American Idol: Can Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez avoid the Sophomore Slump?

American Idol (and Randy Jackson) is back for Season 11 but for Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler this marks their sophomore year.  Can Lopez and Tyler find continued success without novelty on their side?

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    American Idol judges, from left to right, Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez, and Randy Jackson, gear up for Season 11 at the Fox Broadcasting Company Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in Pasadena , California. on Jan. 8.
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Just as the frigid winds and early sunsets herald the onslaught of winter, so too does the premiere of America's famed talent show, American Idol

In its eleven seasons, American Idol has become an institution in American pop culture.  But despite the show's longevity, Idol certainly lost some of its identity, and perhaps even pizazz, with the exit of judges Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell.  Bringing in diva Jennifer Lopez and infamous rock star Steven Tyler to take their places last season was a somewhat desperate attempt to prove that TV's No. 1 show was still hip, edgy, and relevant.

At first, Steven's uncensored wackiness and Jennifer's warmth, seemed to indicate that the producers' gamble paid off.  But by the time All-American Scotty McCreery belted out his victory song in the finale, there were obvious chinks in the armor.  Steven, so entertaining in the auditions, had all but checked out by the time the live shows began. And Jennifer's nurturing side seemed to undermine her ability to honestly critique a contestant.  A kinder, gentler, and dare we say, less engaging Idol was born.

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Now in their second year, Steven and Jennifer face the dreaded sophomore slump and if trying to fill Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul's shoes was tough for them last year, this year may prove even more difficult. Paula and Simon have rekindled their unique brand of chemistry on Simon Cowell's new love child, "The X-Factor," which debuted in the fall.  Add NBC's "The Voice" to the mix and suddenly Idol risks becoming passé in a genre that they once dominated.

Savannah Auditions

So, with a crucial season ahead of them, Randy Jackson,  Steven Tyler, and Jennifer Lopez headed to Savannah to kick off Season 11.  As any veteran viewer knows, it's silly to become invested in contestants this early on.  Many share the same trajectory as Steven Tyler, starting off strong in auditions but quickly fizzling out come Hollywood Week.  Yet, try as one might, indifference is often futile, especially since the show's No. 1 goal is to get viewers invested in the contestants.  To that end, Idol has injected even more "reality" into their reality show by having the hopefuls document their journey to auditions with video diaries.

Jennifer's frequent bouts of "goosies," her rather grating term for goose bumps, does not bode well for those hoping for a more discerning Idol.  Take the first contestant of the night, David Leathers, Jr. who was instantly compared to young Michael Jackson.  Seriously?  Sure, a 17-year-old who looks 12 and claims to be a ladies man may be endearing to some, but Michael Jackson he is not.

Besides, lauding a perfectly average contestant only cheapens the process, especially when contestants worthy of the praise are introduced.  Speaking of cheapening the process, Steven Tyler was certainly in overdrive in the creepy-old-man-who-leers-at-young-girls-department, going so far as to remark to a 15-year-old Shannon Magrane's father that she was "hot and steamy."  Not his finest moment to be sure; its almost enough to make one long for last season's post-audition, slightly dazed Steven, who tells everyone they're beautiful, minus the creepy stare.

Thankfully for every baby-faced David Leathers, Jr., homeless Amy Brumfield and do-gooder Lauren Mink (who drew overblown praise from the judges),  there were some contestants who earned their airtime in the talent department.  So, if you are inclined to becoming invested in contestants early in the game, here are some recommendations:

Gabi Carrubba, a 16-year-old champion tap dancer,  scored a hat-trick with her natural exuberance and great performance of Maroon Five's, Sunday Morning.  Not only did she earn a ticket to Hollywood, she also got to meet Ryan Seacrest and managed to illicit the facial expression Steven Tyler makes when he hears good music.  What more could a girl ask for?

Colton Dixon, who the judges eliminated during Hollywood week last season, returns to support his sister, Schyler Dixon, and is urged to audition by the judges.  JLo instructs him to sing in order to make the judges feel stupid for their decision to eliminate him last year . . .  apparently they're slow learners.  Poor Schyler stands in the background as Colton overshadows her once again.  But all is well that ends well, since they both earn tickets to Hollywood, where Colton will likely continue to outshine his sister.

Then in the grand tradition of saving the best for last, comes Phillip Phillips, a 20-year-old from Georgia.  His rendition of Stevie Wonder's 'Superstition" is remarkable ,but when he picks up his guitar and performs "Thriller" by Michael Jackson, all hope of not getting excited this early on, is lost.  His performance is reminiscent of a younger Dave Matthews and his passion for the music only enhances his appeal.  Add a lopsided grin, southern drawl, and humble affability to the mix and suddenly all bloggers the world over are ready to call the winner only two hours into the season.  Okay, maybe not all bloggers . . . just those with uncanny intuition who aren't afraid to throw caution to the wind. 

Caution . . . out.

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