American Idol Pittsburgh Audition Recap: Steel the One We Run To

Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? In its 11th season (or 77th in canine years), American Idol, that rheumy-eyed toy poodle with the stiff hind end, is suddenly jumping through hoops of fire, walking tightropes on its front paws, and daring to dye its coat in shocking new hues.

Indeed, the show’s first visit to Pittsburgh, PA, found Steven Tyler cutting short a dirty limerick, a guy with a deeply compelling backstory failing to get a Golden Ticket to Hollywood, and not a single cruel-joke/obvious-gimmick audition in the course of the one-hour telecast.

Good dog, Idol, good dog!

Let’s fast-forward past the shots of Randy and Steven jamming, and J.Lo showing up late after weighing the wisdom of going to work in a black leather sports bra and ironic pleated beige skort, and skip directly to the good parts.

The curtain rises on Heejun Han, 22, a cute Asian guy in a jaunty black cap who essentially calls Ryan Seacrest a handsome pinhead — without sounding the least bit cruel. After spending time in the Idol Holding Pen (TM) alongside his fellow competitors, Heejun’s confidence has plummeted like a Voice finalist’s album on the Hot 100. “I’m not that good,” he tells Ryan, and then wonders, in fact, if he’s any good at all. But it turns out Heejun’s anxiety is unfounded. The guy correctly identifies J.Lo as the supermodel of the judges’ panel, even though she’s disguised in one of Mrs. Roper’s housedresses, and then delivers a rendition of Michael Bolton “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” that shows off a rich, smoky tone, an appealingly languid delivery, and just the occasional hint of a Korean accent. “Surprising! I was shocked,” says Randy, who 11 seasons into the job, has developed a Pavlovian response where he starts laughing at the racist joke before any Asian guy with an accent (or, really, anyone with a non-western name) gets out a single note. Hopefully he can get his bewilderment in check before he crosses paths with Heejun in Hollywood.

Reed Grimm, 26, comes into the room wearing sandals, a tattered shirt with visible pitstains (side note: I don’t think I’ve typed that word before, and now I’m almost certain I’ll never type it again), and his “dressed-down for the occasion” plaid shorts. The guy is clearly gunning to be this season’s answer to Casey Abrams, except instead of breaking out the melodica, he plays an imaginary clarinet, and shows off his jazzy rasp on the Family Matters themesong. The judges start throwing aroud words like “genius,” but my inner cynic is going to need to see more evidence that Reed is viewing his Idol experience as a more than a hipster lark — and that he’s willing to go to the laundromat at least once a week.

Next up is a pair of “blink and you’ll miss ’em” Golden Tickets: Aaron Marcellus gives good “A Change Is Gonna Come” (and pauses to give the most amazing “I’ve got this” grin at the judges midway through the chorus), though why he changed his last name from Sanders (the moniker with which he absolutely slayed it during Season 10’s Vegas/Beatles round) is a mystery. And then it’s Chase Linkins, who doesn’t make much of an impression beyond “country.” (At least that’s what my notes tell me.)

Samantha Novacek will not be relegated to a 20-second highlight reel, because she’s brought her sister, Patty the Perturbed Planker, along for the ride. There’s something sweetly unpolished about Samantha’s flip flops and sunburnt chest and “Emily Blunt as a blonde” vibe that strikes me as very Season 1 — before every potential auditioner had a publicist, a YouTube channel, and/or a major-label flop available on iTunes. And Samantha’s voice, showcased on a heartfelt, unfussy version of Faith Hill’s “Like We Never Loved at All,” turns out to be startling beautiful. Here’s hoping that’s enough to score her screentime during Hollywood Week — even without the human accessory.

On the opposite end of the spectrum lies self-described “starving artist” Creighton Fraker, 28, who will never be described as unpolished, unfussy, or reminiscent of Season 1, and who probably already has business cards embossed with the following review from Steven Tyler: “The most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.” We’re “treated” to footage of Creighton Barrel busking in a New York City park wearing bunny ears and rhinestone glasses, but he goes with a more subdued look — gray shirt with torn-off sleeves — to meet the judges, and chooses to audition with a song he says he just so happened to compose on the road to Pittsburgh. The ditty is moderately clever, I suppose, but when he breaks into “Who’s Loving You,” Creighton’s delivery becomes so self-conscious, his face-pulling so monstrously intense, that I start imagining that if he makes the live rounds, he should always have the same voting number: 1-866-Precious-Much? They-ai-ai-ai-airrrrrr-uh iii-iii-iii-sssuh-uhn’t ay-yay-yay siii-ii-ngle-syllable woo-ooo–ooh-oor-err-duh in Creighton’s repertoire. “He will not leave well enough alone!” growls my husband, who is still scarred by Jacob Lusk’s song-murdering spree during the spring of 2011.

