Yep, tonight was episode 2 of season 8, and the audition stop was Kansas City (not Kansas the state, as I previously and erroneously reported; I guess the mind-boggling spectacle of Ryan Seacrest attempting to high-five a blind contestant threw me off my facts). This is the town where last season's winner, David Cook, was discovered, so expectations were running high tonight. And if there was any chance that a contender as hunky as David would show up, then you could bet I'd be watching. (Oh my, did I just type that out loud? Whoops...)
But before I move on to recapping tonight's Kansas City proceedings, I want to take a minute to say that so far, I am quite impressed with new judge Kara DioGuardi. Usually when a show futzes with its format and adds new cast members, it's a last-ditch desperate effort to save a flagging formula, but Kara really seems to be an asset to AmIdol. She's sharp as a tack, sharp-tongued, and sharp-dressed, even...and I love watching her sassily spar with Simon in ways that Paula never could even in at her most hopped-up, pill-popped best. I think Simon's met his match, and it's about time.
So anyway, Cheslea Marquardt was the first to sing for Kara and company, and she certainly had the proper pop-star image in the classic Carrie Underwood mold: sister-golden-haired, all-American, Ivory Girl looks. And she got me all excited when she claimed that the judges and viewers would be surprised when a big, brimming-with-emotion diva voice came booming out of her little girly body. Well, I was surprised, all right. Egad! Simon likened Chelsea's voice to that of "a cat jumping off the Empire State Building"...but I think that was an insult to felines everywhere. Like many Idol wannabes before her, Chelsea exited the audition room in total denial, blaming her failure to make it through to Hollywood on a wrong song choice. Well, I have to agree with her, somewhat: She picked a song with LYRICS. And VOCALS. She certainly would have been better off if she'd gone with, say, an instrumental.
Next up was brunette bombshell Ashley Anderson, who went with a very savvy song choice herself: "Footprints In The Sand," a Leona Lewis ballad co-penned by none other than Simon Cowell himself. Yep, that's how you butter up Simon, for sure: Either you sing one of his songs, or you wear a bikini. Thankfully, Ashley went with option #1, and despite botching the words (singing "footsteps" rather than "footprints"), she remained in Simon's good graces by not botching the vocals. "Best song of the auditions so far!" Simon beamed, his eyeballs practically turning cartoon-style into dollar signs (or pound signs, maybe) as he tallied up the broadcast royalties in his flat-topped head. Of course, Ashley received a golden ticket...but unlike like Bikini Girl, this sucker-upper deserved it, since she could actually sing.
Another brown-eyed girl, Casey Carlson, was next, and the judges unanimously swooned for her sweet version of Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles." I was less impressed. There was a school-recital vibe to her amateurish, understated performance, and I thought it was nothing special. But she sure was cute. Not so cute was Brian Hettler. When this self-described "big guy with a big heart and a big voice" showed up, Burt Reynolds chest hair poking out of his deep-V leather neckline, and started discussing his opera-trained background and sonic similarity to Josh Groban, I admit I was intrigued. But deep down, I had a feeling he would be one of those contestants that would be built up in the pre-audition segment to be some sort of powerhouse talent, and then, just when I'd be rooting for him and all psyched to hear him sing his guts out...he'd open his mouth and actually sound terrible. And guess what? My sixth sense was right! Seven-plus seasons of avid Idol viewing have truly honed my mediocrity-detector. Yes, Brian's blowhardy, arrhythmically finger-snapped, bad-'68-Comeback version of Aretha Franklin's "Think" was truly awful. (You better think, Brian--about another career, that is.)
A few more dreary auditions followed while Simon grew grumpier and grumpier and I laughed harder and harder. Then Von Smith showed up, warning us all that he had a wide range and "attempted to sing stuff most men wouldn't." Translation: He sounds like a girl. At least that was what I automatically assumed. He entered the room like a real Broadway baby and belted out "Over The Rainbow" with so much force, it was like he was trying to cough up a lung. He didn't sound so much like a girl as sounded like drag queen, if that makes sense. Seriously OTT stuff, dawg. He kind of reminded me of season 1 Star Search winner Sam Harris, that campy Vegas guy in the '80s who used to grab his coattails and hike them up over his head for dramatic effect. Anyway, it was such a blindsighting audition that Fox decided to insert a commercial break before revealing the judges' cliffhanger reaction. And then all four judges said...(wait for it)...YES! Huh? Wow. I have a feeling this kid is going to keep things interesting.
