by Brian Mansfield, USA TODAY
"Chicago was unbelievable." Nicki Minaj says. "Remarkable."
Well, maybe not. But it was a big improvement over New York.
The second night of American Idol's 12th-season premiere started ramping things up, not only the talent but also the escalating tensions between judges Mariah Carey and Minaj. The feud, which apparently boils over in next week's episodes, showed signs of building through the show, as both singers wearied of hearing the other speak.
The judges' roles are becoming more clearly defined, too. Jackson's having to play the heavy more than ever, flatly telling one contestant, "You're tone deaf." Carey's the maternal one, and the judge who strikes awe into the hearts of contestants who grew up modeling themselves after her. Minaj is the quote machine, the most incisive, eloquent one of the group. And Urban? "I feel like a scratching post," he said at one point, though his defusing sense of humor likely will play an important role in the season.
The Chicago episode saw the return of a couple of faces familiar to hardcore Idol fans. Louisville teen Brandy Neelly, a barely seen Hollywood contestant in Seasons 10 and 11, got a story segment this time, as she told about being adopted by her aunt. And Season 11's Johnny Keyser, who built a sizable following before his elimination, gets another shot, too.
They'll have some stiff competition, though, particularly from Kiara Lanier, who once sang for a President Obama fund-raiser and got to Hollywood with Celine Dion's The Prayer; 15-year-old Isabelle Parell, who showed a lot of charm as she convinced Keith Urban to sing Baby, It's Cold Outside with her; from gospel-singing Curtis Finch Jr., whose falsetto runs had Carey raising her hand to testify; and from Josh Holiday, who wowed the judges with his take on Brian McKnight's Back at One. And fire-eating Kez Ban has such a dry sense of humor and comfortable groove when singing that she'll be a blast to watch, but she's so idiosyncratic that she likely won't be long for the show.
Lazaro Arbos, though, is the one everybody will be talking about, a Cuban-born singer with a tremendous stutter and a more tremendous voice. His emotional rendition of Bridge Over Troubled Water had Keith Urban telling him, "Just sing all the time."
All in all, 46 singers survived the Chicago auditions to earn a spot in Hollywood.