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American Idol Recap: No Country for Bad Singers

AMERICAN IDOL XIII: San Francisco Auditions: L-R: Judges Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick, Jr. on AMERICAN IDOL XIII airing Thursday, Jan. 16 (8:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. CR: Michael Becker / FOX The American Idol judges derive joy from golden tickets.

Tonight’s episode begins with another one of those stark voice-over-less moments, in which another hopeful plies his trade for the judges, but this one carries a higher degree of difficulty; the stubbly, bespectacled young Austin auditioner starts to sing Bob Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love.” Oh boy. This is the moment of truth, folks.

Because here’s the deal: “To Make You Feel My Love” can move me like no other song in the American songbook. It can also bore me to tears. The key is in that second line: “when the whole world is on your case.” It’s so simple, so conversational, so direct that most fancy singers simply can’t put it across. A workman like John Hiatt can reduce me to tears with that line, and a technically proficient belter like Adele can leave me cold with it. It all comes down to personality and interpretation.

So does this season of Idol, when you get down to it. So I hit pause, and I take a moment, and I place a mental bet about this guy. But we’ll have to wait and see whether I win, because this is another one of these Christopher Nolan–style time jumps they’re springing on us this year. There is a new production team in Idoltown, and they have some tricks up their sleeve. (None of those tricks involve cutting these early audition episodes down to one hour, but I’m willing to take these improvements one step at a time.)

Flashing back to the beginning of day two of the Austin auditions, poor Jesse Roach has to wait in the Chamber forever, while the judges get their lips touched up and microphones attached. But it’s worth the wait; she sings KT Oslin’s “Do Ya,” and gets unanimous yeses for her raspy voice, black matte guitar, and Texan cool-chick style. She’s like rock-and-roll nurse Amanda Overmyer from a few seasons back, but less terrifying.

There are some high emotional stakes this year, and the new regime is not afraid to punch us right in the dick. Jamiah Malik is 15, and he’s auditioning with his 17-year-old best pal and school “big sister” Quiandra Boston-Pearsall; each one is pulling for the other, and they’re setting us up for a season-long story arc … at least until the commercial break, when one gets a unanimous yes and one gets a unanimous no, and they won’t tell us who is who. I’m convinced it’s going to be guitar-strumming, cool-as-a-cuke Jamiah, but it isn’t, and at least he takes it well, but Quiandra is going to have to bring it in Hollywood week.

Megan Miller sings Carrie Underwood’s “Last Name,” and it’s a big nasal nightmare and she is wearing all of the world’s mascara — go to your bathroom and see if yours is there; no, right? she took it! — but she makes it to the next round unanimously. Grace Field is a professional piano player with a can-do attitude, and I see her as the Brooke White type we’ve needed for a few seasons now … but then she opens her mouth and shattered treble clefs come pouring out like in one of those Heathcliff cartoons. I don’t know what to believe anymore.

Heavily made-up makeup artist Austin Alvarez and oily oil worker Eric Wood are intercut against one another, as if only one can make it. So who will it be: the Little Monster with the pink spike epaulets, or the mumbling roughneck? In a surprise move, they both get golden tickets, and I want them to room together, and I want this to be a situation comedy. 

Nineteen-year-old Spencer Lloyd has caramel skin and green eyes, and he sings a Colton Dixon song, and the only surprise is that he doesn’t actually levitate. He has what it takes to sail past the first round, and though he’ll have to work to get past Group Night, I’d say he’s one to watch. These dreamy young worship leaders hold sway over wide swaths of Idol’s young viewing audience.

Marlon Lindsay spent eight years in the Army and has been wanting to audition for Idol the whole time. To me, he’s a totally pedestrian singer, but the judges’ firm pro-troops policy sends him straight through to Hollywood. Shirtless, suspendered and sunglassed Rick Rowling rick-rolls us all with Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” giving us tonight’s only true goofball moment, and Harry shames him appropriately: “Some people wait their whole lives for this opportunity, and you're disrespecting the process.” Tell it, Mr. Connick Jr. My only regret is that he doesn’t pretend to give him a yes, then pause and say: “J/K, Rowling.” Maybe next year.

