Oklahoma brought a bit of a mixed bag of talent to the “American Idol” stage, to say the least- or as far as we saw, anyway, although 45 lucky songbirds ultimately made it through to Hollywood. To be fair, this was an abbreviated version of the show, only around an hour long. But, the two-hour shows tend to focus on a given city for approximately the same amount of time- around an hour for each locale- so it wasn’t that different, overall.
And yet, as ever, there was an inordinate amount of time spent devoted to, shall we say, the dubiously talented. Now I get that some people enjoy that train wreck aspect of the show, but here’s the thing. A few misguided souls notwithstanding, there have been at least two by my count that were clearly staged, at least to a certain degree. My proof? How about the fact that the bad auditioners took part in obviously-taped bits that the contestants had to be in on, simply to take part in filming them in the first place. Either they were in on the joke, or they didn’t realize they were the joke, but either way, it’s either misleading or just plain mean.
The big faker/victim this time around was one Anastasia Freeman- if that is your real name, Miss!- who positively wrecked Toni Braxton’s lovely ballad “Un-Break my Heart.” Crying afterwards, she tearfully admitted that “God told her to audition”- cue a self-proclaimed “cheap dramatization” with Freeman staring at a television like the kid in “Poltergeist,” with a disembodied voice telling her audition. “For “The Voice”? What about “The X-Factor”? No on both counts, of course, but “AI” naturally got the green light.
Now for one thing, this wasn’t really a laugh riot (although after Freeman bombed the audition, I did laugh when she said, seemingly for real, how the she would never listen to MC ever again, but “I never listened to Nicki Minaj, so that’s no loss. She worships the devil, anyway, I heard.” LOL. Must be the hair.); but also, way to plug the competition, guys. Yeah, it’s a dig on them, but it’s also acknowledging that the up-and-comers are creeping up, nipping at your heels.
I mentioned on the premiere how they were clearly trying to re-brand the “Idol” name, both as a new, hip thing and the most reliable of all the talent-driven reality shows. That was clever in its own marketing-savvy way, but this…not so much. It was too stagy, and frankly, waste a considerable amount of time that could have been devoted to, I don’t know, actual talent?
You know what I actually would like to see? A no-frills, no dross bonus episode of “Idol” that was nothing but the best of the best- minimal back-story, just straight-up impressive singing. And mind you, I say this as someone who already has to watch three hours of this a week. I would actually watch even more- if it meant I could see just the good stuff, I’d watch another two, I really mean it.
There’s a reason I like shows like this and, yes, “The Voice”-and to a slightly-lesser extent, “The X-Factor” (this past season would have been a total snooze minus Demi Lovato)- I, as these shows all propose to be doing, enjoy discovering new talent. I own CDs/downloads of many past “Idol” winners and even also-rans, and I have a few things by “Voice” and “X” talent, too. I really want to see good singers, not sadly deluded people or show-offs trying to get on TV…and succeeding, to some degree. After all, William Hung scored a record deal, too.
Then, every once in a while, the exact opposite happens. As in, some people that are dubiously talented at best get a pass. Take- be still my heart- Zoanette, who flat-out massacred of all things, “The Star Spangled Banner.” She forgot the lyrics, hit notes only Mariah can hear (and definitely not in a good way), was rude (to the judges: “I got a date, let’s get on with it.”) and quite frankly, all over the place. How at least Randy didn’t speak up as the voice of reason is beyond me. Between this and Beyonce’s “Banner-gate,” this was not the anthem’s best week ever. Far from it.
So, off the soapbox for a minute, which is all it will take to recount the good stuff. Karl Skinner, 26, from Missouri, set out to prove that “gingers have soul,” which was cute if you saw this. He gave an energetic, fun performance of James Brown’s “I Feel Good” that was wasn’t great, but entertaining at least, in a sort-of bar band, Taylor Hicks sort of way. Then he turned it around with a decent original tune on acoustic guitar, showing a bit of unexpected versatility. As the genuinely decent guy put it, “Whatever people want me to do, I’m gonna do it.” (Can you run “Idol” for a bit and have them concentrate on actual talent! Whoa! I’ll be here all week…) Though I sense Nicki was on the fence a bit on the second tune, he nonetheless got a full pass, 4 yeses. It was good, not great, but he was a personable guy, so we’ll let him slide a bit.
Ditto nice guy #2: Nate Tao, a 24-year-old Asian man who had two deaf parents and was fluent in sign language, for obvious reasons. As with Skinner, he was solid, if unspectacular, but such a decent guy you had to smile. He got through on the strength of Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in my Life.”
The heart-jerker of the night was undeniably Kayden Stephenson, a 16-year old kid that looked way younger, who finally got to realize his dream of being on “Idol” after longing to for most of his life. The poor kid was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis, a terminal illness that basically ensures that he won’t be long for this earth, if the doctors are to be believed. His demeanor was so sweet-natured, his outlook so positive, and his attitude so bright that you couldn’t help but pray he was a halfway decent singer. He was good enough to get past the auditioning process, lest the TV Gods reserve a special place in Hell for the judges…oh wait, Nicki’s already reserved a seat, I forgot. (I kid because I love.)
Astonishingly enough, though, my favorite contestant by far and the last of the best of the night, was one Haley Hilburn…and let’s not forget Oscar, her hand puppet. Oh yes, friends and neighbors, it had train wreck written all over it, but sometimes “Idol” can still throw you a curveball. Whatever the case, if you ever longed to see a puppet yodel, boy, were you in for a treat. Yep, Haley was a junior-league Jeff Dunham, only way easier on the eyes…and ears, astonishingly enough.
Self-proclaiming the crazy on the front end, she backed it up with a shockingly great singing voice, IMHO the best of the night, and I realize I say that at the risk of eternal damnation for rating her above a kid with CF. But hey, at least Nicki will be there. Maybe we can hang out, freestyle rap, model wigs and whatnot. Are wigs allowed in Hell?
Ending on a funny and surprisingly touching moment, after Haley’s audition finished with her setting aside the puppet, Oscar then went on a pilgrimage to find himself, panhandling on the street, “Will yodel for food” sign in tow (!), before- gasp!- lying to rest in the garbage. Poor Oscar, thrown into the trash like…oh wait, I see what you did there. Well played “Idol,” well played. You win some, you lose some, I guess. Novelty aside, this Dina Meyer-esque cutie brought it- whatever it was in this case.
So, that about wraps it up, I’m afraid. Kind of a minor entry in the auditions process of “American Idol,” to be sure, but worth it for the puppet, I suppose. Aren’t most things? Next stop Hollywood, where there should be plenty of puppets to deal with.