‘American Idol’: At auditions’ end


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And so the understated audition tour glides to an understated final stop in Miami. In interviews, Executive producer Nigel Lythgoe dangled the very specific number three as the quantity of unmistakable earth-shattering talents we would meet in the pre-season.

Though admittedly, this critic is more of a theater gourmand than a licensed arbiter of musical abilities, I nonetheless am not quite sure of which three he was talking about. I feel that along this audition trail we have met a good number, as many as 20 or so, of very credible talents with great growth potential (not to mention tear-jerking back stories). But I can’t say I’ve had the “Oh My God” moment that I remember when first gazing upon Katharine McPhee or Melinda Doolittle.


Then again, both of them lost in respective seasons, and I have little to no memory of the first visions of Carrie Underwood, Jordin Sparks or Fantasia Barrino. I remember Taylor Hicks’ first audition all too clearly, but for different reasons. Kelly Clarkson’s audition wasn’t aired during the Season 1 tour, proving that the fates can be capricious to the producers’ attempts to construct an orderly narrative out of this vast, sweeping process.

In truth, as one more drawn towards the spectacle of the ‘Idol’ experience, the audition tour is not my favorite part of the journey; ultimately, I appreciate the drama of those moments of truth, but I find too few moments of real suspense during the auditions. It is too easy for the judges to hand a golden ticket to those with any talent and the fates of those without are all too clear. The producers insist that without the magic of finding the raw talent in the midst of the masses, the rest of the journey would be incomprehensible, and I believe that. The discoveries of a McPhee or a Doolittle are incomparable moments. But it would be nice if we could feel a bit more stakes during the six-stop tour.

Perhaps the problem is that half the auditionees, the weirdos, are being brought forward just to be discarded. Perhaps ‘Idol’ needs to consider that it is not doing enough to harvest every bit of potential out of this end of the contestant pool. Perhaps a more dramatic, and fair, way to move forward would be that rather than using the auditions to merely sort the wheat from the chaff, they could send every auditionee to compete in one of two parallel competitions. On the top end, the traditionally blessed contestants would continue on to ‘Idol’ as we know it, but on the lower end, the rejects could go head-to-head in their own season-long sing-off, competing for the William Hung throne. I propose that this solution would not just be more equitable and more dramatic, but more efficient -- wringing every ounce of entertainment potential out of ‘Idol’s’ masses. No singer left behind in ’09!

Another interesting phenomenon in Season 7 is how nearly every auditionee walks in the footsteps of a previous ‘Idol’ luminary. ‘Twas a time when ‘Idol’ was new that the contestants aspired to be Mariah Carey and Celine Dion. But now the shadow of past seasons weighs heavily over the long lines of Bo Bice clones, Kelly Clarkson fanatics, country girls who often seem more Kelly Pickler than Carrie Underwood and Kelly Pickler, hard rockers drawn to walk the Daughtry trail, and in Miami, one devoted Jasmine Trias acolyte.

At the conclusion of the Season 6 auditions a year ago, I wrote: “Every season’s first episode brings a lurch to the stomach. We see these 24 unformed, rough talents and the question looms heavy in the ether: is there a Kelly Clarkson among this crowd? Can the next Clay Aiken be hanging over that railing before us?

And at first glance, the answer is generally, absolutely not. There is no way that these wild, untamed beasts of the singing jungles can rise in one song, in one episode to the stature of the giants of entertainment.”


At that time, the group stepping forward from the auditions seemed too impossibly small to follow in the footsteps of McPhee, Daughtry and Pickler. In time, of course, Sparks, Jones, Lewis, Doolittle and Scarnato became icons in their own right. Going into this season, I must say I feel more optimistic than I did a year ago. Though no automatic favorite leaps out at me, we’ve seen enough charismatic, high performers that one has a general sense there are the makings of a strong 12 in there somewhere.

Of course, on the first day of Hollywood week, every single one of those potential stars might be swept away. But then the season, Season 7, begins.

-- Richard Rushfield