Tonight’s one-hour installment of American Idol felt a little like the Very Special Oprah episode that culminated with the talk-show titan pointing to members of her audience and gleefully declaring “You get a car! And you get a car! And you get a car!” Except, instead of passing out Pontiac G6 sedans, Idol was distributing Golden Tickets to seemingly everyone who showed up for the Austin, TX, auditions. And, of course, instead of Oprah’s “vehicles for everyone” mantra, we got Steven Tyler dropping a truckload of f-bombs at the end of Day One.
British girl sing-crying her way through “The Climb”? You’re goin’ to Hollywood! Chick imitating a chicken? You’re goin’ to Hollywood! Random dude inventing a totally new “melody” to “A House Is Not a Home”? You’re goin’ to Hollywood! The way things went tonight, I half-expected the seven-foot armadillo in a cowboy hat to walk out with a Golden Ticket, too.
The perplexing thing is, Ryan Seacrest’s end-of-episode tally revealed that 50 Austin wannabes advanced to the next round of the competition. Which raises the question: Did the 11 successful auditions we witnessed tonight represent the absolute best that Austin had to offer? I find that about as believable as a business card emblazoned with “Paula Abdul, Ph.D.” So how come Nigel Lythgoe & Co. are holding out on us? Where are the voices so devastatingly good that we’ll still be talking about them five seasons from now?
And while we’re asking tough questions, here’s a few more: How come every single contestant with a heartwarming/tearjerking backstory winds up getting the judges’ stamp of approval? Wouldn’t it be fascinating if J.Lo looked deep into the eyes of “Kid Who Overcame Obstacles No. 7,492” and said, “Your life story is intensely moving, but your voice isn’t strong enough to win this competition”? Also, why does the final audition of every episode give off a whiff of “we’ve saved Nigel Lythgoe’s favored contestant for last”? (Newsflash: Ten seasons in, most Idol fans can handle the occasional hour that doesn’t conclude with a fairytale ending arriving like a wrecking ball to the side of a building.) And are we really destined to make it through the season 10 audition rounds without the judges ending up with a single 2-to-1 vote stacked in favor of withholding a Golden Ticket? I know Idol doesn’t do subtlety, but I have to believe there’d be true drama in seeing J.Lo or Steven or Randy muster up the courage to place a vote against someone who’s talented, but just not talented enough. In my mind, that kind of tough-love interaction wouldn’t spoil the feel-good vibe of Idol‘s tenth season, it would merely highlight the fact that the show is seeking greatness, not mere goodness, and that it has a panel of judges astute enough to know the difference.
Okay, okay, I’ll quit my ranting. It’s not like Austin didn’t introduce us to a few singers who at the very least possess the building blocks required to become compelling Idol semifinalists. Let’s break ’em on down from “outside chance at cracking the season 10 top 10” to “probably ending up in the ‘Holding Room of Sadness’ on Day Two of Hollywood Week”:
* Best of the bunch was Casey Abrams (pictured, right), a shaggy individual who apparently gets mistaken for Seth Rogen (not to mention a creature from Fraggle Rock). What I enjoyed most about Casey’s spin on “I Don’t Need No Doctor” was the way he delivered it with total abandon, the way he treated the song as a living, breathing organism rather than a sterile sheet of paper containing words and notes. (A few years back, when Fantasia Barrino instructed a fresh crop of Idols to “get ugly” with their singing, this is what she meant.) Casey threw in a bit of scat, then went from a lovely falsetto into a primal howl that had J.Lo lifting a hand to testify. Still, am I the only one who was a little thrown by that highlight reel of Casey goofing off in the audition line? Because what can play like devil-may-care 19-year-old in an audition room can easily read as “Taylor Hicks, Wedding Singer” on the big stage.
* True cowboy John Wayne Schulz suffered from pretty much the opposite problem of Casey: There’s no denying the guy exudes the kind of charm that could lasso unsuspecting viewers into speed-dialing fits, but there was something a tiny bit clenched in the way he performed Brooks & Dunn’s “Believe.” Then again, maybe John Wayne just got a little reserved in the presence of a dad who always wanted a “rough, tough son” and who seemed panic-stricken in the presence of TV cameras. (Important side note: By virtue of her giant “look at this photo of my son in football uniform” pin, Mrs. Schulz is now the runaway early leader in the season 10 MVP parents’ sweepstakes.)
