a TMZ-sponsored zombie movie/breakup video about how production shut down. Yeah, we got that. Drama, drama, drama. But when we finally return to the contestants and meet Navy Reserve member Brandy Hamilton , a sweet little singer who lights up the room and has what Mariah calls "pippity pow," she leaves the room with her ticket to Hollywood, saying "Please don't fight, it makes me sad." It touches Nicki and has an almost cleansing effect; and for the rest of the episode, the judges just work, so well in fact, that I might even be willing to use the words "adorable" and "Nicki Minaj" in the same sentence. Mariah even starts making an effort to make sure Nicki knows any insult thrown at a contestant's hat doesn't pertain to Nicki's glorious collection. It's almost like magic.
But things weren't even all that bad before the cleansing fight. Well, they weren't bad on the judges' side of the table. Keith and Nicki were sharing trail mix like two best friends on their first school field trip to the Natural History Museum, but the producers brought on the gauntlet of weirdos. That's a surefire way to may anyone a little grumpy.
First up is Naomi Morris, a fashionista from Charlotte who makes her own clothes. She's wearing a spiky bra under a blazer like a Mad Max character on a job interview, but Nicki loves it and gives her a nickname: "Omi." It's a good thing the only binding thing about these meetings is that three "yeses" equal a ticket to Hollywood, because Nicki's nicknames aren't exactly star-makers. Surprise, surprise, Omi can't really carry a tune. The great thing about the way the judges react is that while Nicki feigns sickness and Mariah can't even look at the girl, once they recover, they're actually quite sweet, making sure to praise her for what she's doing right: designing her own clothes. The moment's overshadowed a tad by Mariah's comment that Omi's spiky gold bra wouldn't fit Nicki, but it's there. These judges are good value.
Moving right along, we meet Joel Nemoyer, a 20-year-old who likes to sing while laying down, a technique he learned by watching Chris Daughtry that one time during a mentoring session on Idol. Of course he's awful, but at least he got that controversial viewpoint out there: yep, Nicki looks like cotton candy with her pink hair piled on top of her head. Move along now.
A brief respite comes courtesy of Brian Rittenberry a 27-year-old from Georgia who's married to a cancer survivor, who happens to be the cutest Keith Urban fan there is. While Brian makes his wife's case to the country singer, Ryan Seacrest is outside asking her about her "hall pass situation" with Keith. Don't worry, it's cute. Just trust me on that. Ryan brings her into the room as Brian finishes singing "Let it Be" and earns four "yeses," and the moment is somehow not all that obnoxious. It's quick, and Mrs. Brian isn't screaming or losing her mind in order to get 15 seconds on television. She's just sweet and grateful and super proud of her sweet, singing husband. Okay, she's also pretty stoked about getting to hug Keith. That too. This is how an Idol sob story should work.