American Idol kicked off its 15th and final season this week with Atlanta and Denver auditions that were lackluster at best and have left me with little optimism that there could be another Carrie Underwood lurking in our midst. Especially considering we live in a country where technology advances more quickly than the citizens who integrate it into their everyday lives. In short, we’re getting dumber, and we’re doing it faster.
American Idol inadvertently nailed the analogy, too, in the Dunkleman-filled flashbacks. You used to have to spend an hour on a phone the size of a car battery inside your home to vote one time, but now, you can vote 50 times in a minute from a device the size of a paper clip (unless you’re a Galaxy person) while you’re driving (but don’t).
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I suspect that a big part of Idol‘s declining talent pool has something to do with changes in society itself. In addition to the ever-expanding ways people can get famous without actually having much talent (was that Kim Kardashian on the premiere?), there is also a growing sense of entitlement that talent is inherent without the need to nurture those gifts.
Kids These Days…
One of the reasons Kris Allen was able to defeat the supremely more vocally-gifted Adam Lambert is because America watched and appreciated his evolution into a true artist, and it’s a bit ironic that his signature moment came from the body of work of the usually indignant Kanye West.
I mean, this is a guy who nicknamed himself “Yeezus,” interrupts awards shows and proclaims that George Bush doesn’t care about black people. And that’s not even the half of it. Just Google the phrase “weird things Kanye West has done,” and you’ll get more than 2.5 million results. And he has at least that many fans.
People who dream big used to need Idol to give them the opportunity to showcase their skills and reach an unreachable audience. Previous failures offered a sense of desperation and humility you rarely see now except in the oldest of auditioners.
But with today’s revolving door of reality shows and self-made YouTube stars, the vibe I get from these kids is that they think they’ve already made it, they just haven’t been discovered yet. And with that comes a belief that they’re already where they need to be vocally, and if the judges don’t like the run-laden, finger-waving and scream-singing, on to the next show they go. It’s why I was so infuriated by Clark Beckham’s “If I can’t win with this song, I don’t want to win American Idol” comment. There is a difference between compromising your artistic integrity and taking steps to grow into the artist you should eventually become.
Clark didn’t take advice from anyone, and even though the sky was his limit, he served as his own glass ceiling by presuming he was already good enough and didn’t need any help. That’s how consistent, yet cookie cutter, Nick Fradiani was able to mediocre his way to a record contract.
And don’t forget that Nick and even Phillip Phillips before him were contestants on America’s Got Talent, not to mention all The Voice castoffs. At this point, it’s like you or I entering the same screenplay in a dozen competitions but never editing it. It’s already good enough as is, so why bother with revisions?
An Eternal Optimist
Despite all that, I am by no means giving up on the season and I’ll watch the show when they bring it back in five or 10 years. I remain hopeful that true talent is out there. It’s still the only show to continually launch careers, whether they be on the radio, on stage or on film. The potential is always there to find the next Grammy, Oscar or Tony-winning superstar. It’s just a question of whether or not the next Kelly Clarkson has already appeared on X-Factor or The Glee Project.
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The auditions now continue in Little Rock and San Francisco, and my fingers are crossed. After all, there are exceptions to every rule. And you can’t tell anything about a season until you get to the live shows.
The above-mentioned Kris Allen (still a fan) is on hand in Arkansas to help make the contestants feel more comfortable, and the first featured performer is 15-year-old Cameron Richard. He had a cleft palate when he was born and doctors didn’t think he’d ever be able to sing, so he’s got half the resume filled out. He has as sweet voice, which is, dare I say, a bit nasally, but he nails the last big note. He could use more seasoning, more control and more time to develop. Or in Season 15 talk, he’s going to Hollywood.
Daniel Farmer is 24 and is very interested in seducing Jennifer Lopez. He thinks that his grinding moves, charisma and personality are going to seal the deal. He asks her why she’s so fine before serenading her with a little D’Angelo. His voice backs up his claims without, you know, getting any. He is a bit showy with his runs, range and, er, crotch-thrusting though. J-Lo calls his confidence attractive, though I don’t know if many viewers agree. But Kanye fans probably love him.
In the quest to stand out from the rest, 19-year-old School of Rock vocal coach, Dalton Rapattoni, has a leg up on the competition. He’s like a beach-friendly version of Adam Lambert, with choppy blond rocker hair, bright blue eyes and a touch of makeup. He sings an acoustic guitar version of “Phantom of the Opera,” which is a delightful conundrum of contradictions. Harry digs how he sung a show tune the way he wanted to, while J-Lo finds the mix of hard and soft along with masculine and feminine, unique and beautiful. Keith appreciates his artistic contribution. We might have our first consensus top 24 pick.
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You can also add La’ Porsha Renae to that group, after the judges let her sing an extended version of Radiohead’s “Creep.” She’s overcome abuse with the help of music, and if it wasn’t for singing, she might not have survived or escaped. Plus, she brought along her adorable 7-month-old daughter, who she could probably conceal in her giant ‘fro. Unique look, amazing voice and emotional backstory. Check, check, check. Keep an eye on this one.