* Community college choir sweethearts Nick Fink and Jacqueline Dunford played up the cheese factor to Code: Orange (Cheddar) levels during their intro package, but I think the presence of real live deer in the background was an indicator that the adorable duo was in on the joke. We didn’t hear much of Nick’s “Sunday Morning,” but the televised snippet revealed a tone that was more buttery than a Barefoot Contessa sauce. (Nick gets bonus points for his delighted reactions to Jacqueline’s tryout, and for shedding particularly dreamy tears when the judges gave him his share of praise.) To my ears, Jacqueline strained just a little too hard attempting the full-diva treatment on Duffy’s “Mercy,” resulting in a handful of notes that were wonkier than the braid-bang that covered her forehead.
* I’m not sure what kind of stereotype factory Janelle Arthur has been frequenting, but girlfriend made it sound like the average U.S. citizen thinks that “country folk” resemble Mrs. Peacock from that classic X-Files episode “Home.” Fret not, Janelle, we city folk mean you no harm! In fact, a lot of us originally come from towns that look just like yours! Anyhow, Janelle’s choice of Duffy’s “Syrup and Honey” (coincidentally the audition song of season 9’s eliminated-too-early Katelyn Epperly) was as sweet as the breakfast toppings about which she sang. There’s something to be said for a vocalist whose style is akin to the “gentle” cycle of one’s washing machine. How the 20-year-old Tennessee native’s delicate delivery will hold up against Idol‘s Bandzilla, however, is another story altogether.
* Corey Levoy (pictured, left) had me at “I have a J.Lo booty.” And while the ‘”my sister and I were reunited in our teens” backstory seemed a little too much, too intimate, too random, too soon — Corey is 21, now, after all — he certainly delivered a pretty, if not completely memorable, rendition of “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Is he the worthiest season 10 Golden Ticket-holder? Heck, no. But the “omigod Corey’s doing so well!” grin between Steven Tyler and Corey’s sister was pure reality TV nirvana, as was Steven’s observation that no one will be teasing Corey anymore about his high-pitched speaking voice. Can I get an amen? (“Ayyy-men!”)
* Most of the time, I get a little bummed when Idol crams two or three Golden Ticket auditions into a one-minute segment of the telecast. In the case of Shauntel Campos, Alex Carr, and Caleb Johnson, however, my first impression is that less (of their singing) is most decidedly more (than I want to hear). Shauntel’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” was pretty, albeit indistinctive. Alex’s gale-force “A House Is Not a Home” was catastrophically wrong-minded. And on “Rusty Cage,” Caleb sounded a little like he was trying out for a med-school reenactment of a patient passing a gall stone.
* It was hard to tell where the parody ended and the real audition began when Courtney Penry (pictured, center) took the stage. I thought her unabased crush on Ryan Seacrest was just a grasp at audience laughs, but she seemed to be shedding human-type tears of joy when she actually had her Close Encounter With the Host Kind later in the episode. Then, of course, there’s the fact that the brunette spitfire book-ended her audition to Sugarland’s “Stay” with her absolutely deranged impersonation of a chicken. If Courtney inexplicably manages to take home the season 10 crown, I think the “Idol winners screen” should absolutely contain a shot of her funky fowl moves.
And with that, I leave you to discuss the night’s final Golden Ticket holder, Hollie Cavanagh, a 17-year-old from Liverpool who could’ve used a little more tough love and a lot more experience before she was ready to advance to Idol hell week. I’d expound on that thought, but the hour is late, so I’ll leave it to you readers to take over the reins and let me know your opinions down in the comments.
What did you think of Austin? Who was your favorite? Which contestants did you think should have been held back from Hollywood? Sound off below! And if you have some strong thoughts or opinions on anything you saw tonight on Idol — pertaining to judges, contestants, trends or conspiracy theories — and you’d like to share them on the next episode of TVLine’s new Idol-related Web series, Idoloonies, email a paragraph or two to firstname.lastname@example.org (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 (to tape on Friday afternoons). 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!