It’s the end of an era on American Idol, as the audition process draws to its conclusion for the final time.
From the highs (Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood) to the lows (Kenneth Briggs, Jonathan Jayne, damn right you sent them to the Super Bowl), the viral (William Hung, Larry Platt) to the Cowell-panned split decisions (Taylor Hicks, Chris Daughtry), all the way down to the vote-for-the-worst crowd that stuck around way too long (Sanjaya Malakar, Kevin Covais, Tim Urban), Idol auditions have been ingrained in pop culture for the past decade and a half.
They have provided our first (and usually last) glimpse at the segment of our population who feels, for better or for worse, that they have the chops to be a force in the music industry. They have been entertaining. They have been heart-warming. They have been mind-blowing. And they have been infuriating.
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And while only 14 thus far having bested the hundreds of thousands who have turned out over the last 15 years, the auditions have begun the journey to 13 Grammy Awards and more than 50 nominations (across 10 singers, 11 if you count Tori Kelly), as well as an Oscar (for J-Hud) and a Tony nomination (for Constantine, of all people).
But now, it’s all coming to an end. Brain Games … is now … over.
The Legacy of American Idol
Despite all the success stories that have come out of this franchise, years of sagging ratings and winners with less-than-household names mean that Idol‘s legacy will likely be determined by its final champion. And so far, the “Farewell Season” has delivered a few potential Top 10-ers and a lot of so-so golden ticket recipients.
Still, there is hope that the cream of the crop can overshadow the bunch and deliver one final superstar before Ryan Seacrest and Kieran dim the lights and crawl under the porch. We’ve been promised that the best and craziest auditions are being saved for last, with some sort of memorable surprise singing the literal swan song. But after Kanye closed out the premiere, what could possibly be left? Let’s find out in the two-hour conclusion to this abbreviated three-week audition season, before the remaining performers grow in notoriety and the competition really heats up.
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The Legit Good
The first of the last is Jessica Cabral, a first generation American of Brazilian descent. She comes from a musical family, but they moved around a lot because of the struggles of acclimating to life in the US. Her rendition of Alicia Keys’ “Brand New Me” is simply effortless. Goose bumps, and we’re kicking it off with one of the best of the season.
Melany Huber is a 17-year-old stage three lymphoma survivor who beat cancer but is still recovering from the after-effects of chemotherapy, and while she may have lost her hair, she held on to her positive attitude. It starts off average of a decent singer, but things seem to click about halfway through. And then it’s nothing short of brilliant. She’ll have to be consistently like the end of this performance though, if she wants to advance to the live shows.
Next up is the family affair montage, with Rachel Karryn and her grandfather, Caroline Byrne and her brother, and Bianca Espinal and her dad all putting together solid performances and moving on. Bianca scream-sings a bit too much, but the other two could be ones to watch.
Chynna Sherrod has a wonderfully sweet and pleasing voice that is well suited for this acoustic take on an Ariana Grande song, but I have questions about whether she can handle anything out of this wheelhouse. Group round in particular will likely be difficult for her in terms of standing out.
Kacye Haynes is a 23-year-old Alabama boy who was born with music living in his soul, and he’s had to overcome drug problems to get to this point. The first day he woke up sober, he wrote a song, and now he’s been clean for nearly a year. He sings “Brother” by Need to Breathe, and he’s one of my favorite guys to perform thus far. Keith doesn’t think he has enough power to be a solo artist, but he’ll get another shot with two “yeses.”
A montage of bad musicians ends with professional guitar hero Zach Person, who rips a funky rendition of “Next Door Neighbor Blues.” His gift is playing the strings, but he has a decent voice to match, and his originality gets him through to Hollywood.
Colette Lush is a giggly 19-year-old nanny who is a natural redhead and has a litany of facts about gingers (including that they’ll be extinct by 2030). She’s very excited to audition, and Harry asks if her last name is really Lush. Her raw talent and potential are as natural as her hair color, but it’s overdone in that she’s trying to show off literally everything she can do in one performance. And apparently, the judges rave about the subtlety with which she accomplished that. J-Lo even compares her to Carrie Underwood.
Avalon Young is a tomboy waitress who wears an over-sized T-shirt and doesn’t think anyone can “look like a singer.” She’s never felt the need to try to be pretty, and she relies on her ability. She plays guitar and sings an acoustic version of a Beyonce song, and even with overdone runs and some pitch issues, she has a unique sound that stands out from the pack. And Harry thinks the competition will bring out the best in her.
A montage of unnamed “yeses” leads to Stephany Negrete, who is already dressed the part in a tiny skirt, sparkly halter top and huge glam heels. She has quite a range, and I know so because she throws its full weight into every run. She has me scrunching up my face like crazy, and J-Lo wonders how it would’ve sounded if she focused on the lyrics instead of concentrating on every note she needed to hit. But she’s hot, so Harry and Keith disagree. She needs coaching, but there’s potential.
