A few actual contenders make it through to Hollywood week, but there are plenty of misses at the Churchill Downs auditions

By Michael Slezak
January 22, 2009 at 05:00 AM EST
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Hey, have any of you guys been watching Oprah Winfrey Presents: American Idol this season? In just four episodes, we’ve witnessed contestants struggling to overcome homelessness, failed record deals, deceased spouses, legal blindness, moms with seizure disorders, and even apartments torn asunder by tornados. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say the show’s ad-sales team was looking to add a tissue company to its roster of 2009 sponsors. (Can’t you just imagine a weekly ”Kleenex: Laughter Through the Tears Moment” wedged somewhere between the ”Ford Music Video” and the ”Ritualistic Fondling of the Red Plastic Coca-Cola Cups”?)

What the show’s powers that be fail to realize, though, is that it’s too early for so many maudlin backstories. After seven seasons, any veteran Idol watcher can tell you that it’s folly to get emotionally attached during the audition rounds. How many of us have heard a few a capella bars and promptly fallen for previous Golden Ticket winners — like season 6’s pedicab driver Tami Gosnel or season 4’s stay-at-home mom Jennifer Todd — only to have them totally tank or (even worse) fail to score a hot minute of airtime once Hollywood Week arrives.

In other words, if I’m going to get misty during an Idol episode before, say, Groundhog’s Day, the lump in my throat will be induced musically, or not at all.

Which is exactly why it pained me to see the producers spend such an exorbitant amount of time focusing on Leneshe Young’s hardscrabble upbringing. I’m not completely obtuse; I understand the girl’s tale is a TV producer’s dream. But was it really necessary to replay the same harrowing sound bite — ”we were raised with nothing, and homeless” — three times in a 63-minute period, or to keep showing us the same exact footage of some random, littered road beneath a bridge? (Oh, by the way, thanks, Fox, for running Idol long and messing with everyone’s DVR/viewing schedules on the night of ABC’s Lost‘s premiere. Way to build viewer loyalty, idiots!)

But getting back to Leneshe, the minute she started singing, her economic background became a moot point. Sure, I flinched when she announced she was going to be ”completely original” and sing a self-penned ditty called ”Natty” — oh how ”singer-songwriter” becomes the most unfortunate of titles during Idol‘s audition rounds — but lo and behold, her songwriting skills proved to be as sweet and contemporary as her vocals. It wouldn?t have mattered if Leneshe was a filthy rich veteran of MTV’s abhorrent My Super Sweet Sixteen (okay, maybe it would’ve just a little), my fandom was sealed. Unfortunately, in our label-’em-quick society, I worry Leneshe will always be considered ”homeless girl,” a label that could do as much harm as it will good if/when her Idol journey continues over the next few months. (Side note: Was anyone else left wondering just how many siblings Leneshe has after Idol showed that birthday-party photo with a brood big enough to shock the Jolie-Pitts?)

NEXT: Kara goes over the top (and under the table)

Anyhow, since I spent all of Wednesday night ranting about what was arguably the worst audition episode in the history of American Idol — oh, San Francisco, is that all you’ve got? — let me change focus to five things (in addition to Leneshe) that I loved about Louisville.

We may have seen a legit top 12 contender I wouldn’t put him on my list of personal favorite singers so far this season, but the minute Brent Keith Smith arrived on the scene, I got the distinct impression he’s the kind of artist 19 Entertainment would love to have on its roster by the time the 2009 holiday shopping season arrives. He’s hunky, he’s charismatic, and he’s got a country-rock vibe that could fit in quite nicely on the album charts alongside Keith Urban and Rascal Flatts — without posing a threat to other members of the Idol franchise. I didn’t agree with Simon’s critique that Brent’s choice of Bad Company’s ”Can’t Get Enough” was ”ridiculous” — in fact, I respect any auditioner who displays a sense of rhythm in front of the judges — but the dude’s vocal delivery definitely landed at the intersection of Swiss and Cheddar. (Not that a little cheese is a deal-breaker in a commercial vocalist.)

Speaking of ridiculous, though, I started to lose patience with Kara’s overly dramatic shenanigans during Brent’s audition. First of all, she forfeited her right to complain about Simon’s interruptions the minute she got comfortable talking over her fellow panelists. Secondly, as a guy with five very outspoken sisters, I resent and reject the idea of a woman sulking (and hiding under a table!) at the height of a verbal exchange with a powerful man. Unacceptable — even if Randy and Simon persist in mispronouncing her name as ”Car-ahh.”

