American Idol Recap: The Big Easy Does It

I’ve never been a huge fan of Sob-Story Idol, that maudlin little show-within-a-show that rudely injects itself into the early weeks of American Idol. For starters, it takes up valuable time during which I could be forming unreasonable attachments to unknown, unheralded vocalists based on 30 seconds of a cappella singing. It’s not that I don’t feel for folks who’ve overcome hardscrabble backgrounds or unspeakable tragedies — or that I’m trying to thwart Ryan Seacrest from using his somber Ann Curry Delivering Tragic News Voice ™ — I just don’t think said hurdles make these kids any more qualified for/worthy of becoming singing superstars. Or, putting it in the poetic form of a Paula Abdul lyric: “I’m just here for the music.

On the flip side, though, I understand Nigel Lythgoe & Co. aren’t merely in the business of discovering the next big Billboard chart-buster. They’ve got a TV show to produce, they need to take us on an emotional journey (ugh…I just said “journey”), they know that in order to appreciate the thrill of victory, we must occasionally contemplate the agony of defeat. And you know what? Every once in a while I have to sedate my inner cynic with a couple Big Carls worth of Trade Joe’s Sauv Blanc and buy a ticket for the Great Idol Manipulation Tour.

There are worse rides to take, after all. Just ask Jennifer Lopez, who tonight conjured up some of the dewiest tears ever captured by a reality TV camera — she is, after all, a movie star — during Paris Tassin’s gut-busting rendition of Carrie Underwood’s “Temporary Home.” Paris (pictured, lower left), who could easily be mistaken for a young Courteney Cox, entered the audition room after sharing with the Idol cameras an emotional tale of how, at the age of 18, she decided to go against her doctor’s advice and not terminate a complicated and risky pregnancy, then eventually became a mother to an adorable daughter who is plagued by hearing problems. “When you sang it, I felt it,” J.Lo declared at the end of Paris’ performance, and I nodded my head in agreement, ignoring the fact that toward the final third of the audition, the brunette beauty’s vocals skidded like a Mini Cooper hitting a patch of black ice. (Weirdly, the contestant herself seemed to be the only person in the room aware of the pitch problems, apologizing to the judges after her final note.) Yet Paris had something even more important than technical proficiency on her side: She was able to not only emotionally connect with the song, but to use that connection, those deep reserves of feeling, to help her audience connect to the material, too. And therein lies the difference between someone who’s actually telling a story, and a person who’s just reading words on a page.

Still, I’m left wondering the following: If J.Lo hadn’t known that Paris was the mother of a special-needs child, if she didn’t (as I suspect) have a dossier in front of her explaining the girl’s toughest moments, would the performance still have moved her to tears?

One could ask similar types of questions about Brett Loewenstern’s audition package. Granted, the redheaded teenager (pictured, upper left) immediately won me over with his opening food metaphor, explaining that by third grade, he realized he was “a red apple in a pile of green apples,” and that he’d been pretty much picked on by bullies ever since. And oh how his sweet, supportive parents made my heart swell. But a few weeks from now, I suspect what I’ll remember most about Brett is his stellar, subdued take on “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a song that typically brings out the histrionics among Idol auditioners. (Yep, sometimes it does pay to be a green apple.)

By comparison, bespectacled blonde Sarah Sellers (pictured, upper right) got a far less dramatic edit during tonight’s show, save for a peculiar bit of flirtation spurred by Steven Tyler that ended as soon as Randy seemed to suggest that the Aerosmith frontman could be Sarah’s biological father. (!) “You had me sold from the second you laid eyes on me,” Steven cooed, after the upbeat marketing analyst launched into a cover of “Make You Feel My Love” that currently ranks as my favorite audition of the entire season. I loved the varying textures of Sarah’s instrument, the way she took her time with every word of the Bob Dylan ditty, the way her voice transitioned from the prettiest whisper to the meatiest growl. I know at 28, most record labels would consider Sarah too “old” to gamble on, but lest they forget, girlfriend is still young enough to be Susan Boyle’s daughter. Can we send her straight to the semifinals — whatever that round is going to resemble in season 10?

Lucky for us viewers, Sarah, Paris, and Brett weren’t the only talented folks on hand in New Orleans. Let’s see of we can dish each of ’em Twitter-style, in 140 characters or less.

* Jordan Dorsey (pictured, bottom right) | Idol‘s usually so unkind to vocal coaches, but not dishy Jordan, who made “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” sway, then swing.

* Jacquelyn Dupree | Her grandpa coached Randy in high school, but she tackled “I’ll Stand By You” with a little too much force. Penalty flag down!

* Jovany Barreto | This is not America’s Next Top Stripper, it’s American Idol! Not that you’re going to take home the crown in either competition, dude.

And last, but certainly not least…

* Jacee Badeaux | You’re 15; Ryan said U looked 12. Ouch. Still, Aerosmith guy declared your “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” was “art.” Fair enough tradeoff?

What did you think of tonight’s Golden Ticket recipients? Seeing how Ryan said 37 folks from New Orleans are headed to Hollywood, do you wish the producers had shown just a few more than seven? And how about Steven Tyler’s quote of the night: “From my melodic sensibility, it was very delicious.”? Amazing, no? Sound off about these topics and more down in the comments.

What’s more, if you have some strong thoughts or opinions on anything you saw this week on Idol — pertaining to judges, contestants, trends or conspiracy theories — and you’d like to share them on the premiere episode of TVLine’s new Idol-related Web series, Idoloonies, email a paragraph or two to idoloonies@tvline.com (and be sure to include a contact phone number). We’ll be selecting a handful of readers each week to join me in cohosting the Webcast via Skype or video chat on Fridays at or around 3/2 c. We’ll also be choosing a Twitter Question of the Week, so don’t hesitate to fire your best shots to me @MichaelSlezakTV. Be sure to tag it #Idoloonies!