Simon Cowell's farewell tour stops in Atlanta, where a church boy, a pageant queen, and a country gal all make strong impressions
American Idol | (Clockwise from top) Jermaine Sellers and Mallorie Haley move to the head of the class; Vanessa Wolfe proves she can swing with the big guns;…
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In these strange times when phrases like ”balloon boy” and ”cocktail waitress” and ”Khloe Kardashian” find wormholes into our collective brain-space, it’s hard to give one’s cynicism a rest. This realization hit me especially hard tonight after watching American Idol‘s Atlanta auditions, and in particular the unexpectedly touching segment about Vanessa Wolfe, a 19-year-old native of tiny Vonore, TN, who spends her days diving off bridges, playing her guitar, and hanging out on her mom’s porch swing.

Now it’s not like over eight-plus seasons of Idol we haven’t seen hundreds of Vanessas — small-town dreamers hoping that the nation’s biggest TV show might spring them from cages of anonymity and relieve them of the sometimes exhausting toll of workaday living. And it’s not like I wasn’t aware of the way the producers were manipulating my emotions from the get-go: queuing up the fiddle-and-banjo soundtrack (she’s from the south, y’all!); showing footage of her walking a dusty rural road carrying nothing but her guitar; and building up to that image of Vanessa attaching her audition number (92276) to her torso while declaring ”This is the biggest thing that’s happened to me.” It all played out like a hokey Hallmark Channel movie — only funnier and more interesting.

Seriously, Vanessa had me hooked from the second she waxed poetic about her personal belongings — ”I’ve got this dress,” she giggled, before extolling the virtues of her $4.50 dollar-store steal — and sealed my devotion when she told Simon, ”If I didn’t have a dress on I’d throw you a backflip.” In a sense, the trembling young woman’s serviceable, heartfelt take on Old Crow Medicine Show’s ”Wagon Wheel” — Simon sweetly noted Vanessa’s nerves and inexperience; Kara crassly blurted ”You were a lot better than I thought you’d be” — was secondary to her ability to create a winning TV moment.

I know, I know, just yesterday I was griping about Idol‘s tendency to showcase backstory over actual musical chops, but if you think about it, Vanessa represents the Idol dream at its most distilled. From what Google tells me, she has no self-recorded tracks lurking on MySpace, no YouTube footage lauding her prior cable TV experience or local theater appearances, no early works available on CDBaby. And while Simon did her a solid by explaining that without copious practice and a booster shot of self-confidence (maybe having a guitar in her hands will help), she’ll get swallowed alive by the Hollywood Week competition, I’m glad she’s at least getting a chance to take a peek at the big show — as well as the inside of an airplane.

In a weird way, the episode’s final audition — 62-year-old ‘General’ Larry Platt belting a self-penned ditty called ”Pants on the Ground” — provided a thematic bookend to Vanessa’s story. I mean, neither contestant has a true chance of taking home the season 9 crown, but would that have been any reason to deny the American viewing public the chance to sample Larry’s thoroughly absurd rant against the kind of lowwww-rise jean that has a waistband closer to the ankle than the navel? The only thing funnier than Simon’s deeply held fear that ”Pants on the Ground” could become an actual hit — it did sound vaguely like MC Hammer’s ”Pumps and a Bump” — was watching a crowd of 100 or so Idol auditioners come together to chant the chorus, and then see #pantsontheground become a top trending topic on Twitter. Surreal!

NEXT: Jermaine Sellers takes us to church

Of course, the ”Pants” went down easier thanks to the fact that the producers showed 11 of the 25 successful Atlanta auditions (I didn’t count the four anonymous folks shown holding golden tickets but never singing), and that there was a relatively high ratio of ”potential semifinalist” to ”total cannon fodder.”

The best voice of the bunch belonged to Jermaine Sellers, a professional church singer who’s also a caretaker for his spina bifida-afflicted mother. (Kudos to Idol‘s honchos for explaining Jermaine’s personal hardship without spending 10 minutes reviewing his family medical history over a violin-heavy soundtrack.) Still, in that minute where Jermaine answered the question ”what are you here to do?” by dramatically intoning ”SING,” I thought we might be on the brink of discovering the kid’s church was paying him out of charity, not talent. And it seemed like Simon had the same thought, as he made a gagging gesture to respond to Jermaine’s moment of pompousness. That nausea couldn’t have lasted long, though, as Jermaine delivered a smooth yet muscular interpretation of Joan Osborne’s ”One of Us” that Randy called the best he’d seen in season 9 and which guest judge Mary J. Blige described as (!) ”anointed.”

Now I don’t know if I’d go that far. I mean, I loved the fact that Jermaine had the confidence to transform a track from a gruff female rock artist into a jaunty R&B jam, but sweet as his voice may be, I thought he got a little excessive with the vocal runs. In other words, you can whip up the best cake batter in the world, but if you overbake the goods, then the end result won’t be worth the calories. (Whoa. That metaphor got so far away from me that it’s probably on its way to catch a plane and clock some time on Vanessa’s mom’s porch swing.)

