American Idol: Hollywood Week, Round One

On the verge of driving a stake into its own heart with interminable audition shows, Idol finally reaches Hollywood week to separate the wheat from the chaff and end up with the Top 24 singers who’ll make up the season’s official talent pool. The show to this point has been a typical sleight of hand in showing some promising auditions but also withholding others in order to keep a lid on the Top 24, already decided behind locked and heavily guarded doors. Amid the technocalypse, however, it’s virtually impossible to keep anything under wraps that involves two-dozen people, so not only did a story surface that one of the finalists was yanked for blabbing, but the entire Top 24 was leaked last week by a mystery source who has been accurate when letting the cat out the bag during two previous seasons. In any case, it’s down to (mostly) people who can actually sing, so hooray for Hollywood.

As the show unveiled this season’s first look at the Kodak Theater (described by Ryan Seacrest at “The Most High-Profile Stage in the World”: Hmm.), we also got our first look at new judge Ellen Degeneres, strolling out in denim and heavy makeup. News sites last week, with story lines running thin, were trying to make hay out of Ellen’s supposed comments that Simon was meaner than she thought he was. No signs of salty-vs.-sweet friction last night between the two of them, as Ellen seemed to charm about everyone, including Simon and, based on early poll results, the home audience, as well, by finding a balance between praise, criticism, and wit.

For this first sudden-death round, contestants could sing either a capella or by accompanying themselves on guitar or keyboards. This second look finally provided a follow-up to some of the more engaging personalities and compelling storylines from the auditions although the judges made quick work of some of the most memorable ones. As it turns out, some of those with interesting storylines weren’t the best singers, and their gold rush to California didn’t pan out for long, some not heeding Simon’s steely advice: “Don’t be nervous. Don’t be boring. Don’t forget the words”.

Did you have Skiiboski Fever coming into last night? Of course not, but “Skiiboski” Wheeler debuted a slightly more humble persona on “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”, after which Ellen told him he stalked the judges “like a leopard behind a cage”. They cut him, but a showboat like Skii had to commandeer a mike for a final pleading question: “Why?” Simon: “You’re just not a very good singer”. Zing!

Remember Vanessa Wolfe, the bridge-jumping filly from the Tennessee sticks, who was fascinating, if only because she was so aw-shucks, never-been-away-from-home country? She bombed last night, letting her nerves absolutely pickle her version of Blind Melon’s “No Rain”. No go. And how about Amedeo DiRocco, the beefy, gregarious Italian, who sang what appeared to be a sweaty, shouty try at “That’s Life”. He was let go, unsurprisingly, but not before he proved that he, like Skiiboski, isn’t too proud to beg.

Other semi-stinkers who were sent back to the airport included Barney-girl-turned-leather-fetishist, Eric Rhodes—she loves the judges, but they wouldn’t say they love her, too. Been waiting to see Jay Stone again, the beat-boxer who somehow made it to this round? Simon cut characteristically to the chase: “Jay, that was ridiculous”. Ellen: “Something’s wrong with his microphone.” It’s amazing how fast the balloon bursts. The dolled-up Jersey sisters from hairdresser parents? Gone, but look for a Maxim spread coming soon.

On the other hand, lots of talent emerged that we’ll see in the next round, many of them stepping things way up from the auditions, especially those who played instruments, providing a better look at potential honed by years of strumming and singing in bedrooms. Seven of these singers emerged as frontrunners, any of them with a reasonable chance of continuing deep into the competition.

1. Andrew Garcia, who played guitar and sang a not-ironic acoustic-rock version of departed-judge Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up”, the best version of that song ever (unless you preferred the tribute performed by the contestant a few years back who claimed he was sleeping with Paula. How can Ellen compete?).

2. I’ve seen the future of American Idol and her name is Janell Wheeler, a guitar-strumming blonde, who has the voice, looks, and personality to go all the way.

3. Haeley Vaughn, a sweet girl who fashions herself as a burgeoning black country singer, was far more impressive accompanying herself on guitar, as rudimentary as her chording was. She has a cool voice, but that lisp is going to be a liability.

4. Lilly Scott has one of those jazz-vocal chanteuse voices so popular these days. It’s an affected style, of course, but she’s a true singer and has an eclectic look with her winter-moon hair and purple leggings.

5. Proving Simon wrong last night was Casey James, the dirty-blonde fella who went shirtless for Kara during the auditions. He was a clear highlight in the Hollywood round, this time, flashing capable guitar accompaniment and singing a blues-soul-roots hybrid that could be plenty marketable. They’ll make him sing showtunes at some point, so he’ll be an interesting one to follow.

6. Didi Benami cried hard during auditions, so it was nice to see a more poised performance. She also played guitar and sang impressively in a singer-songwriter voice and sensibility. With her amiable vibe, she has the makings of a successful folk rocker, if she can write well.

7. Crystal Bowersox had perhaps the best night of anyone. A confident performer with killer pipes, she’s a guitar-playing hippie chick—seen getting a tattoo on her back to honor her young son before the performance. She sang “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, employing an appealing mix of sweetness and hardness that could turn into a trademark.

Overall, the show just got way more interesting as we’ve identified talent and personalities legit enough to justify the upcoming thirty hours of our television attention. By the way, Michael Lynche’s audition aired last night; he delivered a spot-on version of John Mayer’s “Waiting for the World to Change” just minutes after learning that his wife was heading into labor. Lynche is the one who reportedly made the Top 24 but was sent home on a confidentiality rap. Let’s hope that report proves false—the show will be much better with him around.

Next: We’ll know more tonight after the always drama-inducing Group Round.