Next up was a familiar face, minus the Travolta-blue eyes and dreadlocks: Michael Castro. Yep, the brother of Jason. Michael bore little similarity to his season 7 finalist bro--he looked more like the lovechild of Nikki McKibbin and Blake Lewis, honestly--but personality-wise, there was definitely a resemblance. Let's just say that it seemed like Michael was "thinking Bob Marley," too. Cough. When poor Ryan Seacrest was caught between these two braindrained brothers during the pre-audition waiting room interview segment, you could see how uncomfortable he was struggling to draw polysyllabic words out of those two. So then Michael auditioned with a Gavin DeGraw song, freely admitting that he'd only started singing only 20 days earlier. And he's Jason Castro's brother, remember. Whoa, way to pay your dues, Michael! I don't really think, in light of those two facts--or considering that Simon described his untrained voice as merely "'goodish"--that Michael deserved a golden ticket. Simon said, "I'm never quite sure with you Castros," and I wasn't too sure either. But an oddly flirty Kara praised him for being a "ballsy dude," and somehow Michael made it through. So I guess that's another way to succeed, besides singing a Simon song or wearing a bikini: being genetically related to a past contestant. It's all who you know in Hollywood, after all.
Welder and doting daddy Matt Breizke, a seasoned bar singer who'd been singing for much longer than 20 days, later split the panel (Randy was not a fan) but ultimately made it through. Then another pinky-haired hopeful, Jasmine Joseph, attempted to mimic Von Smith's vocal range on her own rendition of "Over The Rainbow" and stunned the panel in her own not-so-special way. (There was NO pot of gold at the end of her rainbow, as it was a solid no.) Then a Janis Joplin-channeling small-town girl with big dreams named Jessica redeemed Kansas City's female population with a solid, unforced performance of "Crybaby." That girl needs a makeover--those nerdgirl glasses have to go, for starters--but I have a feeling there's a real natural beauty behind those specs and that lumberjack flannel shirt, and I look forward to her miraculous transformation once the Idol stylists get their mitts on this diamond in the rough. Remember the magic the stylists worked on formerly bespectacled Kimberley Locke?
Rapping sister act Asia and India McClain then jointly auditioned, warming up the judges with some sort of freestyle about French fries or hamburgers or I don't know what. Something food-related, at least. When it came time to sing, only India had what it took to make it through, but I have to say I admired Asia's sportsmanlike support of her sibling. With so many contestants throwing hissyfits if the judges didn't tell them they were even better than sliced bread, it was nice to see Asia handle rejection with so much grace.
Mini-mohawked Jamar Rogers was a bit too sing-shouty in his subsequent audition. But his attempt at "California Dreamin'" proved prophetic, as he ended up getting a ticket to Cali after all. I think this guy has potential, if he can just bring it down a notch, so I look forward to hearing more from him. Then Jamar's best friend friend, music teacher Danny Gokey, tried out. This guy had a real sob story, a tale of woe that made last night's blind-guy-overcoming-adversity, or last year's chick whose dad just died (Asia Epperson), look like nothing. Not since elderly widow Sherman Pore was granted a sympathy audition in 6 had my heartstrings been so forcefully plucked by a contestant's backstory. This guy's young bride had died only four weeks before his audition, and he was so choked up trying to talk about his ordeal with Ryan, I was worried he wouldn't be able to keep his composure during his audition. "Please let him be good please let him be good please let him be good please let him be good," I thought to myself. "Please don't let him suck." My fingers and toes were triple-crossed as I rooted Danny on. Thankfully, I was not disappointed when he sang "I Heard It Through The Grapevine." Danny had soul, and he sang from his soul. There was no way the judges weren't going to let this guy through, sob story or not.
