As the audition train stops in Kansas City, MO, the producers decide to focus on (gasp!) good singing

By Michael Slezak
January 15, 2009 at 05:00 AM EST
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The economy is halfway between your toilet and your local waste-treatment facility. The unemployment rate is growing faster than the “Value Size” soda at your local Cineplex. Things have gotten so bad you can’t even count on a Will Smith movie to crack the $100 million mark at the box office anymore. (Although, let’s be honest: Those trailers for Seven Pounds looked kinda busted.)

But fret not, folks. Look up there in the sky! It’s a Paula (as expected, joyriding through the clouds)! And a Randy! And a Simon! And something we’re being told is called a Kara! And they’re bringing you the shiniest, happiest, feel-goodiest season of American Idol auditions that you ever did see. Sweet, talented mother of three whose apartment just got destroyed by a tornado? You’re goin’ to Hollywood! Burly welder who put your singing dreams aside to raise and support your peach of a three-year-old daughter? Grab a golden ticket! And what the heck, even if you’re only a marginally tolerable spaz who dreams at night about Simon Cowell, there’s room for you in the next round — provided that your mom flew out from Florida to lend support and that you use the word ”please” when imploring the judges to help you fulfill your lifelong goal of superstardom. Oh, and if that’s not enough to lift your spirits, we’ve got plenty of footage of potential Idols’ families hilariously hugging Ryan! (Say what you want about the pint-sized hostbot, but don’t you think Fox could spin ratings gold from a special summer series called Squeezing the Bejeezus out of Seacrest?)

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not complaining about the way Idol emphasized the positive during tonight’s audition rounds from Kansas City, MO (hometown of last year’s champ David Cook). Quite the opposite, I was elated that the show’s producers chose to highlight 13 of the 27 successful auditions from the ‘Show Me’ state — a much better ratio than Idol addicts have come to expect in recent seasons. And perhaps even more interesting, the night’s best auditions focused on seemingly average Joes and Janes, folks with ordinary jobs, living ordinary lives, and stepping into the spotlight to chase extraordinary dreams. What better elixir for the doom and gloom permeating the bulk of today’s news headlines? (Then again, I try my best to avoid Idol spoilers, so I should probably brace myself for the news that Welder Guy had a three-record deal with Sony back in 2005.)

Still, even if you found yourself wearing your Idol warm fuzzies like a pair of footie pajamas by the end of tonight’s show, the reality is that in about a month’s time, all of these likable dreamers are going to be thrown into the musical Thunderdome: 36 singers will enter, and only one will leave. Which means it’s time to look at the Kansas City Thirteen perhaps a little more critically than our suddenly soft-hearted judging panel did tonight. Let’s separate ’em into four distinct groups:

NEXT: A Lil something good

Love (or deep like) at first note. The episode’s best audition, undoubtedly, came from Lil Rounds, whose blazing rendition of ”All I Do” was described by Randy as a mixture of Fantasia and Mary J. Blige — one astute comment over the first four hours of season 8? Way to go, Dawg! — and whose name would fit quite nicely on an iTunes menu between Lil’ Kim and Lil Wayne. It certainly didn’t hurt that Lil happened to be the aforementioned mom whose family got uprooted by a twister, but even without the compelling backstory, the 23-year-old’s charm made her a contestant worth rooting for. I loved the way she buried her head in her hands and took a moment — ”Y’all excuse me. I’m so happy.” — as she began to digest the judges’ heaping helpings of praise. And if that wasn’t enough to win me over, Fantasia’s ”I Believe” (the one song guaranteed to make me go misty) kicked in as Lil exited the audition room and embraced her hubby, and the end-of-episode celebratory clip package began. Okay, Idol producers, I surrender — even if, at this stage of her Idol journey, Lil doesn’t quite have the raw star power of a ‘Tasia or the perfectly polished vocals of a Melinda Doolittle.

Anoop Desai, on the other hand, scored no backstory bonus points — somehow, I don’t think that bit on writing his undergraduate thesis about barbeque will win over anyone, aside from maybe a few voracious rib eaters — yet he still made me a fan by finding an actual melody in a Boyz II Men song other than ”Motownphilly.” The guy definitely has soul, and his woeful choice of flip-flops and shorts (more appropriate for a trip to the pharmacy than an audition for America’s most popular talent competition) might turn out to be a smart strategic move down the road. Think about it: With a little help from Idol‘s stylists, dude could quickly go from schlub to stud, and who doesn’t like a good old-fashioned Pygmalion tale?

Side note: Did anyone else find it kind of atroshe that Simon said Anoop looked like he’d just come out of a meeting with Bill Gates? You mean to tell me the British judge actually thinks folks would wear flip-flops to meet with the head of Microsoft? Or does he just think South Asian heritage is code for ”good with computers”?

Eagerly awaiting our second date. Four contestants tonight showed significant promise, but since it’s too early in the Idol season to open my heart to every singer with a pleasing tone and the ability to carry a tune, you’ll forgive me for not forming a deep emotional attachment.

Matt Breitzke (the aforementioned welder) and Jessica Furney, the small-town Kansas chick who lives with her 93-year-old grandmother, hit one or two wonky notes on their respective covers of ”Ain’t No Sunshine” and ”Cry Baby,” but infused their songs with the kind of real-life, emotional gravitas that you just can’t get from the perky teenagers who are bound to abound during Hollywood Week. Thank heavens the judges advanced the both of ’em, even if they do nothing more this season than spare us from another rendition of that ballad from Mulan.

