Perhaps all that fresh, oxygen-thin air went to the judges’ heads during American Idol’s Denver auditions. They clapped and grinned and winked and said, "Yes, 1,000 percent!" and doled out Golden Tickets like breath mints (26 in all), yet we're hard-pressed to remember a handful of auditioners who made lingering positive impressions. Maybe the producers edited out the truly talented contestants in favor of the more average hopefuls with a Lifetime movie script in their back pocket, but there wasn’t much chance of the next champ coming from the Mile-High City. Further "meh"-worthy was Victoria Beckham’s return to the guest-judge chair — her graceful demeanor never embarrasses her, exactly, but she seems far more concerned with how people look than with anything to do with their singing abilities. Perhaps she's put there to make the other judges look like musical idealists.
One of the few promising ticket winners was Haeley, a 16-year-old Idol-ready triple threat. She boasts a “miracle baby” backstory, sings with style, and is out of the ordinary — in her words, she yearns to be the “first black pop-country mainstream singer.” Her casually spunky take on Carrie Underwood’s “Last Name” easily won over the judges, but it didn’t stop them from treating her with doting condescension. Simon said, “You’re a cute little thing, aren’t you?” and they all expressed surprise that she didn’t audition with something like Mary J. Blige. While it’s true that black female country artists hardly dominate the charts, it was a little awkward that they expected she would channel an R&B diva music based on her appearance. Granted, perhaps most young female African-American contestants do try out with Mary J., so the judges are just acknowledging quantifiable experience, but it still felt jarringly reductive. You can judge for yourself by checking out the clip at the bottom.
More confusing was Simon and Randy’s reaction to contestant Kimberly singing Ingrid Michaelson’s “The Way I Am.” In spite of a demure voice they unanimously approved of, they didn’t let her sing past the line, “I’d buy you Rogaine when you start losing all your hair.” Randy interrupted her as if he’d never heard the top 40 hit, seeming to think the lyrics were in reference to Simon’s hairline. For his part, Cowell expressed reticence over how “lippy” she was, presumably because she chose such an edgy tune. Lesson learned: No balding jokes if you intend to try out on The X Factor. (Adding to the follicular dissonance was the fact that Simon and the women agreed that Kimberly was wearing a wig, a conclusion that didn't seem off base.)
The comedic highlight was the senselessly cocky Austin from D.C., who described himself in a way that lacked both modesty and coherence: “I’m a singer, composer, and I’m a football player?!” After ending that statement as a question, he made a face as if to imply, “Wait, can that be right? Can one person possibly be that cool? Let me check the math ” Aside from being irritating in word, he was also obnoxious in song: His voice creaked through high notes and his tuneless vocal runs made me question Glee’s assertion that sports prowess and singing talent can equally bless the same individual. He was roundly decried as arrogant — which for Kara is one of the Seven Deadly Sins — and was sent packing, left to reevaluate a world that is not just waiting for him to take his rightful place as center.
• The Über-cocky Kenny, a college student who believes his street singing/moaning counts as a “public service.” Kenny left us with this brainteaser: “How can four people tell you that you can’t sing and you know you’re a good singer?” Indeed.
• Danelle, a woman crushed by endless nights running a karaoke machine, began crying at the prospect of a Golden Ticket before she even started to perform. Her take on Melissa Etheridge’s “I’m the Only One” displayed real girl-growl power, though her timing was a bit off. Simon showed off his amateur psychology know-how by opining that she seemed nearly “broken” and this show could save her “from corporate hell.” And he’s supposed to be the realist?
• Casey was a motorcycle-crash survivor with a great voice and a dearth of personal style. Nevertheless, Mrs. Beckham commented he looked like a model, and after she and Kara goaded him into taking off his shirt, he was sent to Hollywood, proving that 30 years after Irene Cara was prodded to weepily strip in Fame, men have finally gained equal objectification rights.
• Nicci Nix flew in from Venice simply to audition. Aside from having a name more suited to the adult-film industry, Nicci Nix also had a markedly mousy voice; it was so overtly comical that even Simon shied away from mocking it, assuring the sweet, talented Nicci that he was “just teasing” after making a crack about helium.
• Last season gave us Bikini Girl, and this year a boy named Ty made a valiant effort to make Bikini Man happen. Which was so boring it’s not even worth the yawn.
Relief comes with the knowledge that there’s only one audition show left and then it’s off to Hollywood, where Ellen DeGeneres joins the show, and Casey's shirtless charms will have 50 percent less efficacy.
HitFix's Daniel Fienberg wasn't pleased to see the spice-less Victoria Beckham back: "She was not a good guest judge the first time around. Is there any hope she'll be more substantive this time around?"
Entertainment Weekly's Michael Slezak loved seeing the football-snapping Austin taken down a notch: "Why don't Idol's producers allow us more opportunities to see this type of failed audition — from a guy who's neither crazy talented, nor completely awful?"
Len Melisurgo from the New Jersey Star Ledger felt "There were no contestants who gave you the sense that there's another Kelly Clarkson or Chris Daughtry or Fantasia stepping out of the audition room."