Next up was another delightful surprise: college nerd Anoop Desai. Luckily, Anoop (swiftly nicknamed "Anoop Dogg" by Randy) had more in common with Clay Aiken than William Hung: In other words, he was a supernerd with an unexpectedly super voice. Perhaps not since Clay himself had I witnessed such a massive image/voice disconnect, but that was part of what made Anoop fascinating. However, I do suggest he spend some quality time with the Idol stylists as well. It couldn't hurt. Look what they did for Clay!
More gimmick auditions followed--fluffy bunny onesies, Flavor Flav pimp suits, furry cat tails, but thankfully no more Bikini Girls--but then Andrew Lang made the biggest, most gimmicky impression of all, by having two nutjob beatboxing cheerleaders-from-hell introduce him. Luckily he sang much better than his backup squad, but he still turned off the judges with his theatrically (which made no sense, since they let VON SMITH through), and he was ultimately turned away. And then there came an Idol first: crying cheerleaders. The cheerleaders took the news a lot harder than Andrew did, actually. Suddenly, they were more like gloomleaders.
One cheerful contender was middle-school band director and cute dad Asa Barnes, whose daughter--when asked why Asa was the next American Idol--said, "Because he is!" Well, I couldn't argue with that logic. His kid was right, actually. Asa's knockout performance of Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel" was one of Kansas City's standouts, and he made his daughter proud and made it through.
Michael Nicewonder was next. With a surname like that (and blood ties to Hank Williams Jr.), how he could he suck? But um, he did. Even his mother knew he would--Mr. Nicewonder admitted she vehemently discouraged his unrealistic Idol dreams. Well, mother knew best in this case. Michael's original Hallmarky ballad (awkwardly and downright creepily dedicated to his unsupportive mom) was neither nice nor wondrous. Well, it had me wondering, of course. But not in a good way. I was just wondering what this guy was thinking. Was he thinking "Bob Marley," too?
Dennis Brigham, speaking of creepy and awkward, auditioned next and told Simon he'd had a dream about him the night before. That didn't win Simon over--and neither did his claim that he could "sing very, very, very, very, very good"--but somehow Dennis's colorful personality and quirky charm got him through to Hollywood. I can't imagine he'll make it farther than that, though. What were the judges thinking? Were they thinking Bob Marley? "That is called 'being duped,'" dissenting judge Simon snarled--with good reason.
More snarling ensued when Mia Conley overambitiously attempted to belt out the "toughest song in the world," Minnie Ripperton's "Loving You." The judges desperately, futilely tried to stop Mia before she got to that dolphin-shrill, South Park-lampooned, famous moneyshot note, but to no avail. "OOOOHHHHHOOOOOHH," Mia screeched, as small dogs (or dawgs) from all four corners of Kansas City came running over in response and all the windows in the audition room shattered to smithereens. Yikes! Mia didn't take the judges' criticism well; she didn't take it at all, actually, insisting the only reason she didn't make it was because the show had already hit its Kansas City quota and there was no more room for her. "God's gonna get you," she angrily warned the Idol powers-that-be. But they were willing to risk it...
Luckily, the show hadn't reached its supposed/imagined KC quota when the final singer, Lil' Rounds, showed up. She was fabulous--Kara declared she was the best so far, Randy compared her to Mary J. Blige and Fantasia, and even surly Simon had nothing but kind words to say. I have a feeling we'll see this Lil' woman with the BIG voice in the top 12.
And thus ended week one of season 8. Kansas City proved to be a fruitful tour stop (Simon actually said he was in love with the city)...with the most impressive KC singers, in my opinion, being Danny Gokey, Anoop Dogg, Asa Barnes (love him), and Lil' Rounds. And, for pure entertainment value, there was Von Smith, Dennis Brigham, and Michael Castro. None of them have replaced Phoenix's Cody Sheldon in my heart yet--Cody is my favorite, from Tuesday night--but the season is still young. We'll just have to wait until next week to see who else offers up some stiff competition