On Wednesday, "Idol" headed to Wisconsin, the land of cheese and Danny Gokey--which, come to think of it, are kind of the same thing. Heh. And after a couple of "kindler, gentler" episodes that were surprisingly light on trainwreck auditions, the show was back to its old tricks, with plenty of cheesy contestants that had newbie judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler slinging barbs that Simon Cowell would sell his entire black T-shirt collection to come up with.
"Steven, you are INSANE!" howled Randy Jackson. And sure enough, there was plenty of insanity (including a couple ill-advised Gaga and J.Lo covers, a dental hygiene PSA, a bunch of wannabe Biebers, and plenty of inappropriate Tyler flirting) to follow. But by the end of the night, the panel had discovered some truly exceptional talent, and one sob story to rival even widower Gokey's. It was the best crop of contenders yet this season.
Scott Dangerfield - There's little doubt that this boy will be a heartthrob among the girlies: He made out with a girl while waiting in the lobby, and later entered the audition room with telltale lipstick smeared across his mouth. This only impressed fellow ladykiller Steven, who probably got the idea for an Aerosmith lyric when Scott said he'd found "love in the 'Idol' line." All three judges were impressed with Scott's sweetly soulful Amos Lee cover, stellar enough to make him J.Lo's official favorite (and one of mine) of the season so far. I have a feeling Scott will get to kiss a lot of girls after this--and if he gets to the top 20, he'll have a (lip)lockdown on the female vote.
Steve Beghun - A self-described friendless CPA and volunteer "wedding and funeral singer" whose surname is pronounced "big goon," this guy had REJECT written all over him. I absolutely expected him to be one of this episode's trainwrecks, as his bio piece built him up to be a true weirdo. That's why I was so surprised by his audition. Oh, make no mistake: He was a weirdo, all right, with a Vienna Boys Choir-style eunuch yelp that could make Tiny Tim sound like Luther Vandross. But, as Steven put it, there was something "disturbingly great, weird, compelling" about him. I still can't believe he got through, and I expect him to become Vote For The Worst's posterboy, but I'm sure looking forward to seeing this big goon in Hollywood.
Emma Henry - This girl, with her Feist-y, smoky, lump-in-throat version of Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors," was one of my favorites of the night...but I shared the judges' valid concerns that this 15-year-old fragile spirit might get eaten alive during Hollywood Week. "I really, really, honestly believe you'd get swallowed up in this thing," Randy warned. Emma instantly crumbled, which only proved Randy's point. But then again, Emma was wise enough to know CRYING WORKS, because within 30 seconds the (Tylerism alert!) "Dawg turned into a pussycat" and Randy voted her through. I just hope Emma develops a thicker skin between now and Hollywood, or we'll be seeing a whole lot more crying from her.
Jerome Bell - Jerome makes his living singing at Bar Mitzvahs, the Jewish rite of passage that celebrates a preteen's transition into adulthood. And that makes sense, because man, his sexy rendition of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" was all grown up. Hubba hubba! "Hot, crazy vocals!" gushed Randy. "Beautiful, so so good!" hollered Steven. And he did it all in superfly silver "space boots," too. Expect Jerome to blast off in Hollywood Week and not return to the Bar Mitzvah circuit any time soon.
Naima Adedapo - This woman holds a day job cleaning and toilet-brushing the grounds of Milwaukee's Summerfest, but she really ought to be playing the Summerfest stage, not sweeping it. Naima looked like a star with her colorful India.Arie/Erykah Badu/Lauryn Hill vibe, and when she belted out Donny Hathaway's "For All We Know," she had the pipes to match. J.Lo called her "the whole package" and "one of the best we've seen." S.Ty said, "I think you're all that." I can't wait to see this dynamite lady in Hollywood. And maybe at Summerfest.
Thia Megia - This 15-year-old, who puzzingly didn't get past the semifinals round of "America's Got Talent" in 2009, was planning to wait until Season 11 to audition for "Idol." But luckily for her (and us), "Idol's" lowered age limit allowed her to try out this season. Talent like this really shouldn't have to wait any longer. After hearing her unique, powerfully soulful version of Adele's "Chasing Pavements"--with what Steven called "muster and smoke and heat"--I could see Thia going a lot farther on "Idol" than she did on "AGT."