The final audition in American Idol history goes not to a surprise celebrity, but Manny Torres, a Puerto Rican with a healthy appreciation for Jennifer Lopez. His pops flew in to surprise him, and he kicks it with a rip-roaring rendition of Maroon Five’s “This Love.” I’m not a huge fan of his arrangement or inflection, but I can’t deny the originality. He’s got a good voice and lots of energy, and he doesn’t bother me, but I don’t think I’d listen to him on my own. Still, he gets the last ticket to Hollywood of Season 15, or any season for that matter.
The Pseudo Good
A montage of supporting, loving couples ends with Brian Dale Brown, who brought along a girlfriend 15 years his senior. He’s auditioned 10 times without ever making it past the stadium producer, but this time, Lee DeWyze found him just entertaining enough. Before he butchers “Unchained Melody” (during which he makes facial expressions resembling those of intense constipation) he does impressions of Keith Urban and … Scooby-Doo. Clearly, he’s just trying to find work elsewhere, yet the judges tell him to tone it down when he performs in Hollywood. Simply baffling.
After Harry’s impromptu Hotlanta birthday party and the gift of a tiny monkey that eats grapes, his real present is 15-year-old Lilian Glanton. This country girl grew up on a poultry farm with 11,000 chickens and is wearing American flag clothing. She sings an original song called “Country Boyfriend,” and the nasally twang is on full display. It’s good enough for now, but I’d be shocked if she goes much further than this. It’s just not on par with other more seasoned country singers like Emily Brooke, but she goes through with two “yeses” from Keith and J-Lo.
Next up is background actor (aka EXTRA) Usen Ison, whose only lines are mimed and who is rocking some serious heels. He’s another one with a decent voice but no sense of how to use it, and so he flips like 18 octaves in a single run and provides a cringe-worthy moment or seven. Or has Harry describes it, “You are trouble, man, be if you walk out on that stage, the person behind you is going to say ‘Oh crap.'” Oh crap indeed.
There is apparently a group called Jagged Row that does green hair and face paint, and the frontwoman is 21-year-old Jackie Butler. The entire band lives with her parents, and they’ve been doing gigs for more than six years. She’s rocking her “battle gear” with lots of leather and combat boots, and then she sings “It’ll Rain” by Bruno Mars. It’s an odd choice for alt rock, and even though she also has some pipes on her, it just doesn’t work for me. It’s forced, and she mixes screaming with a deliberate pronunciation of the lyrics. So naturally, J-Lo compliments her for “singing in her voice.” She grew on Harry halfway through, and Keith thinks she distanced herself from her band and became an individual.
Cody Ostrenga is a three-time world champion horse-riding gun-shooting guy, which means he rides a horse at 45 mph and shoots balloons with a pistol. He’s also a belly dancer, and he combines his abilities by pulling up his shirt and wiggling while keeping the judges in his pretend crossfire. Pew, pew, pew! He has a very unusual collection of talents, but singing is not one of them. The judges agree he is highly entertaining, though.
Gina Naomi Baez has crazy eyes and is dressed identically to her dog Tinkerbell (and not the other way around), and by that, I mean a blue dress covered in giant yellow stars. Her profession is “singing princess,” but her audition mostly lacks anything resembling that classification. And by that, I mean she just screams a lot. She follows up the chorus of “no’s” by begging for another chance, then getting lost on the way out. This is followed by a montage of the devastation I discussed in the last recap, which inexplicably includes the rejection of the blind guy. Again.
A montage of Kelly Clarkson fans culminates with Justin Sullivan, who is auditioning in the hopes that he might someday meet the inaugural champion. He claims to be obsessed and even has T-shirts with “Mr. Kelly Clarkson” on them, and so Harry and Keith drag over a giant poster for him to serenade. He actually has a decent voice despite several off-key notes, but he’s sufficiently scared everyone enough to let him pass with a couple of letting-him-down-easy compliments. While searching for a bookend to Kelly Clarkson’s crown, they bookend Justin with more Miss Codependent.
And just like that, in the blink of an eye, the final and fastest audition round is done, and after some parting emotion from the the judges and contestants (and a group singing promo for FOX’s Grease Live), it’s onward and upward to the 190 singers who advanced to Hollywood. And at least two-thirds of them probably deserved to go.
The expectations and nerves are high, so who will step up and who will crumble under the pressure? Do you think we’ve seen those who will end up in the Top 24, or do we need some unseen talent to burrow its way in to have a shot at a successful season?
Who are your favorites, and who from this episode do you think has the best shot to make a run? And most importantly, what round will Kanye West fail to make the cut?
American Idol airs Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8pm on FOX.
(Image courtesy of FOX)