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American Idol Recap: Hangar Stakes

Wow, you guys. Tonight’s episode covered so much ground, so speedily and effectively. I rejoiced, I felt loss, I got my Irish up, and I have a whole big theory about one of my favorite contestants. Idol, you have taught me how to love again.

Amazingly, in only our seventh episode of the season, we are in Hollywood. And lest you think this show will let up for a moment and waste our whole night the way it used to, we go right into tonight’s Shocking Twist: The contestants are whisked from LAX right to what Ryan Seacrest wonderfully calls “this incredible hangar,” where there are cameras, rudimentary makeup stations, and, at the center of it all, one solitary microphone. The 212 hopefuls perch on the equipment cases that are doubling as their seats, and as the judges’ table is wheeled in, the truth hits them: Right now, before they even make it to the hotel to freshen up, some of them are going to have to sing for their lives.

This is a good thing. As zippy as the audition episodes were, the judges gave away far too many Golden Tickets. And every on-the-bubble audition shook out the same way: Keith would give a tentative "yes," Harry would politely pass, and then Jennifer, ever mindful of her sweetheart image, would wave them through to almost certain failure. Now 52 performers who received less-than-enthusiastic yeses will have to hit the ground singing, and those who don’t bring it are headed right back where they came from. It’s like putting down a sick puppy. It’s the humane thing to do.

The only less-than-satisfying element of this Shocking Twist is that it starts Hollywood Week with Idol’s shakiest singers. Right now is a good time to show people that Idol is gaining momentum, so kicking this episode off with all the weak links seems like a bad idea. But whatever. Let’s do this. 

Johnny Newcomb gets us started with a song about a mass shooting in a school. His “Pumped Up Kicks” is fine, but nothing special, and Harry wonders how much more of him he’s going to want to see.

Overall, some of the people who were told they needed to step it up really step it up: Oil-field worker Eric Wood straight-up kills it, as does Neco Starr with Bruno Mars’s “Gorillas,” and cartoon hippie Connor Zwetsch with Passenger’s “Let Her Go.”

And others do not: Caitlin Johnson, whom Harry said wasn’t ready, sho nuff isn’t ready. Morgan Deplitch, whom Harry told that she should sing something a 16-year-old should sing, does just that, but does it like a shaky 50-year-old woman. Tristan Langley, son of Nikki McKibbin, does okay, but it’s just too soon for him. Khristian D’Avis, who sometimes has an accent, mostly doesn’t have a good singing voice. And then Rich LaFleur, whom I’ve never seen before, totally biffs it in a way that breaks my heart. Poor guy just falls apart at the mic, and he knows it, and you kind of wonder whether he’ll combust in shame.

Then there’s sound healer Adam Roth, whom the judges weren’t sure was serious in his initial audition. And now he’s here in Hollywood, and … they still don’t know. He sings “Radioactive” in a passionate voice, but his piano playing is so utterly strange that this whole thing might be some elaborate joke that’s gone on way too long.

So then they do something so deliciously nasty that it hurts my face: The 52 are divided into two groups and put onto two different buses; one will go to the hotel, where the passengers can start their Hollywood Week, the other will go right back to LAX where everyone on it will catch a flight home. It’s like watching a snuff film. (Also, what if you’re from Los Angeles? Do you have to call a friend to pick you up from the airport?) Old Idol would milk this moment for a whole episode, but we’re through it in a good three minutes: Connor and Eric are sent to group two, which obviously means that’s the safe group. And everyone on Rich LaFleur’s bus knows what time it is the minute they see his face. It’s very mean, but it’s getting us where we need to go much more quickly.

And with that, Hollywood Week really begins: the traditional groups of ten hit the stage to sing their snippets. One drawback of only having met good singers in the audition episodes is that there are still so many familiar faces; I have somewhere around 35 favorites, and I couldn’t begin to remember all their names.

But it’s not like you’re going to forget the name Majesty York. She hits her mark, says she wants to be American Idol because she wants “to represent everything that is great and good in this world,” and then she sings Feist’s “1234” and totally represents everything that is great and good in this world. I love her, and I love that she doesn’t have to endure Randy Jackson bellowing about how WE GOT A HOT ONE RIGHT HERE. Her group includes sweet, fanny-packed Samantha Calmes, Brandi Neelly from last year, and that guy John Fox who looks like a cross between both Proclaimers and Jonah Ray from the Bing commercials. They all sing their hearts out, but in the end, it is only poor Samantha who is sent home. Goodbye, sister; this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you. 

Spencer Lloyd is a worship leader. Do they do church services inside Hollister stores now? He does that “Say Something” song by A Whole New World or A Great Big Planet or A Wrinkle in Time or whatever that band is called, and while the song has never done much for me, it’s the perfect thing for him. It’s just dramatic enough, it allows him to belt a little, and it may already be a hymn. He’s through. I guess there were other people in his group of ten, but they sure don’t show them.

Austin Wolfe sings Adele’s “Take It All.” Bria Anai sings … something, but it’s overshadowed by her glittery lipstick and her showtune-y affect. And then there’s Selena Moreno, the woman who looks like Katie from Wet Hot American Summer and who auditioned with her less-talented twin sister. Turns out Selena might not be all that, either; her voice cracks, she immediately goes off track, and she spirals out of control in a way that can only be called Rich LaFleur-esque. This is legit heartbreaking, and there’s a moment when I think it might work to her advantage; in eleven seasons, nobody has ever really choked on a live show, and you know people are dying to see it happen. But it won’t be with her; Bria and Austin get through, and now Selena’s sister must be the one doing the comforting.

