Thousands of hopefuls. Hundreds of songs. Seven cities. Four excruciating weeks. A dude in a two-piece bikini. One pair of pants on the ground. On Wednesday, “American Idol” wrapped up the auditions for its ninth season, and judging by the numbers — or, really, any other quantifier — it was a pretty interesting ride.
From the news that Simon Cowell would be leaving the show at season’s end, to the spate of celebrity judges lined up by show producers (Neil Patrick Harris , we love you), “Idol” generated more than a few headlines, and in the auditioners rolled out for our viewing, uncovered some genuine diamonds in the rough.
Of course, producers also shined a spotlight on some lumps of coal too (we’re looking at you, Bikini Boy ), because what would audition season be without some freaks? But with the Hollywood Week looming on the horizon (finally), we figured now was a pretty good time to focus on the positive. These are some of our favorites from the past four weeks of “Idol” auditions, the few bright spots in a roiling sea of darkness. Because if you lose hope, what do you have left?
Katie Stevens: Just 16 years old, Stevens came to the Boston auditions with a heartbreaking back story (a grandmother with Alzheimer’s), then impressed the panel with a version of Etta James’ “At Last” that was years beyond her age. And then, in one of the season’s most emotional moments, got to call her grandmother and tell her she was going to Hollywood. Even Seacrest cried.
Leah Laurenti: Raised by ultra-strict parents, this 22-year-old discovered a love of song by sneaking listens to so-called “secular” music and wowed the judges in Boston with a brassy take on Ella Fitzgerald’s “Blue Skies.” Also vaguely resembles a Frank-era Amy Winehouse, for whatever that’s worth.
Jermaine Sellers : A self-described “church boy” rolled into Atlanta with plenty of experience (he began singing at the age of 14 and has been in and out of label deals ever since). But after his re-imagined run at Joan Osbourne’s “What if God Was One of Us?” Randy declared that he possessed the best voice of the competition, and we’re not disagreeing.
Vanessa Wolfe: Perhaps the most unpolished performer in “Idol” history, Wolfe hails from microscopic Vonore, Tennessee (where the chief activity seems to be jumping off bridges), and auditioned in Atlanta in a $4.50 dress. Her spirited, twang-y take on Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” definitely stood out, though we’d be surprised to see her advance much further. Still, we hope she does. She sort of reminds us of a combination of Josiah Leming and Megan Joy.
Bryan Walker: The towering Tennessee cop killed it in Atlanta with a soulful version of the Carpenters’ “Superstar” (sung in the style of Ruben Studdard). He reminded most of last year’s lovable roughneck Michael Sarver.
Katelyn Epperly: Began singing as a small child, and weathered the storm of her parents’ divorce to wow the panel in Chicago . Her rendition of Duffy’s “Syrup and Honey” was jazzy and multi-faceted, earning high praise from the judges, and one succinct “Yum!” from guest panelist Shania Twain.
Angela Martin: She’s made it to Hollywood Week twice before, though each time, she was forced to leave the competition due to a series of bizarre personal incidents. She did Mary J. Blige’s “Just Fine” in Chicago and made it through again. Unfortunately, if some “Idol” blogs are to be believed, tragedy struck again, as her mother went missing during this year’s Hollywood Week.
Seth Rollins: A 28-year-old father of an autistic child, he won over the judges with a velvety version of the Gershwin standard “Someone to Watch Over Me” in Orlando . Bonus points for seeming like a genuinely nice guy.
Matt Lawrence: Possessing perhaps the most bizarre backstory of any auditioner (and that’s saying something), Lawrence was arrested when he was 15 after he robbed a bank with a B.B. gun. He also possessed a decidedly big set of pipes, as evidenced by his husky run on Ray LaMontagne’s “Trouble,” which was somewhat fitting.
Mary Powers: This year’s token rocker chick, Powers has a raspy voice and plenty of tattoos, both of which were on display in her Los Angeles audition . She earned praise for her take on Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield,” a performance that wasn’t all rasp. As MTV News “Idol” expert Jim Cantiello astutely pointed out, there was genuine vulnerability on display too.
Andrew Garcia: His parents moved him from the rough streets of Compton as a child to escape the gang-banging lifestyle they had endured, and his father’s tears of joy were sincerely heartwarming. Garcia’s charming version of Maroon 5’s “Sunday Morning,” is what got him through to Hollywood, where his likability could carry him far.
Todrick Hall : A Broadway baby who brought his own song to the Dallas auditions , Hall sang a breezy, funny tune that begged judges to send him on to Hollywood. They wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t possess real talent, and the lithe R&B tenor really does.
Danelle Hayes: A down-on-her-luck karaoke hostess with a booming voice, Hayes was the lone bright spot on Tuesday’s dismal Denver auditions . She did Melissa Etheridge’s “I’m the Only One” and earned high praise, with Kara calling her audition “the most moving” of the season.
Lacey Brown: She made it to the top 50 last season but lost out to Megan Joy. She’s back in season nine, and thanks to her soulful, sweet take on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” you’ve got to believe she can make it through this time.
Aaron Kelly: Already dubbed the country version of David Archuleta, the 16-year-old Kelly possesses much of the same wide-eyed charm, but also has within him a twangy, winning voice, as evidenced by his rendition of Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb.” He’s a definite dark horse.
Jessica Furney: We’d seen her before (she did Janis Joplin last season), but on Wednesday night’s clip show, Furney impressed by toning it down a tad on Leona Lewis’ “Footprints in the Sand.” It was a big risk — after all, Cowell co-wrote the song for Leona Lewis — but it paid off, earning her raves and a golden ticket.
General Larry Platt: The “Pants on the Ground” guy. Hey, when everyone from Brett Favre and Jimmy Fallon to Katie Holmes and Elijah Wood are singing your praises, you’ve got to be doing something right.
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