My people! This is not a drill! You no longer have to quench your thirst for tool-gawking with reality clunkers like True Beauty; the reality competition alpha dog is back on the scene. That’s right; American Idol Season 8 is officially a go! And in case you’re not yet hip to the gravity of this moment, you might want to consider this pithy little
nonsensical papinsight from world famous producer David Foster that flashes on-screen at the show’s opening:
In life, the microphone passes your lips but once … you had better be ready to sing.
What would I sing, you ask? A little ditty I like to call, “Shut Up, David Foster.” But I, my friends, am not auditioning for American Idol. This year. So what of all the starry-eyed dreamers and attention-hungry crazies who did make those early-morning treks to stadiums and amphitheaters, just to get their shot at that elusive mic? Well, we’re going to meet a few of them in a little while. You have time to get a drink of water.
If You Don’t Know Where You’ve Been
But first, a retrospective. We see a bunch of clips of seasons past, Simon being a prick, Clay being an alien; we remember Margaret Fowler, and Pickler. The Brittenums. Claudette Yamin being a sweetheart. Hasselhoff being out-cried by Sanjaya’s #1 fan. All the winners winning, and everyone crying rivers of salty, salty triumph. Now we know what this show can do.
Also, for an unknown but blessed reason, we see that some weird family out there taped their tweens’ hysterically negative reactions to David Cook’s being crowned last spring. I don’t know how I’ve lived so long without seeing that. Alas for them, David’s some sort of a huge success now, but we’re dumping him in the Grand Canyon or something, and kicking off the new audition circus in Phoenix.
“Cue the desert footage,” says Ryan cheekily, and the show obliges him while we learn that Phoenix is boiling, sweltering hot, and those crazy Phoenicians don’t care because American Idol’s in town.
I’m sure everyone knows by now that the franchise is dying and the producers have added some new blood to try and reinvigorate it. So here we meet Kara DioGuardi, music industry veteran and failed reality TV show veteran, so I’m sure she’ll have plenty of things to prove as we go along. There’s a sweet little intro package for her, but we’re all currently soaking in the internet, so you know where to go if you haven’t yet memorized her biography and vital statistics. Just remember: four judges. Four. Write it down if you must, because there will be a quiz.
So! Only fifteen minutes into the first show, and we’re already at our first official audition. My heart’s as full as a baked potato. Inaugurating our eighth season is sweet smiling Tuan Nguyen. Things he’s bringing to his audition: a door-stretching afro, tap dancing moves, and JROTC drill team choreography. At this point you may be saying to yourself, “Huh. None of those things are singing. What’s up with that?” And to you I say, “Welcome to American Idol.” Once in front of the judges, Tuan confesses that he wants to be as big as Michael Jackson and Britney Spears combined. That’s what … The Jonas Brothers? Simon’s patience is already running short, so Tuan jumps into “The Way You Make Me Feel” pretty quickly. Shock: he can’t sing. Shock Number Two: he can’t tap dance. Thing I Saw Coming: Randy dug the fro. Tuan gets diplomatic negatives from all the judges. For a moment Simon’s like “You’re surprised? Seriously?” But he doesn’t bare his teeth, so Tuan is sent padding off into the sunset with all of the other tap dancing ROTC-ing bumblebees.
Emily Wynne-Hughes’s mom got interviewed, so I’m willing to bet she’s going far. I immediately like Emily if only for her looking like a sentient version of my old Jem doll in her pink and blonde hair, sparkly makeup, and pink dress. Showtime Synergy! Simon looks determinedly skeptical, but he’s also a bastard so that may just be his face. Kara’s interested because Emily sings in an all-girl band, and then she sings “Barracuda” for us all, and is awesome. Simon’s impressed by the degree of difficulty, Paula calls her Top 5 but doesn’t clarify if she means this season, or “ever in life,” or just that she remembers. Then everyone’s wondering what her band mates think of the whole Idol auditioning thing, and Emily confesses that she hasn’t discussed it with them. And not only that -- if she makes it through to Hollywood, Emily’s going to jump off that ship even though it’s booked for a European tour. Oh, but if she wins, she’s going to bring them all along to stardom with her somehow. The judges are all varying degrees of appalled by this news, Kara at one end and Simon at the other, and then they give her unanimous approval to dump her (clearly successful) all-girl band and hang all her hopes on Idol. On Idol. For the love of Mike.
