"American Idol" returned to Fox for its 10th season premiere on Wednesday night (Jan. 19), and with new judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez also making their debuts -- and the reliably affable Randy Jackson occupying Simon Cowell's old seat on the panel -- there were plenty of changes for fans to dissect.
The biggest one? There are no more mean judges, and Lopez might be the nicest one of all. While Tyler brought back the lovable kookiness that has been short supply since Paula Abdul exited "American Idol" in 2009, Lopez took up the former judge's cheerleader persona, squirming in her chair when it was time to reject a singer, then rising from it to give Tiffany Rios -- a 21-year-old dance instructor wearing a star-embellished bikini top -- a generous hug.
"Oh, my God, I hate this!" Lopez said later, after turning down another subpar singer. "Why did I sign up for this?" Later still, she asked Jackson, "How did you do this for 10 years?"
But if Lopez didn't fully immerse herself into her new role, perhaps it was because of the fawning on the part of the "Idol" hopefuls, who, on this night, at least, appeared more star-struck than ever. Many, like Ray Charles' fan Caleb Hawley, appeared as though they'd already won the whole competition just by getting a compliment from Tyler, while Rios explained during her interview segment that her goal was to "make Jennifer Lopez cry."
Viewers won't know for sure how Tyler and Lopez will ultimately fare as "Idol" judges until the live episodes begin to air in March. (Former judges Kara DioGuardi and Ellen DeGeneres were both widely praised during their first pre-taped episodes). But for what it's worth, Tyler -- who is balancing his time as the singer for Aerosmith with his new day job -- was a pleasant surprise throughout tonight's show, offering cogent critique.
"When you came out here, you were on fire," he told 22-year-old repeat auditioner Rachel Zevita, whose nerves took over as she sang the season's first cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" (there are sure to be more). "You've got to sing something that delivers that same feeling in voice and in notes," he continued, motioning to Lopez and Jackson, "We ought to let her in the door and water that flower, because it's gonna grow."
When the moment called for it, Tyler's comedic soundbites were equally on point. "What's with the jujubes on your ooh-ooh-bes?" he remarked to Rios (the auditioner who brought out the judges' most revealing moments), suggesting that this rock star is capable of turning FCC guidelines into lemonade. And Tyler has clearly bought into "Idol's" star-making mythology, announcing his intent to "find a Janis Joplin for this era" at the start of the show and defining an "American Idol" winner as "someone who sings so good, that it's won the hearts of 40 million people."
Without Cowell on the panel -- and with Jackson taking the role of senior judge -- the critiques overall lacked teeth. If anyone used the words "horrific" or "bloody awful" to describe a contestant, or even remotely offended them, it was left on the cutting room floor. Jackson clung to the same punchlines he and Cowell used for years, sounding ever more like the broken records he speaks of, while Lopez and Tyler tried new "Idol"-isms on for size. "It's a singing competition first, and that girl can blow!" Jackson said of 21-year-old waitress Devyn Rush, the night's best audition, but he could have been describing anyone.
Familiarity is no doubt still privileged at "Idol," despite the obvious changes. Contestants with backstories that tug at the heartstrings get more screentime: take 16-year-old Melinda Ademi, whose parents left war-torn Kosovo for the U.S. (she also sang well), and Bronx native Travis Orlando, who spoke of growing up in poverty before singing Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours." Trainwreck auditions haven't gone out of style either, some fans will be happy to know. Tonight's best one came courtesy of Yoji "Pop" Asano, whose rendition of "Party in the U.S.A.," complete with Michael Jackson-inspired dance moves, would no doubt make Miley Cyrus proud.
The audition rounds kicked off in East Rutherford, N.J., where thousands lined up last year to vie for the "Idol" crown and 51 were ultimately sent on to Hollywood, according to host Ryan Seacrest. In years past, the IZOD Center venue was touted as the site of the "New York" auditions, but perhaps in light of MTV's smash hit "Jersey Shore," there was no shortage of Garden State pride on display. Contestants shouted phrases like "fugheddaboutit" in clusters, and Ryan Seacrest gleefully fist-pumped with a Pauly D lookalike. "American Idol" continues Thursday (Jan. 20) with auditions from New Orleans, La., and hopefully less questionable regional humor.