Next up is Eben Franckewitz, and even if you’re opposed to the idea of 15-year-olds competing alongside adults in your reality competition series, it’s hard not to be charmed when he tells Ryan “it’s a privilege” to audition for the judges. (Cut to moms all across the country: “He’s such a nice boy!) Eben reveals that people think he looks like Justin Bieber, and I suppose he does just as much as any other babyfaced kid with bangs, but his musical influences are clearly a little less rooted in 2012. The boy tackles Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” with a cherubic beauty that conjures up visions of sugarplums and choir robes and intricately painted catherdral ceilings. No, it’s not really the right vibe for a mature love song, and Eben probably should’ve just gone the predictable route and performed “Baby,” but that doesn’t mean J.Lo is wrong when she remarks that Eben may have been born to sing. I just wish he’d waited three or four years to take the Idol journey.

Of course, if Eben gets cut before the Top 24, he can always audition again, much like Travis Orlando, who was pretty terrific in Season 10 tackling “Eleanor Rigby” and “I’m Yours” at the New Jersey auditions before getting cut in Hollywood Week. This time around, Travis’ backstory has gone from bad (he’d lived for a time in a shelter in the Bronx) to worse (his mother walked out on their family, and he’s back in the shelter with his dad and brother), and even more alarmingly, he admits to the judges that he dropped out of high school. No one on the judges’ panel seems particularly bothered by Travis abandoning a rudimentary education to chase his singing dream, but they’re a little ambivalent about his rendition of “Isn’t She Lovely.” Travis’ singing seems to be coming from a place of desperation now — he wants to show his mother he’s “not a good-for-nothing low-life” — and it’s difficult to watch. I keep waiting for J.Lo or Randy to make Travis’ Golden Ticket contingent on him promising to keep taking classes and get his diploma, but Jenny from the Block offers a bizarre platitude instead: “Scared is good.” Yeah, that’ll really be comforting to Travis when he’s 42 and living in a cardboard box under the Throgs Neck Bridge. But anyway, woohoo! You’re going to Hollywood!

Erika Van Pelt has her own set of hardships to overcome, seeing how she’ll have to shake off the “mobile DJ and wedding singer” label that makes people think she’s going to come off like a character in an Adam Sandler movie. (How awful!) Erika’s rendition of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” is full of soul and longing, and her tone is impeccable, but she seems to have picked up some bad habits at her day job, throwing in a few too many runs and vocal tricks in an attempt to be heard above the din of clanging silverware.

Erika is followed by 19-year-old coal miner Shane Bruce, a sweetheart of a kid who gives us a tour of his workplace where he sings a lovely rendition of “In the Still of the Night” while surrounded by his awestruck, hard-hat-wearing coworkers. Shane’s visible nerves get the best of him when he gets in front of the judges, and to their credit, they don’t patronize him with a Golden Ticket. Not everyone is meant to be a singer, Steven offers, adding that just because Shane’s gift isn’t ready for primetime doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a place in the world. “You singing to them down there — maybe that’s your forté,” he says. J.Lo invites him to come back again in Season 12, but Shane, who chose coal-mining because it will give him a “stable life,” is nonetheless heartbroken over flubbing his big chance. “You’ve gotta chase the dream, but you get bruises, cuts, and scrapes along the way,” he says, his eyes filled with tears. “It slipped through my fingers.”

(Help! I’m bawling and I can’t get up!)

Oh whew, it’s time for the day’s final audition, and hopefully a happy ending, courtesy of 24-year-old Hallie Day, who dropped out of high school at 15 to be in a girl group called Plum Crazy, descended into financial ruin and an addiction problem, and attempted suicide before she met her husband and turned her life around. Her choice of “I Will Survive” makes sense lyrically more than it does musically, but Hallie’s luscious, brassy approach to the disco classic is fresh and unexpected, and after two days of auditions focused mostly on singers who aren’t yet old enough to vote, it’s extra thrilling to see a grown-ass woman infusing a song with her considerable and difficult life experience. “She could win,” remarks J.Lo, after Hallie leaves the room with a Golden Ticket, and in the words of Milli Vanilli, “Girl, you know it’s true.”

What did you think of the Pittsburgh auditions? Who was your favorite? Whose Golden Ticket should’ve been revoked? Sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol news, interviews, and recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!

Comments are monitored, so don’t go off topic, don’t frakkin’ curse and don’t bore us with how much your coworker’s sister-in-law makes per hour. Talk smart about TV!

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  1. Yanis says:

    is Idoloonies accepting emails for those wishing to cohost, or are you going in a different direction this year?

  2. Ken says:

    I’m not as big of a fan of Hallie as many others appear to be. Yknow who J Lo said could win after her audition last year? Julie Zorilla.

    • Brigette says:

      Honestly, Julia Zorilla could have won. It just didn’t happen. But yeah, if season 10 taught us anything it’s that the judges’ first impressions won’t always determine the future– with the exception of Lauren Alaina.

