As auditions come to a close, the show puts the emphasis on (le gasp!) talented singers -- showing 12 successful auditions in an hour!

By Michael Slezak
Updated February 04, 2010 at 05:00 PM EST
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It took four weeks and eight episodes to get there, but last night, as American Idol presented the last of its season 9 audition episodes, the show finally began to resemble a search for the nation’s next singing sensation, not some act that’s destined to be wedged between the tilt-a-whirl and a display of prize-winning peppers at a two-bit county fair. This sudden influx of talent arrived just in the nick of time: I mean, going into this evening’s telecast, I was more attached to the Sims people from Idol‘s unflinchingly low-budget opening credits than I was to most of the Golden Ticket-getters we’d seen in Boston, Atlanta, Orlando, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Denver.

Which isn’t to say that it’s time to put all our emotional marbles behind any of the talented up-and-comers who popped up on our TV screens last night. Because in two weeks’ time, as we’re transitioning from Hollywood Week to the semifinals, 157 of season 9’s Golden Ticket-holders will have had their voices, their feelings, and even their fleeting gifts of mental health ground down to a glittery powder that the Idol makeup department will later use to adorn Kara’s décolletage.

Of course, if I was going to wager that any of tonight’s ”Road to Hollywood” contestants will be among the last 24 standing, I’d have to go with 22-year-old Didi Benami, whose beautifully jazzy, perfectly controlled warble on ”Hey Jude” (and groovy, floral-patterned dress with controversial black-and-white polka-dot trim) overshadowed the sad fact that she was auditioning in honor of her late best friend. Look, I’m not trying to diminish the impact of Didi’s loss, or to suggest that Idol turn its audition rounds into a place where vocalists line up against a wall and — one after the next — try to out-sing their rivals and advance to Hollywood. But I can’t help but feel that at this early stage of the competition, the producers do more harm than good to its contestants by attaching an albatross to their Golden Tickets.

Indeed, I’d have fallen for Didi’s unique instrument — reminiscent of season 8’s Megan Joy, only with added poise and better phrasing — even/especially if she’d never mentioned her personal tragedy. After all, three of last year’s top four contestants — Kris Allen, Adam Lambert, and Allison Iraheta — revealed relatively little about themselves personally during the course of their Idol runs, but that absence of pre-roll didn’t make fans any less passionate about ’em, right? Likewise, wouldn’t Didi’s deep well of feeling have been better conveyed through her vocals, and in those post-performance tears, than by having it spelled out in big, block letters? It’s like that old adage about good fiction writing: ”Show, don’t tell.” And while I’d have preferred Didi not take the bait and spill the beans and all those other clichés that left me wondering if it’s ever appropriate to bring up the death of a friend or relative the first time you step in front of one of Idol‘s cameras, I’m still rooting for her to make Simon choke on the ”very small yes” he gave her. Yep, Didi appears to be that good.

NEXT: Shy guy Aaron Kelly makes his mark

The judges seemed a little more unanimous in their response to 16-year-old Aaron Kelly, who put an upbeat focus on his tale of being adopted by his aunt and uncle as a young boy, then marched right into that holding room and actually improved upon Miley Cyrus studio rendition of ”The Climb.” True, there was perhaps the hint of a Carmen Rasmusen bleat in Aaron’s tone, but for now, I’ll attribute it to teenage nerves. Anyhow, I don’t think I can make it through season 9 without seeing what Idol‘s style crew can do for a kid who borrowed his hair, necklace, and wide white belt from the respective 1998 incarnations of Lance Bass, Joey Fatone, and either Chris Kirkpatrick or Beyoncé Knowles. And while I generally fall into the camp that Idol‘s minimum age limit be raised to 18, I had to agree with Randy that Aaron’s shy personality, combined with his potent pipes, made for a winning combination. Here’s hoping he’s turns out to be more David Archuleta than Kevin Covais.

Several other singers tonight managed to make mostly positive first impressions. Two of ’em, Lee Dewyze and Crystal Bowersox, had their tryouts lumped together based on the fact that each carried a guitar into the audition room — which they weren’t allowed to use — like Linus clutching his blue blanket. Of the duo, I’d give a slight edge to dreadlocked, pierced-chinned Crystal Bowersox, who left Simon beaming with a smooth, sultry rendition of Janis Joplin’s ”Piece of My Heart.”

