American Idol's 15th season is officially underway, and the show kicked off with a nostalgic flair that emphasized its own importance throughout American pop culture and the music industry over the last 14 years. Welcoming back alumni like Taylor Hicks, Kris Allen, Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard to help with the auditioning process, the show itself started with an emotional opening, featuring impressionable children and teens watching former Idols with and dream of being on the show themselves. No, shut up. You're the one crying.
With the stakes feeling so high, there was specialness in the air on Wednesday night's premiere. There is no "get better and come back last year," and you have to wonder how that is going to affect the quality of contestants as well as the judge's choices.
And, true to Idol form, we got a little bit of the show's old quirks back. Oh yes, there were comically bad auditions. Can we talk about "Go Jo," the classically trained narcissist who was convinced his burp tone was actually a low F? Or the yodeling girl who couldn't stop talking. Yo, shout out to Jim the goat. It was nice to once again see Idol take itself a little less seriously years after the majority of hilariously awful auditions were scrapped. Welcome back.
There were even some moments that felt high stakes but really weren't. Harry Connick Jr. was handcuffed by singing cop Reanna Molinaro (who probably made it through to Hollywood just to save Harry). There was a particularly intense death stare from acoustic rocker Kerry Courtney, who gave the most dramatic Death Cab For Cutie performance in history. His glare was scary but the tone was anything but.
In the midst of the fast-paced auditions (an area where American Idol has always excelled, compared to the slow crawl of The Voice while Adam Levine and Blake Shelton try and out-wit each other) and that way-too-hyped Kanye West audition, there were some sure things in the Denver and Atlanta tryouts, and here are five of our favorites.
05. Shelbie Z, "Last Name": American Idol has had great successes in country music - does Carrie Underwood ring a bell? - and Shelbie Z could very well be another one of them. This small town hairstylist belted out this Underwood hit at the end of the show and wrapped things up at a high point. Her biggest asset is that she can project and she has a rich country tone and a sassiness to her that just pulls you in.
04. Jordan Sasser, "It's All Coming Back to Me": Jordan Sasser auditioned alongside his wife Alex Sasser, whose performance of Bruno Mars' "Count on Me" was a little too sunny and light to really have any sense of honesty. She was fine, but not really Hollywood material. But her husband, ministry leader Jordan Sasser is destined for L.A. His performance of Celine Dion's "It's All Coming Back to Me" had all of the passion that his wife lacked and a sense of control that was impressive, given all of the different dynamics this hit has in it. Though his marriage may be rocky because of this audition (his wife put a LOT of blame on him dancing with his daughter during her tryout), his future on Idol is looking clear.
03. Lee Jean, "I See Fire": It took a little while, but 15-year-old Lee Jean finally made the Atlanta auditions feel worthwhile with his take on Ed Sheeran's "I See Fire." Though this song (and Sheeran in general) is a major favorite on reality competitions, Lee's take on it felt really soulful and earnest. His tone was soft and his guitar playing was almost masterful. There were a few pitch issues here and there, but Lee's voice is unique and definitely has a place in the top 24.
02. Joshua Wicker, "Stay": Joshua Wicker is like the beautiful bastard son of Jason Mraz and Joshua Ritter. His voice has this throaty quality to it and an honesty and emotional connection that just instantly makes you really believe in him. His take on Rihanna's "Stay," which he accompanied with an acoustic guitar, almost felt like an original composition - Joshua connected with it just that much. Idol has had a history of loving the "White Guy With a Guitar," but this is one unique WGWG who deserves his spot in Hollywood.
01. Sonika Vaid, "Look at Me": Sonika Vaid seemed like the total package before she even hit the Idol audition floor. This first generation Indian-American woman from Martha's Vineyard is beyond pretty and has a humbling personality and story about her immigrant parents. When she opened her mouth for Carrie Underwood's "Look at Me" it all made sense. She didn't decorate this song with anything too extra - she just sang it straight. But her voice was prettier than she is, and when Harry Connick Jr. said that she could have a winning voice, I was apt to believe him.