      • darcy's evil twin says:

        PREACH! Lauren Alaina rode that train all the way to the runner-up spot. I didn’t really care for her until I saw her interview with Mr. Slezak on “Idoloonies” and then I said, “Darn – where was THIS girl on the program?”

    • luke says:

      I agree – I thought Hallie Day yelled the song – “I Will Survive” as a song choice doesn’t make me hopeful for her taste level either.

  3. Dom says:

    I rarely watch Idol anymore. Who needs to with recaps like this? I especially love your use of Milli Vanilli. Nice job Michael, nice job!

  4. Musica1 says:

    First of all, I loved, loved, loved that they had an audition round showing off all good singers! Hallelujah!

    On to the singers: I don’t understand why they didn’t give the coal miner a golden ticket. He has a good voice, and being around some more experienced singers during Hollywood week would probably help him. My whole family definitely enjoyed his singing more than the awful Reed Grimm, who got praised to death by the judges. And he was every bit as good as the NBA dancer who got a golden ticket from the auditions the night before.

    Anyway, my favorite of the night was Heejun Han. I hope he can hold up under the pressure of Hollywood week. It seems that the barely held up during the auditions.

    • Holly says:

      Hallelujah indeed! Finally an audition episode without those horrible, gimmicky, waste of time, “entertainment value”, auditions. I want to see talent! No shortage of sob stories though. Oh well, can’t have it all.

  5. Helen says:

    Heejun was awesome and adorable! Shame on Randy for being racist. Heejun’s freak out before he went in, suspecting he might be one of the delusional auditioners the producers cruelly egg on, got me in the gut. The people who KNOW they have no shot and are having a lark don’t bother me too much (though I still fast forward). Letting the delusional/mentally disabled/mentally ill people think they have a shot makes me stabby and I am so happy they’ve kept that to a minimum this year.

    If Erika would lay off the damn embellishments at the end of every phrase, she’d be in the running for my favorite. Love a rich alto.

    Eban was just so darn adorable and polite I can’t hate. Must be getting old. What a nice young man, indeed!

    Reed and Creighton – can’t decide if I am going to love their quirkiness or if they are going to annoy the crap out of me.

    I was taken with Hollie before she sang a note. I hate sob stories, but I loved her. The strength of her voice combined with her beauty and fragility gave me chills.

    Watching Shane was painful. Poor kid.

    • JJ says:

      I had an opposite reaction to Hollie. I saw a street smart, hard as nails chick who still had a bit of freshness in her appearance. Her voice , to me, sounded shrill. I didn’t hate her but she just struck me as not even close to being Idol material.

      • Josh says:

        I don’t get why they bother to go home with those people if they aren’t going to put them through. Why sell the sob story like that?

    • Leila says:

      Maybe the right word for Randy wouldn’t be “racist”, but xenophobe.

  6. Brigette says:

    Loved your recap as usual, Slezak. I’m pumped for Idoloonies.

  7. Gaby says:

    Enjoyed the recap except for the uncalled-for shot at Voice.

  8. wendy says:

    I hope Hee Jun continues to impress with his singing because I thought he was so funny – really a natural comedian. I said out loud “Oh my God, He’s so adorable” In the next beat, JLo said the exact same thing. I was so aggravated with her after last season that I never thought we could be on the same wavelink….

  9. Volcfom says:

    After baking in the sun all day at the initial Pittsburgh auditions, I’m glad to see that they chose a good cut of the crop. I definitely remember Reed Grimm being one of the first people to make it through, big personality with decent talent.
    Heejun Han was my favorite of the night; he just needs to work on his accent while he sings. I hope he meets expectations through Hollywood Week.

  10. Rebecca Parker says:

    I tuned in for five minutes and just saw Creighton’s audition and I had nightmare flashbacks to Jacob Lusk. Then the judges praised him to the high heavens, and I changed the channel.

  11. Betsy says:

    after Tuesday night’s rather negative recap and negative comments, I wanted to say HEY, LET’S GIVE A LITTLE POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT to the changes Idol is making – so I’m really glad to see that in Wednesday night’s recap. I love love love that it’s mostly good/great auditions, with a few bad ones, but not making cruel fun of people. I love love love that Simon’s meanness is gone.

    I did wonder if they’re not condoning dropping out of high school, though.

    Love the recaps, thanks Slezak.

  12. Carrie #2 says:

    I was happy to see my hometown of Pittsburgh showcased so well, but I wish they had showcased more of the auditioners who were actually from Pittsburgh. I think the only one was the “Pittsburgh Planker,” who, by the way, I have never heard of before. The lack of local auditioners was strange.

