RECAP: American Idol, Coasting On The Coast

The ratings indicate that the general public is none too enamored with the more gentle and uplifting tone of the American Idol auditions – or maybe it just all looks too familiar, after 11 seasons and after having seen Simon Cowell as recently as a few weeks ago. But I suspect part of the problem is that nowadays, almost everyone who sounds even “just OK for me, dawg” is getting sent through to Hollywood. It’s the same issue we saw with the judging last season on the live shows, where the mediocre and the excellent kept getting put on the same plane. There’s none of the suspense we used to feel just before Simon opened his mouth, and we weren’t sure if the verdict would be good or bad.

Anyway, enough of that. There were three audition shows this past week: a Sunday post-football edition from San Diego, an hour from Denver and Aspen, and a visit to Houston and Galveston (the separation of big city stadium cattle calls and the smaller resort towns for the actual judging is a new thing for Idol). I’ll spend a little time with the most promising performers from the three cities.

The San Diego episode was the second one this season that ended with a real novelty by Idol standards: someone being permitted to play a musical instrument. Whether or not the rules have been changed, or can be bent whenever the judges feel like it, is something that might want to be clarified for future reference. Golf course mechanic Jason “Wolf” Hamlin looks pretty much like you would expect a person named Jason “Wolf” Hamlin would look, and he brought with him a “git-fiddle” built for him by his late father. He accompanied himself on a raucous “Folsom Prison Blues,” and might be able to catch on with a harder-edged country-rock sound. Aubree Dieckmeyer started out with the “blonde edit,” as she told the cameras that she was looking forward to being America’s next top model. Eeeek. But she turned out to have some ability, with phrasing may have owed a little bit to some of what Haley Reinhart did a season ago.

As for the single mom contingent, I talked a little about Jim Carrey’s daughter Jane earlier in the week – she might have been barely good enough to pass through, but if she makes it to the top 24 just so Idol can get Daddy to drop by for some shows, it’s going to embarrass everyone concerned. But Ashley Robles was more impressive, violating a cardinal rule by performing “I Will Always Love You,” but not embarrassing herself on the high end.

In the category “people you will love to hate, or just hate,” I found the audition of Berkeley cheeseball Kyle Crews to be highly overrated, with Randy Jackson in particular seeming inexplicably impressed with the fact that he “dared” to sing a Monica song. Ali Shields, the young woman who began her TV career singing for Ellen DeGeneres on her talk show, is so eager to please that I came away from her segment feeling as if I had been bathed by a Great Dane’s tongue. My girlfriend said she came across like a grown-up Sue Heck from The Middle, and I couldn’t have said it better myself. But while her rap was just irritating, her stab at singing was acceptable, and there’s something to be said for a willingness to entertain.

On to Aspen, the mountain town that does not, despite what Idol would have you believe, contain a gigantic football stadium within its city limits (those were shot in Denver). On the surface, this was one of the weaker hours of auditions I can recall, without anyone who seemed especially promising. In fact,t this was the first audition of the J. Lo-Steven Tyler era that’s likely to be most remembered for a gag contestant: a Spinal Tap wannabe who called himself Magic Cyclops.

If I had to pick one of the Aspen contenders as the most intriguing, I’d probably go with Haley Smith, a teenage hippie who works for a butcher even though she’s a vegetarian. Being willing to debase herself for money will serve her in good stead in show business. Her take on “Tell Me Something Good” was offbeat and maybe a little chilly, but even if she’s a little too strange for America to warm up to, I’m interested to see what else she’s got. Shelby Tweten is a Minnesota teenager who credits her Idol ambition with keeping her on her meds for bipolar disorder. Another contestant I’m going to have to worry about in Hollywood? She was pretty good, and the country audience will like her if she’s allowed to advance, but there wasn’t a lot of star quality there. She could probably use another few years to develop.

Two other contestants were introduced in ways that usually spell “kiss of death.” Jairon Jackson told the judges he wanted to do an original song, so often over the years a setup for a joke audition. But both his vocals and the song itself showed some promise. If he cans the vibrato, he might have a run in him. Angie Ziederman arrived with purplish hair and the ambition to be the Lady Gaga of American Idol, or something. She opened with a song-and-dance number that looked like something that would have made the cutting room floor on The Glee Project, but just when the judges were ready to dismiss her as a gag, she got serious and did a version of “Blue Bayou” that wasn’t half bad. If she doesn’t dial it back in Hollywood she’s going to be murdered by all her group night cohorts, but the judges were correct – she’s worth seeing again.

The Houston auditions (the judges actually met the contestants in Galveston, with a view of the Gulf of Mexico behind them) answered a question that’s been haunting the Idolverse for five years now: whatever happened to Baylie Brown? To refresh everyone’s memory, Baylie was the blonde teen who showed up at the Season 6 auditions and made little dollar signs appear in Simon’s eyeballs just like you see on the cartoons. But her goal of becoming the next Carrie Underwood went kerblooey in Hollywood, when she forgot her lyrics in the group round to such an extent that it simply couldn’t be ignored.

Perhaps seeing Scotty McCreery passed through last season after a similar mishap inspired the now 21-year-old Baylie to come back. The native Texan has been kicking around Nashville for a few years, but could still use her break. Based on her audition, she’s more than ready. She is going to have some country company from 17-year-old Mississippian Skylar Laine, who is upholding the rough-and-tumble country girl image left unrepresented on Idol since the days of Kristy Lee Cook. You could do worse than trying to copy Miranda Lambert – I would argue Lauren Alaina finished second on Idol last season by doing just that.

Kristine Osorio is a 28-year-old who put a music career on the backburner to start a family, and is going out for Idol now that she’s getting divorced. She took out a loan to pay her lawyer, but decided to use the money to fly to Houston instead. Ouch. She will need more plane fare for Hollywood (not to mention a babysitter), but her audition displayed a voice that’s likely not good enough to go much beyond that. As far as backstories go, you can’t get much more dramatic than the one told by Ramiro Garcia, who was born without ears. Without ears! And you thought being tone deaf was bad enough. Multiple surgeries gave him the ability to hear, and he was put through on the basis of his “Amazing Grace.” It’s hard to see him on Idol (though if he did make it, the backstory and his church affiliation would make him formidable), but the trip to Hollywood is a just reward for a miraculous journey.

The night featured a strange interlude during which Jennifer Lopez was seen sticking up for the talent of three women who all seemed to easily have enough chops to get tickets, but were turned down by Randy and Steven. The insult was compounded when the boys advanced a barely competent singing bartender who Jennifer deemed “awful.” A young man named Cortez Shaw might be equally divisive with the public, given his curious Usher-like treatment of “Someone Like You,” but the combination of voice and originality worked with both me and the judges (he’s probably more grateful about the latter).

Galveston provided a nice mix of contenders after every show since the season premiere had dragged. Stick with it, gang! We’re more than halfway done with the auditions now.