With some clever editing and a few promising voices, the auditions in Jacksonville might give us reason to be optimistic about the rest of the season

By Michael Slezak
Updated January 28, 2009 at 05:00 PM EST

American Idol

S8 E6
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Stop the presses! (You can’t, it’s the Internet!) Randy Jackson actually dropped a massive (albeit ineloquent) truth bomb during tonight’s episode of American Idol. But before you fly into a panic wondering what shocker to expect next — a ”no” vote for a marginal contestant from Paula? A product-free hairstyle for Ryan? — bear in mind that the Dawg probably didn’t mean to express what I (and a lot of fellow Idoloonies) have been thinking about our favorite show for the last three weeks.

You see, I’m pretty sure the poet/bassist/television personality was simply commenting on yet another moment of ”spontaneous” ”hilarity” involving Paula, Simon, Ryan, and himself, and not actually railing against what’s been a strangely dissatisfying collection of low-wattage auditions to date when he declared: ”The bizarre season of American Idol season 8…the bizarre season continues in Jacksonville!”

And yet, as much as my favorite show has been underwhelming me over the first five episodes of its eighth season, I also noticed that tonight’s festivities opened to the strains of Journey’s ”Don’t Stop Believin’,” and it gave me a thin thread of hope that maybe, just maybe, the producers are holding back on showing us the talent, and planning to unleash a human tidal wave of future Daughtrys and J.Huds and Archies when Hollywood Week kicks off on Feb. 3. (Ooh! Just one week to go!)

Yeah, I know, it’s a long shot. Why in the name of all that’s pitchy would Fox want to mislead us into thinking this year’s talent pool will live to disappoint? And the Journey bit was supposed to be an homage to Randy, who played bass with the band back in the day. But think about it: The judge voted most likely to need a thesaurus isn’t actually from Jacksonville, and while he does share a name with Florida’s largest city, was that really any reason for him to don a safety-orange t-shirt with blue palm-tree designs and swap seats with Simon for a day? No, people, it was not. Therefore, I choose to spin the theory that ”Don’t Stop Believin”’ was a subtle message from Idol producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz (how I love to type that name!) to you and me: ”It’s going to get better, guys!”

And despite evidence to the contrary, I choose to believe season 8 is going to get better because I love American Idol more than caffeinated soft drinks and bacon combined. Because I believe in the power of undiscovered musical talent to bring the citizens of this great country to tears (or sometimes to blows). And because, well, I get paid to blather almost exclusively about Fox’s wildly popular talent competition from January to May every year, and I’m not gonna lie to you: It’s a pretty sweet gig.

So without further ado — and because I am fighting a losing battle with a severe case of nausea tonight — let’s cut to the chase with the five ways tonight’s show could (should?) give us all a little hope.

NEXT: Changing faces

Hey, we got introduced to at least one really good contestant. Yes, I speak of the end-of-episode beauty — because where else would Idol place its strongest story arc? — Anne Marie Boskovich, who apparently was too complimentary of Kara’s singing/songwriting skills to look like a real contender. No matter that if she makes the cut, Anne Marie will be asked to fawn enthusiastically over a range of singers that could include anyone from Neil Diamond to Jennifer Lopez to Lulu, Simon demanded the doe-eyed brunette exit the audition room and ”come back as a different person.” (This moment had Simon flirting with a Tyra Banks brand of crazy; you know, in the way TyTy demands Top Model wannabes with the same names pick new monikers.) If I’m being honest here, I’m not entirely certain that Anne Marie really transformed herself all that much (aside from removing her jacket, adding a little eye makeup, and tousling her hair) but who cares? Far more important to me was that we got a chance to hear Anne Marie’s sweet, pitch-perfect take on ”Bubbly.” The performance may not have rocked me Paris Bennett-style, but it left me wanting to hear more from Anne Marie, and that’s more than I can say for half of this season’s Golden Ticket holders.

A couple of strange (song)birds are going to Hollywood. Twenty-one days ago, I might have kvetched about Julissa Veloz and Joshua Ulloa scoring unanimous yeses from the judges, because really, does either one have a chance at cracking the top 12. And yet each, in his or her own strange way, exceeded my expectations and left me wondering if I might need to work harder at ignoring the packages arriving on my TV screen and focusing harder on the sounds coming out of ’em.

Case in point: Julissa entered the room dressed for humiliation in her silver cocktail dress, yellow belt, and oh yeah, and ”Candidata” sash (!), and the Miss Florida Latina USA made matters worse with her opening salvo of ”I can do some Whitney” (standard Idol code for: ”My family won’t even let me sing ‘Happy Birthday.”’). And yet, in a miraculous maneuver second perhaps only to the recent Hudson River aircraft landing of a certain Chelsey Sullenberger III, Julissa took ”I Have Nothing” (which made my highly selective list of the 12 Songs That Should Be Banned from Idol Forever) and made me not hate it. I preferred the first half of her performance, which was surprisingly tender and emotionally connected, to the bombastic latter portion, but found myself pleasantly shocked to see Simon get past Julissa’s dorky laugh and desperate costume to give her a Golden Ticket. Simultaneously losing points, though, was Kara, who gave a ”yes” vote and then justified it by noting that Julissa had convinced huffy Paula back into the audition room. Way to take your new job seriously, lady!

