The deep thinkers behind American Idol aren’t being at all subtle about their desire for a non-white-guy-with-guitar champion in Season 12. There was a heavy female slant to the talented contestants shown in the audition round. And on Wednesday, the women of Season 12 took a giant step forward – without singing a single note.
The Hollywood round has been separated by sex this season, with the men having first dibs this week. Though the ratings are invariably lower, I’ve always looked forward to Hollywood as much as to the auditions, because it’s the place where storylines for the season begin to come into focus, and where previously unseen or unheralded wannabes can announce themselves as contenders (last season, it was Joshua Ledet who came out of nowhere).
But on the basis of Wednesday, one of the storylines the show is pushing this time around is “Man, do these men suck.” While a few of the bright male lights from the auditions are still shining following the group round and heading into the final Hollywood solos, others are definitely sputtering, several others burned out completely, and one suffered some sort of explosion of personal demons that was honestly one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever seen on Idol.
The Hollywood gauntlet began as it always does: with ten singers at a time presenting themselves Chorus Line style, singing a brief snippet of a song of their choice, and awaiting a “stay or go” judgment from the panel. It’s always a quick and stark goodbye for those who don’t make it past this point, and among those we saw in the auditions who fell here were medical resident Calvin Peters, Oklahoma City dork Nate Skinner, singing fireman Dustin Watts (who I actually had pegged as a real contender after his audition), and Brian Rittenberry, the poor man’s Tate Stevens who had a big voice, but wielded it like a sledgehammer. I always figured that one way or another, the show was going to keep Brian from getting before the voting public.
The stars of this first phase appeared to be Micah Johnson, he of the surgically induced speech impediment (which might be slowly improving, unless that was just my imagination); church man and born ham Curtis Finch Jr.; and Oklahoma City charmer Nate Tao. The panel was divided by Cortez Shaw’s ear-splitting take on “I Will Always Love You,” with Nicki Minaj actually saying she was “disgusted” by his performance (maybe he should have worn a porcupine costume or done something else to get her attention). He snuck through, though, as did Bryant Tadeo, who made the mistake of admitting that the grind had made him tired. Nicki pretended he was cut before telling him she was joking, but reminded him, “You never say you’re tired!”
So it was on to the group round, with another new twist this time aside from the necessity of not having any coed acts: for the first time ever, the producers assigned singers to groups instead of letting everyone self-select. This eliminated one traditional source of Hollywood drama (the sad sack who can’t find a group to take him or her in), but added another, in that Idol was reserving the right to mix musical oil and water together.
Some of the producers’ picks made logical sense, such as teaming up the most youthful-looking boys in the same group; or the gang of veterans called the Math Heads, made of Hollywood returnees Mathenee Treco and Nick Boddington, working rock singer Gabe Brown, and teensy Glee Project alumnus Matteus Fernandes. Their rangy, assured version of “Somebody to Love” kicked off the group performances, and I don’t think anyone surpassed them. Blustery Gabe isn’t really my cup of tea, and none of them seem to scream “star” at you, but all four were easy picks to move forward.
But other groups appeared to be chosen because Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick believed creative tension could bring forth wonderful collaborative genius – oh, who am I kidding. They wanted to see epic arguments! There was no way, for example, that Mississippi-born Army sergeant Trevor Blakney and blue collar Lee Pritchard were going to blend well with the seriously androgynous “JDA” and his nearly as fabulous cohort Joel Wayman, in the group named, naturally, Country Queen.
Trevor didn’t want to practice choreography or do anything that was danceable, apparently under the impression that’s how you turn gay. Their compromise pick was a ballad, “More Than Words,” and after all of Trevor’s complaining about the losers he was stuck with, he could barely remember any of it. I thought Joel was the only one in this group who wasn’t terrible, but both the divas made it to the next round, while Lee and Trevor were sent back to the land where only women wear the makeup.
The morose Army man wasn’t the only one who had lyrical issues on this night. Forgetting the words used to be a very rare thing in Hollywood, but it was epidemic on Wednesday, and it’s not only because the song choices were tilted towards the oldies. The group B Side, whose most prominent member was Gurpreet Singh Sarin (aka the guy with the turban from New York), completely massacred “Payphone,” which was inescapable on the radio for the second half of 2012. Keith Urban noted that the still-living Adam Levine had to be rolling in his grave, but despite what should have been an easy “no” vote for all four, the whole group is sticking around instead, thanks in large part to being championed by Nicki.
Ryan Seacrest mentioned that past performances and stage presence (i.e. what Nicki’s career is based on) were also being taken into account by the judges, which really means that the group stuff is pretty much all about creating televised drama. (One other group that was just as hopeless as B Side when it came to forgetting lyrics was sent home in toto.)
Other notes from the groups:
Many familiar faces from the auditions didn’t make it past this round. Chicago auditioner Clifton Duffin went home, as did hunk Griffin Peterson, as Idol continued to make this season safe for a female winner. Kayden Stephenson, the kid with cystic fibrosis that we met in Oklahoma City, was in a group with three other teens, including San Antonio’s Sanni M’Mairura and David Leathers Jr., the last male cut from Season 11. No one in the group sounded especially comfortable on “The Longest Time,” but Kayden also had trouble remembering the words, and was cut with everyone’s apologies. The kid maintained his upbeat demeanor though, which is a good thing considering.
Cuban-born stutterer Lazaro Arbos is still standing, though his issues with diction in English are probably going to knock him out sooner rather than later. His other problem in the group round was his near complete lack of familiarity with all the possible song choices. He and his group ended up with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” and I’m not sure he understood a single word of it. He snuck through, while his group colleague Josh Stephens was among the two sent home. Josh was bitter, complaining that he had spent all his time helping Lazaro and was cut for his trouble. He was awfully forgettable, so that’s probably stretching things a tad.
Curtis Finch Jr. was part of a trio along with Charlie Askew, the socially awkward kid from the Baton Rouge audition. For a man of God, Curtis sure didn’t sound very understanding of Charlie’s various issues, some of which may have been physical but others that were surely mental. But this group ended up being giving one of the better efforts of the day on “The Lazy Song.” Charlie has a surprising amount of stage presence, though we’ll see how long he can power through. Other survivors who we’ve seen previously included Burnell Taylor, Micah Johnson, Vincent Powell, and Johnny Keyser, who barely scraped by after selecting “Reach Out I’ll Be There” for his group, botching almost every line, and then defending himself by claiming he had never heard the Motown classic before. The judges likely took pity on them because the frazzled Johnny said he had had a “nightless sleep.”
The last act of the night, Oz, featured San Antonio gay kids Adam Sanders and Papa Peachez, the previously unseen Charles Allen, and New York busker Frankie Ford, who picked this worst of all moments to go into a full-fledged panic attack over his alleged inexperience (despite being the oldest in the group). Frankie was crying even before they hit the stage, and he ended up literally singing no words of “American Boy” (in a classic case of paranoia, Charles changed that lyric to “American girl”). Despite still having support from Keith, Frankie was sent packing, which prompted his biggest meltdown yet, as he sobbed about learning from the experience and coming back next year. Forget Idol for now; the kid looks like he needs serious help. For his part, Papa continues to survive, even though I’m not sure he’s taken a moment of the competition seriously yet.
We will see who the 20 male survivors are on Thursday. Just getting to 20 who deserve it ought to be a struggle. Are there any of these fellows you’re excited about?