Randy Madden is up next. Despite obviously being one wedgie away from a nervous breakdown, he’s one of those people that everyone says should be on American Idol, so he finally came. It’s sad that people don’t realize the extent to which other people are jerks. Randy is also one of those people who think wearing black and chains and bandanas and such equals instant acceptance as a rock god, more’s the pity. He interviews that he really wants some validation from this show; he just wants to be told that he’s good. Good glory. I wish he’d just called me up and asked me, because I would gladly have fed his ego to spare him -- and us -- from the pain of his audition. He sings “Living on a Prayer,” but with no musicality to speak of. Simon thought it was a wimpy rendition, so Randy tries again with a bit more conviction, and then Simon answers that it was clichéd.
At this point, Randy gets misty and says all he really wants is a chance (although by my count, he’s just had two). Simon rips off the hangnail and says Randy has no star quality and he never will have it, while Randy’s lips quiver and he attempts to defend himself some more. Simon’s over it, and Paula tells Randy to join a band, because that’s how musicians are born. Simon quips, “How do you think “Straight Up” was written,” and I’m reminded of why I think that bastard is a superstar. Kara tries to earn herself a persona by being the one who speaks English and makes actual critiques, Simon and Paula scratch each other’s eyes out while gongs sound and tigers feast in the background. Randy has to go out and tell Ryan he’s been rejected and cry on his family’s shoulders.
Meanwhile, we meet J.B. Ahfua, and all he has to do so far is sing, because his voice rings like copper piping. He gets 4 green lights and some advice from Simon to loosen up, and then he keeps his composure all the way up until the post-chat with Ryan, where he breaks down in joyful tears because “this is his chance … to help his family.” That blind optimism is amazing. Did I mention J.B. is sixteen? Yeah. If we see him pass the chair test, I’ll eat a gluey risotto.
Well, I count thirty minutes past, and there’s been no real brutal humiliation yet. That’s still an important part of the Idol brand, no matter what those producers have been spreading in the gossip rags. And here to prove that is Michael Gurr. We first see him rocking and sweating in an invisible strait-jacket, juxtaposed with lots of footage of all the normal kids smiling and laughing their nerves away. Picture the kid in your school who always mumbled to himself in a corner or under a tree during lunch, and you’ve pretty much got him. He has a sweet smile though; it’s going to be a shame to see it ground to bits under the judges designer boots. The cameras stick by Michael all morning as he interviews that he’s extremely scared of the judges and really nervous of what they might say to him. His final words are, “I’m not feeling so good,” as staccato violins of doom play him into the judging room.
Simon immediately asks what he’ll sing, and Michael launches into something called “Starts With Goodbye.” The best way I can think of to describe Michael’s singing is to ask you to imagine a mewling cat, but one with its larynx in a vice. Randy’s hiding his laughter behind his notes, and Simon says he couldn’t understand a word of the song. Michael asks if he can come back after a five minute break, and Simon says five years wouldn’t make a difference. Paula wants to let him do his second song, and Michael shyly admits that he had chosen an encore by Kara DioGuardi, but he doesn’t “want to ruin it.” They all press him into doing it anyway, because they are jerks.
He starts the song, but he only gets about a bar in before he realizes that the judges are jerks. He tries to cover with Ryan by blaming his queasy stomach and nerves, but then he has a panic attack or something and has to be bathed with cool towels, and given a banana. I’m not making this up, and I don’t think Michael was either. I think he was serious, and I think he really thinks his nerves are what kept him from succeeding, which begs the question: Why do these sorts of kids’ families let them do this? What kind of horrible, horrible thing do you have to do in life, so that your family will just let you go on American Idol and make a donkey of yourself without forcibly restraining you? I don’t know. Poor Michael.
Let’s Put On a Show!
Now we get a montage of suckitude, Celine Dion and Tears For Fears style, complete with actual video clips of how the songs are supposed to sound. I guess this means AI is going whole hog on the licensing stuff this year?
