The American Idol auditions moved to Atlanta on Wednesday, and the producers eased up on the personal stories of overcoming hardships and, while they were at it, cut from the show all but a few decent auditions. Instead the episode was an unremitting parade of yokels and loose cannons handpicked by the show not as legitimate contenders but as sure meltdowns and freakshows, propped up as easy targets in front of the judges, who in turn pummeled them with uproarious guffaws.
The most shamefully manufactured humiliation was at the expense of a simple little country fellow named Jason, who claimed he had “almost died” three times, each scenario given Unsolved Mysteries-style dramatization spoofs. The guy couldn't remember how to start the Garth Brooks song he'd planned to sing, and the judges made him stand there for several minutes while they cracked each other up trying top each others' putdowns, playing the dozens with a guy who had no interest in keeping up. It was a cheap shot in letting the poor bastard get that far.
Among legitimate contenders, however, a couple of soul singers walked away golden, including a thoroughly obnoxious attention-starved dude who calls himself “Skii Bo Ski”; he impressed everybody except Simon, though, with a snaky version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, despite his outward buffoonery. Far more appealing was Keia Johnson, a cute Lauryn Hill type who sang a clearly competent rendition of “My Heart Will Go On”; she's one to watch although Simon told her she belonged in the cast of Oklahoma!, one of the stranger comments of the night. And an affable singer from Joliet, IL, Jermaine Sellers offered the night's only heart-wrenching—his mother suffers from spina bifida—so he was predictably solid on Joan Osborne's “One of Us”; the end of the song deteriorated into a melismatic nightmare, but the judges bought it enthusiastically and gave him the nod. Finally, a police officer and Chicken Little lookalike from Tennessee, Bryan Walker, turned in the evening's most graceful performance on “Superstar”.
Drawing from the rural hinterlands of the South, the audition was heavy on country singers, perhaps to the chagrin of a profoundly bored-looking Mary J Blige, the guest judge for this segment. Still, the night belonged to country gals, and given the success of Kellie “I Thought Europe Was a Country” Pickler and, especially, Carrie Underwood, you can't blame the show for mining for more twangy starlets, and Atlanta brought them in by the dozens. Mallorie Haley is dirty-blonde Nashville material in seven-inch heels, singing a speedy, drawly take on “Piece of My Heart”; don't bet against her any time soon. One of the oddest candidates to make it through was Holly Harden, who arrived in a doofy guitar-shaped costume. It was set up to be another laughable reject moment, but once she started singing, she discarded her squeaky Betty Boop schtick for a rich, sonorous version of Loretta Lynn's “You Ain't Woman Enough to Take My Man”.
More interesting was Vanessa Wolfe, the one folks will be talking about and eager to see again once the show moves to Hollywood. A scrawny blonde from backwater Tennessee, Vanessa is as country as they get, described as a bridge jumper (“the higher, the better”) because there's nothing else to do. A fish out of water in the big city, she admitted, “I don't want 'em to look down on me or nothin' like that”. No way this girl could be any good. But then she was, singing a sweet, springy take on Old Crow Medicine Show's “Wagon Wheel”. Vanessa will take her first “aeroplane” ride to Hollywood, and watching her transform into a contender could be one of this season's most compelling storylines.
But, again, this episode was dominated by oddities. Dewone Robinson, with a well-connected Motown legacy, stepped up and sang an original song called “Lady, We're Not Together Anymore”, a title so terrible that it's awesome. Unfortunately, that particular Motown bloodline has run out. Then, two seemingly insane teenage girls, Lauren and Carmen, auditioned together after doing each other's makeup as a JonBenet tribute and whitening their teeth into oblivion. Shocking twist: Carmen made it, but Lauren didn't, forcing everyone to hug it out. Lamar Royal came with a painful, screaming version of “Kiss From a Rose”, and after the judges (where was Simon?) passed on him, he flipped out and had to be escorted off the premises by Jerry Springer's bodyguards. Finally, as a special exhibition, 62-year-old General Larry Platt was allowed to audition, singing what might become America's next sensation: “Pants on the Ground”, a smackdown to bagging and sagging sartorial trends. All together now...
Next stop: Chicago.