Seventeen thousand “American Idol” hopefuls showed up in the Grand Ole Opry’s Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. There were some fantastic singers that performed in front of the judges, and some not-so-fabulous, and “American Idol” judge Randy Jackson decided it was “No more Mr. Nice Guy” for the less talented acts. Whether he’s trying to take over where Simon left off, or was just fed up with the fakers, Randy was on the warpath tonight.
We could empathize with his frustration with first contestant Christine McCaffrey, a 27 year old whose high squeaky voice seemed a put-on from the start. “AI” judge Jennifer Lopez asked if she did cartoon voices. Christine instead squealed her way through Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance.” Randy was peeved, and outright dismissive, feeling his time was being wasted by a joker. J-Lo seemed to think Christine was sincere. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, but Christine’s mom was laughing as they left the auditorium, so I’m inclined to think it was just a stab at a moment in the spotlight.
The real “American Idol” contestants were much more entertaining. Rob Bolin and Chelsee Oaks, both 23, made an adorable couple and a fantastic singing duo–except they weren’t a couple anymore. After hearing they lived together after the break-up, and Chelsee dated other guys, Ryan gave Rob a hug of condolence. “That’s so uncool,” he told Chelsee.
Chelsee waxed poetic on the relationship and the “AI” experience–Rob’s succinct reply on both accounts was “This sucks.” What didn’t suck was their amazing vocal ability, and their even more amazing vocal chemistry on Rob’s pointedly chosen “To Love Somebody.” “Sometimes the greatest passion comes from friction,” Steven observed, enthralled by their performance. With J-Lo’s “hopeless romantic” wishes that the two get back together by the end of all this, the duo were sent on to Hollywood to compete against each other on “American Idol.” I can hear Rob right now on his way home: “This SUCKS…”
Allen Lewis was one of the most interesting “American Idol” contestants we’ve seen so far. A long-haired, bearded and bandana-wearing tattoo artist, Allen had a tough appearance but an easy-going personality and an endearing, J-Lo-approved Santa laugh. Crouching down to growl out the notes to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man,” his face turning red from the effort, Allen actually turned in a credible and interesting rock performance. When Randy said “I fell you’re more of a band guy,” Allen saw the writing on the wall and told them the criticisms would only make him work harder. “American Idol” judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler praised him for his positive attitude. I hope Allen Lewis does work harder, because I thought he had a lot more potential than some of the other contestants we’ve seen go through.
Case in point, Miss Teen USA from Tennessee, Stormi Henley. From his bad boy “Uh-oh” at her arrival, to his up and down glance of Stormi’s little dress and cowboy boots, Steven Tyler was hooked. Steven thought she had a “beautiful, tight squeaky voice” that he thought she could learn to belt out on. Jennifer Lopez thought it wasn’t strong enough, but Randy and Steven united to send her through. “Seriously, you two?” Jennifer asked after Stormi had gone. “That’s the smallest voice we’ve ever heard.”
Adrienne Beasley thankfully raised the bar with her searing “American Idol” performance of Lady Antebellum’s “American Honey,” a cascade of rich notes that had Steven Tyler getting glassy-eyed. “You have something special,” he said earnestly. The three judges agreed, unanimously sending Adrienne on to Hollywood. Phoning her father to share the news, Adrienne wasn’t worried when her father teased “Who’s gonna pay your way?” Adrienne had talked earlier about her adoptive parents, the challenges of being a black girl raised by a white couple, and how much she loved them and wanted to return the favor of all they’d done for her. Two of the sweetest, low-key parents in “American Idol” history, Adrienne’s folks sent all their good wishes with their daughter to the Nashville audition. “Wherever God takes her is gonna be fine with me,” her father said.
Randy got on the warpath again with Day 2 “American Idol” Nashville contestant Kameela Merricks. A 28 year old “regional soloist,” Kameela talked big about how everyone worshiped her “big voice.” After she screeched her way through Chaka Khan’s “Sweet Thing,” Steven Tyler suggested Kameela go home and practice more. “Don’t tell her that,” Randy protested. “It was loud, bad,” Randy insisted, not afraid of hurting Kameela’s feelings. Jennifer had her hands over her ears, murmuring “the acoustics work no matter what.” After Kameela went on her way, Steven chastised Randy about his bluntness, but Randy didn’t seem swayed.
