You guys! The audition episodes are already over! With Omaha safely behind us, the slow, soggy, undignified business of plucking the best singers from America’s second-tier cities is complete, in six breezy episodes. Nobody got humiliated, nobody got positively reinforced for showing up in a costume, nobody got outed or hospitalized or thrown down a shame spiral. We rescued the prisoners from a lifetime of anonymity, and there were no casualties. President Obama should invite the new Idol production team to the next State of the Union Address.
Before we dive in, I’m going to take a moment and discuss our judges, who I would argue are the best in the show’s history. Keith Urban is still a little quiet, and there are moments when I’d swear he’s still thawing out from last year’s judges' table ice storm. But he’s settling in and finding his voice, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of him. When you free him from the responsibility of preventing a live, televised dual diva-cide, he’s actually got a lot to offer. Jennifer Lopez is the veteran of the gang, and she clearly got the message that her job is to bring the sweetness. This she does with great relish; she’s broken the tie and sent some of the more interesting singers to Hollywood, but so far I don’t really have a sense for what she doesn’t like. Randy Jackson isn’t bellowing over you anymore, J.Lo — don’t miss your chance to tell us what you really think.
And then there’s Harry Connick Jr. Oh, thank God for Harry Connick Jr. He’s handsome, he’s witty, and he is determined to cure the country of the oversinging epidemic. He is paying attention, keeping the focus on the kids, letting a few smart one-liners out when the moment needs one, and generally leading the band like the maestro he is. Fox execs, send this dude a muffin basket today.
And now, on to the last bunch of hopefuls. Quaid Edwards is the son of a country singer named Jolie, whose band Jolie and the Wanted toured with Keith Urban around the turn of the millennium. Quaid is almost criminally good-looking, and I am distracted to the point that I don’t audibly groan when he announces he’ll be singing “A Change Is Gonna Come.” (There is no official law on the books against pretty white boys singing that song, but it’s not for lack of lobbying on my part.) He does a pretty good job, but he’s long on the runs that are the hallmark of Old Idol, and he’s at his weakest when he’s at his trickiest. Harry calls him right out on it: “When you do your first run, people will say you’re a good singer. But if you want to be a great singer, if you want to change the game, you’re headed in the wrong direction.” I stand and cheer. They send him through, Jolie comes in, Keith pretends he hasn’t been briefed on this whole thing by a producer, and everyone goes home happy.
A country boy named Simon Hauck comes out and does some kind of auctioneer country song very badly. Simon would have roasted this guy on a spit for twenty minutes, but these three just give him a polite “no” and send him packing. Going once, going … nope, just going.
Of course, sometimes this panel can err on the side of being too nice. Madisen Walker is 15, and her version of Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” is pleasant, but nothing more. It’s a little sharp in the higher notes, a little forgettable in the rest. I am put in the position of liking her as I actively root against her progress; she’s good, but not good enough to go far. Another year or two (and make no mistake: even with the diminished ratings, the profit margin on a show like this is wide enough to keep it on the air for at least a few more seasons) and she’d be a contender. Harry agonizes over his decision, getting a great marketing soundbite out in the process: “Idol is the only competition show on television that produces megastars.” Jen and Keith’s votes send her through to Hollywood, where I fear she’ll be a Group Night Casualty. (To his credit, he says his vote would have been no: “I feel like the heartbreak ahead for her will outweigh that feeling of joy she just had.” If nothing else, I’m glad we’re airing these kinds of thoughts.)
Oh, here’s a moment that would have been unbearable in any other season: Alyssa Siebken does a cutesy acoustic version of Waka Flocka Flame’s “No Hands” like she’s the first person to think of doing such a thing. Jennifer — Jennifer! of all people! — says, “We’ve seen this kind of thing before.” And we have! In the exact same way, with the cutie-pie eye-rolls and everything! But can you imagine Randy Jackson pointing that out? Randy would be all: “What!? We got a crazy one right here! Ha haaaaa!” and the moment would have overstayed its welcome by about 45 minutes. Yes, Alyssa’s still going to Hollywood and Ryan still indulges her wish for a “victory selfie,” because this is still Idol, but the whole thing is much less excruciating than it could have been.
