The San Francisco auditions showcase only one clear contender but several dubious calls by Paula, Kara, and Randy

By Michael Slezak
Updated January 21, 2009 at 05:00 PM EST
American Idol

This morning, while eating breakfast and watching some coverage of the presidential inauguration, I came to the realization that I’ve got a little bit of an American Idol problem. I could tell you all the ways that Fox’s ubiquitous talent competition dominates my work life, overtakes my social life, and occasionally invades my dream life from January to May each year, but I think the core of my downward psychological spiral can be summed up by sharing the Facebook profile status I posted right after my last bite of Nature Valley Oats ‘n Honey cereal: ”Michael hopes the Obamas have their White House DVR installed in time to record tonight’s American Idol.”

But here’s the thing: If I had known this morning what I know now — namely, that the third episode of Idol‘s eighth season would be as useless as a dollar-store umbrella in a hurricane, as pointless as a Hotel for Dogs sequel, as flavorless as boiled Wonder Bread — I’d have told the Obamas, and anyone else worried about missing the San Francisco auditions, not to bother.

To make matters worse, on paper, tonight’s telecast had all the characteristics of a winner: A slimmed-down one-hour episode, with the show’s producers choosing to show footage from seven of the 12 successful auditions coming out of the City by the Bay. The problem is, though, we’re more likely to see ”Kennedy Center Honors…Bikini Girl” in our lifetime than to witness most of tonight’s featured Golden Tickets recipients coming anywhere close to the season 8 finals.

The sole exception to that rule could be 26-year-old Adam Lambert, whose clear and pleasing take on ”Bohemian Rhapsody” drew one of Simon’s oldest and most dreaded critiques — ”theatrical.” Which raises some questions: Aren’t most Queen songs theatrical? Isn’t Bohemian Rhapsody the band’s most theatrical song of all? And maybe, just maybe, could theatrical serve as code for ”copped to seeing a Paula Abdul concert at age 10” or ”openly admired Kara DioGuardi’s accessories”? Which might be construed as ”not quite manly enough to activate music-downloading impulses of tween girl armies”? I don’t know: Maybe I’m reading too much into it all, but I think there was a clear and righteous subtext in Kara’s frustration with Simon during the deliberations over Adam’s fate. The dude out-sang, out-emoted, and out-charmed at least 75 percent of the Idol hopefuls we’ve seen this season; he should’ve been sent to the next round with the speed and enthusiasm of Paula getting distracted by a shiny object.

I mean, really, compare Adam’s potential to that Tatiana Del Toro (aka ”Prom Girl”), who got sent through by the judges for the simple reason that she was all too willing to embrace the role of ”ball of yarn” in their enthusiastic game of ”mean kitties.” Oh, imagine the fun they’ll have batting her around during Hollywood Week!

NEXT: It’s Idol prom time

Okay, okay, I’m not being entirely fair to Tatiana, whose pretty (albeit overworked) rendition of Aretha’s ”I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You” took a backseat to all of the other unfortunate details of her audition package. There was her dress, which resembled a mutant leopard coughing up a bolt of tulle; it might’ve been cute on an extra during the prom scene of Some Kind of Wonderful, but not so much in the race to find America’s next Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood. Then there was Tatiana’s delusional resúmè, in which she called herself a ”full-time singer, musician, songwriter, writer, assistant director, model, film actor,” then proceeded to present the panel with her press kit — PRESS KIT? Is she kidding? — including a DVD and racy lingerie shots. Oh, and did I mention her contention that ”one of the world’s most powerful psychics” predicted her successful Idol run?

The whole debacle ended with Simon declaring ”she didn’t get though on her vocals,” but then again, neither did Bikini Girl. And, hey, at least we got to hear Paula’s best accidental insult of the night: ”You can’t deny that she doesn’t have a voice.” Sometimes I wonder if the ”Straight Up” singer is a craftier presence at the judging table than she gets credit for.

