The show opened with Steven and Randy singing a duet to the melody of the Aerosmith song "Sweet Emotion," Steven Tyler improvising, "Talking about people who really can't sing, and when they get the confidence, what they can bring."
Danny Gokey came to greet hopefuls in a line (separated from them by a thin security tape). J. Lo, who previously had said she wanted to emphasize vocal abilities, said "that's the goal, the package." It doesn't take long to realize there's more to this competition than just the singing.
First up was Scotty McCreery, 16, of Garner, North Carolina, an "all-American kid" who enjoys playing baseball. He had a buzz cut and wore an olive button-down over a tangerine T-shirt, with a cross necklace and faded jeans. His lopsided smile and preternaturally deep voice made him a natural for his favorite genre: country. He claimed he'd started singing at age 1, beginning with a nursery rhyme. He sang "Your Old Man" by Josh Turner and sounded a lot older with his deep, resonant voice. J. Lo told him "You make me smile." Steven asked him to sing something else that "stands the test of time," and Scott went with the Travis Tritt song "Put Some Drive in Your Country." Steven exclaimed, "Hellfire, saint matches, (bleep) a duck and see what hatches." Is it just me, or is Steven a fun hybrid of Simon and Paula when it comes to comments? Scotty got three yeses and is well on his way to being this season's country contestant. Randy loved "that you're a throwback country guy." [Scotty's audition]
Next was possibly one of the most cheerful contestants of all time, Joe Repka, 19, Swanton, Ohio, a college student in communications who wants to be on radio. He has kind of a smarmy radio delivery at this point, but nothing that some experience in the field wouldn't help him correct. In the pre-interview, he admitted that he listens to country music, not Ryan Seacrest's show. A large, heavyset guy in a red striped polo shirt with glasses, a bowl cut, khaki shorts, and sandals, he sang "The Longest Time" by Billy Joel. Joe took a big exhale before beginning a too-high, off-tune version of the song, which prompted Steven to bark like a dog. Steven told him that he'd be brutally honest: "Do not quit your day job. Don't sing into the mike; talk into it." J. Lo agreed that he should pursue a radio job, as did Randy: "No to singing. Definitely the DJ thing." Not to be deterred, Joe began singing the Elvis Presley song "Fools Rush In," and Steven jumped in to singalong. Randy, facetiously, said it was a beautiful duet with Steven. But for Joe, the answer was three resounding nos. [Joe's audition]
Emma Henry, 15, Littleton, Colorado, made use of her learner's permit and drove most of the way with her family. She has watched since the first season, when she was 5. Emma had brown hair bleached blonde on top and wore a short jumpsuit with vest. She did "True Colors" by Cyndi Lauper, swallowing some syllables. Maybe she was a little nervous? There was a breathy quality to her voice that I kind of liked. Steven loved it: "You've got a certain something. It's got a lot of character." J. Lo found "something there for you to build on, a special quality." Randy, though, wasn't sure that she was ready yet. J. Lo said "no for right now, and Steven said yes. Emma begged Randy: "This is what my life is about." Randy countered, "This is just the beginning. You're 15. You've got a whole life of music ahead of you." He added that "I really, really honestly believe you'd get swallowed up in this whole thing. You have some skill... just need to develop it." But Randy was moved by her tears: "Guess what? You've got another shot. Don't disappoint us." Steven advised her to "belt it out a little bit more." [Emma's audition]
We then saw a montage of nos, including one woman wearing a really strange outfit that looked a bit like lingerie with a black robe.
Naima Adedapo teared up as she talked about her job doing janitorial work for a big Milwaukee music festival, Summerfest. She'd much rather be on the stage. In a quirky outfit consisting of a red flower in her short dreadlocks, big red hoop earrings, a shell necklace, a yellow and orange halter dress, and black leggings, she did the Donny Hathaway song "For All We Know." Despite being emotionally overwrought, she demonstrated she has potential. Since J. Lo admitted she's looking for "the whole package," it's also true that Naima has an interesting look, with her dreadlocks, cafe au lait skin, and light eyes. J. Lo said, "I liked you a lot." She called her "one of the best we've seen." Randy agreed, and Steven said, "I think you're all that." Naima responded, "You're all that, too," eliciting some J. Lo jealousy: "I get no love?" This after a weird exchange between the two, where J. Lo called Steven "Steve" and he corrected her. Wait, I thought this judges panel loved each other. Naima got three yeses. [Naima's audition]
Coming back from the break, there was some silliness between Ryan and J. Lo, where he claimed she wasn't allowed to talk to him when the cameras weren't on. She joked, "He's such a diva. I can't take it."
We also got to see an interesting moment, where someone was doing flips down the lobby and landed on the cameraman, breaking the camera. Ouch!
This was followed by a montage of bad auditions, including a dentist with a giant toothbrush, age 54. I guess he was hoping for a "Pants on the Ground" moment like what happened last year for Larry Platt.
