American Idol stage manager Debbie Williams switches on her microphone and trumpets the night's marching orders to a packed-to-the-rafters crowd of more than 800: "There's gonna be stuff you agree with, stuff you disagree with. Let us hear you! Spit it out!"
But Williams doesn't really need to pump up this crowd. Inside a massive studio at CBS Television City in the heart of Los Angeles, this season's electrifying new crop of singers, along with the unexpected, lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry between judges Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler, has created so many good vibrations that the infectious, light-hearted energy has already super-charged the audience. "Lightness! That's the word," says veteran Idol vocal coach Debra Byrd, who says she's in love with the changes to the show (including getting to the Top 10 much faster) wrought by executive producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick.
"Last season was Dullsville compared to this," says another Idol insider. "The judges seemed bored and I don't think any of those kids would have made it into this season's Top 10."
That would be the Top 13, actually, when you add in the judges' three wild cards, Ashthon Jones, Stefano Langone and Naima Adedapo. Some would argue that this is Idol's strongest talent pool yet. But even at this early stage, it's clear that the crowd is playing favorites: When the Top 24 were introduced for the last time, the biggest applause by far was for 17-year-old Scotty McCreery, the throwback country singer with the shockingly deep voice. There was also a burst of enthusiasm for the 26-year-old who can channel Rod Stewart, Paul McDonald, and for the young woman who got this season's first post-Top 24 standing ovation, Pia Toscano, 22.
But the good vibrations weren't just happening on stage. During one commercial break, Lopez's husband, singer Mark Anthony, came to the judges' table and spoke privately to his wife, taking her hand. After her new video aired, she turned to find him in the audience and he gave her a big thumbs up.
"Idol is fun again," said someone in the crowd. "And really worth watching."