After just two episodes of the 18th season of “American Idol,” the reboot of the long-running reality show is still pretty much still a “karaoke show,” despite the ascendancy and worship of last year’s runner-up Alejandro Aranda, then 24. He arrived on the show as a fully formed artist with a catalog of wonderful self-penned songs, the ability to play guitar and piano and a truly hypnotic singing style.
Yes, that is far different from the reign of Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul. They couldn’t wait to mold and shape the talents of the winners they chose, including forcing them to release an often mediocre new song penned by others as their first single.
That Alejandro came in second to teen country sensation Laine Hardy might be partly because of a trait beyond his musicianship. Alejandro did not share much about his private life, especially when it came to his estranged parents. And judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan love nothing better than a sob story about overcoming adversity.
But instead of turning his personal background into a soap opera fodder, the dishwasher from Pomona, Calif., sang seven of his original songs on the show, more than any contestant ever. He also went on a solo tour under the guise of Scarypoolparty almost immediately after the season ended.
On the Season 18 premiere, host Ryan Seacrest did pay homage to Laine as being last season’s winner at the top of the show. But he was far more effusive about the impact Alejandro had, calling his audition “a once in a lifetime moment” that “set a course for an irreversible trajectory.” He added that the humble homie’s impact on the new season is a “game changer” and says he has opened a whole other level of talent coming through and trying out.”
The Alejandro effect has only partly taken hold so far this season. On the first round of auditions, only Louis Knight, a 19-year-old pizza delivery boy who grew up in London but moved to Philadelphia when he was 10, came close to being a full-blown artist. He sang an original song “Change” that was inspired by a friend’s suicide. Lionel told him that he’s “onto something big” when it comes to songwriting and that “I think you might be the biggest star we’ve ever had on ‘American Idol.’ ” That might be because Katy noted his One Direction boy-group vibe before he performed.
As for the just-aired second round of auditions, two tryouts crept within distance to the same type of self-assured artistry as Alejandro. First was Jonny West, a 23-year-old piano teacher who accompanied his girlfriend, Margie Mays, who was eliminated during the showcase round in Hawaii last season. Margie just squeaked by — mostly by not hitting any bad notes this time, according to Lionel. But Jonny highly impressed the judges with a catchy original song that featured a rapid-fire rap break in the middle that featured the line “I’ve got this like Nicki Minaj.”
Luke’s reaction? “That really puts you close to the Alejandro lane in my opinion.” If that weren’t enough, a snippet of Alejandro’s “Millennial Love” was played after the couple won their tickets to Hollywood.
The other auditioner who gave off Alejandro vibes was Julia Gargano, 21, who hails from Staten Island. As a teen, she began singing jazz professionally at venues all over New York City while attending LaGuardia Performing Arts School. She is currently studying music industry composition at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y. She was inspired to audition for “Idol” after seeing quirky Catie Turner from Season 16 sing her original song “21st Century Machine” for her audition as well as Alejandro’s impact on the show. Because of them, “I’ve really seen a spot for me. I consider myself a songwriter as my identity.”
She played piano and sang a soulful original song titled “Growing Pains” (watch video above). After she finished, Katy silently rose from her chair, walked to where Julia was standing and simply hugged her. Julia declared it “the best hug I’ve ever received.” Luke says, “That was big time. Big time music. Big time presentation.” Katy told her that she was Top 5 material and Luke added, “She is a star.”
Do you think the show should continue down this path of comparing some already seasoned contestants to last year’s second-place finisher? Or should the judges focus more on raw talent with great potential that they and mentor Bobby Bones could help turn into a original artist without having to be unfairly compared to Alejandro? Take the poll below and also leave any other thoughts in the comments section.