What would Simon Cowell say?

This is the question destined to hover over the 10th season of American Idol - the first without the acerbic Brit passing his trademark judgments on the parade of wannabe pop stars.

And hover it did during Wednesday night's Cowell-less kickoff on Fox, as first-time judges Jennifer Lopez and Aerosmith front man Steven Tyler seemed to split the loopy-nice, nutty-sincere Paula Abdul personality in half, while chief dawg judge Randy Jackson tried gamely to register the horror and the pity the usually baroquely scary audition rounds demand.

One thing seemed certain: The high note of Season 10 has already been sung, repeatedly, by the 63-year-old Tyler himself, who seemed to let loose his finest hard- rock, quivering falsetto, extended high note whenever all else failed.

None of the judges seemed eager to embrace the mean-judge title of Cowell. JLo appeared tortured by the idea of saying no, and Tyler was registering all over the map, from salaciously leering at one tattooed contestant, to banging the table along with another, to telling a JLo wannabe, "You can really sing your tushela off."

 To auditioner Rachel Zabitta, 22, Tyler said: "Water that flower because I think you got the what it is is." To another, he offered something incoherent in which he rhymed hatches with matches.

Both Tyler and Lopez caved when one contestant burst into tears. Somewhere, Cowell was rolling his eyes. Not a dreadful in the bunch.

Jackson muttered something about bringing the sauce.

Sitting with the new judges, Jackson was like a kid who'd been dumped by the cool gang, but gamely takes up with a new group - what the heck. Dawg's just happy to still be hanging in, never mind that the others have fled.

The audition rounds from New York/New Jersey veered more toward the heartwarming and heartbreaking than the outright freak show of prior years (notwithstanding the hootenanny meets Michael Jackson meets Miley Cyrus stylings of Yoji "Pop" Asano).

But without Cowell, the American Idol judges were mostly as milquetoast as - Simon might have said - a karaoke singer on a cruise ship singing Broadway.

At one point, it seemed as if they might just send everyone through to Hollywood, even the sugary sweet Victoria Huggins, 16, of Lumberton, N.C., who inexplicably won Jackson over with her boring, sycophantic personality.

And never mind what Ellen DeGeneres and Kara DioGuardi would have said. (Ellen: not much; Kara: too much.)  Host Ryan Seacrest's chemistry with the new gang remains to be seen.

Producers, hoping to reinvigorate the sagging juggernaut, have promised better contestants, more geared to the big voices of Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson, the only two winners Tyler could remember.

In time, the new trio ("the dino, the diva, and the dawg," in the words of longtime Idol obsessive Mortimer Spreng of Atlantic City) may mesh into something that would pass the Cowell muster.

But the first night veered way toward the feel good - apparently the new era of civil discourse in America will extend to American Idol as well - ending on the heart-tugging story of Travis Orlando, a formerly homeless teen from the Bronx. Even Seacrest teared up. Three "yes" votes. And not a Cowell around to ruin it for everybody.

Contact staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg at 215-854-2681 or arosenberg@phillynews.com.