American Idol Goes To Jacksonville, Salt Lake City

Are we there yet? The latter stages of the American Idol audition process often prompt such outcries from fans, even with the audition round cut from four weeks to three. The publicity seekers who want people to believe that dressing up as a crocodile is all about trying to get Simon Cowell to take them seriously -- well, one night of that would be fine with me. But after six entire episodes of mixing the good with the bad with the (a new trend this year) mediocre-that-judges-call-good, I just want to see the real contenders already -- and a little melodrama would be nice.

american idol photosSee Our American Idol Hall of Fame

Tuesday night's Jacksonville audition was almost completely nondescript, without even the likes of Adam Lambert (the star of the craptacular San Francisco episode) to recommend it. There wasn't even much in the way of human interest, illustrated by the evening's final contestant, Anne Marie Boskovich. Idol has been saving what the producers regard as the best "story," if not the best singer, for the end of the night, but there wasn't really a story with Boskovich other than her potentially disturbing knowledge of Kara DioGuardi's output. She was probably the best singer we saw in Jacksonville and it doesn't hurt that she's pretty, but it's a stretch to even see Boskovich in the final twelve.

The rest of the Jacksonville hour meandered as much as Ryan Seacrest did riding in his golf cart (one of the night's more nonsensical detours). The most memorable reject was an emo dork who began to come unglued when told he couldn't audition with his guitar, and then, after a borderline vocal performance, cried himself out of a possible golden ticket. He might have been more entertaining to see in Hollywood than T. K. Hash, an unsuccessful contestant from last year who apparently felt the key to getting past Hollywood was embellishing "Imagine" even more than David Archuleta did.

Two other contestants in Jacksonville who weren't bad enough to turn down, but probably won't be good enough to get much farther in the process, were Jasmine Murray, a very cute teenager whose nasal take on Fergie's "Big Girls Don't Cry" showed that she doesn't quite have the experience yet; and Julissa Veloz, who came out in pageant garb (she's Miss Florida Latina) and did a credible version of one of the lamest Idol warhorses, "I Have Nothing." And yep, that was about the entire hour.

Things did pick up, however, during Wednesday's trip to Salt Lake City. The overall theme to the evening was that Utahns are very, very nice people, thanking the judges sincerely even after being told that they must never sing again. The good vibes seemed to last all the way until the time the hour was being edited, because hardly anyone was held up for true ridicule. The night's gag contestant, Chris Kirkham, insisted on performing while accompanied by a man in a bunny costume, something that was actually a lot funnier than it sounds, due mostly to Simon's stubborn refusal to join in the whimsy.

But while Salt Lake City had only about as many golden tickets as Jacksonville, most of those we saw seem to have real chances of advancement. And curiously, most of the talented were women -- the preseason buzz that this would be a year for the guys has not been borne out in the audition rounds, and appears even less true after Salt Lake. It was also nice to see so many of them picking unusual songs to audition with, even if this strategy nearly backfired in the case of high schooler Austin Sisneros, whose choices of tunes by Train and (!!!) Raffi were panned by the judges. "You've just got to become young," said Simon, thinking that Austin might be the cute if vocally overmatched teenage boy that every season seems to need.

Salt Lake also gave us the long-rumored appearance of David Osmond, whose father Alan is the oldest of the now middle-aged musical siblings. Both the elder and younger Osmond are dealing with multiple sclerosis, which halted Alan's performing career. David's audition was perfectly pleasant if unmemorable, and he was put through to Hollywood despite being on the extreme older end of the Idol age window. Does Osmond have a chance to get past Hollywood? Given how hard it was to get his aunt Marie off Dancing With the Stars, the producers aren't going to advance him any farther unless they're fully prepared to deal with him possibly winning.

But the true contenders out of Salt Lake City appear to be four women. Taylor Vaifanua drew immediate comparisons to Jordin Sparks, a result of her being a teenager and nearly six feet tall. While her song choice didn't display much of a modern pop sensibility (the same can be said of much of Jordin's Idol output), she sang with tremendous clarity and restraint, winning unusually strong approval. Rose Flack was given the tragic-anchor spot on the episode, and given that she is seventeen and has lost both her parents in the last four years, it's hard to say she didn't qualify. She is adorable, like Kate Hudson in Almost Famous, but her thin (if emotional) vocals were wobbly enough that Paula Abdul, a softer touch than Grandma at your kindergarten recital, said they needed work. But if Rose can pick songs that don't strain her too much, look out.

Megan Corkery, a young mother with an ex-husband and a massive sleeve tattoo that belies both her girl-next-door looks and her Utah zip code, auditioned with "Can't Help Loving That Man," the sort of choice that typically gets Simon grumbling about sounding old-fashioned. But she is one of the few we've seen so far this season whose singing style doesn't necessarily call to mind previous Idol wannabes. She's worth keeping an eye on, as is Frankie Jordan, who looks a little like a mentally sound Amy Winehouse and auditioned with Wino's "You Know I'm No Good." She was an easy pass to Hollywood, though I have some questions about whether she can advance outside the Amy box. Her cockiness will polarize as well, if she's not able to tone it down.

Just one more night of auditions -- and in what I believe is an Idol first, two cities, New York and San Juan, are being dispensed with in a single 60-minute episode. Even Fox wants to get it over with.