American Idol's season-nine auditions continued last night in Atlanta (cue incessant references to the Dirty Dirty South and HOT-lanta!) and although the talent was markedly better than what Boston wheezed out Tuesday, the singing drove the soon-to-be-dearly-departed Simon to his sickbed. He peaced out toward the end of day two and missed several performers, complaining of a migraine. Wow, his tolerance must be sinking fast: Bad singers never affected his health before. Perhaps this is an ominous sign for his new show, The X Factor; we'd hate for him to be MedEvac-ed out during his new show's tryouts.
With their commandant AWOL, the remaining judges got looser and goofier: They brought to mind a high-school class suddenly freed from their teacher's tyrannical rule. This didn't bode well for the future of the show: You need someone like Cowell to spur the others into a McLaughlin Group shoutfest. On the plus side, without Simon to set the tone, Randy reminded us he is capable of providing meaningful feedback ... if forced to at knifepoint on a speeding bus that can't go below 50 miles an hour.
However, this episode also demonstrated that Randy and Kara working in tandem could make Idol even more contrived than it already is. One particularly questionable decision came when two teenage girl contestants who were self-professed BFFs tried out at the same time. Both girls sucked, plain and simple. Sure, one was better, but we're talking about the difference between zero talent and negative talent. These two made Team Girl Squad seem like the Algonquin Round Table. Simon called it like it was, but the other judges cunningly gave the less-horrendous girl the golden ticket to Hollywood. You could practically see the cartoon devils on Kara and Randy's shoulders whispering into their ears: These two are attached at the hip — give one the ticket and the other the boot and you'll have waterworks for sure! Well, Satan was right: Both girls melted into tears immediately, the dinged one will likely resent her pal for life, and the "winner" now gets to be torn to shreds on the other side of the country on a bigger stage. America, the land of opportunity!
As for Mary J. Blige, here's the 411 on her guest-judge stint last night: major bomb. I was actually looking forward to her being on the show. After all, how often is it you have a judge on Idol who can legitimately sing? But the soul queen's idea of critiquing consisted of collapsing into fits of laughter. Sure, it would be hard not to giggle when Jesse the hard-to-kill welder froze up as he tried to squeak out Garth Brooks, but at least have the courtesy to tell someone they suck in words. Rocking with laughter before they even sing is the equivalent of pantsing them: It's classless, and she should know better. (The producers didn't have much better judgment, with their patronizing, cornpone "reenactments" of his near-death moments that looked like they were compiled from old deleted scenes from Hee Haw.)
The show's best performance was definitely Jermaine — a churchgoing boy who takes care of his sick mother, no less — who announced he would sing Joan Osborne's "What If God Was One of Us?" Just as you were ready to roll your eyes, you heard the subtle control this kid exerts over his voice. With a bit of training, he could be sublime. At the very least, he was impressive enough that you forgot the Lifetime-movie backstory that preceded him. Vanessa, the poor bridge-jumper from Vonore, Tennessee, had the same effect; you thought you were too cool to fall for her "I just gotta break out of this life" tale, but damned if her nerves, voice, and country charm didn't win you over. (Even if the whole thing is equally nervous-making: The story that begins "small-town girl goes to Hollywood" rarely ends well.)
All talent aside, my favorite performance of the evening was the 62-year-old street busker calling himself General Larry. This too-old-to-compete character snuck in (yeah, right) and rapped an original song called "Pants on the Ground," which could be this year's "We're Brothers Forever." (Look for it on finale night.) The song was a hard-hitting attack on the ill-fitting slacks favored by today's youth: "Call yourself a cool cat, you look like a fool/Lookin' like a fool with your pants on the ground." Then he collapsed to the ground to demonstrate exactly what pants look like when they're on the ground. To learn more about the dangers of baggy jeans, watch the clip below.
Now, I know this guy was just doing Idol for his fifteen seconds of fame — or even more insidious, he probably intends to start a YouTube viral video! — but I can't pretend his nursery-school-styled novelty rap song wasn't the most entertaining part of the evening. I'll take cautionary tales about loose-fitting pants to the vanilla wailing of a dozen Mariah-lites any day. American Idol: more MC Hammer, less Leona Lewis, please!
MTV’s Kyle Anderson enjoyed Mary J. Blige’s judge stint: “Now that's a diva who isn't afraid to look like a mean-spirited millionaire on television!”
Entertainment Weekly’s Michael Slezak decried the “stupefyingly unfunny series of fictional reenactments from Jesse's [the Southern boy’s] life that painted him as an inbred southern stereotype.”
And TV Guide’s Adam Bryant actually felt the eliminated BFF No. 2 “Was cute ... She sang much better than her BFF.”