That’s right, it’s been 28 long, long days since American Idol Season 7 opened with the Philadelphia auditions, and after ever so slowly wending its way through seven cities, we’ve finally arrived at Hollywood Week, otherwise known as AI Limbo. One hundred and sixty-four gold ticket winners are about to experience the usual horrors of group night and stinging critiques from the judges – but wait! Ryan Seacrest has some surprises up his carefully pressed, designer button-down shirt sleeve. Hollywood Week, he promises, is “brand-new” this year.
Which means what, exactly? Well, there’s some fairly minor changes as to how the judges plan to winnow down the talent pool from 164 to 24, which play out like this: everyone gets a solo audition. The solo auditions are held over two days. The judges will give the contestant a yes or no vote. A yes vote gets you a free pass to Thursday, the final audition day. A no vote gets you a second shot on Wednesday. If you blow it on Wednesday, you go home. On Thursday, the remaining one-third that the judges liked or at least didn’t hate, get an audition with the AI band and backup singers. The judges will then pore over the array of contestant mugshots and determine who will be the top 24, consisting of 12 guys and 12 girls. Got it? Can we get the dull rules stuff out of the way now? Ready to groove to the schmaltzy rock-pop music of Bryan Adams, the 2008 Artist of Choice for American Idol Hollywood Audition Week? Oh, stop rolling your eyes - it’s a change from Whitney, anyway.
Simon draws first blood
Opening the first round of semi-finals is 24-year-old Brooke White, recognizable by her sweet demeanor, moppish blonde curls, and striped sweaters. Brooke is the nice young lady from Philadelphia who has never seen an X-rated movie. So you know her roommates have probably ponied up the $8.99 for the “adult” channel in their hotel room. Brooke admits to be lacking in confidence, and is intimidated by what she thinks are superior singers. Brooke is taking advantage of some of the brand-newness of Hollywood week, and is opting to play keyboards during her audition. (Canadian Idol has been allowing contestants to play instruments at auditions for the past two years with great success, incidentally.) Brooke’s audition song is “Beautiful” and her nice, simple, fresh style of playing and singing is a welcome treat. Simon is well-pleased with the effort, and likes her potential. He compares her to Carly Simon and Carole King, and I would throw Amanda Marshall in that group as well. Randy and Paula chime in with yes votes, and Brooke gets the first pass to the finals.
Then, of course, it gets ugly fast. 28-year-old Lorena Pinot of Miami gives an audition that Simon complains is “uncomfortable” to watch, then it’s on to The Most Annoying Girl In The World, 16-year-old dance team captain Amy Flynn of Charleston. To my everlasting pleasure, Amy hits a squealing sour note, which stops her dead and causes her to slap a hand over her mouth. She casts puppy-dog eyes at Simon and says, “It was for you and me, Simon”, but Simon is unimpressed and snaps, “It’s a no, then”. Leo Marlowe, 23, who so impressed the judges in Omaha, turns in a deadly dull performance, and Simon says Leo went from “memorable to forgettable”.
The results of ignoring your mom’s nagging to practice the piano
A good voice accompanied by good playing is a beautiful thing. A so-so voice accompanied by bad playing is not quite so pretty. 18-year-old Alisha Dixon, whose guitar lessons apparently stopped after she learned the opening chord of “Smoke On The Water”, sounds like “an angry girl in her bedroom screaming, on guitar” according to Simon. Michael Sanfilippo, 19, thought he could fake the fact he can’t play at all, and Simon again chimes in to advise him that his guitar playing does him no favors. Alyssa Coco and Shaun Barrowes prove they’re no threat to Elton John on the keyboard, but the worst of the worst is Jake Mellema, 20, who thinks he’s the next Phil Collins. Jake’s comfort zone is behind the drum kit, sadly enough, and he makes matters worse by turning out a truly awful Muzak version of “Hooked on a Feeling”. Randy is inexplicably amused by Jake, and chuckling like Santa just before he puts a lump of coal in your stocking, tells him it was just too karaoke. Paula mumbles that it wasn’t her favorite, and Simon bitches about the horrible song choice and presentation. Jake gets the message loud and clear, and his drumsticks are tucked away until his next band practice in his dad’s garage.