Bar mitzvah singer Jerome Bell, 27, was stylish, in silver sneakers, a brown fedora, brown vest, white T-shirt, and horn-rimmed glasses. He oozed cool confidence, and his version of "Let's Get it On" by Marvin Gaye showed off a good higher range and lots of energy. Randy called it "hot, crazy vocals," and liked that it was in tune and in control. J. Lo lauded him with a similar litany: "loud, soft, sweet, powerful, cute." Randy noted, "All the isms, jumping off." Steven added, "None of the whatims." Three yeses. [Jerome's audition]
Despite a shot of little Valerie, age 5, singing for the judges, the age hasn't been lowered that much: simply to 15. However, the 15-year-olds had a great run in Milwaukee, with everyone who went in to see the judges on day one getting a golden ticket.
We got to see the audition of Thia Megia, 15, who performed "Chasing Pavements" by Adele. She had long dark hair and wore shorts and a black-and-white top. While she'd originally planned to audition for season 11, when she found out the age was lowered, she thought she'd take a shot. J. Lo enthused: "You're the total package." Steven loved her voice, saying she had "a lot of character" and praising the "smoke and heat." Three yeses. [Thia's audition]
Next was a montage of 15-year-olds getting golden tickets. Probably not the worst idea, since some of the most enthusiastic groups of viewers (and especially voters) tends to be preteens and teenagers.
Civil war reenactor Nathaniel Jones, 22, Mt. Zion, Wisconsin, came to audition in his Union uniform. His father, who's got a beard and wears a red, white and blue bandanna, is often called a hippie. Nathaniel had a strong reaction: "No, he's not a hippie. Hippies believe in sex." He had an odd choice of an audition song, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," which he sung in falsetto. Randy laughed into his drink. Steven responded, "Outstanding. I'm not sure if it's for American Idol, but I certainly liked the song." J. Lo minced no words: "It's a no for me." Nathaniel asked if there was "anything I can do to change your mind?" Randy answered, "We got the measure of what you are." [Nathaniel's audition]
Wearing a black button-down with black pants and with very short bangs, Mason Wilkinson, 23, was seriously nervous, having to take some time to get himself together before singing. When he did, he spent the whole performance looking up into the lights as he sang a very strange monotonous song. No surprise, it's a no. [Mason's audition]
Molly DeWolf Swenson, 22, had recently graduated from Harvard and was now working as a White House intern for the Obama administration. She proclaimed she's "In love with this president, not in the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky way; in the platonic way." She looked very composed with long blonde hair, a black tank top, gray pleated shorts, and red heels. Molly started out by informing Randy that he'd accidentally punched her in the mouth when he was running through the lobby slapping people's hands. J. Lo apologized for him when he refused to believe he'd done it, and then he followed suit. She sang "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay," starting out in a low, breathy voice that got stronger as she proceeded. Nice. J. Lo thought it was really rich in the lower range, which she acknowledged is "tough to control when you're nervous." Randy told her, "You're a really good singer. What's been going on?" Steven replied, "She's been at Harvard." Three yeses. [Molly's audition]
On day two, J. Lo showed up wearing a white top with a treble clef symbol on it, while Randy wore a gray sweater with a bass clef symbol. Planned? Hmm.
Haley Reinhard, 18, Wheeling, Illinois, had tried out in Chicago last year and been told to come back. Wearing a simple white V-neck with faded jeans, she sang "Oh, Darling" and was trying hard, embellishing the phrase a little too much. Steven approved, singing, "Because this time, it will be different." He liked it. Randy told her, "You got so much better." Three yeses. [Haley's audition]
Tiwan Strong, 29, of Chicago, sang "Twisting the Night Away" wearing a white shirt and pants with white shoes. Maybe it was the outfit or his height, but he seemed a bit older than he is. He has a nice voice, though, and was very comfortable performing. Steven said, "I see the sparkle in your eyes, and I liked your voice." Randy thought it sounded great and that he had a nice tone. J. Lo agreed that he did a really good job. Three yeses. [Tiwan's audition]
Steven Beghun, 27, Bloomington, Minnesota, is a CPA and an auditor and, as might be expected, wore a light blue button-down shirt to go with his dark blonde short-cropped hair. He's a wedding and funeral singer: "Weddings are more fun." A tall guy who joked that his last name sounds like "big goon," he had a high voice but was in control. J. Lo found it surprising, "because you're big and your voice is high." Steven found him "to be disturbingly great." He called the performance weird and compelling. Randy said it was "different" but jumped on the "yes" bandwagon. Steven B. violated Ryan's personal space and picked him up when he came out with his golden ticket. [Steven's audition]