Casey Carlson, like Lil Rounds, has a name that sounds like it was meant to be on the Billboard charts, and with her Famke Janssen-meets-Lindsay Price looks, she’s probably one of the most attractive contestants ever to appear on the show. The latter attribute probably explains why none of the judges called Casey out for rushing through her rendition of Vanessa Carlton’s ”1,000 Miles,” but on the other hand, you’ve got to applaud any auditioner who’d tackle a tricky, midtempo number this early in the competition.

Ditto for middle-school band director Asa Barnes and his choice of Michael Jackson’s ”The Way You Make Me Feel,” a rhythmic little number that the guy had to deliver without the help of a rhythm section. Was his rendition as sparkling as his teeth (which probably launched a thousand dental appointments during their brief moment in the national spotlight)? Definitely not. But the guy’s got an adorable daughter, and at least he didn’t choose a histrionic ballad.

NEXT: I’m going to Hollywood…by the skin of my teeth

I’m on the fence, dawg. Can I make a confession? The way Fox kept doing the pre-commercial-break teases of Robert Downey, Jr. lookalike Danny Gokey, promising his was the most dramatic story in ‘Idol’ history or some such superlative, I started to suspect the show was setting me up for a spoof trailer involving Downey’s Tropic Thunder character. ”A young man dreams of being America’s next singing sensation, but must overcome unspeakable obstacles — and Simon Cowell — to achieve his dreams. Kirk Lazarus is The Auditioner.”

That’s why I felt a little guilty when Danny finally got to tell his story and revealed that his wife had passed away only four weeks before his audition. But on the other hand, I also felt a little…uncomfortable. Look, I realize we’re a nation that regularly shares its tragedies via live satellite feed on Good Morning America and Today. But without judging how Danny deals with his grief — because heaven knows, we all cope in different ways — I could not help but find it off-putting to hear Danny tearfully explain that he wanted the world to learn about his late wife through his singing, right before launching into a cover of Marvin Gaye’s ”I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

I’m just not that into you. I know, I know…Idol‘s producers just can’t win with me. I moan and complain that they need to show more successful auditions, and then when they do, I moan and complain that those auditions weren’t really all that good.

Take Von Smith, for example, who is probably destined to become a front-runner for Season 8’s Love Him or Loathe Him Contestant. Kara was right: Dude’s got a powerful instrument. The problem was, his rendition of ”Over the Rainbow” left me uncertain that he knows what to do with it. Standing there in his white fedora and a black and white striped pullover stolen from Blake Lewis’s wardrobe, Von proceeded to blast every last note from his mouth like he was aiming cannonballs at a brick wall. I’d suggest comparing Von’s rendition to Jason Castro’s hauntingly beautiful (and at times, practically whispered) season 7 ”Rainbow,” except, really, there’s no comparison.

Danny Gokey’s best friend, Jamar Rogers (who either had a pierced cheek or a very metallic case of acne) suffered from a similar case of Unsubtle-itis on ”California Dreamin’.” Remarkably, Paula told Jamar his performance was ”too loud” before she agreed with the other three judges to send him through to Hollywood.

Oh, and since we just mentioned Jason Castro a few sentences back, we must also mention that his pink-haired, vaguely cocky brother Michael auditioned tonight, too, offering a serviceable take on ”In Love With a Girl” that resulted in him scoring a golden ticket. Or maybe it wasn’t his take on Gavin DeGraw’s hit that did the trick. Maybe it was the fact that his famous brother accompanied him to the audition. How else to explain Simon dubbing the performance ”good-ish” then advancing him to the next round anyway? (Also, newsflash for Ryan Seacrest: Jason Castro was not season 7’s fourth runner-up. He was the fourth-place finisher. There’s a big difference.)

NEXT: A nice guy with a not-so-nice audition

Also on my list of contestants I expect to flame out during Hollywood Week: Ashley Anderson, whose rendition of ”Footprints in the Sand” would have been utterly forgettable had she not kept trying to change the lyric to ”Footsteps”; adorable but quite possibly tone-deaf India Morrison (who auditioned with her sister Asia McClain); and hyper Dennis Brigham, who begged, pleaded, and cajoled his way to the next round despite a lackluster take on Chris Brown’s ”With You.” Best exchange of the night came when Kara tried to explain her ”yes” vote by meekly declaring ”I liked Dennis,” to which Simon dryly replied, ”That is called being duped.”

It wouldn’t be Idol, of course, without a few disastrous auditions, but very few of them stood out tonight. Mia Conley got me chuckling with her post-rejection retort to the judges that ”God’s gonna get you. And I’m still gonna be a star.” Brian Hettler’s rendition of Aretha’s ”Think” made me realize what Cher would sound like if her voice were two octaves lower…and she performed on a treadmill. Andrew Lang’s rejection broke my heart a little, but only because his two goofy cheerleader gal-pals ended up taking it harder than he did.

But of course, Idol had to go and ruin the love-fest with one truly cringe-worthy segment on Nebraska sandwich-maker Michael Nicewonder, a guy who proved to be a brutally bad singer on a self-penned ditty dedicated to his mother, and even worse on a song he wrote for his grandma. You knew it wasn’t going to be pretty when Michael arrived with some kind of band-camp medal and a fortune-cookie insert explaining ”a person with a determined heart frightens problems away,” and predictably, it all ended in a sobbing, borderline-unwatchable meltdown.

Yeah, I know, no one put a gun to Michael’s head and forced him to try to sing on Idol. But if an innocent baby bird made the miscalculation of thinking he could fly, and fell out of his nest during his attempt, would that make it okay for people to kick him around like a Hacky Sack, film the whole horrific incident, then air it on national television? Like I said before, there’s enough ugly in the newspaper every morning. Come on now, Idol, let’s not let flies get mixed up in that all-important elixir.

What did you guys think of the K.C. auditions? Which, if any, of the new contenders do you see going all the way?

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.
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