Tuesday, February 3, 2009

American Idol, episode 8-8 (Feb. 3): Hollywood round, days 1 & 2

"Auditioned over 100,000"? Well, not quite. I hear from friends who've auditioned that around one out of five people who line up will end up performing for the Gang of Four. That statistic still seems generous, though, since that would mean the judges pulled the current 147 competitors from a pool of 20,000 people over 16 days. That's a lot of sobbing and misplaced egocentrism.

[Fox TV recap video here.]

After a montage of quick cuts, swooping camera angles and sped-up action, the Kodak Theater is fetishized, Randy shows us that his grammar needs to catch up to his musicality, and we're introduced to Idol Boot Camp. As much I hated the idea of adding a "new twist" (read: more drama) to the show, I was actually pleasantly surprised by how productive of an addition the Boot Camp is. Although I thought bringing in Barry Manilow as a keynote speaker was over the top, he actually, perhaps unintentionally, spoke to the truth behind Boot Camp: the judges (and also the producers, I supposed) want the auditionees to succeed (i.e. not suck), and Boot Camp theoretically would raise the overall level of the auditions, bringing the show further in line with Fox's promise of less of a freak-show this season. The vocal coaches were a brilliant touch; at least now, when an auditionee makes horrible choice despite the coach's recommendations, we'll know it's ego and not just ignorance. Manilow also says that being a star is matter of "preparation meets opportunity." What's that? Being a yuge, yuge stah requires forethought? And you shouldn't squander an opportunity like you were entitled to it? Fancy that.

Lil Rounds, 23, sings "I-ee-I... Will Always Love You-ooooo". Exactly. Like. Whitney Houston. Interesting that the entire passage is no wider a perfect 4th-- without the chest voice oo-ing, it's down to a minor 3rd!-- and it sits right on the top of her range, which sounds so strained it hurt to listen to it. Kara stands for her, saying "that was hot," which suggests that the audition may have been good overall, and that leads to the obvious question: Why would Fox show bad portions of auditions that may actually be good over all, leaving the judges looking like idiots and leaving the viewers annoyed?

Dennis Brigham, 19, powers through "For Once In My Life". It comes off as very forced and a bit nasal too. (Turns out they made the right choice, given Dennis's arrogant reaction and atonal attempt at proving the judges wrong.)

Nathaniel Marshall, 18, wearing 1990 upholstery for a shirt and his heart on both non-sleeeves, sings "The Anchor Holds" with a breathy R&B intensity. He's obviously got serious pipes, but, as Paula points out, it kinda hangs out on the same few notes, like Lil's audition. His explanation for why he chose that more obscure, mellow song dissolves into balthering, and is foreshadowing for the sea-foam-tinted drama he'll create later.

Anoop Desai has come a seriously long way since his KC audition. I originally thought of his a raw talent forged in the unfortunate crucible of the college a-cappella set, but making it to Hollywood must've put some fire under his butt, because the ten seconds we hear here are fantastic. I call him for the final 36. [Insert future backpedalling here.]

Jasmine Murray continues down the vocal warpath. Not a single note sound half-assed, and it still somehow doesn't seem derivative. Like Anoop, she's obviously working on her own, and it shows. I call her for the final 36 as well.

Rose Black, continuing her run as Idol's resident street urchin, sings "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" with an odd combination of earnestness and weakness. There are moment which are strong, in a gritty Overmeyer-ish way, and then others where she looks like she's about to fall asleep. How she's going to get through the group day without collapsing is anyone's guess.

Stephen Fowler, 26, channels Stevie (Wonder, not Nicks) and, as Paula says, nails it. Gorgeous, soulful tone without going overboard. I call him for the final 36. Or Fox could be setting me up for frustration. (Bastards.)

Jorge Nunez, 20, starts off like Lil, with a long screaming high note, but mercifully heads downward and reveals a strong belting tenor.

Von Smith, 22, is _also_ belting like crazy. I loved what I heard here; it was controlled, despite the relentless high notes, and the improvvy passages felt natural. Simon calls in "indulgent nonsense," "annoying" and childlike. Again, it seems obvious that judging some performances will be impossible in these edited snippets.

Flash back to Debra Byrd, Boot Camp vocal coach, impressing the competitors on the importance of song choice. "Is this right song for me, right here, right now?" Flash forward to one auditionee after another being chastised on stage for poor song choice. Even if their were licensing limitations, how can you limit yourself to one song that doesn't work?