Twenty-eight year old Jackie Wilson of Tennessee was nervous, her hands shaking as she clutched them against the hem of her mini jean skirt. Walking onto the stage, Jackie proceeded to casually belt out big notes with ease, an example of someone who just loves the music and lets it flow right through her. The three “American Idol” judges were amazed. Randy praised the “crazy vocals;” Jennifer was relieved after a string of bad singers: “You made us clap!” With three yes votes, Jackie bolted out the door into the arms of a man we thought was her father–until they kissed. “Oh!” Ryan exclaimed. “You’re her boyfriend.” Whoops.
LaToya Moore had all the hallmarks of a bad “American Idol” singer. Dressed like she was going to a pageant, posing in front of the camera like a fashion model, and referring to herself as a “recording artist,” LaToya was convinced she was the real deal. She even brought one of her CDs for the judges to share, and it was clear that Jennifer Lopez was the only person she recognized. After a bad, nasally performance, Randy imitated her shrill sound to try and drive home the point that she was bad. “I really can’t believe that,” LaToya insisted, singing another song on her way out, which was surprisingly, a little better than the first one. “Still a no,” Randy said flatly. Ouch.
Next we got a quick glimpse at some of the Nashville “American Idol” winners. Paul McDonald gave us a strikingly good Rod Stewart sound in his performance of “Maggie May,” Jimmie Allen wowed the “American Idol” judges with an upbeat “Sunday Morning,” and the judges sang along with Danny Pate on “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” Pate gets extra points for calling Steven “Mr. Tyler,” and he was so good he got a “cheerleader yes!” from J-Lo.
“American Idol” contestant Matt Dillard said later that he didn’t want to seem like he was trying too hard to impress the judges, so he went into his closet and got out the most stereotypical outfit he could find, a black wife beater with overalls to best display his tattoos, and a well-worn straw cowboy hat. Once the judges and audience had all their preconceived notions ready, we learned about Matt’s family and the 700 foster children they’ve taken care of over a span of 23 years. Then Matt crooned out a Josh Groban tune in a sweet, clear voice. All was not as it appeared.
Randy expressed surprise at the appearance not matching the vocals, and Matt hastily took off his hat and assured the judges, especially Jennifer Lopez, that he could “pretty up for you.” Jennifer wasn’t entirely convinced, and Steven wavered, but he and Randy eventually decided to hope for the best and send Matt on to the next round of “American Idol.”
As is the “American Idol” pattern for audition rounds, “AI” saved the “inspirational” story for the end. Lauren Alaina, who was raised with her beloved cousin Holly, put on her own singing fund-raiser to help Holly financially when she developed a brain tumor. AT 15, Lauren’s voice sounded a little unsupported and breathy to me, but the “American Idol” judges couldn’t say enough about her audition. Randy considered it the best audition of Nashville, blessed with a “real, natural, God-given talent.” Buoyed by her family and a well-looking Holly’s presence, Lauren then launched into a duet with Steven Tyler on his Aerosmith hit “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing.” That was when I finally heard what the judges seemed to be hearing, and I look forward to seeing what Lauren can do with some instrumental accompaniment. She also gets points for urging Jennifer Lopez not to shed any tears: “Don’t cry, you’re too pretty!”
The Nashville “American Idol” auditions ended on a high note, literally, and it’s one more week of collecting “AI” hopefuls. Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez are shaping up to be sweet and thoughtful judges, and it’s a nice change of pace to see the judges actually listening to the performers. Randy still hasn’t quite seemed to find his own voice, though he seemed determined today to be the “honest” judge who doesn’t hold back when he thinks his time is being wasted. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but “honesty” doesn’t have to equal “cruelty.”
Watch “American Idol” on FOX, every Wednesday and Thursday night at 8/7c. Check local listings as times are always subject to change.
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