Thankfully, 24-year-old David Hernandez of San Diego has opted to forgo any instrumental accompaniment, and is using his voice only on the ‘60’s chestnut, “Love The One You’re With”. And there’s more to be grateful for, because David’s vocals are flawless on the Stephen Stills classic, and he turns out a performance that outshines his SD audition. Randy loved it “from note one” and Simon thinks it’s the best audition of the day thus far. With three enthusiastic yes votes, David earns his free ride to Thursday.
If Amanda Overmyer’s looks didn’t make an impression on you during her first audition, you must hang out in some interesting places. Amanda, 23, is the goth biker nurse who pleased the judges not with her Janis Joplin imitation, but with a gritty version of CCR’s “Travellin’ Band”. Amanda admits that she almost didn’t make it to Hollywood, having suffered a serious car wreck the previous week, but is toughing it out with 12 staples in her head and some cracked ribs. She struts out on stage confidently in spite of her injuries, and heads back in time with a rendition of the Doors’ “Light My Fire”. Amanda has a great rock ’n’ roll voice – not quite as good as Rockstar Supernova’s Dilana Robichaux, but we’ll take any anti-diva the judges put through, thankyouverymuch – but I wish she’d try something a little more current. Randy is pleased with Amanda bringing something new to the panel’s table, and likes her “’60’s revival thing”. Paula adores her, and Simon is just glad that Amanda’s here, though he urges her to put a little “light and shade” into her voice. The judges give Amanda some peace, love, understanding, and three yes votes to send her to the finals.
There’s already a Julio Iglesias Jr., and his name is Enrique, not Ghaleb
It wouldn’t be Hollywood Week without a bunch of dweebs forgetting the lyrics to their songs, so we have Bo Bice v.2 Buck Smith, 28, scrambling “Stuck In The Middle With You” (does ANYONE not know the lyrics to that song?), then 20-year-old Cardin McKinney and Natasha Blach, 29, similarly blow their chances for easy advancement to the final.
I hardly ever get to use the word “smarmy”, so I owe Ghaleb Emachah of Miami a big thank-you. Ghaleb, 27, pretty much embodies “smarmy”. He’s a self-described ladies’ man, and spends most of his time hitting on the girls, serenading them randomly, whitening his teeth, applying grease to his hair, and thinking of himself as “charming”. I missed Ghaleb’s initial audition, so I hope his singing sucks eggs. Oh, good…it does. Ghaleb gives a woeful performance of “Everything I Do (I Do It For You)”, and it’s so wretched I had to listen for the chorus before I could recognize the song. Paula mutters an incomprehensible critique, while Simon more clearly enunciates his displease by telling Ghaleb that it was “incredibly corny” and likens him to a singing waiter. Ghaleb slinks away, but offstage tells Paula he still loves her. How did this clown get to Hollywood anyway? Did the whiteness of his teeth blind the judges into giving him a gold piece of paper instead of a restraining order?
Shiny happy judges
As day one was pretty much a series of craptacular trainwrecks, hope is faint at the dawning of day two. But then comes 18-year-old Josiah Leming, better known as kid-who-lives-in-car-and-sings-with-British-accent. Josiah is pleased and excited to be
in a warm hotel room with a real bedin Hollywood, and he’s planning to tickle the electronic ivories and tackle Mika’s “Grace Kelly”. A tough song and an even tougher singer to emulate, but Josiah is up to the task. His vocals are strong, and his performance is a pleasant surprise. Randy thinks he’s cool, but Paula goes a step further and calls Josiah “magical”. Simon smiles paternally and says this is the audition he’ll remember, and a jubilant Josiah celebrates his well-earned bye to the finals.
200 songs available to choose from, and everyone picks the same three. Sigh. Well, if one must be a sheep, it helps when everyone bleats in tune. Fortunately, we get 3 superior versions of “When I Need You”, courtesy of Danny Noriega, 18 (the final golden ticket winner at the open auditions), Ramiele Mulaby, 20 (Jasmine Trias v.2), and Carly Smithson, 24 (Irish girl with many tattoos). Michael Johns, the handsome Aussie who impressed in San Diego, lights the judges’ fire with his version of the Doors classic. All four are easy yes votes for the panel and are headed straight to Thursday’s final.