The producers finally realized it’s futile to hide contestants’ pre-Idol experience from the audience Admittedly, Kara sounded like she was reading off a cue card when she feigned surprise and asked ”Weren’t you on A&M Records?” after Joanna Pacitti entered the audition room, but let’s at least give credit to the show for not pretending the gorgeous brunette was just a humble everywoman with a dream rather than a one-time Broadway-bound pre-teen who eventually recorded a major-label debut that came out in 2006.

Yes, I saw Joanna’s video for ”Let It Slide” on the in-house video channel at my gym on Tuesday morning, and yes, I downloaded the track from iTunes. But since I’m guessing 99 percent of Americans have never heard of Joanna or her music, I don’t really have an issue with her getting a shot at the Idol crown. In fact, rather than seeing Joanna’s experience as an advantage over the total amateurs in the competition, I’m guessing the pre-season buzz about her semi-pro status will turn viewers against her in the long run, especially if her performances resemble her rendition of ”We Belong,” which was powerfully sung, but not particularly memorable.

NEXT: One graceful exit

I finally have another contestant to root against during Hollywood Week Go ahead, call me a cranky bastard, but being an Idol junkie isn’t all that different from being a rabid sports fan. What would a Yankees fan be without the Red Sox to rail against? (Um, I’m almost out of sports analogies!) How much fun would Affirmed’s 1978 Triple Crown bid have been without Alydar (and his fan base) dogging him all the way? (Yes! My first horse-racing reference of the season, and I didn’t even have to stretch, given the Churchill Downs backdrop. Woot!)

On that note, I could not get my ears around what the judges loved about dueling-piano player Matt Giraud’s aggressive vibrato on Gavin DeGraw’s ”I Don’t Want to Be.” In fact, let me take this opportunity to have some fun with the title of Matt’s musical selection. I don’t want to be…hearing Simon compare Elliott Yamin’s rich caramel tone to Matt’s candy-corn imitation. I don’t want to be…enduring week after week of a singer who sounds like he’s imitating Justin Timberlake singing into a floor fan. I don’t want to be…replaying the annoying way Matt displayed his Golden Ticket to the camera.

I finally got to enjoy a bad audition without any residual feelings of guilt Note to future Idol hopefuls: Take a lesson from Aaron ”WHOO” Williamson on how to handle rejection with class. The guy was a riot, hooting and hollering his way into the judging room, then declaring his intent to be named ”America’s Next Top Model,” and while his cover of CCR’s ”Have You Ever Seen the Rain” was manic-bordering-on-insane, you’ve got to admit the dude would be great fun at a karaoke party.

We are now two-thirds of the way through season 8’s auditions Which means that with only three hours to go next week (one hour each on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday), we’re inching closer to expanded Hollywood Week coverage (three nights, as well as the top 36 announcement featuring the Elevator of Shame!) .

As for the evening’s five Golden Ticket winners whom we have not yet discussed, I’d say the most promising were a pair from the blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em montage: Kris Allen (dude with the plaid shirt and jaunty cap who performed ”A Song for You”) and Felicia Barton (buxom brunette who belted this season’s contender for most overused track, ”Put Your Records On”).

And while I was charmed by fresh-faced mom Alexis Grace’s pre-audition interview, I backed away after she rendered ”Doctor Feelgood” darn near unrecognizable. Aretha’s original is all about sexy, simmering restraint; Alexis’s had all the subtlety of a car door slamming down on an unsuspecting pinky finger. Nothin’ sexy about that, people, even if it did result in the most salacious critique of the night: Kara’s ”Go home and make love to your fiancé.”

Interesting advice, Kara, though not nearly as inappropriate as the parents, friends, and relatives we saw tonight who inexplicably encouraged some truly abysmal vocalists to keep dreaming about achieving musical superstardom. I mean, look, my mother loves me unconditionally, but if I told her I was planning to max out my credit cards to buy thousands of dollars in MegaMillions tickets, would anyone think her unsupportive for hitting me upside the head with a (verbal) (or maybe actual) lead pipe? So why is it that the parents of yelping/gulping Tiffany Shedd, or the mother of sweet, misguided Rebecca Garcia (the woman Kara thought was joking with her rendition of ”Before He Cheats”), allowed their kids to humiliate themselves on national television?

Look at it this way: You know it’s time to rethink your parenting strategy when Paula Abdul, looking like an Audrey Hepburn impersonator with her tight bun and royal blue, high-necked blouse, takes one listen to your daughter and gives the kind of blunt, sensible advice that you’re simply unable to utter : ”Go to college.”

What did you think of the Louisville auditions? Are you ever irritated by the way Idol spoils the outcome of auditions by providing way too much info in its pre-commercial teasers? Were there any performers tonight you think you’ll be rooting for come Hollywood Week? And what’s your take on semi-pros like Joanna Pacitti?

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