In any case, don’t look too forward to curly-haired Aundre “X-Ray” Caraway getting to taste any of those sweet, sweet song rights. We meet him strumming a southwestern melody on his guitar and flailing around in the courtyard, hoping he gets “good vibes” from Paula, Randy, and “the new judge.” He bounds into the judges room leaping and hollering, “What’s good!” over and over again, raving about how much he loves doing music and smiling like a loon. This boy is high as the sky.
If you don’t believe me, you’ll just have to look up his audition, in which he begins dancing like a squirrel on an electric fence and singing an original composition he calls “Cactus Baby.” “Cactus Baby” consists of him singing some random words, some random non-words, and doing some syncopated clapping along. He ends with a manic smile and a spirited “Swingadelladoo!” whatever that means, (high as the sky, I told you), and at this point no one can maintain their composure. No one has anything coherent to say, except “no,” and Aundre’s willing to give it another go but they call out the burly security guard to escort him away because to be fair he looks a little bit like he could jump the table and start humping their legs at any moment. It’s twelve hours later, and I’m still not 100% sure Aundre was an act, so I guess that’s a job well done either way.
We’re going to cleanse the air now with our second sixteen year old, angelic-looking Arianna Althazar. Her parents tell us how she started something called “Adopt A Grand-friend,” an organization through which she and her friends go all summer stock and get up shows for old people. The judges pat her on the back for that, and she smiles beatifically. I don’t know why, but all of a sudden I am sick of seeing sixteen year olds on this show. I think Archuleta ruined it for me. Maybe I overdosed on pure-hearted, doe-eyed naïveté last season. I don’t know. But this girl does have one heck of a beautiful voice. And it’s dangerous too. If it can make me like that boring “Put Your Records On” song, I think there’s no limit to what this girl’s voice can do. We’ll have to make sure she’s not palling around with terrorists or anything. She gets a unanimous pass to Hollywood. All her teenage effervescence spills out into the hallway, and Day One in Phoenix is over.
Day Two dawns with just as many people as ever knowing that they are the next American Idol. Bass-booming Elijah Scarlett is hoping he can add some weight to his claim with a successful audition, this despite his being the human personification of an 808. Seriously, his voice is so deep that he just naturally sounds like that tempo-slowing chop and screw effect. Of course the judges are gawky all like this is the first time they’ve heard of a bass voice, but Elijah just smiles genially and waits it out. Then he sings Barry White and is awful, and the judges take pleasure in patronizing him and talking to him like he is an idiot. Paula: “You could do voice-over work. … Like for movies that have monsters.” I don’t know, I could understand if this kid had a terrible attitude or a huge ego that needed deflating, but this segment feels unnecessarily cruel. I hope Elijah didn’t take the judges too seriously, because he is adorable. And they are after all, a washed-up pop star, two industry “pros” with no visibility, and a bastard. Just to put things in perspective.
Anyway, I’ll go have a Coke and a smile while our next victim offers herself up for skewering. Wild and wacky Lea Marie describes her style as a cross between Hilary Duff and Madonna (so … The Jonas Brothers?), and exhibits her “personality” by wearing all pink, giggling, and spinning around and jerking convulsively in a way that’s meant to be cute but is really just sad. I will also say that Lea constantly looks like she’s just bit into a York Peppermint Patty, and that’s mighty creepy. She’s a songwriter too, and names herself as Kara DioGuardi’s biggest fan, so I guess there’s one out there for everybody? She has a binder full of songs to show to Kara, who fakes being impressed by the magnitude of it, before Lea launches into “Every Time We Touch” by Cascada. She sounds like Glinda the Good Witch with a head cold, so of course she gets panned. Paula tries to give her an inspirational speech about the importance of songwriting or something, and Kara applauds her dedication to writing as evidenced by the metric ton of notebook paper she dropped in her lap. Lea will not take “no, go write things” for an answer, however. She begs to be allowed into Hollywood, but Kara calls her “sweetie” a bunch of times in a really super-sincere way and tells Lea that there is no chance. Simon caps the experience off by calling it uncomfortable. I guess he saw Lea in the post-judging booth promising to return next year, staring and giggling like a maniac. That was uncomfortable for me, too.