The kids wanna rock
25-year-old David Cook of Missouri pleased the judges at auditions with his Daughtry vibe, and picks up the guitar for his take on “Everything I Do”. His vocals are solid, but his stage presence is a bit lacking. You’d think a guy with a dyed red Mohawk streak in his hair would have some moves, wouldn’t you? Randy and Paula are appreciative of David's nice range and tone, but Simon isn’t crazy enough about David to give him a yes vote.
A mixed bag of contestants alternately do justice to and ruin forever Bryan Adams’ songbook – starting things off is Robbie Carrico, 26, hippie biker dude. Robbie earns a pass, as does Syesha Mercado (who’s sick with throat problems but gets a bye from the judges based on past performance), and Colton Berry, 17. Visiting last-chance saloon on Wednesday will be Jessica Brown, 24, and Perrie Cataldo, 27.
How Bill Clinton started out
Aspiring presidential candidate Kyle Ensely, 21, of Dallas has inexplicably made it to the Hollywood round, and is impressing the girls of season 7 with his, um, politicking skills. Kyle is enjoying his role as a guileless young man overwhelmed by the temptations of Sin City, which includes with his assignment to a hotel room with two female roommates. He feigns embarrassment, which makes his new gal-pals titter flirtatiously. Kyle’s unlikely success with women might start a new trend of boys refusing haircuts and sporting neckties and square-rimmed eyeglasses. Eat your heart out, William Hung.
Kyle, as we already know, is a sub-par singer but popular with his fellow contestants, who cheer lustily as he alights the stage. It’s easy to be nice to someone who’s no serious competition, isn’t it? Paula, who’s back to her spouting her usual line of gibberish – guess the temptations of Hollywood are too much for her, too – witters on about liking Kyle’s “spirit in the performance arena”. Simon is infuriated with both Paula & Kyle, and barks angrily about Kyle’s “abysmal” audition and declares that he’s done with this rubbish, then storms off – hopefully to go kick Ryan in the shins a few times to relieve the stress. Hey, it would work for me. Kyle, not surprisingly, receives a round of no votes, but the worst part is that he gets a second chance tomorrow.
It’s tragedy/when the music’s gone and you must go home
Note - I was going to save that subtitle for the remote possibility of a Bee Gees theme week, but what the hell. Back to the auditions. 48 contestants managed to impress the judges enough to earn a free pass to Thursday finals, while 116 get their second chance on this day 3 of Hollywood week. The 116 “maybes” are being split into groups of 10, and everyone will sing a few bars of their song, a cappella. At this point, the judges will decide instantly who stays and who goes. With so few open spots for the final audition available, nerves are frayed and people are suddenly finding God. Among those praying in the first group are single parents Perrie Cataldo and Suzanne Toon, 21. Suzanne delivers a middling rendition of “Summertime”, while Perrie opts for something I don’t recognize but attempts to dress it up with flourishes and far too many vocal gymnastics. The judges aren’t buying it, and both are sent home.
The Most Annoying Girl In The World makes her return, vocal coach in tow. Yes, young Amy Flynn’s parents have provided her with her very own coach, a woman named Angel whose credentials – earning a golden ticket in Season 4 – were enough for Amy’s mom and dad to think she could propel their little girl to AI stardom. Whatever they’re paying Angel, it’s too much, because Amy’s “Love Will Bring You Back” brings no joy to the panel. Though it’s not as terrible as her first try, the judges have had enough of Amy, and she’s sent back home to continue her battle for abstinence. Hopefully it stops her from singing, too.
The next casualties include Kayla Hatfield (car wreck girl who’s blind in one eye) and Angelica Puente (daddy issues girl), and Angela Martin of Philadelphia (girl with disabled daughter). Angela has had bigger problems than how to impress Simon, however, as it’s revealed that her dad was killed in an accident the previous week.