In all seriousness, though, Tatiana deserved her Golden Ticket more than Jesús Valenzula, who proved that the ability to procreate and to whip up a couple of jaunty hand-made signs, is enough to get a ”yes” vote from Randy, Kara, and Paula. No matter that his last-ditch attempt at ”Unchained Melody” featured a brutal brand of ”sitting on the washing machine” vibrato, the minute the guy brought his kids into the audition room, you knew he’d ensured his position as Hell Week cannon fodder. Call me cynical, but I don’t see the logic behind Kara’s ”I am not gonna make these kids sad” defense. You either give them a healthy lesson that, hey, very few people on this earth achieve musical superstardom, so just be happy that daddy has a day job. Or you give them a false sense that they’re holding one of 150 or so tickets to the major-label Lotto, even though you know theirs isn’t worth the ink it’s printed on. (Oh, and hey, Daddy’s gonna have to use a week of precious vacation time to figure that out.) So who’s the mean one? Not Simon, whose forced cheeriness — ”Boys! We did it!” — was one of the episode’s funniest moments.

Tonight’s only other Hollywood-bound contestant who got significant airtime also seemed like a triumph of backstory over star quality. Which isn’t to say Kai Kalama’s grave rendition of ”Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” didn’t have its old-school charms. But if the producers hadn’t presented a lengthy clip reel showing how the charming young gent with the very healthy hair had given up his social life to care for his ailing mother, don’t you think the judges might’ve been quicker to point out the occasional pitch problems he displayed during his audition, or perhaps even encouraged him to polish up his vocals a little more, then come back and try again for season nine? As it was, I just got depressed listening to Kai wax dreamily about Idol giving him a chance to buy his mother a house. Note to Kai: You know that flowery email you got from that guy in Nigeria seeking assistance with a business transaction? Don’t give him your social-security number!

NEXT: Akilah and the trachea

I’ve got to say, I wish Fox had cut back on Tatiana, Jesús, and Kai, and extended the all-too-brief auditions from John Twiford, the hippie dude who sang ”Overjoyed”; Allison Iraheta, the teenager with the crayon-red hair who belted ”(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”; and Raquel Houghton, the gorgeous 28-year-old who covered ”Son of a Preacher Man.” None of ’em exactly struck me as Top 36 material (particularly Allison, who suffered several obvious voice cracks on the big notes), but it’s hard to write off any contestant after less than 30 seconds of airtime. Even more peculiar was the way Fox repeatedly flashed images of the other five San Francisco auditioners who advanced to Hollywood, including the gorgeous black woman in the light blue-and-purple minidress, who was shown frequently enough going into and out of commercial breaks, that I suspect Idol‘s producers might be dropping hints that she’ll be a prominent player later in the season. (Who’s with me on that prediction?)

Why not let us hear a note or two from these talents? (And if it’s because Idol couldn’t clear certain audition numbers, then maybe it’s time the show opened its oversize pocketbook and ponied up to clear a larger selection of songs!) Whatever the reason, it’s galling to know we missed potentially good auditions when the so-called trainwrecks included a guy who — rampant wackiness alert! — wore a vintage plaid coat to his audition; an extremely nervous teenager who might have a shot at being named Rubik’s Cube Idol; and another teen with a Muppet-like shock of orange hair who made for one heck of a one-man percussion section. (Okay, actually, I kinda dug that last kid in a weird way.)

Heck, if the show’s editors needed to squeeze a little extra time from the hour, they could’ve cut in half that segment on Akilah Askew Gholston and her loopy medical jargon. I’ll admit I got a few laughs from Akilah’s audition, like when her monologue on the proper training of Gospel singers led into that day-into-night-into-morning montage. Better still, Akilah’s malapropism about singing from the ”wrong rectum” was almost as funny as her backhanded insult of Idol‘s wackiest judge (”Paula had a very hit song out in the early ’80s when I was a child.”). But six minutes? Seriously? Especially when it’s combined with all those ”Someone will be good! Someone will be bad!” promos leading into and out of every ad break? And an entire segment playing up manufactured tensions between Kara and Simon? At this rate, I’m half expecting Fox to add insult to injury and start production on a line of overpriced novelty T-shirts, emblazoned with this catchy slogan: ”American Idol went to San Francisco, and all I got was this episode.”

Who else was disappointed by the San Francisco talent quotient? Is it possible Idol is saving all the great, talented singers for the final three audition episodes? Was anyone other than yours truly morbidly transfixed by Kara’s atroshe gray shirt with the ”eternal sunshine of the cutout neckline” details? How hard did you laugh when Paula called Adam ”the best we’ve seen in any city,” after he revealed he’d attended one of her concerts? And lastly, who’s ready for Hollywood Week already? Be sure to leave your thoughts in our comments section, and if you haven’t yet seen it, press play below on the season premiere of Idolatry, featuring special guest star Melinda Freaking Doolittle! Yay!

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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