Tyler Gurwicz is an interesting case, and while I don’t know whether I like him, I’m glad they spend as much time on him as they do. He comes in with “Set Fire to the Rain,” and there’s probably a good voice in there somewhere, but it’s buried under shouts and runs, and the song choice is completely wrong. Harry tells him “American Idol will make you do all different kinds of songs, and I can’t see you doing anything other than what you’ve just done.” Jennifer says yes, Keith says no, and then Harry says no, which should be the end of the conversation. But Tyler says, “You should give me another chance, because I’ve been singing for ten years,” and it works. Harry says, “Okay, sing something else. Anything.” And the poor kid can’t think of anything. Which I understand, honestly. Can you imagine being put on the spot like that? Like, name your favorite song — right now. You can’t, right? You, like Tyler, get a thing I call Infinite Option Paralysis. Jennifer says, “Your life depends on this. Do something right now.” And after three eternities and a commercial break, he pulls out a decent version of Jeff Buckley’s “Grace.” It’s worth the wait for the song choice alone. Harry relents and sends him through to Hollywood, then as soon as he’s out of the room, calls Tyler his first slip in judgment. This was probably not a fun episode for Tyler Gurwicz to watch.
Let’s get a new Tyler in here, can we? A palate-cleansing Tyler? Tyler Marshall is a happy guy who knows every move from the “Single Ladies” video. His version of “Proud Mary” strikes me as over-rehearsed, but the judges love him. They don’t even vote. Just: Here’s your ticket.
C.J. Jones is the kind of very effeminate pop star our culture needs desperately. He hits his mark, the judges ask what he’ll be singing, and he replies “Stand by Me.” Harry counters, “I would, but I actually have to sit here at the table.” C.J. fires back “No, get over here” without a moment of hesitation! I like the cut of your jib, Mr. Jones. (And his voice is good, too. Hollywood!)
J.Lo says, “You are the cutest!” to DeJeontae Lenier, who trips the hell out over it. “Oh my God, you can’t say that to me when I’m about to do this.” But she refuses to take it back. Dylan Baker is a shoe valet from St. Louis, and I didn’t know we had those in my hometown (and I also don’t know what they are). Both of them get golden tickets.
And then comes the part where I cry. Paula Hunt is a singer for the U.S. Air Force Heartland America band, so you already get the sense that she’ll be decent. She sings Etta James’s “All I Can Do Is Cry,” and you guys? You guys. It’s one of the best performances I’ve ever heard on this show. It’s so real, so honest, so full of ache. I am in love with her. And then when she finishes singing, she tells her story: Her first and best vocal coach was her mother, who was a great singer until she got MS, which robbed her of her voice almost immediately. A sob story is totally unnecessary at this point, but it only makes me like her more. Harry calls her “tasteful,” and if it’s not the first time that’s ever been said on Idol, it’s certainly the first time it’s been used as a compliment. Oh, I love Paula Hunt. Oh, I love this season. Paula makes it through and runs out to her family, who rightfully freak the fuck out, and then her poor, infirm mother says, with much effort: “I can't sing anymore; my children sing for me.” Actual tears come out of my actual eyes. Damn you, American Idol.
Andrina Brogden is an 18-year-old North Dakotan with a rich tone. She does Beyoncé’s “Halo” and is just a little reserved. J.Lo says she’s singing with fear, shying away from the big moments. I think she’s avoiding the quiet lower moments myself, but she’s definitely holding something back. She gets a reserved yes and will have some time to conquer her fear. Incidentally, is there anything more terrifying than someone telling you to get over your fear? (Yes: singing on live television. Best of luck, Andrina Brogden!)
The Chamber is not soundproof, we know this. Christian Scholl can hear Andrina’s celebratory hooting while he waits his turn. Turns out young Christian is a square dance caller, and we spend a moment learning our allemandes from our do-si-dos (which only serves to remind me that it’s Girl Scout Cookie season; Trefoils FTW). Finally, we get down to business, and Christian sings Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” very badly. It’s flat from the start, and he is given a polite, respectful “no.” When he leaves the audition room and shakes his head, his poor, sweet father waits a beat, because he actually thinks Christian’s doing the thing where he hides the golden ticket in his back pocket. Aw, man. That’s love.
We race through the last two auditions, because there’s actually more show than there is time — can you believe that? Casey McQuillen is an angel-faced 21-year-old who sings Demi Lovato’s “Skyscraper” and leaves the judges agog. “She’s gonna be a fun one to watch,” says Harry, and he’s right. Tessa Kate is a 25-year-old Branson entertainer who looks like a young Nora Dunn, and she brings a smiley, Kasey Musgraves–y energy to “Folsom County Blues,” a song that was doing just fine without it. But off to Hollywood she goes.
In all, 212 contestants have made it through and are heading to Hollywood, where a shocking twist awaits them. (I think it’s that they’ll be treated kindly.) It would be irresponsible to speculate as to who’ll be making the top twelve, so let’s. I’ve got: Keith London, C.J. Harris, Kenzie Hall, Paisley van Patten, Tessa Norman, Paula Hunt, Marrialle Sellars, Majesty York, Sam Burchfield, Ryan Nisbett, Sam Woolf, Jordan Brisbane, and Ben Briley. I know that’s thirteen, but there are a lot of good people this year and I don’t know what I’m talking about.
See you in Hollywood!