In one hour (mercifully), American Idol breezed through the Windy City, showcasing how little talent you can fit into the packed waiting room of a Chicago stadium. The main point of interest was guest judge Shania Twain, for whom I have a newfound respect. The country megastar provided thoughtful, gentle advice to the amateur singers, and, in a rarely seen move for Idol judging, demonstrated genuine knowledge of musical technique. This risky gamble paid off. By the time the string of 12,000 bright-eyed and largely useless hopefuls had taken their toll on her sanity, her overall kindness made one overlook her brief lapse into insanity at the end (see the clip below where she utters an accidental sexual innuendo then devolves into giggles while whipping Randy with her necklace).
Shania even provided some honest-to-gosh sweet moments, all melodramatic pageantry aside. When one teenager was singing far too high, Shania tried to coach her to switch to a lower octave instead of giving her the (cowgirl) boot. Later on, she even convinced Randy to give his vital third vote to an asthmatic singer. (Granted, with the girl's near-death story and inhaler on hand, passing her through was, as Simon sighed, a no-brainer.)
On the downside, her presence and Idol's affection for blindingly obvious humor meant we had to sit through a montage of crappy singers set to Twain's song, "That Don't Impress Me Much." But hey, an Idol viewer with an ax to grind is like the frog carrying the scorpion across the river: You can't be surprised when you get stung.
As for the talent, most of it was of the we've-seen-this-before variety. Literally so in the case of Angela, the 28-year-old recidivist who aced her audition last night and will be going to Hollywood for the third and final time. Her last two shots at Idol didn't pan out for personal reasons: Tragically, her father died a week before her first Hollywood performance, and last year she made it into the top 50 but missed her spot because of a court appearance over unpaid speeding tickets. Regardless of her backstory, though, the guileless feeling Angela imbued into her singing would make you root for her anyway. As Shania kept saying, she's a great singer who just needs a break.
Another charmer was Charity, a 16-year-old girl who honed her style while singing for customers at her parents' hair salon back in Little Rock. Despite her thin voice — which revealed a few weak spots even in a minute of singing — this girl sang Gershwin's endlessly covered "Summertime" with an individualistic flair often missing from the more technically perfect singers Idol rewards. The judges noted her shortcomings but happily looked past them, acknowledging that sometimes the unusual phrasings of an amateur singer thrill more than a Broadway-ready voice (the success of Glee might have reminded the Idol judges that singers with limited ranges, like Cory Monteith, can be more exciting than the pros). So yay for her, even though — who are we kidding? — those unusual phrasings likely won't get her past Hollywood Week.
In terms of raw talent, the 20-year-old student John Park was my favorite. His small frame and Banana Republic good looks were a shocking contrast to the deep, soulful voice he commanded. While he could certainly use some years and heartbreak to age his style, there was no denying he displayed real talent; my bet is he will sound twice as good with a full band behind him.
Overall, though, this was a fairly by-the-numbers episode and the judges knew it: They shooed out the duds and ticket-winners alike with equal speed. Sadly, the intentional screw-ups didn't even provide that breath of oddball comedy we depend on. The guitar player on roller skates was too gimmicky to be fun, the chesty woman performing what she called the boob flex was simply unsettling, and the military man copping the singing style of Tiny Tim was, well, too adept at channeling Tiny Tim to be listenable. As Randy so eloquently put it, "That was weird, right?"
Michael Slezak of Entertainment Weekly would like to see "Shania get a second tryout at a possibly permanent gig on the Idol panel."
Claire Zulkey from the AV Club pointed out that John Park "can sing well despite — get this — being ASIAN. Come on, that's what we all knew the judges were thinking when they said, 'I was very surprised!'"
Adam Bryant of TV Guide had this to say about our Tiny Tim–loving friend: "He was told by his Army commander in Korea to never sing while in uniform, but someone should have told him to never sing period."