A montage of random farm dwellers with varying animals prompts Jenny and Keith to sing the Green Acres theme song (is the old show theme going to be a regular thing?) ends with 24–year-old Trent Harmon, who lives on a literal farm-to-table ranch with a restaurant attached. He plays guitar and slays some Allen Stone, mixing a little country with soul. Could we have three of our top 24 out of Little Rock? We just might, and I may be eating my words at the end of this. Like I said, fingers crossed.
It’s off to San Francisco, where Lee DeWyze takes over as ex-winner-to-the-hopefuls and Ryan Seacrest offers insight into the pre-judge singing process. Then uber-hottie-who-can’t-do-an-interview Brook Sample, 28, lends her sweet voice to the Dixie Chicks. She misses a note or six and forgets some words, but she’s likable and has the look, so we’ll hear her again. The judges tell her to stop apologizing for everything and build some confidence.
Olivia Rox is a 16-year-old rocker chick with pink hair and musical parents. Her sax-playing dad, Warren Hill, looks like the Kenny G version of Keith Urban. She plays piano and sings a slowed-down version of Bruno Mars that has me covered in goose bumps. She is by far my favorite singer we’ve seen thus far. Granted, we’re only three hours into the season, but wow. She’s come a long way since her Season 8 America’s Got Talent Vegas week elimination.
Then it’s all about the girls, as Jessica Clark, Ameet Kanon, ice-cream scooper Kayla Mickelsen and Melanie Tierce all advance with solid performances. Mickelsen and Tierce stand out from the quartet, as both have unique features and sounds that should serve them well in the competition.
Miss Alaska 2014, Malie Delgado, is up next and her crown led her to a job as a DJ on a local radio station where she gets to announce that Ryan Seacrest is coming up next every weekday. She’s got a powerful voice, though her rap skills could use some work. Harry points out that she looks and sounds like so many other contestants that she has her work cut out to differentiate herself, but he calls her a bright aquamarine in a group of blues.
Harry lets Ryan fill in as guest judge for Brandyn Burnette, who he first asks “Do you suck or are you good?” Brandyn sings an original song, which is always a risk, but in this case it pays off. He’s got a touch of John Mayer in him, and it’s nice see another guy join this list of contenders. It’s the rare four yeses.
Fifteen-year-old Kyrsti Jewel and her parents are super-fans who have “VHS’ed” episodes, purchased merchandise and have been to show finales. Kyrsti has been preparing her whole life for this opportunity. Her dad is almost as excited as she is when Ryan invites the whole family back for the audition, which he calls their greatest moment for them as a family, other than when Kyrsti was born (and when they figured out how they wanted to spell her name). She’s got a huge voice but it is usually either screaming or growling, and she even tosses in some scats. It’s all too much for me, as I scrunched up my face on several occasions, but the judges appreciate her “loud instrument.”
Finally, since Kanye can’t close out every episode, 15-year-old Tristan McIntosh and her emotional backstory get their time to shine. Her mom is a major in the Army currently serving in the Middle East, and she’s the reason Tristan is the musician that she is today. She wants to make her mom proud, and she’s hoping Mickey Guyton’s “Why Baby Why” on the piano will do the trick.
Her performance is a mix of raw talent and raw emotion, and while it’s not perfect, it’s a love fest from the judges that J-Lo compares to Alicia Keys. Then Harry reads aloud an email from Tristan’s mom before introducing her, because really, how could she miss this? And then it’s time for the happy tears. #IdolSoldierReunion.
The first collection of rejects comes in the form of many, many terrible singers handling their pre-judge business in awful fashion while Jennifer Lopez swipes through them on a faux Little Rock dating app.
Those without talent continue in montage form, following a reminder that all those singers who said, “I’ll come back next year” are having their Idol door close “forever.” But for these unnamed souls, there are only tears. Lots and lots of tears. And not the happy kind you have when you’re reunited with your mom.
Maddie McAllister is your typical country girl with your typical Idol name, so she has that working for her before she even makes it to the judges. And she has also brought along a real-life chicken, but not for sacrificing. Instead, she’s a show chicken, and a state champion to boot. But she also sounds like a typical Idol Maddie, and the judges agree she needs a few more years to hone her craft.
Twenty-six-year-old Sarah Hayes caps off a “montage of overconfidence” by sauntering in boasting about how she’s “gonna kill it.” She talks about having “that Marilyn Monroe thing going on,” and when Keith asks her about the attitude of country music, she responds by asking him if he’s ever listened to Miranda Lambert. He surmises that she might be drunk. The only thing she kills is her chances by being unable to get out more than two lines before stopping and apologizing. Harry blames the judges for being too goofy and distracting and says yes, but thankfully Keith and J-Lo step up and send her home. She might have a decent voice, but that’s not how you approach a job interview.
That’s it for Little Rock and the city that is home to The Rock, and that was a crazy episode of talent. There are too many standouts in this group to individually name, and I think it’s safe to say my faith and excitement have been restored. At least for a little bit.
American Idol airs Wednesday and Thursday nights at 8pm on FOX.
(Image and video courtesy of FOX)