NEXT: Close calls and fake kisses

Joshua, meanwhile, looked like he might be all gimmick, too, as he entered the room with a self-made comparison to Justin Guarini (whom he does not resemble in the least), an air punch, and a squatting model pose that pretty much screamed ”One Idol hopeful with extra cheese, coming right up!” Who’d have guessed the guy would also bring the burger with a meaty take on ”Let’s Get It On,” as well as the condiments, in the form of some wacky-accurate imitations of the wah-wah pedal and other lovin’-positive instruments.

Simon said ”no” to a contestant with chronic melisma syndrome. Riddle me this: How come Randy (rightly) labeled T.K. Hash’s overwrought take on ”Imagine” as ”too over the top” and containing ”too many runs,” then promptly voted in bloc formation with Paula and Kara to send the dude to Hollywood? I know his ego doesn’t need it, but a toast to Simon for understanding that the likeable young man simply wasn’t ready for Hell Week jelly and for having the guts to say it out loud.

We witnessed one of the few close-call rejections of the year. Poor Michael Perrelli, whose guitar-free cover of Third-Eye Blind’s ”Jumper” was on par with Josiah Leming’s season 7 take on Snow Patrol’s ”Chasing Cars,” just without the dramatic backstory of living out of his car. Still, when the judges saw the 18-year-old’s visible nerves (and likely got word about Michael being reduced to tears before he’d even hit the audition room) they turned on him. Simon, in particular, was harder on the aspiring rocker, demanding that he ”get a job like anyone else has done and in your spare time you put a band together.” Is it safe to say I am not alone in truly enjoying auditions where I can’t entirely predict how the judges will vote? Wouldn’t it be nice to see more examples of auditions where the line between Golden Ticket and the old heave-ho was decidedly grayer?

Thanks to Kara’s peek-a-boo-and-then-some purple top, I got the following hilarious (and delightfully illustrative) email from my pal (and sometimes Idolatry co-host) Annie Barrett: Did you notice Kara’s shirt looked like this? O_O//

Thankfully, Kara managed to maintain control of her controversially structured blouse when Paula inexplicably went in for a covered-mouthed faux makeout sesh following Sharon Wilbur’s audition. Don’t ask me why the ”Rush, Rush” singer was moved to pounce. Perhaps it was the way Simon and Randy voted ”yes” to the underwhelming chick with the Britney Spears singing affectations and implied the ”girl power” (I use that in the loosest and least serious sense of the term ever) bloc had some sort of ability to override Simon’s tiebreaker vote? Or maybe Paula got crafty and thought a DioGuardi wardrobe malfunction might result in an FCC Fine and a return to the three-judge panel? Only Paula and the faeries that reside on her shoulders and in her weave know for certain. One thing I did enjoy about Sharon’s Golden Ticket moment was watching her dog spaz ever so slightly in response to the hooting from her entourage. Send that freshly groomed canine to Hollywood!

NEXT: There were also some bad ones

The only other successful audition shown tonight (out of 16 total from Jacksonville) focused on stunningly pretty teenager Jasmine Murray. Yet while the sight of Jasmine, her mom, and her very sweet, supportive siblings made me start rooting for the 16-year-old baby of the Murray clan, I have to be honest that her rendition of Fergie’s sounded like it might’ve been intermittently trapped in her throat.

Speaking of gastroenterological systems, my stomach is begging for some hot herbal tea and a nap. So for tonight, I’ll leave the discussion of the rejected contestants to you, except for my observation that I’m really finding these alleged bits of comic relief to be extremely depressing this time around. Darin Darnell’s journey from pep-rally enthusiasm to tearful collapse was like watching all the stages of manic-depression rolled into a three-minute audition package, which isn’t exactly my idea of enjoyable TV.

That said, I won’t lie that I chuckled when Naomi Sykes declared, after brutalizing ”Loving You,” that ”I don’t know what I did wrong. I guess…they just…I mean, I hit my high note and everything. And I did it really well this time.” Wow. Assuming Naomi was right about that high note — and she was most assuredly not — then her audition was exactly like a figure skater’s long program containing one quadruple jump, with the rest of the time spent laying center stage in the fetal position.

Episode Recaps

What did you think of tonight’s show? How did it compare with last week’s Louisville and San Francisco tryouts? Would you cut or keep the Fun With Ryan segments that cut into audition time? And what’s your feeling about Kara’s dangerous blouse?

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