Stevie Wright was named after Stevie Nicks, is also sixteen, and believes that being bubbly and sweet will get her the win. That’s all you need to know. Oh, and she sings “At Last” very passably and gets put through to Hollywood on the condition that she grows a competitive bone and becomes willing to throw down a few gauntlets.
Real Joe Six Pack of a huge family man Mike Sarver works on an oil rig, but in his spare time dreams of being an American Idol. Simon notes the oil rig part and smirks that in his grimy job and hulking appeal Mike is the polar opposite of Ryan Seacrest. As if Simon doesn’t have a summer home on that pole right next to Ryan’s. Mike sings Boyz II Men’s “Thank You,” which I didn’t think anyone on the planet knew and loved besides me and my sister, so automatic points for that, Mike. His voice is also suitably rich and soulful, and he’s country-western handsome with blue eyes, which is like triple word score in this game. Everyone marvels at the white boy who can sing, and Simon says he has a likability factor that will probably carry him a ways. It’s an unreserved pass for Mike.
Time for another ride on the train to Suck Town, this time featuring people who think hollering is the same thing as singing well. I think we actually reach ambulance levels with a couple of these guys, but it’s not worth dwelling on; there’s a true spectacle of awfulness on the horizon.
The soundtrack of Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” should clue you in that we’re about to see someone really extraordinary – it turns out to be a special sort of dead-eyed snowflake named Katrina Darrell, a 20 year old who lists “model” as her occupation. She heard the Idol auditions were a long strange process, and thought “Hey, I’ll put on my bikini and get a tan!” Awesome. Awesomer, her obliging offer of making out with Ryan, which simultaneously makes my skin crawl and baffles Ryan beyond coherent speech. He mumbles something about that being against the rules, but does promise that just the thought of it is something that will stay with him a while. Like a particularly greasy plate of taquitos, I imagine.
She struts in front of the judges and snaps into pageant stance like you knew she would, and we are treated to a particularly gross shot of Simon’s eyes popping their sockets in response to her. Everyone’s shocked, but Katrina’s just “Hi, y’all, I’m in a bikini!” about it all. Kara saltily invites her to do a twirl and get all the exhibitionism out of her system at once, and then Katrina sings a quaky, shrill, but not completely terrible version of “Vision of Love.” Simon deadpans, “Beautiful,” and gives her an uncomplicated yes. Kara demands to know why, and Simon has no answer. Kara attempts to shield herself from Mean Girl accusations by saying she thinks Katrina’s beautiful before whipping off her own (markedly superior) version of “Vision of Love,” to show Katrina why hers was so lacking. She tells Katrina she just doesn’t have the chops to sing Mariah, and Katrina sasses that Kara’s demo wasn’t much better.
Kara then pops up like this is an old episode of Ricki Lake, and I don’t know if she’s about to take off her earrings and smear her face with Vaseline or what, but then she just starts singing “Vision of Love” again. I see what she’s going for, but it’s a little pathetic. Paula’s the voice of reason here, if you can believe it – she reassures Kara that she doesn’t need to prove anything to this fool (completely true), and then welcomes Katrina to Hollywood thanks to Simon’s and Randy’s votes. Kara snarks, “Next time, come naked.” I would like never to see her again at all, but alas, Katrina hangs out, continuing to act like a social disease, cornering Ryan by the pool and kissing him to the strains of “I Kissed A Girl” I kid you not, and Ryan has to try and do a chat with her because she is a bloody three-car pileup and you can’t ever pass that up on network TV.
Dessert and Desperation
It’s Kare-a, not Karr-ah, please note, because it’s important. Also, our next auditioner has a proper name too but prefers to be known as “Sexual Chocolate.” Simon kids that he stole the name from Randy, but I know he really stole it from Mr. Randy Watson. SC slowly lifts his shirt and reveals his tattoo, and creaks out “Ribbon in the Sky.” It’s terrible, the judges tell him so, but it turns out that his mother promised him a car if he didn’t make the show, I suppose to keep him from jumping off a cliff or something. So there’s that waiting for him.
