It was easy to get excited about season nine of “American Idol,” until the shows started.
Backstage intrigue has been at a fever pitch this year, with Paula Abdul exiting and Ellen DeGeneres entering, and speculation over whether Simon Cowell would make this season his last. Monday, he announced he would.
Tuesday, the show got started with the Boston auditions, and last night, we saw Atlanta.
Each night, we were reminded that we would have to wait for Ellen.
Since Paula was gone but Ellen had not been tapped by the time auditions started, the audition episodes will be featuring guest judges along with Simon, Kara DioGuardi and Randy Jackson.
In Boston, we got Victoria Beckham, aka Posh Spice, who spent most of the episode looking … posh. In terms of what producers showed us, Boston was a bit more of a talent night with voices like Maddy Curtis, who did a very mature version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for a 16-year-old, and 22-year-old Ashley Rodriguez, who we can already see on album covers.
Atlanta was a bit more of an adventure with Mary J. Blige bringing a lot of personality to her guest judging stint, even grilling a few competitors and voting “no” against the other three judges’ yes votes for one competitor.
Two-thirds of the way through we got an interesting pair of contestants who walked in looking like freak shows but walked out with golden tickets. Skii Bo Ski of Orlando walked in talking a mile a minute with his name misspelled on his bowling shirt, but then he sang a nice rendition of “Heard it Through the Grapevine” that won most of the judges over. Before him was Holly Harden of Rockmart, Ga., who came in dressed as a guitar but sang an authoritative rendition of Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man.” Both probably don’t have shots at the top prize, but certainly need to lose their shticks if they want any hope of making the final 24.
My favorite audition so far also probably won’t make it to the end. But for a show that so aggressively tries to manipulate our emotions with stories of death and disease, I got about as close to tears as I ever have watching “Idol” seeing Vanessa Wolfe get her golden ticket. It wasn’t that she endured any great crisis or disease of the day. It was simply the emotion of watching this very small-town girl accomplish something far greater than she ever thought she would.
Of course, what everyone will talk about was “General” Larry Platt’s “Pants on the Ground.” At 62, he’s decades beyond the show’s maximum age of 28. But by putting him on at the end of the show, “AI” made him an instant Internet star.
But what this year’s audition episodes are beginning to show is that the formula is wearing thin, particularly without some interplay between Simon and Paula to spice up the judges desk. The train wrecks are just coming across as cruel, particularly the angry guy on Tuesday and last night’s kid from Anniston, Ala., who claimed he nearly died three times. The show lampooned that story in unfunny “cheap dramatizations.”
Knowing these people are selected in early auditions for mockery, you can’t help but think some of the “Idol” producers have a real sadistic streak. Of course, this has been Idol’s shtick for years, but it is more glaring without the millionaire, media savvy judges making fools of themselves too. And considering we barely got a glimpse of last year’s winner, Kris Allen, when he appeared at the Louisville auditions, it’s hard to see the value in slogging through five more audition cities. But we’ll try.
No Kentuckians appeared in either audition episode. It would appear our best chance after Atlanta will be next Tuesday, in Chicago.