In the Charleston auditions, freaks and geeks win, while apparent shoo-ins go home

”American Idol” recap: Breaking the rules

It seems like every American Idol season, the show’s producers devote one very special episode to turning the ever-predictable audition process upside down. Attractive, seemingly well-adjusted folks get their dreams crushed. Freaks and geeks clutch their golden tickets and break out the happy dances. Rejected contestants upgrade from R-rated tirades to amusing punch lines. And — ”hallelujah, Jesus!” — tonight’s Charleston, S.C., episode gave us all those scenarios and more, in a mercifully succinct 61 minutes. (Sorry, Fox, your evil plan to lure me into Moment of Truth — and earn added cash for delivering my soul to Satan — didn’t work; better luck next week!) Here’s how it all played out:

1. Subpar vocals arrived in pretty packages This is my fourth season covering Idol for, and with all the obsessive viewing, I consider myself pretty astute at spotting Hollywood-bound contestants before their first notes are sung. Not so much with Air Force pilot Lyndsey Goodman. With her pale eyes, dark red hair, and voluptuous figure, she looked just as likely to be painted on the side of a military plane as to be flying one; better still, she came off as bright and likable in her interview package. So imagine my surprise when, during her rendition of Alannah Myles’ ”Black Velvet” (the overdone audition song for soulful white chicks), her lips began trembling like a child who’s stayed in the pool too long. Before I had a chance to muster up outrage that an average singer was about to head to Hollywood on looks and personality alone, there was Simon calling her a ”very good cabaret singer,” Paula declaring that Lyndsey’s nerves had gotten the best of her, and Randy looking woeful. And just like Snoopy’s World War I flying ace, Lyndsey was nose-diving back to anonymity.

Similarly, I was expecting Phil Stacey: The Sequel after producers spent the hour cutting back to footage of Oliver Highman, whose wife had gone into labor before he got a chance to sing for the judges. Yet like Lyndsey before him, Oliver possessed only a decent instrument, and one that was marred by the kind of excessive quavering that could set off a seismograph. I can’t recall the last time the judges called out a contestant for unnecessary vibrato and meaningless vocal runs, but here’s hoping Randy’s and Simon’s harsh critiques were the first steps toward a new and melodious Idol era. And don’t cry for Oliver, either. Dude’s gonna make a killing after he launches

2. Flamboyant folks backed up their bluster with decent pipes I’m not certain how far siblings Michelle and Jeffery Lampkin will go in this competition, but I have to say, from the duo’s opening ”bah chicka wah-wah” to their post-audition victory jig, they rank in my top 5 favorite Idol auditions of all time.

Most of the credit goes to the hilariously outré Jeffery, who arrived with a necktie around his forehead and a declaration that he possessed the ”owww! factor” necessary to be the next winner. Of course, I thought the producers were setting us up to see the tears of a clown, especially after the siblings revealed they’d be tackling a supersize R. Kelly-Celine Dion duet (”I’m Your Angel”) for their audition. Yet once Michelle and Jeffery launched into a gorgeous, restrained harmony, Simon had to bite down on his pencil to suppress a grin. Over the years, the cranky Brit has delighted in splitting up group auditioners — be they friends, relatives, co-workers — but after Randy voted no for Michelle and yes for Jeffery, Simon took Paula’s side and sent ’em both to Hollywood. ”You can’t split those two up, Randy!” Simon said with amusement, as Jeffery shouted, ”Hallelujah, Jesus!” and performed an enthusiastic (if bizarre) two-step.

Knoxville teenager Amy Flynn was slightly more restrained when the judges gave her passage to Hollywood, but the way she reacted to Paula’s initial ”yes” vote — with a clenched fist, then two thumbs up and the kind of facial expression you’d expect from a frat boy whose college football team just scored a touchdown — was no less humorous. I’m just glad Idol showed some restraint, too, and didn’t turn Amy into a disposable joke. Sure, her rendition of Christina Aguilera’s ”Reflection” was marginal at best, and yeah, her unwavering confidence had me making mental comparisons to Reese Witherspoon’s horridly beautiful performance as Election‘s Tracy Flick, but I’m sure parents of teens and tweens everywhere were stoked to see a 16-year-old happily extolling the virtues of abstinence on a popular television program.

Side note: My pal (and Idolatry nemesis) Kristen Baldwin informs me via e-mail that she wants to start the movement that sends Amy to the finals, even though it’s probably ”the worst thing that could ever happen to her tragically overmanaged life.” Kristen even has a slogan ready: “Vote for Amy Flynn: She could go all the way!”

NEXT: The losers zing back!

3. Rejected contestants scored laughs, without getting bleeped Seriously, I want to go to the restaurant where DeAnna Prevatte works as a waitress. Preferably on all-you-can-eat Sunday. I mean, with blunt, lethargically delivered zingers like hers — ”If I don’t sound any better than Kellie Pickler, I really don’t want to be here” — who needs the writers’ strike to end? And while she didn’t deserve a golden ticket, in all honesty, her down-on-her-knees, shoulder-straps-in-peril rendition of ”Fancy” wasn’t dreadful. Raysharde ”the Black Clay Aiken” Henderson was similarly acrobatic on his audition, prompting Simon’s best comment of the night: ”I wouldn’t have been surprised if you’d done a magic trick in the middle of that.”

4. The judges kept beating up on their own Hollywood selections Not that I’m disagreeing, but how odd of Simon and Randy to tell London Weidberg that her ”Good Morning Heartache” was ”not the best audition” and was no better or worse than ”thousands of singers,” then send her to Hollywood anyway? Is it because she’s got a great pop-star name? Likewise, Simon told the aforementioned Amy Flynn that half the audience would find her annoying, and Michelle Lampkin that she needed work, before advancing them to the next round as well.

Of course, no matter how many fast ones Idol pulls in a given audition episode, there’s one constant you can count on: There’ll be at least a couple blessedly unskilled vocalists who won’t be able to take no for an answer. I had to chuckle when Ryan’s voice-over noted that ”the big guns” were coming out as the camera cut to busty Aretha Codner. And while you’ve got to question the taste level of any woman who’d squeeze into that baby-blue monstrosity, her segment wouldn’t have been so painful if she’d taken her rejection slip and gone back to Buffalo, especially since we’ve heard equally bad versions of ”I Have Nothing” from actual Idol finalists (I’m looking at you, Leah LaBelle!). Sadly, though, Aretha had sprayed on the Eau de Incredulity before her trip south, resulting in howlers about her perceived vocal prowess.

Lucky for the Not Queen of Soul, she was followed by something far worse — Joshua Boson’s wretchedly off-key ”And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” a performance you just know the kid had practiced and blocked hundreds of times in front of his bedroom mirror, safely drowned out by Jennifer Hudson turned up to 10. While Joshua responded to his rejection with standard outrage, Simon noted that ”it wasn’t a great audition” with dramatic understatement. Hey, at least somebody got the memo that Charleston was all about zigging when you were expected to zag.

Speaking of the unexpected, were you alarmed by Randy’s plunging neckline on day 2 of the Charleston auditions? Did any of the successes or failures catch you off guard? And after two weeks of auditions, do you have a contestant you’re most looking forward to hearing in Hollywood?

Episode Recaps

American Idol

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.

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