T.K. Hash looks uncannily like President Obama and sings Fall Out Boy’s “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark,” and if I had written that sentence back in 2002 when American Idol premiered, none of those words would have made any sense. But it’s now now, so he makes it to Hollywood. I love our weird future.

It’s our past that gets problematic. Tristen Langley is 15 years old, and he’s been a fan of Idol since he was 3 and his mother was a contestant. But his mother wasn’t just any contestant; his mother is Nikki McKibbin, surprise third-place finisher and eventual Celebrity Rehab patient. I’d like to say that Nikki’s fortunes have changed since those days, but I’m not here to lie to you. She has sleeve tattoos now, her stare now goes a thousand and fifty yards, and she’s suddenly a bone-chilling stage mother. Tristen makes it through, though it’s a squeaker, and Harry tells him that his story is what sealed the deal. If he’s going to push through any further, he’s really going to have to work. Let’s hope there are some grandparents he can bunk with for a while.

And then we’re back to the guy from the cold open, who is yet another worship leader named John Fox. Turns out he can sell “To Make You Feel My Love,” and the judges are unanimous in sending him on. I’m getting more Christian by the moment this week.

That’s it for Austin! We are off to San Francisco, and I am relieved that the new management doesn’t go straight for the hippie and faggot jokes. Indeed, we go right into the auditions, where 17-year-old Rachel Rolleri wows us with Sugarland’s “Stay.” She grimaces at what she perceives as bum notes, but in truth there are none. Harry points out that this is a bad habit, and he’s absolutely correct, and she’ll have plenty of time to sort it out in Hollywood. Harry Connick Jr. is a cool, calm voice of reason, and I drink his words like cool water in an endless desert. He even fires some subtle shots at Randy Jackson, saying “pitchy is one of those words people say over and over without knowing what they mean,” and I basically swoon onto my fainting couch. Never leave me, Harry.

And then they take us through a quick montage of successful auditions: cool-coiffed Athena Williford, ski racer Remi Wolf, and funky lesbian MK Nobilette all get golden tickets. We’re on such a roll that I’m braced for a letdown, and when Emmanuel Zidor crawls through the door singing Beyoncé’s “Sweet Dreams,” I’m convinced this is it. But I’m wrong! He moves on to a totally serviceable “I Believe in You and Me,” and the judges give him the human dignity he hasn’t allowed himself.

Caitlin Johnson is 15 and she’s from a tiny town in Oregon, and though she has great big eyes and a sweet voice, she will be swallowed alive in Hollywood Week, but she manages to eke out a golden ticket. Ronald James Reed wants to end famine and war through his music, and there is a moment before he starts singing when you believe he could do it. But then he opens his mouth, and it’s like: Maybe famine and war aren’t such bad things. But at least he takes it horribly.

David Luning is a growly singer-songwriter like you rarely see on this show, and the reason you rarely see them on this show is what the hell do you do with a growly singer-songwriter on American Idol? He’s a little moody for the franchise, and I honestly don’t know what they’ll do with him, but he makes it through and he’ll probably win for all I know.

Ugh, and then there are twins who audition together. Sierra and Selena Moreno are both singers, and they want to go through this experience at the same time, and it is gross. One of them says, “Someone needs to call the ambulance, because we’re gonna kill it.” Actually, you’d want to call the coroner in that instance, but I guess that would be less fun to say. Anyway, Selena sings a Janis Joplin song, and then Sierra does Beyoncé, and Selena is immeasurably better. A lesser judging panel would send them both through, just to avoid an uncomfortable moment. But we have Harry this year. Harry understands sister dynamics because of his three teenage daughters, and he is not afraid to drive a wedge between twins. Selena gets a unanimous yes, Harry leads the choir of NOs to Sierra. And then they go out to give the news to their family, who make the weirdest noise.

A little fatigue does sink in right around now, I won’t lie to you. Four hours a week of Idol is too much. But we cross the finish line triumphantly with one of last year’s favorites, Briana Oakley, and hippy-dippy Adam Roth, whom a previous Idol regime would have clowned relentlessly, but who actually does relatively well. It’s a new day on Idol, but the day is still awfully long.

In all, 33 golden tickets are handed out tonight, and even though I could stand to have seen about half as many, it’s better than last year. We’re going to make it through this, people. I believe in you and me.

Photo: Michael Becker/FOX