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Phoenix Rising: American Idol Begins Anew!

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks

American Idol is back! American Idol is back! American Idol is back! American Idol is back! Thank gawd (or dawg) almighty, American Idol is back!

OK, sorry about that little outburst. I'm actually kind of surprised at how excited I am about American Idol's return this week. I thought after seven full seasons, 84 semi-finalists, umpteen awful auditions, two ill-advised Beatles Nights, and one Sanjaya, I'd be totally over this show.

I thought wrong.

You know, I honestly don't know what it is about this program. Why does it still have such a stranglehold on me (and jillions of other googly-eyed, speed-dialing, glitterglue-sign-hoisting American fans)? Whatever it is...seven years later, I'm still hopelessly hooked. American Idol, I can't quit you.

So it was with great geeky excitement that I tuned in for tonight's season 8 premiere. And the show certainly started off amusingly and entertainingly, with a crib-notesy rundown of memorable highlights and lowlights from the past seven seasons (Big Bird Lady, Glitter Girl, William Hung, sobbing Ashley Ferl, crazy Clay Aiken fan Michael Sandecki being ambushed onstage by his newly madeover idol, Sanjaya rocking that famous fauxhawk), as well as a hilarious home-video clip of distraught David Archuleta fans sobbing over the news of Archie's season 7 defeat (ah, memories).

Suddenly, I remembered why I love American Idol.

Sure, I've enjoyed blogging about So You Think You Can Dance and Redemption Song and America's Got Talent and America's Best Dance Crew and Gone Country and Celebrity Rehab and Rock Of Love and Dancing With The Stars and Nashville Star and Luke's Parental Advisory and Miss Rap Supreme (phew! let me take a deep breath, one second)...but seriously, there's NO show that gets my fingers a-typing like Idol. So bring on the carpal tunnel syndrome for another season! It'll be worth it.

So tonight's audition rounds kicked off in Arizona, home state of my least favorite Idol winner, Jordin Sparks. But I didn't hold that against Phoenix's auditioning hopefuls. I was excited to watch them all, but more importantly, I was keen to see what new fourth judge Kara DioGuardi would bring to her first day on the job. Preview footage of her bickering with Simon and mock-making out with Paula indicated that this woman would have a big mouth on her, in more ways than one.

First up in front of the newly expanded panel of four was Tuan Nguyen, who sported a seriously massive, gravity-defying Afro that made the past-season lush hairdos of Justin Guarini, Chris Sligh, and Sanjaya Malakar look like Army-regulation buzzcuts in comparison. He was not the worst audition, vocally, but his dreams of being "as big as Michael Jackson and Britney Spears combined" were clearly a tad too lofty. Michael and Britney never tapdanced, for instance. So Kara's first critique of the season, lobbied at poor Tuan: "I've never seen anything like that...in a not-so-good way." Tuan took the news hard, but handled it relatively calmly, compared to the tantrum-tossing Glitter Girls of seasons past; he merely tapdanced away with his tail between his legs, and that was that.

Next up was Emily Wynne-Hughes. Every AmIdol season needs a token pink-haired rocker chick (Nikki McKibbin, Vanessa Olivarez, Amy Adams, Gina Glocksen), and apparently season 8's fuchsia-follicle'd contender is Emily. In her defense, she sang a whole lot better than Nikki McKibbin, tackling Heart's "Barracuda" (I always, always advise people not to sing Heart songs, whether they're goofing off at the local Karaoke Hut or auditioning for a major television show, because that's truly advanced material) and actually nailing it. Turns out this tattooed lovegirl is a pro--a little Internet sleuthing uncovered within about four seconds that she is the lead singer of the all-girl punkabilly band Go Betty Go. But if she continues in this competition, Go Betty Go will be Gone Betty Gone. Yes, tonight Emily somewhat callously admitted her total willingness to bail on her band (even if that meant the cancellation of their European tour), because supposedly if she got far on American Idol, she'd be able to go the Daughtry route and help out her bandmates by later employing them and putting them on the 19 Entertainment payroll. But remember, that's what Constantine Maroulis claimed he'd do for Pray For The Soul Of Betty, the rock combo he so quickly abandoned for Idol infamy. So I suggest Go Betty Go start holding their own auditions for a new Betty, soon, because Emily did make it through to Hollywood.

One rocker who did not fare quite as well was 28-year-old Randy Madden (28? really? in dog years, maybe), who looked like a Buckcherry reject but wasn't exactly a hardened, whiskey-swilling bad boy. In fact, from the get-go the dude was sobbing more freely than Josiah Leming on a bad day, and at least Josiah had the excuses of a) being only 18 and b) living in his car. Simon called Madden's underwhelming rendition of "Living On A Prayer" by Bon Jovi "wimpy" and "clichéd," and he was right--Madden seemed about as authentically rockin' as last season's bandanna'd ex-boy bander Robbie Carrico, in fact. "I just want someone to tell me that I'm great," he whimpered. Well, that wasn't going to happen on this show, sadly.

Some boring guy named J.B. made it through next--decent voice, sweet family, completely generic--then a bundle of nerves and non-operating vocal chords named Michael Gurr sang one of Kara's songs and before experiencing a panic attack (and thankfully fleeing the audition room before the judges could even say, "It's a no, dawg!"). Then a zootsuited wannabe cool cat named Aundre Caraway gave a ridiculous Cab Calloway (or maybe more like Lou Bega) impression that was certainly entertaining, but also certifiably insane. That was also a no, dawg.