Lee, meanwhile, took on the unenviable task of tackling one of Kris Allen’s better known season 8 numbers, ”Ain’t No Sunshine,” but added enough gruff soul to his interpretation to overcome the comparison. Unfortunately, though, the dude suffered from an on-camera belt malfunction: As Lee stepped out to the sidewalk and raised his Golden Ticket in the air, he revealed a good six inches of underwear riding up above the waistband of his jeans. How and why Idol producers resisted one final urge to revisit Gen. Larry Platt’s ”Pants on the Ground” is now my No. 1 burning question of the season 9 auditions.

Well, that, and does anyone out there remember seeing the striking Lacey Brown on screen during season 8, in particular a side-by-side showdown with Megan Joy in the Hollywood Mansion of Doom episode? I pride myself on having a fairly strong memory for even the shortest-lived Idol contestants (viva Tami Gosnell!), but unlike the other repeat wannabes shown tonight (including Frankie Jordan and Rose Flack) Lacey did not activate any kind of Idol recall for me. That struck me as particularly odd after Lacey’s sophisticated and rhythmically varied performance of ”Over the Rainbow,” which showed off an inherent ability to make the lyrics of a song spring immediately to life. (Bonus points to Lacey for a bright orange scarf and kicky boots that rendered her big green eyes and spiky red hair all the more striking.)

NEXT: Hope Johnson gives Michael hope

Speaking of encore auditioners, did anyone besides me wish that Jessica Furney hadn’t ditched her down-home flannel-and-Janis-covers vibe for that scoop-necked blue top, big black belt, and choice of the ghastly ”Footprints in the Sand”? I know, I know… the girl who was sweetly shown caring for her grandmother last season never made it past Hell Week, but there was something about her back then that was so authentic and untouched by the Hollywood machine that she was like the scent of Bounce sheets in a basket of stale clothing. It might not be fair (or even true) to say that Jessica 2.0 seemed far more aware of the cameras, and thereby at least 50 percent less adorable, but alas, that was my take-home impression. (Luckily, Simon brought the adorbs when he got all embarrassed in front of Posh Spice over his sole songwriting credit.)

Also pretty dang cute was Hope Johnson, who was presented under the special Idol category I like to call: ”Poor people: They can sing, too!” All kidding aside, though, Hope’s ”I Hope You Dance” was most remarkable in terms of pure vocal clarity. There’s something unaffected and lovely about the way the 19-year-old delivers a lyric, as if she’s never been exposed to the toxic melisma that seems to affect so much of modern singing. As guest judge Joe Jonas so eloquently put it, ”Yeah.”

On the flip side, personal trainer Michael Lynche, whose wrist may very well be bigger around than Victoria Beckham’s neck, delivered his ”Unchained Melody” with such blunt-force theatricality, it almost threatened to loop back around on itself and come out totally restrained. ”Big Mike” has an appealing personality, but if he doesn’t quickly realize American cannot sustain itself on a diet of ham and ham alone, he won’t survive day one of Hell Week.

As for the night’s four remaining Golden Ticket recipients — three of ’em who were presented as ”16 and talented,” one of whom was presented as ”utterly annoying” — since I’m not seeing any of them surviving the Holding Room of Tears episodes next week, let’s cover ’em Twitter-style, in 140 characters or less. (FYI, you can follow me on Twitter @EWMichaelSlezak:

Rachel Hubbard: Cute brunette will hafta gimme more than a nondescript cover of Jonas Bros.’ ”Wrong Again” if she wants to be remembered.

Thaddeus Johnson: When your cover of ”How Am I Supposed to Live Without U” makes Michael Bolton seem subdued, tis time to rein in yr gift.

Genesis Moore: Your cuteness will only take you so far when you’re blasting notes in a way that causes audible mic static.

Amanda Shectman: When drama major w/ bad tan lines begged ”Please listen to me!” I dreamed America hit ‘mute.’ Begging for a takedown, Y?

And now, because I’m already too excited about the prospect of Hollywood Week to look backward at tonight’s ”bad” auditions, I leave it to you to dish in the comments the relative tragicomic merits of auditions by Stephanie ”silver sequined top” Fisher, Adrian ”the big kahuna” Chandtchi, Kimberly ”I would be very into recycling and helping kids in Africa” Bishop, and Shaddaii ”making Simon allergic to Alicia Keys” Harris.

What did you think of tonight’s show? Were you impressed by any of the Golden Ticket receivers? And how did you feel this year’s auditions stacked up to seasons past?

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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  • 16
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  • 574
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  • ABC

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