Surprise! Simon has a heart: This week on ''American Idol,'' the king of mean softened up a little, thanks to a group embrace with guest judge LL Cool J
Simon Cowell, American Idol

”American Idol”: Surprise! Simon has a heart

Riddle me this: Last season on American Idol, I didn’t shed a tear till well into the finals — specifically during Fantasia Barrino’s devastating performance on soundtrack night. So how come this year my eyes have already gone misty and the contestants haven’t even made it to Hollywood?

Maybe it’s ”Summertime.” When eventual season 3 champ Fantasia sang the classic Gershwin tune, she made this grown man cry as he witnessed a young single mother transforming herself into a superstar with each haunting note. This time around, however, as Cleveland auditioner Leandra Jackson warbled her way through the same exact number, it was something completely different that got my waterworks flowing.

Jackson, a hefty 20-year-old, entered the audition room already on the verge of a breakdown, seeing as her sister Lashundra had gotten a thumbs down from the judges only moments prior. When Leandra’s woeful ”Summertime” — a heinous brew of butchered notes, mispronounced lyrics, and wonky gesticulations — ended in her teary rejection, guest judge LL Cool J rose to his feet and embraced her, then (to my shock) was joined by Paula, Randy, and Simon (!) in a group hug. Did Kenny Loggins slip these folks some sedatives?

Some people might have found the Leandra moment completely out of whack for a show that lures millions of viewers each week with the promise of watching deluded dreams get steamrolled. But folks, when a man as icy as Simon Cowell is moved to physically console a truly terrible singer in full view of the cameras, that is world-class television. And anyhow, in my mind, American Idol has always had an oversized heart beating beneath its black Lycra T-shirt.

How else to explain the collective joy the country gets watching people who look like Ruben and Clay and Kelly and Fantasia — lovely folks, but none of them exactly threatening to push Justin or Britney off their magazine-cover thrones — get recognized for their gifts? As Simon reiterated after an audition by Scott Savol, a pudgy guy in an outfit tailor-made to be tossed into traffic by Carson Kressley, thank God for Idol, because no amount of vocal talent would’ve gotten Savol’s foot in a record-company door. Heck, the guy’s own father told Savol he’d never amount to anything. Apparently, dear old Dad never heard his son belt out ”Superstar.”

You could even sense Simon’s improved mood in his insults — which were sharper and more specific than they’ve been all season. When Paula suggested Marissa Ganz’s overwrought version of ”White Boys” made her a better candidate for the musical theater than for the world of pop, Simon observed wryly that ”based on that evidence, I would do plays.” And after Jennifer Page mimed her way through an Aerosmith number, Cowell observed she was ”one of the best we’ve heard in this competition.” (I was holding out hope that after Albert Minero Jr.’s awkwardly choreographed rendition of ”Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” one of the judges might cry out, ”Not in those Dockers, brother!”)

Before Simon gets rewarded with big hugs, however, he must be taken to task (along with the insufferable Ryan Seacrest) for carrying a theme of latent (and sometimes blatant) homophobia into the fourth consecutive season of Idol. Was there any conceivable reason Simon decided to tell 20-year-old San Franciscan Matthew Miller (who’s clearly more than a little taken with Kelly Clarkson) that he had ”more important decisions” to make, like whether he’s ”Matthew or Martha”? Yes, if you closed your eyes during Miller’s audition, you might’ve thought you were listening to a woman singing (which Randy accurately observed), but why take a dig at the kid’s sexual identity on national television, and reduce him to tears in the process? Leave the ”girly man” taunts to the middle-school playground — or the California governor’s mansion — they have no place during the 8 p.m. family viewing hour. Pleeeeeeease!

Anyhow, getting off my soapbox, most of the show’s funniest moments this week were of a warmer nature. Can you possibly imagine what will happen to Justin Clark’s hooting, collapsing mother if her boy makes it to the final 12? Maybe she can team up with ”farm boy” Pat Norman’s father, who silently turned an alarming shade of crimson when his offspring advanced to Hollywood after delivering a cover of Nat King Cole’s ”Smile.”

Both Clark and Norman have a decent shot to go far in the competition, but they’re going to have to step it up to match this week’s most charismatic Idol contestants: fabulous Beetlejuice look-alike Briana Davis (or, as one witty poster has dubbed her, Rainbow Brightman); frail canary Anthony Fedorov, whose childhood ailments had doctors thinking he might never speak, let alone sing; fierce Vonzell Solomon, 20, with her non-matching shoes; and big-voiced, big-boned Jamie Koehler, who delivered a silky, mournful ”I Left My Heart in San Francisco” despite the big smile spread across his mug.

(I also have to admit being quite taken with vaguely unglued Elizabeth Pha; she may have come straight from a casting call for the role of Hooker No. 3 on CSI: Miami, but her total lack of shame, naked desire to find fame, and halfway decent pipes make her an obvious bet to create some special memories as the show moves to the pre-semifinal round of cuts in Hollywood next week.

On that note, I’d better go check my supplies of Kleenex.

What did you think of this week’s Leandra lovefest? Are you encouraged by the fact that few of the best singers this week fit the pop-star mold? And how should the judges have handled Matthew Miller’s audition?

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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