With all this darkness, it’s time for a bit of light, in the roundish form of Jeffrey Lampkin, 24. Jeffrey is one-half of the jocund brother-sister duo from South Carolina (sister Michelle was cut earlier in the day). Jeffrey, who may well be a candidate for The Most Annoying Boy In The World, has appointed himself Captain of
SpiritHollywood Week, and keeps busy cheerleading and spreading his own particular brand of mindless happiness among the contestants. He sings some song about ice cream, and the judges decide he’s worth keeping around for top 24 consideration. Reprising her version of “Amazing Grace” from auditions is Kristy Lee Cook, 24. She does just fine, and let’s face it, the judges are probably looking for any excuse to put her through, so Kristy Lee receives her pass to the finals along with Jeffrey.
The final finals
At long last, it’s Thursday, and this really is the last round of Hollywood auditions, complete with band and backup singers. The judges will instantly cut the remaining 54 they don’t like, and the rest will be considered for the top 24. David Archuleta, 16 (throat surgery kid) is the first to earn an easy pass to the final with his version of Bryan Adams’ “Heaven”. David is an undeniably talented kid, likeable and as appealing as a puppy. Which begs the question - how the hell did Kyle Ensley make it through to this final round? I’m sure I must be missing his well-hidden charm. Though everything about Kyle reeks of Kevin Covais – and we all remember how fast that got old – he holds some inexplicable power over the judges (who PROMISED there would be no duds this year, and don’t you three forget that when you pick the top 24, now). Even Simon calls it “a good little audition”, and Kyle is still in the running.
Not making the final cut are Jeffrey Lampkin, whose “Whole New World” sounds breathless and often out of tune, and Joey Catalano (guy who lost 200 pounds), made weak by a killer migraine. Luckier is Syesha Mercado, who has suffered from laryngitis and throat problems all week but manages to pull off a strong performance of “Chain of Fools”. Down-under boy Michael Johns puts his own spin on “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and Simon is pleased enough to proclaim it the audition of the day. Carly Smithson, whose work visa problems got her punted from Season 5, has overcome her own voice problems (due to an allergy to her dog) and pulls off a simply fabulous “Alone”. Asia’h Epperson, 24, does a similarly stunning job of “I’m Goin’ Down”, and Simon calls it “your best audition by a mile”.
The Second-Most Annoying Girl In The World, beauty queen Brooke Helvie, 18, grinds the love train to a halt when she wanders into nails-on-a-chalkboard territory on “Unchained Melody”. Randy has had enough of Brooke, but Simon, just to be ornery, gives her a yes. Paula hems and haws, and Brooke squeaks out a few more bars to try to convince her. More hesitation, and amazingly, Paula goes against type and gives a firm no. Woo-hoo, Paula! Just for that, I promise no more Paula jokes. At least till next week. Brooke, apparently facing rejection for the first time, sobs outside the auditorium, forgoing the pageant ritual of pretending to be happy for the successful contestants.
Josiah Leming, who can sleep in his car, suffers from insomnia when it comes to picking a final audition song. Overwhelmed, he falls out with the band, and cries unabashedly in the corner. A heart-to-heart with vocal coach Debra Byrd has no effect, and Josiah is left to face the judges unrehearsed. Josiah’s not going down without some attitude, though – when onstage, he asks the band to leave, and states he’s going to sing “Stand By Me” as he hears it in his head. Not really a great sign, because I know when I was 16 and singing “Barracuda” into a hairbrush in front of the mirror, in my head I heard myself sounding like Ann Wilson. And that, I’m afraid, just wasn’t the case. Josiah’s voice is frayed, and his performance is overwrought and hugely disappointing. Randy offers to give him another chance with the band, but Josiah refuses and defiantly states that he thinks his a cappella number took “a helluva lot of guts”. His attitude gets Simon’s back up, and he snaps that Josiah’s overconfidence exposed him. Bratty ‘tude and lacking performance notwithstanding, the judges decide to put Josiah through based on his previous strong auditions. The teen dissolves into tears, and his fate is put off one more day.
The top 50 are thus elected, and the panel gets down to the business of bickering over the photos of the finalists and choosing the top 24. You’ll have to wait till tomorrow, though, and get MotherSister’s always brilliant take on which contestants are crowned the top 24. Now go practice your scales – your piano lesson is tonight.
Whose voice do you hear in your head? PM me.