Arianna Asfar, a pageanty goody-goody 16-year-old who volunteers at senior citizen centers (she founded some program called "Adopt A Grandfriend"), sang Corinne Bailey Rae's "Put Your Records On" next. And while I was impressed with Arianna's commitment to public service, I found her performance bland. But whaddya expect from a girl who usually performs for 80-year-olds? The judges put her through anyway. Whatever, I don't expect her to make it past Hollywood Week. She'll be back at the old folks' home with her grandfriends soon enough.

The next two auditioners were certainly not bland, I'll give 'em that. Elijah Scarlett didn't just have a frog in his throat, he had an entire tadpole colony living in there. His voice was so deep, I practically felt my bowels rumble when he started to intone "My First, My Last, My Everything." I was kind of hoping he'd have some cool Satchmo vibe, but instead he sounded "like something out of a horror movie" (Simon's words, with which I wholeheartedly concurred). All four judges gave him a big, deep NO, but Paula suggested he do voiceover work "for movies that have monsters in them"--so hey, at least he left the audition room with a career Plan B, which is more than most Idol rejects get out of the deal.

Lea Marie Golde, "Kara DioGuardi's biggest fan," was next, and in her all-pink outfit she kinda/sorta reminded me of "Paula Abdul's biggest fan" from season 5, suicidal stalker Paula Goodspeed. Her nervous-tick giggle, annoying cheerleader-on-NoDoz disposition, and bulging binder of self-penned songs made her seem even creepier. But Kara was kind to her. Not kind enough to put Lea through, of course--Lea's pinched-nose rendition of Cascada's "Every Time We Touch" was nasal enough to be sponsored by Kleenex--and Kara did talk smack about Lea the moment she slumped out of the audition room. I kind of hope Lea didn't watch that part of tonight's broadcast--not just because it would hurt her feelings, but because it might encourage vengeful stalker behavior!

A couple more solid singers made it through after that: Stevie Wright, a soulful girl christened after Stevie Nicks who warbled "At Last" by Etta James and subsequently earned Kelly Clarkson comparisons from Paula; and macho family man Michael Sarver, who as an oilrigger holds the world's "fifth most dangerous job." (I'll venture to guess the most dangerous job is being Simon Cowell's bodyguard?) Both were good, but neither left a lasting impression on me. I'll wait to see what how they fare during Hollywood Week.

Then...there was Katrina Darrell, aka "Bikini Girl," aka the notoriously scantily clad Hawaiian Tropic bimbette who pretty much won over Simon the moment she strutted into the audition room wearing little more than tropical-print dental floss and stripper heels. Wow, is that all it ever took to get in Simon's good graces? If only the last seven seasons' worth of Idol castoffs had known that flashing some flesh was all they needed to do to deflect attention away from their total lack of talent. Unsurprisingly, Randy and Simon voted to put Bikini Girl through to Hollywood, where they'd surely be eager to give her some one-on-one vocal coaching. ("Sing from your diaphragm!") Meanwhile, female judges Paula and Kara were less impressed. (Neither was I, and that's not just because I'm a catty, jealous girl.) Despite the evenly divided vote, Bikini Girl sailed through by the skin of her, um, skin. But Simon was wasting his time: Katrina only had eyes for Ryan Seacrest. But then again, Bikini Girl is wasting her time by crushing on Ryan. Ahem.

The sexiness continued to get all sexed up when Eric "Sexual Chocolate" Thomas auditioned, although his performance failed to turn me or the judges on. However, his mother made a deal with him that if he got rejected, she'd buy him a car, so I guess he triumphed in the end. Most Idols have to actually win on the finale to get a free Ford, you know!

Then marginally talented Brianna Quijada unexpectedly charmed the judges with her bubbly-as-Coca-Cola personality ("I like you!" she shouted cheerily at Simon, Sally Field-style). I predict she'll be this season's Mikalah Gordon. Not that that's a compliment, mind you.

Deanna Brown's raspy voice on "Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay" had the judges raving, and rightfully so. But I was even more impressed by cuddly goth-boy Cody Sheldon, who sort of reminded me of a less campy, less obnoxious Danny Noriega. A horror movie fanatic with perfect guyliner and shiny emo hair, he surprisingly chose to sing James Morrison's "Wonderful World"--and while I wish he'd done some A.F.I. or My Chemical Romance instead, I couldn't help but dig his buttah-smooth voice. I'll say it right now: I LOVE this kid. I am so very, very glad he made it through, but hey--if he doesn't get past the Hollywood rounds, maybe he can make a horror movie of his own and cast frog-throated Elijah Scarlett in the leading role. It's good to have a Plan B! But I hope Cody doesn't have to fall back on that plan.

The last two to get golden tickets tonight were this year's Clay Aiken, a toothbrush-haired, bug-eyed mega-geek named Alex Wagner-Trugman (who awkwardly asked Randy Jackson to join him on the chorus of James Ingram's "Baby, Come To Me," but then managed to sing the song fairly well on his own), and legally blind genius scholar Scott McEntire. Good for American Idol for continuing to give our nation's dorks hope like that! It's hip to be square again.

And thus ended night number one of season number eight. Tonight's standouts for me were definitely Emily Wynne-Hughes (despite her abominable band disloyalty) and Cody Sheldon; I hope both make it far this season. But there are many more contenders to come: Tomorrow night Idol moves on to Kansas, the audition locale of last season's winner David Cook, and I of course will be blogging my little Idol-idolizing heart out about those auditions. See you then!

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