The other three contestants worth keeping an eye on in Hollywood Week were a trio of big-voiced divas from decidedly different stylistic camps:

* The tempo of Mallorie Haley’s ”Piece of My Heart” left me scratching my head, but I love the way she delivered it with formidable confidence and a sexy little twang. Plus, her smokin’ hot gladiator dress was a nice change of pace from the ”Saturday at the mall” look being rocked by most of this season’s auditioners. Bonus points for a total lack of b.s. in her audition package!

* Keia Johnson’s gorgeous smile and undeniably good energy (kill me! I agreed with Kara!), not to mention her daring fluorescent yellow jeans, practically burst through my TV screen, and while I honestly could’ve gone another six seasons without hearing ”My Heart Will Go On” from an Idol wannabe, this former Miss America hopeful delivered it without a whiff of pageant stank. Points subtracted, however, for choosing the Titanic theme over Erykah Badu’s ”On and On,” an infinitely more exciting track you can see Keia covering on YouTube.

* And I know we only got a few seconds of Tisha Holland belting Christina Aguilera’s ”Impossible,” but it was enough to know her powerful voice is like an all-terrain vehicle on a highway of Mini Coopers. Okay, so maybe I was swayed by the fact that the producers played Allison Iraheta’s ”Pieces” over a montage of Tisha (along with nondescript Miriam Lemnouni, who sang ”The Climb”) and un-nuanced Noel Reese (who chose the way overdone ”I Have Nothing”). But you can’t blame me for believing that the presence of The Rocker makes everything better. (Similarly, Kris Allen’s ”Before We Come Undone” also cropped up in a montage of four additional golden-ticket holders whose names were not given, whose voices were not heard, and who may very well be part of some musical offshoot of the witness protection program.

NEXT: Yes, you now know the name Skiiboski

I will not give the same ”they who shall not be named” treatment to Bryan Walker, Bryan Walker, Holly Hardin, and Carmen Turner, although I doubt any of ’em will survive past Hell Week. Then again, Bryan, the likable cop from Tennessee who served up a nice (though not terribly memorable) R&B/twang rendition of ”Superstar” might fill the Michael Sarver/Matt Breitzke/Phil Stacey ”Everyman” role that Ken Warwick and Cecile Frot-Coutaz seem to enjoy casting. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

On a purely vocal level, though, I’d say Bryan got outsung by the truly bizarre (though oftentimes quite hilarious) Antonio ”Skii Bo Ski” Wheeler, one of two bait-and-switch contestants who managed to sway three out of four judges to cough up a golden ticket. With the Idol logo buzzed into his hair, and a red shirt-jacket with his nickname misspelled (”that’s what we’ve got discounts for,” he explained), the guy presented as the worst kind of auditioner: the self-aware human gimmick. And while Simon never got past that first impression, Mary J. Blige was correct in declaring that (I can’t believe I am typing this name) Skiiboski had a voice that shouldn’t go to waste. I wonder, though, if she regretted her support after her suggestion that Skiiboski work on his appearance was met with a lasciviously delivered ”I’m gonna prep for you: Believe dat.”

Still, Skiiboski committed to his character with such gale-force belief that it was surprisingly easy to play along. Holly Hardin, on the other hand, seemed merely desperate for attention, and therefore thoroughly annoying, when she dressed like a guitar to sing ”You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man.” Randy, his threshold for humor so low that he’ll howl at the opening line of a knock-knock joke, insisted Holly was ”funny” and ”hilarious.” But Mary J., in her best moment of the night, looked up at the costumed fool and declared ”I don’t get it.” That goes doubly for me, seeing how M.J.B. was the only one to vote ”No.” Et tu, Simon?

At least Mr. Cranky redeemed himself later by voting against both Lauren Sanders and Carmen Turner, a pair of BFFs bonded by the mutual philosophy that makeup should be applied with a trowel. Inexplicably, blonde Carmen was selected to play the role of ”Woman Weeping in a Hotel Holding Room” for Hollywood Week. Simon summed it up nicely by explaining, ”If it’s any consolation, I don’t think you’ll be away from her for long.” And while Lauren kept saying words about how she was happy for her buddy, her ”keep two feet away from my personal space, betch” body language told another story altogether.

One story I wish hadn’t been told at all, though, was that of welder Jesse Hamilton, whose strong accent, imperfect teeth, and trio of near-death experiences became fodder for a stupefyingly unfunny series of fictional reenactments from Jesse’s life that painted him as an inbred southern stereotype. I’m not sure what the guy did to deserve such brutal ridicule, but I guess if Idol‘s fickle hand can shiv just as easily as it can make.

What did you think of tonight’s Atlanta auditions? Would you agree Mary J., while not exactly scintillating, significantly outperformed Victoria Beckham as a guest judge? Were you at all upset over the Jesse Hamilton segment? And which golden-ticket holders are you most excited to see during Hollywood Week?

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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