We see a parade of other losers who don’t have automobiles to calm their sorrows, and then we meet hepped-up, hyped up Brianna Quijada, who can’t help but end everything with an exclamation point! and is so excited to be in front of the judges that she’s having an out-of-body experience! They uninterestedly reassure her that this is indeed happening, and then Brianna sings “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” in a very peppy way. Simon cats that Brianna’s personality got her through the preliminary round, and Paula wants her to sing some of her Plan B selection. Brianna gets nervous and doesn’t know where to start; Simon recommends the end as the best place. Here she cocks her head and whines “Oh, Simey,” like some repressed 1952 housewife, and I’m completely off her side. She performs several abortions of “Killing Me Softly,” and somehow wins over Simon and Paula and makes it through to the next round.
Families are all around to cheer people on and be shoulders to cry on and whatnot, but Deanna Brown came by herself. She just picked up random folks around the auditioning arena to be her cheering section, because she’s a plucky kind of girl, she is. She sings “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” in an absolutely heart-stopping voice full of complexity and character, and is so compelling that I can almost forgive her for singing an Otis Redding song and making pop star faces throughout it. Kara compliments her distinctive voice and Paula rates her confidence and presence very highly. Simon likes her, but asks why she isn’t a star already. Deanna gives a duly stagy answer about opportunities and so she passes with flying colors. Then she runs out and calls her mama.
Next up is Danny Noriega 2.0, a fabulously coiffed and aggressively eye-lined 17 year old named Cody Sheldon, who lists making gory horror films as his interesting hobby, as he talks about leaving scars and some other emo-teen I-wear-black-clothes stuff. The judges can’t wring any blood out of the horror movie tidbit (*ba dump tss*), so we just automatically hear Cody start singing “Wonderful World” by James Morrison. Paula nods along with her glazed over smile, but we can’t really tell what anybody’s thinking. Kara bursts out with a “wow,” and suspenseful horror chords play as we wait to see Cody pop through the door with his golden ticket. And there, on the door handle … was a HOOK!
We Can Be Heroes … and Heroes Geeks
Simon’s giving people IQ tests or something because he gets paid to be there but not to work. People name three countries where they’d be popular, and we hear stuff like Atlanta and Paris and Europe, and we laugh because it’s fun to be hitting rock bottom as a nation. Then an unassuming guy named Alex Wagner-Trugman comes along and names real countries, and the judges clap because he is our future. Alex is your stereotypical wheezing, awkward nerd; he used to sing in his closet and Simon with his one track mind manages to turn that into a gay joke because ultimately he hates what he has become. Paula is offended on Alex’s behalf, but Alex plays along gamely because he’s eager to please. He then shocks my modesty by proposing to sing James Ingram (!) if Randy sings along with the chorus (…). Randy nods, and then Alex sings “Baby Come to Me” in a pretty okay voice. Paula and Randy are all about it, but Simon is obstinate in his disapproval because Alex looks and acts like a nerdy white boy. Kara adds a non-committal yes, so he’s through.
It’s like a phony spaghetti western all of a sudden, and we have a montage with the theme of a showdown between our long-suffering judges and people butchering “Wanted Dead or Alive.” If there’s anything I’ve missed most about Idol, it’s not this.
Now here’s a blind guy. Scott McIntyre, 23. Ryan has been plugging this man all night long as a veritable Superman, and I don’t know whether to be insulted on Scott’s behalf, or … no, yeah. I’ll stick with that. Scott is a pianist and songwriter in spite of his blindness, and that is fantastic and inspiring, but it doesn’t need to be heralded this way. It’s a little condescending. Anyway, then the judges go “OMG you’re blind,” and Scott sings “And So It Goes” very tenderly. He gets 4 yeas and hugs from his family, and Ryan tries, hilariously, to give him a high five.
And we’re outta here! Is it me, or was this the longest premiere ever? 27 golden tickets were handed out in Phoenix. That seems like a lot, so I’m thinking that this is the peak of the mountain. However, up next is a town I know well, Kansas City. MsFroggy is on deck to serve up your Idol Midwestern style (that’s smothered in cream of mushroom soup and Velveeta), so don’t miss it!
Who’s for making “Swingadelladoo!” the new hooray? Just me?