The ''American Idol'' auditions in Tennessee were funny, but there seemed to be a serious shortage of talent

By Michael Slezak
Updated January 24, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST

”American Idol”: The Memphis blues

Okay, Idol producers. I get it. The audition rounds aren’t about making music magic. You’re holding back on showing us the future Kelly Clarksons and Chris Daughtrys of the world in favor of comedy from the Land of Missing Vowels, or, as it’s better known, Mmphs, Tnnssee.

How else to explain the inclusion of spazzy blond-haired mumbler Chris Rivera, who whooped so maniacally and ran his words together so enthusiastically that his rendition of Stevie Wonder’s ”Superstition” left me feeling vaguely disconcerted (after I finished chuckling, naturally)? And then there was Chris’ sister in word mangling, Timika Sims, whose peculiar pronunciation of R&B star Mya’s name — repeatedly mistaken by Simon (and me) as ”mayor” — provided the night’s ”Who’s on first?” comedy highlight. Poor gal — as if her delusions of being the next Ashanti weren’t laughable enough, her interview clips had silences so painful they’d have made the cast of The Office wince.

In other words, Idol‘s sense of humor was back in form for the third episode of season 6. True, gimmicky contestants still got rewarded with airtime — like that dude who was utterly unconvincing professing his love for Paula — but at least we didn’t have to endure taunts about contestants’ physical traits or witness any rousing games of ”Pick on the Special Olympian.”

But putting aside the congratulations on a winning episode for a second, I’ve got one question for the show’s editors: You’re purposely withholding footage of this season’s superstars, yes? You haven’t burned through so many good singers in your first five seasons that Bucky Covington’s twin brother is on the brink of sweeping in and inheriting Taylor Hicks’ crown, right? Because I’ve now sat through five hours of auditions, and to paraphrase Randy Jackson for a moment, these singers have just been aiight for me.

Okay, to be fair, tonight’s episode showcased a pair of hopefuls with top-24 potential. I loved Jason ”Sundance” Head — crazy facial hair and all — the minute he popped onto my TV screen. The guy was a little cocky, predicting he was about to blow the judges’ minds, but his self-deprecating sense of humor balanced it out, especially when he joked that his words would be great fodder for Idol‘s editors if he didn’t make it to Hollywood.

And anyway, who’s gonna begrudge Sundance his confidence after hearing his take on ”Stormy Monday,” a performance that was at once thoroughly slick and casually tousled. To me, that’s the mark of the great singers — they never make you feel they’re trying too hard. And indeed, when Sundance went for the big notes, it was all about feeling the lyrics rather than mindlessly attempting to show off his range, as so many Idol also-rans have done before him. Simon is right; if this guy doesn’t make the finals, it’ll be nothing short of astonishing. I just hope the fact that Sundance’s dad was ’60s singing star Roy Head doesn’t result in the same ”He’s got famous relatives; he doesn’t deserve it” backlash that nipped at Paris Bennett’s heels throughout last season. It’s not exactly like we’re talking about Lisa Marie Presley here.

Sundance is worth rooting for because, with his bearish presence and goofy demeanor, he’s exactly the kind of singer who might not get a second look by a major label in the Ashlee Simpson era. The same could be said for 28-year-old backup singer Melinda Doolittle, who appeared to make Simon’s heart grow three sizes larger after her glorious take on Stevie Wonder’s ”For Once in My Life.” Planned or not, her song choice resonated beautifully with her backstory; in Melinda, viewers get to root for a woman who’s not accustomed to raising her hand — mainly since she’s sitting on it to stop a bout of the nervous shakes.

I’m hoping that a few more Sundances and Melindas will help settle my own personal Idol jitters, as I found the rest of tonight’s golden-ticket recipients oddly lackluster. Sean Michel, the self-described look-alike of folks as diverse as Jesus, Fidel Castro, Osama Bin Laden, and a homeless bum, delivered a rendition of Johnny Cash’s ”God’s Gonna Cut You Down” that was as unsteady as Paula’s preseason morning-show appearances on local Fox affiliates. (Maybe the judges let him through just so we could experience more of his homespun personal philosophies, like ”All of us are really kind of homeless.”) Similarly, I think the fact that Philip Stacy’s wife delivered a baby on the morning of his audition was a lot more interesting than his version of ”My Girl.” And finally, I don’t get the love for 18-year-old Danielle McCullough, either. Her ”Baby I Love You” was so overpolished I could smell the Lemon Pledge emanating from it, and that’s no way to treat a soulful Aretha classic. In fact, if I were violently unhappy reject Wandera Hitchye, I’d be flipping the bird at the camera, too. Sure, the raspberry-haired diva’s ”Change Is Gonna Come” may not have been extraordinary, but at least it was heartfelt and on-key.

What do you think? Are you worried at all about Idol‘s talent pool this season? Or was Janita Burks’ unbridled cleavage more troubling to you? And were you relieved or peeved that the State of the Union address cut Idol back from two hours to one tonight?