Ellen DeGeneres kicked off her debut as the new "American Idol" judge in impressive fashion on Tuesday night (Feb. 9), bringing a healthy dose of honest critiques and well-timed punchlines to the first night of Hollywood auditions.
Before even the first note was sung, though, DeGeneres started her "Idol" tenure by addressing the 181 aspiring finalists gathered in the Kodak Theater. "People say, 'What do you know about music?'" DeGeneres said. "I'll tell you what I do know. I do know what it's like to stand onstage and try to please an entire room full of people. That is a hard thing to do."
The daytime talk show host and comedian proved herself to be more than capable at judging musical talent. When Orlando-based 22-year-old Antonio "Skii Bo Ski" Wheeler unnervingly paced his way through a rendition of the Temptations' "Ain't Too Proud To Beg," DeGeneres was brutally candid.
"You frighten me," she said, triggering a few laughs among the contestants watching from their seats. "You were stalking us. You were like a leopard behind a cage." When Wheeler countered, "This is the American dream!" DeGeneres replied, "Of course. But seriously, don't frighten your audience -- don't get so intense. Sexy and scary; it's a fine line."
Many debated whether DeGeneres would get along with her new judging partner Simon Cowell -- especially in light of reports that they had clashed during taping of the Hollywood rounds -- but the two showed no signs of a feud.
"So this is it, huh? I come on, you leave," DeGeneres said to Cowell, who laughed awkardly. The British judge will leave "American Idol" when this season wraps and bring his own singing competition show, "The X Factor," to the U.S.
Like Cowell, DeGeneres didn't shy away from giving stinging feedback to subpar auditioners. "I'm tired as it is, and that almost put me right out," she told one contestant. "It was crazy, I think, in a bad way," she said to another, then, "You should put some shoes on, dear -- it's filthy here. Hollywood is a disgusting town."
The singers who did earn raves included 17-year-old Katie Stevens, who sang Stevie Wonder's "For Once in My Life"; Tennessee waitress Didi Benami, who performed Kara DioGuardi's own song "Terrified" while strumming an acoustic guitar; and 24-year-old Crystal Bowersox, who gave a no-holds-barred performance of "Natural Woman" that even moved her competitors to jump in on background vocals.
Disappointment came for 20-year-old Vanessa Wolfe, a standout from the Atlanta auditions who made a questionable song choice in Blind Melon's "No Rain" and was met with a mixed-message, Paula Abdul-esque critique by DeGeneres. "You're unique -- I think you have a unique quality that you should embrace and just accept who you are," she told Wolfe, who was eliminated soon after.
The absence of Paula Abdul, whom DeGeneres is replacing, was felt most deeply during 24-year-old Andrew Garcia's audition. Garcia - the early frontrunner of Season 9 so far - keenly chose to sing Abdul's hit single "Straight Up" and revamp it with a brooding, acoustic arrangement. "You just owned that moment and interpreted something in a way similar to the way Adam [Lambert] did last season, when he would take a song and flip it," said Kara DioGuardi, despite the fact that Garcia's rendition sounded more like Kris Allen's stripped-down version of Kanye West's "Heartless."
"That was genius. Paula would be screaming and yelling and clapping and dancing and dying," DioGuardi also said, and DeGeneres chimed in -- "She would be doing this for you right now," while clapping with her hands held high above her head.
Longtime "Idol" fans will have likely recognized the gesture as the signature move that Abdul often pulled when she was especially excited by a performance - she'd thrust her arms into the air and often rise from her seat, beaming, and sometimes even cry, as though something truly amazing were unfolding before her. DeGeneres' quick nod to Abdul made it clear that the departed judge's knee-jerk, giddy excitement -- often a source of pleasure for "Idol" viewers whether they knew it or not -- is likely gone for good.
"American Idol's" Hollywood round continues Wednesday night on Fox.