  13. Lana says:

    I’m really loving the auditions this time, prefer to hear good singing than delousional bad. I really liked the miner’s In the Still of the Night but when he said a Shrek song, Hallelujah I cringed. First off I didn’t know that was in Shrek, which I have seen and Second it is too hard of a song to do an audition on. I knew it wasn’t going to turn out good, but I thought there was enough showing to win him a golden ticket. They have sent others thru with less promise. I loved Heejun from the start with just his personality so I was thrilled he could sing too, hope he does good in Hollywood. After XF I really appreciate that the 3 judges have a good time with the contestants and with each other, there was no back stabbing. I like all 3 of them,(even Randy) and Steven is my favorite, when he says inappropiate things I cheer cause I’m tired of all this political correctness crap even when it shouldn’t have been said. Lighten up America its not Life or Death, have fun with the show!

    • Volcfom says:

      The Shrek cover is by Rufus Wainwright, but I was appalled by his lack of music knowledge on that one. It’s a pretty famous song, and not to credit Leonard Cohen or Jeff Buckley(‘s more popular version) is an immediate strike against him.

    • darcy's evil twin says:

      @Lana – I’m with you. I’m a bit tired of the PC stuff as well. And I’m inclined to think that some of Steven’s inappropriate comments are “staged”.

    • janie says:

      I thought when the kid said he was doing a song from shrek.. i think he was trying to make a joke.. i hope he knows that song.. after all they sing it on american idol every year.

  14. darcy's evil twin says:

    Great recap as usual, Mr. Slezak.

    I was impressed with both nights of Idol. I agree with everyone that there were more good auditions and fewer train wrecks. I’m almost tempted to actually keep track of my favorites.

    Samantha Novacek was my favorite last night (even though I think that was the same song Lauren Alaina sang in her audition).

    On Wednesday night I enjoyed Colton Dixon – everyone else was really impressed with his sister. I didn’t share that enthusiasm but that may change. I also liked the guy that sang “Grenade” (Neco Starr?) as well as Gabi Carruba and I liked the little bit I heard of the contestant that sang Janis Joplin’s “Get it While You Can”.

    The jury is still out for me on Reed Grimm. Is it possible that Casey Abrams made me a little gun shy?

  15. James says:

    When is Idoloonies going to be posted? I must watch it!

  16. tara d says:

    oh thank god its idol season again. After watching that over the top, over produced, over hyped British Import, I am ready for Idol like never before. And I realized why: Michael Slezak. Idoloonies is the sugar that makes the medicine go down, and the love-hate relationship I think many of us have with Idol just didnt exist between me and Xfactor. As far as Idol so far, I am also happy to see a lot of toning down of the bad auditions. I saw some potential, but no big standouts yet. I do, however, wish they told Eben to come back in a few years. His voice is nice. He is nice. Nice doesnt sell records. What kind of album could someone like that make? I think he will get eaten alive in Hollywood week. But I’m also ready for him to prove me wrong. I’m ready for your recaps and for idoloonies, Michael. Oh I’m just ready.

  17. gracew says:

    “Creighton Barrel.”

    I’m so glad you’re back, Michael!

  18. AmericanIdolit says:

    So what if Erika Van Pelt was a wedding singer? You know who also was one? Pia Toscano. Not that I’m saying Erika is in the same league as Pia, but one shouldn’t judge based on profession.

    • tara d says:

      latoya from season 3 was also a wedding singer. wedding singers need to be able to sing a wide range of songs in different styles, genres and keys. they perform for hours on a weekly basis. these are really good skills and experiences for someone to have for this competition…

  19. Holly says:

    Apparently Reed Grimm is Caleb Hawley’s (AI10) cousin. That’s cool…well, because I just so happen to be a Caleb fan. We’ll see how he does.

  20. lateesha jones says:

    latia lee a pittsburgh resident never got to be seen. she has a fanominal voice, she made it to top forty. she was cut because she was unable to perform after her grandfathers passing. they are missing out cause she is a star. love u latia lee

  21. lateesha says:

    yes there were so many good pgh singers, and they was not shown. Latia Lee for instense

  22. LauraHolt says:

    Heejun is putting everyone on,

    Grimes’s Family Matters rendition didn’t do it primarily because he seem to not understand the words he was singing. Sure the chorus is sung in a n uplifting manner btu the opening is total blues and he ruined it by not getting that.

    Creighton didn’t give me the reaction he gave the judges. I thought he was okay but that like the last dude from the Savannah auditions, he was doing too much with his voice.

    And BS people say that kid looks like Bieber, clearly that was said to ignite the teen fanbase. He looks nothing like Bieber. He actually looks like a combo of two kid actors 1. the girl from the old school Bad News Bears and 2. the oldest boy from the first Honey i shrunk the kids movie.

    I’m still awaiting a perfect audition for season 11. That’s all I want is someone I can get excited about because they sing well, understand the words they are singing and make surprisingly good choices during the song.

    Is that really so much to ask?