Nick Mitchell (27!), a/k/a Norman Gentle, a/k/a half of the guys who perform at The Duplex, has returned to cheese his way through an audition. (I love that the whole Norman Gentle get-up was sitting in a trash bin on Chelsea Piers at some point.) Again, he's got a strong voice that he chooses to pinch for comedic effect on "I Am Not Going". Not that I think that Idol is the be-all and end-all of performing, but... 100,000 people showed up hoping to get at least this far... he was picked as of the 127 to get here... why would anyone want to squander this opportunity? Simon hates the camp, and Paula would like to see him perform without the camp, which of course he should have been doing anyway. He's on the group auditions, somehow, with two strikes against him.

Following a minute of Ford product placement, we get to Jackie Tohn, 27, another Obermeyer-sounding wild child with lots of energy and tendency to twang every vowel. (She's also missing an inner monologue, which will for very interesting live television if she gets that far.)

Jamar Rogers, 26, powers through "California Dreamin'" like it's his job (and could be his job). Talk about a strong choice: a well-written song, it shows different parts of his range, and it sits perfectly in his range.

Danny Gokey, 28 (and a music teacher!), equally powers through "Kiss From a Rose". I think I would pay money to hear this guy's voice in concert. It's got that breathy off-kilter he's-about-to-blow-a-gasket-but-doesn't sound that's like butter (salted butter, but butter).

Kartina "Bikini Girl" Darrel, 22. She is the next American Idol because... she is. Right. He rendition of "I Can Feel You Breathe" is very pushy, almost whiny. Which is not to say that she lacks natural power, but she doesn't appear to have put much work into her singing since the cattle-call, which is another strike against her in the self-entitlement department. Interestinly, Randy suggests that she _has_ been working on her voice, which I find hard to believe. What is it about this girl that clouds Randy's and Simon's objectivity? Goodness. (Granted, she does look [and sound] better this time around.)

Sharon Wilbur is eliminated, thank goodness. She had no shot at the Top 36 anyway.

Jeremy Michael Sarver continues to break my heart. He's got a strong, authentic country bari-tenor that doesn't let up. HIs spot in the Top 36 is a no-brainer, assuming Fox isn't setting us up for the biggest red herring ever.

Jesus Valenzuela, 29, comes up weak. Why go so far down-- "what I really feel"-- to a part of your range thst isn't strong? Yet another bad choice in two days of bad choices, and he pays for it.

David Osmond. A good audition-- smooth as last time though not as commanding-- but my ability to critique it is overshadowed by my annoyance with Fox's audio techs, which now continues into a third season. Why is it that beat-up microphones in dive bars in New York City can handle loud singing and plosive consonants, but as soon as someone on a high-budget national television show sings the words "apart" on a louder high note, it sounds like a horror show. Turn up the gain and get those mics some pop filters, fer crissake. He moves on, mic issues and all.

Emily Lynn Hughes plans to sing "I Put A Spell On You" ("the 1940's original song," as she oddly tells two of the vocal coaches), but calls an audible and sings an unrehearsed song on stage. So much for making choices, and for using the vocal coaches that Fox is no doubt handsomely compensating; even her mom can't figure out what she was thinking. "Excuse Me Mister" sounds hesitant, and the judges call her on it, but apparently it must've been stronger than we saw, as she's on the group round. She later attributed the switch to nerves, which doesn't bode well for her as the stakes get higher.

Following that elimination, Erika Wesley, 26, who we saw for literally five seconds earlier, shows some cojones by asking the judges for another chance, and she might've gotten it from Paula if she hadn't brought up her husband's birthday, which sends Paula (and Kara and Randy) into a tizzy. You swear forcefully that you're a fighter, and then you bring up your husband's birthday? Seriously? Rule no. 4 again:

4) A crisis on your part does not constitute sympathy on an auditioners' part.

You can see the frustration and resignation on Simon's face when they cut to him, and aside from annoyance at the cajoling itself, I think I know what he's thinking. If I were in his shoes, playing the dual role of celebrity judge and co-producer (IIRC) on this show for eight years now, I'd be having a terrible revelation that the chickens came home to roost long ago, and those chickens are still showing up and will not be easy to get fend off. When the show took off in its first season, the freaks started coming out to audition for the second season. When the producers saw that the freaks were testing well in the focus groups, the show started running "best of the worst" specials, which of course gave freakdom further incentive to come out and audition and fly their freak flags on television. The freak-show in general were more likely to be overly emotive, to cajole the judges, to be arrogantly self-deluded, and to generally be less professional (and often flat-out rude) and not understand the basics of auditioning. Now, despite Fox's promise that there would less of a freak-show in this season, they're still being bombarded with auditionees who, despite being talented, still think that auditionees have license to act like babies. It's like the current rash of IM-speak sneaking into classroom writing: the kids aren't stupid or even bad speakers of English, they just have no idea that it's inappropriate.

Tomorrow night, we go to... oh, it's the same theater. What theater is that again, Ryan? I'm sure he'll remind us again, first thing.

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