Vernika Patterson, 20, clearly had a few self-esteem issues. As she began a weak version of "Loving You," wearing a patterned halter dress, she stopped and said she was nervous because "the lady's looking at me." Whoa. Does she know "the lady" was J. Lo? She only got worse as she went, warbling and overreaching for notes. Ouch. J. Lo remarked that's such a beautiful song but "This is not going to work for this." Vernika offered to sing another song. Steven said, "I'm not sure you're ready for American Idol." Vernika responded, "Really? You think so?" with a tone you'd use for a misbehaving 10-year-old. She claimed that "half of these people cannot sing better than me. I'm not even upset." But she clearly was, adding, "Is it because I'm not skinny?" Randy countered, "This is not about size or look; it's about talent." She stormed off without waiting for an answer. Randy summed up: "I guess she gave herself a no." [Vernika's audition]
Albert Rogers III, 24, blessed the camera with his mediocre Obama impersonation. Randy didn't believe that he was 24, thinking he looked older. Probably because of his weight and his little beard, along with his outdated look of a gray striped shirt with white cuffs, paired with light jeans and a gray newsboy hat. Albert sang "Stand by Me," starting out OK but getting weird, with a lazy off-pitch version. Steven claimed, "I liked it; not sure if it's American Idol." Randy said, "I think it was terrible and a joke. He's not serious." Steven chided him for being so mean. "Do we even need to vote?" Randy asked. Steven told him yes. It was three nos. Albert was undeterred, saying he would be something great some day. [Albert's audition]
Scott Dangerfield, 22, was unassuming in a gray and white striped shirt, jean shorts, and horn-rimmed glasses, with longish red hair. Steven asked if those were his real lips or if he'd borrowed Steven's lipstick. Steve claimed he'd kissed a girl backstage. He sang the Amos Lee song "Dreaming," showing off a very nice voice with a mellow delivery. J. Lo gushed, "You might be my favorite I've seen so far." Three yeses, including Randy's enthusiastic "hundred million percent yes." He said this was a lesson to "Never judge a book by its cover." That is unless you're looking for "the total package," right, J. Lo? [Scott's audition]
Next was super fan Megan Frazier, 20, who led the lobby in cheers for the Packers: "Go, Pack, go." Wearing an American flag button-down shirt with brown shorts, sandals, and straight blonde hair, she did a really weird version of "Baby" by Justin Bieber, singing in a ridiculous falsetto with excessive vibrato. For real? Steven made a goat noise. Randy claimed that "the glass broke." Megan said she'd sung it that way because it was "Time for some opera." Umm... opera says no. So do the judges. [Megan's audition]
Alyson Jados, 26, said she "wants to bring an edge," to bring "more rock 'n' roll" to American Idol. Like most would-be rockers, she dressed in all black and red: black dyed hair, black jacket, black pants, a red top with sweetheart neckline. Oh, and brown cowboy boots. Steven commented, "You look like you could be one of my -- can't say." Aly said she loves Steven and Aerosmith, and he said: "I think maybe a hug is warranted," standing up and giving her a big hug. She sang "Come Together." It didn't blow me away, but it was at least as good as some of the other so-called rockers who have competed on the show. Steven asked her, "Do you know any more?" Randy suggested an Aerosmith song. She did "Dream On" but just sang the "dream on" part. Steven said it was very pitchy and noted she jumps "all over the place with your notes." J. Lo, though, thought she had "some great quality in your voice," and that she "comes alive on stge." Randy said she was not ready yet. "I'm going to say no." J. Lo gave her a yes, meaning her fate lay in the hands of her idol, Steven. He looked at the crying fan and couldn't say no. To Randy, Steven said, "I agree with you about the cars we say here, but as far as her, I say yes." [Alyson's audition]
A montage of golden ticket winners to "Dream On."
The final story of the night was the sad story of Chicago native Chris Medina, 26, Oak Forest, Illinois. He had longish, curly dark hair, and wore a blue V-neck T-shirt, jeans, and a short-sleeved red plaid shirt. He's engaged, but it's not a simple story. His fiancee, Juliana, got into an accident in 2009 and suffered a traumatic brain injury that left her in bad shape. He shares caretaking responsibilities with her mother, saying he'd been about to make vows, just two months past the accident, so "What kind of guy would I be if I walked out when she needed me the most?" He wanted to get to Hollywood, if only to give her something to smile about. He sang "Break Even" by the Script, demonstrating good control and a very nice range with a good higher end. J. Lo told him to "Go get your girlfriend," and all the judges greeted her, shaking her hand. Steven told her that "he sings so good because he sings to you." He kissed her. Three yeses. Julianna held up the golden ticket as they left the room and then whispered in Chris's ear, "I knew it." If Chris goes further than Hollywood, he'd be wise to look at Danny Gokey's run (whose wife, tragically, had died shortly before he auditioned) and downplay his fiancee's story so as not to be accused of exploiting her. [Chris's audition]
Fifty-three contestants are moving on from Milwaukee. Next time, auditions are in Nashville, "Music City." With one of largest turnouts ever, it should be an interesting night.
Fifteen-year-olds may edge out older talent this year.