Not a moment too soon. That’s my blunt reaction to the end of three weeks of American Idol auditions – a generally positive stretch capped Thursday by one of the weakest hours in the show’s history (and thank the powers that be Fox didn’t stretch this crap-a-thon out to two hours).
Ryan Seacrest told us that 45 advanced out of Oklahoma City, but weren’t any of them … uh, good? We saw only five successful auditions: none of them truly stellar, just two that were maybe better than average, and two others that made no sense whatsoever. This outing was the first time I’ve wondered to myself if Fox really had given up on Idol as a genuine competition, and was simply out for the laughs at this point. But what do I know? Maybe people enjoyed it.
It’s a symbol of how ridiculous things got that the night’s best audition came from a woman whose performance began as a duet with a ventriloquist’s puppet. Halie Hilburn showed up with a plush dog named Oscar, who accompanied her by yodeling at the start of her audition. Considering that Terry Fator is the one and only big star ever discovered by America’s Got Talent, it makes one wonder why she didn’t try that show. Once Halie left Oscar on the sideline and started the serious part of her audition, she proved she had some ability with her country alto. Randy Jackson was still opposed, but the others sent her through. As Halie’s segment ended, we were treated to the sight of Oscar’s legs hanging out of a dumpster. It was that kind of night.
Karl Skinner was discovered on the Idol “small town audition tour” in Joplin, Mo., which really isn’t that small, but whatever. The “pizza chef” seemed happy to play the part of the dopey yokel with a silly version of “I Feel Good,” complete with faux James Brown shuffling. He later picked up a guitar and sang an original to no great effect. He was pleasant enough, but being sent to Hollywood on the basis of little more than “I like you, dude” was mysterious.
Nate Tao had a nice personal story – he’s the son of two deaf parents – and after a tentative start, showed off a solid range on “For Once in My Life.” I didn’t see much in the way of star quality, but maybe he can surprise us all. It was the only audition of the night that wasn’t played for either laughs or for maximum pathos.
The performance of Zoanette Johnson had to be heard to be believed – a version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that broke all previous records for anthem self-indulgence. She screamed, whooped, bent syllables left and right, forgot the words at one point, knocked Keith Urban out of his chair … it sure looked like your basic gag audition, but it didn’t seem as if any judge wanted to be the one to stop the party. Zoanette then began tottering around in her too-short skirt and too-high heels muttering something about Obama, which didn’t do anything to make her seem more sane. Nicki Minaj led the panel in the unanimous vote to send her through, and I think we’re seeing the chink in Nicki’s armor: she doesn’t seem to appreciate the difference between eccentric-with-ability and just plain weird.
The only other Hollywood invitee we heard from was 16-year-old Kayden Stephenson, who has cystic fibrosis and was disarmingly matter-of-fact about what that implies about his future life expectancy. His version of “I Wish” frankly didn’t show much other than his ability to imitate Stevie Wonder a little bit. There was very little oomph in his voice, understandable considering his health. But he’s going to get a trip to Hollywood for his troubles, and no one will begrudge him that.
I’m going to be curious to see what public reaction is to the segment with Anastacia Freeman, a young Oklahoma woman whose audition proved she couldn’t sing. The judges laughed while she was performing, then denied that’s what they were doing. After she was finished, she explained to the panel that God had told her to audition, whereupon we transitioned to a “Cheap Dramatization” of Anastacia hearing choirs of angels, and the disembodied voice of the Almighty saying “Idol” instead of The Voice or The X Factor (I believe that’s the first time those competing shows have ever been mentioned on this one). As she left, Anastacia said her rejection could be explained by Nicki being a devil worshipper. Mocking contestants is one thing, but appearing to mock their religious beliefs is new and maybe dangerous territory for a show that has a serious following in small-town America.
The night was concluded by Steven Tyler’s return as auditioner “Pepper LeBeja” (that’s him pictured up top), wearing full drag instead of going halfway like he did during his judging days. I’d say it was nice to see him cussing and mooning the judges, but that’s not a good look on a 65-year-old man, man.
Next week, we head to Hollywood, and the hard work of narrowing a few hundred hopefuls to 40 begins. If there’s a headline out of these three weeks, it’s that the show seems determined to not give a leg up via early publicity to any potential “white guy with guitar” contender this year. Of course, both Kris Allen and Lee DeWyze were featured for about five seconds in their respective auditions, and that didn’t stop them any. I’d say it’s better than even money that your next American Idol will be heading to Nashville once the season ends, and there’s a strong possibility that winner will be a woman. But we’ll know a lot more by the end of February.
Who did you like in the auditions? And was there anybody in Oklahoma City worth remembering?