Molly DeWolf Swenson - A Harvard grad and White House intern with coltish blonde good looks and a fab sense of humor (she laughed it off when Randy accidentally bopped her in the kisser while high-fiving contestants), clearly this gal is going places with or without "Idol." But now she's leaving D.C. and going to Hollywood, after an unexpectedly sexy, breathy performance of Otis Redding's "Sittin' On The Dock Of A Bay." Said Steven in his typical lascivious manner: "You got attitude, and you know where to put it." Really, this brainy bombshell should be invited to croon "Happy Birthday, Mr. President," Marilyn Monroe-style, to Obama at his next b-day bash.
Scotty McCreery - An all-American, baseball-playing good ole boy from speck-on-the-map Garner, North Carolina, Scotty might as well have entered the audition room eating a slice of apple pie, he seemed so fully sprung from a Norman Rockwell painting. And this country kid had a deep, Trace Adkins-esque voice that seriously belied his 16 years. His Josh Turner and Travis Tritt covers wowed all three judges, with J.Lo crying out, "We discovered him! He's legendary!" I personally found Scott to be cheesier than the output of Wisconsin's most productive dairy farm--he was very '90s, very Garth, very hat act--but I can't deny he could be VERY marketable in the heartland.
Chris Medina - Chris may not win "Idol," but he ought to win an award for Nicest Boyfriend On The Planet. His fiancée sustained a major brain injury in a car accident and went into a 90-day coma just two months before their (now postponed) wedding, and in the year and a half since she woke up, Chris has been one of her primary caretakers. "What kind of guy would I be if I walked out when she needed me most?" he explained. Aw. Even in a season already packed with sob stories, this one was a doozy--maybe even the sobbiest sob story in "Idol" history. Even Steven got choked up when Chris wheeled his girlfriend into the audition room to say hello. Luckily, Chris's smooth, Mrazzy cover of the Script's "Breakeven" was enough to get him to Hollywood. I'm glad a nice guy like this got a break, even though, sadly, I doubt he'll make it farther than that. I wish he was better, because I want to root for him.
THE BAD & THE FUNNY:
Megan Frazier - A manic Packers fan dubbed by Ryan Seacrest as the "most annoying girl in the world," this Red Bull-bingeing cheesehead sure packed a lot of insanity into her glass-shattering opera cover of Justin Bieber's "Baby." Baby, baby, baby...NO. Well, at least her team won this week. I hope that was consolation.
Joe Repka - A wannabe DJ hoping to pick up some pointers from Ryan Seacrest, this awkward 19-year-old in the Tevas sandals and Charlie Brown stripes quickly proved he did not have a voice for radio--at least not a singing voice. His yelpy cover of Billy Joel's "The Longest Time" indeed seemed to go on for the longest time. "Do not quit your day job. Don't sing into the mic, talk into it," Steven wisely advised.
Nathaniel Jones - This crazy-eyed Civil War reenacter was used to going into battle--but he'd never fought any war like the one in the "Idol" audition room. His horrific cover of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" was enough to make the rest of the nation actually secede from Wisconsin. Steven, who might really be insane, bizarrely dug Nathaniel, but thankfully the rest of the panel shot him down, as "Taps" solemnly played Nathaniel out.
Vernika Patterson - This woman had some nerve to sing Minnie Ripperton's "Loving You"; she couldn't hit that big money note, or even the normal notes before that. When all three judges rejected her, she squawked, "Is it because I'm not skinny like half of these females in here?" Unfortunately, Randy's somewhat unkind pointing out of less-than-svelte past winners like Ruben, Kelly, and Jordin did nothing to convince Vernika that it was really her voice that earned her a big fat no.
So, there you have it. Who knew so many great singers existed among Wisconsin's cheeseheads? Thursday, the show moves on to Music City, Nashville, where there's sure to be another wellspring of talent. But Milwaukee will be tough to beat.