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'American Idol,' night one: The Beatles make for sad teenage dreams

January 20, 2011 |  8:45 am

Pop & Hiss lends an ear to the tunes that play out on "American Idol" this season.

Judging_NJ_Day1_1760 Sandwiched between the tear-jerky backstories, song butchering and Jennifer Lopez gawking, there was still time for a few songs to be belted out (for better or worse) on the highly anticipated -– and hyped -- premiere of the 10th season of “American Idol.”

With the addition of a new panel of judges, including superstars Lopez and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, more business-like hurdles for the contestants and the lowering of the age limit from 16 to 15 -– surely the result of the Justin Bieber zeitgeist –- the lingering question of what would hopefuls sing in a bid to secure the coveted golden ticket to Hollywood yielded a variety of answers.

Teenagers took center stage of the first night of auditions, which occurred in a state responsible for making Snooki and The Situation household names, New Jersey. 

“Idol” has always attracted teens full of unbridled enthusiasm ready to belt out a tune often bigger than themselves. Ten seasons later, this hasn’t changed.

Despite a year rife with ubiquitous pop melodies and hooks that could make for a standout showing –- Rihanna’s bitter chorus of “Love the Way You Lie,” the instant stickiness of Cee Lo Green's “Forget You,” Katy Perry’s surprising “Teenage Dream” and the harmony of Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are” quickly come to mind –- the teens dug deeper into the American songbook than perhaps necessary. And many leaned on the Beatles for source material.

Though there is no denying the universal appeal, and timelessness, of the Beatles -– as evident by the 5 million songs and 1 million albums they logged since bowing on iTunes in November –- their tracks blanketed airwaves decades before these contestants were in diapers. Plus, the group is already covered quite exhaustively on the show.

With “Glee” continuing its iTunes and chart domination with its trademark peppy remakes of classics, it was surprising to see so many of the young hopefuls avoid adding their own swagger to songs, though a few did add pretty heavy backstories that brought their songs to life in such a way that it might seem inappropriate to rely on the more disposable playlists the teens probably have clogged on their iPods.

Sixteen-year-old Robbie Rosen stole the judges' hearts with his story of overcoming a debilitating condition that left him wheelchair bound at the age of 5. The condition devastated his family to the extent that they couldn't bear to take pictures or video of him. It set up his moving rendition of “Yesterday” quite nicely and he made it through thanks to his "beautiful” vocals (Tyler’s words).

Another gripping moment, again played to the backbeat of the Lennon/McCartney catalog, came from Bronx teen Travis Orlando. He and his twin brother lived in a shelter with their parents for a number of years in an area infested with murder and crime -– the camera even panned to a curbside shrine to a slain neighbor in case eye ducts weren’t already moist. Although the family is no longer residing in the shelter, they still struggle to make ends meet. Appropriately, he tackled the somber “Eleanor Rigby.” The 16-year-old’s sugary vocals gave the song, with its pines of loneliness and depression, enough youthful flair to catapult him to Hollywood.

Other young hopefuls offered everything from Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia” and Diana Ross’ “Endless Love” in a bid to win over the judges; its clear the crop of teen contestants have sneaked into their parent’s vinyl hoping to win over the audience that will later vote for them. It might be a good idea for future teens to take a (gasp) risk and cover artists closer to their own age -- while they still have the chance.

-- Gerrick D. Kennedy

Photo: Ashley Sullivan, 25, from Tewksbury, Mass., performs in front of the judges on "American Idol." Credit: Michael Becker / FX