(Also going home: Lauren Ogburn, the lady with the U.S. flag bandanna. Too bad. I think I liked her, but again, they haven’t given us much to dislike.) 

Sam Wolff does a triumphant version of “Waiting for the World to Change” that makes me wonder when someone’s going to read the lyrics and realize it’s a song about apathy. CJ Harris, who is a definite pick for the top ten, sings Ray LaMontagne’s “Trouble.” It’s so pitch-perfect, so soulful and filled with heartache, that you know he’s safe. So that’s why what they do to the rest of his group is cruel. They ask CJ to step forward, and then ask a few more to step forward, and you can see those people realize they’re going through, and then they tell CJ to step back and then tell the back row that they’re going through. It’s straight-up evil, and boy, is it fun to watch.

The rest of it comes fast and furious: Alex Preston with the nasal voice and the weird song arrangements does a weird arrangement of Will.i.am’s “Scream and Shout,” and it’s very nasal, and we’ve seen this kind of thing so much before. (I blame The Gourds’ bluegrass version of “Gin and Juice” for starting this epidemic, and I will remind you they recorded it in the nineties.) Bryan Watt, the guy Harry called “Superman” a couple of weeks ago, does a boring country song. Alex is through! Bryan is not. 

Kenzie Hall sings a cutesy, acoustic version of “Can’t Hold Us” (sigh), and just as I’m rolling my eyes, she gets to the verses, and I’ll be damned if this girl can’t spit some rhymes! I respect it! (But, again, this shtick was tired fifteen years ago.) Quaid Edwards wants to sing well for his mom — you know, the country lady who opened for Keith a million years ago — and he’s still handsome, but the vocals are lackluster. Kenzie: IN! Quaid: OUT.

And then there’s a montage of the five million beardy, flannely guys they let through: Ben Briley, Briston Maroney, Dexter Roberts, Jesse Cline. All through! And the young dads: Maurice Townsend, Casey Thrasher. Both safe! A couple of people from seasons gone by: Caleb Johnson, Briana Oakley. In again! And then a bunch of unclassifiables: peppy teen Stephanie Hanvey, great big sasspants Tiquila Wilson, powerhouses Malcolm Allen and George Lovett, hottest guy of the season Ethan Thompson, gay boy escaping his mother Austin Percario, nerdy tuba player Malaya Watson, and Munfarid Zaidi, the guy Harry Connick picked up and cradled like a child: all surviving for another day. No sign of my beloved Paula Hunt.

Okay, so then Keith London, who was my favorite from the very first episode, does Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy,” and the judges are not feeling it. Jennifer points out the gender thing to Harry, who says, “Yeah, I heard. That don’t impress me.” Jennifer says “I think it’s bizarre,” Harry says, “He’s trying to be cute,” and they pretty much talk over his whole audition. Harry stops Keith and tells him they were so distracted by they song choice that they missed what he was doing, and demands he sing another song. Keith seems legitimately taken aback and says, “I had a good reason for doing that song.” Keith Urban asks what the reason was, and he replies, “It’s just a general message not to judge, because you don’t know where people started from.” He handles the whole thing with poise, which is more than I can say for Harry and J.Lo, and then as a backup, he sings “Same Love.” (Beautifully.)

So here’s my irresponsible speculation: Is Keith London transgender? And do the judges know it? (If he is, the producers would almost certainly know; all of the forms and background checks that are required to get to this point would have turned this information up if Keith didn’t reveal it himself, which he seems like he would have.) Harry and Jen’s reactions don’t mesh with their personalities. And why would they let Kenzie and Alex slide but stop the whole show over pronouns? What I think they’re doing here is building buzz, putting a red flag on this guy for the future, where I think a Shocking Announcement lies. Wherever Keith is on the gender or sexual-orientation continuum, he is charismatic and ferociously talented, I’m relieved he goes through, and I hope he makes it to the live shows. (He’s definitely sending a message with his song choices here, and I suppose it could be that he’s an out gay person- — which, incredibly, would still be a first — but there’s something about that “you don’t know where people started from” that signals something deeper.)

And that’s it for round one of Hollywood Week. Can you believe this? It’s episode seven and we’re already at Group Night! I’m so excited, I will overlook my disappointment that they’re still doing Group Night. It seems to me like a pointless exercise, where people are penalized for fucking up things they’ll never use in the competition again: harmony, choreography, teamwork. Still, at least we’ll be out of it quickly.

Dexter Roberts, Casey Thrasher, and Ben Briley join forces and create my all-time favorite group. Pink-streaked Jessica Meuse goes with Clark King and Matthew Something (neither of us can remember his name), but with Clark battling laryngitis and Matthew unable to comprehend harmony, she panics. “I’ve played too many shows in smoky bars until 4 a.m., and I’m tired of it,” she says, forgetting momentarily that shitty gigs are a large part of the job she’s applying for. Clark wonders whether he should quit because he’s sick, which Jessica urges him to do because two’s not enough for a group and his departure will make it easier for her to leave Matthew. It’s Machiavellian, and it works. Matthew eases up into CJ and Caleb’s group, where I think he’ll be fine. Jessica finds a home in Sparkles, which is being ruled with an iron fist by Stephanie’s stage mother. Serves her right. (Also, I want Steph’s mom to say to Jessica: “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkles.” Please?)

We end with this season’s Group Who Can’t Learn Their Lyrics: Loud & Fierce have somehow reached Idol qualification age without knowing every word to the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back,” and it’s so tense even Malaya stops smiling for a few seconds. And as they take the stage and strike a pose, we’re out.

Tomorrow: Group Night! All of it, probably! This is great! Your favorite moments and your Keith London theories in the comments, please.

Photo: Michael Becker/FOX