American Idol has pulled its circus train into Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a town, which according to Idol's short hand, is comprised entirely of sports analogies and Terrible Towels™, which I assume are really nonabsorbent and clash with every decor.
First up is Heejun Han, who is extremely nervous and has the tics to prove it. The editors seem to be bracing us for something awful and the suspicion is confirmed when Ryan Seacrest asks Heejun's friends if they have ever heard him sing, and they all grimly shake their heads. We are prepared for The Worst, but it turns out that Heejun didn't get the memo. He belts out Michael Bolton's "How Am I Supposed to Live Without You?" with such vigor that he gives Steven Tyler instant happy face. Jennifer Lopez mouths along because the song really hits her Achilles heel. Randy Jackson is shocked that Heejun can sing. He is so shocked, he has to say "I am shocked" a few times, and you start to wonder why Randy is so shocked that a nice Korean kid from New York can sing. Steven puts his glasses on before seriously intoning, "I think you could be the American Idol."
Reed Grimm was born into a stage family, complete with all the imagery of lindy hopping and ugly child-size suits that conjures up. He announces that his song of choice is the theme song to Family Guy. Fox must be so excited for this unique cross-promotional opportunity! Reed sings the Family Guy song, but it sounds like he mashed it up Glee style (also on Fox!) with the Frasier theme song. Reed's rendition of the song tossed the judges' salads (old-school Frasier joke!) and he is going to Hollywood.
Idol is not nearly as chintzy a production as Willy Wonka and the golden tickets are flying out the door. Aaron Marcellus, Chase Likens (whose most memorable trait is that he looks like a hillbilly Goran Visjnic) and a few blonde girls are all on their way. Then we meet poor, poor Samantha Novacek and her sister Patty, the semi-professional planker. Yes, the color of Patty's parachute is planking. So while Samantha carpe diems, her sister Patty is carpe-ing the carpet and planking while her sister sings. It's almost comforting to think this is an elaborate performance art piece and that Patty will have a successful showings at the Gagosian Gallery. The judges let Samantha through, but when she emerges, Patty also has a golden ticket. Look out Mr. Brainwash, Patty is coming to LA.
Creighton Fraker used his nine-hour bus ride to write a song about the judges, which is a surefire way to win their hearts. It works and Steven claims he joined Idol in order to tell people, "You're so Hollywood baby!" Which is something I like to yell at strangers cutting in line at the Starbucks. Fifteen-year old Eben Franckewitz is well-mannered, clean cut and blessed with a stage mom who promises to still love him even if he doesn't make it to Hollywood. The judges are instantly smitten with the singing Cabbage Patch doll. They give him a ticket to Hollywood and it's clear they can expect handwritten thank you notes within the week. The producers play him off with Justin Beiber – just think, in two years, little Eben can also be facing false paternity suits!
Travis Orlando has a decent if wobbly voice and a sob story that would make a producer weep tears of joy. He lived in a shelter, his dad is on dialysis, his mom isn't there. The judges aren't convinced of his talent, but then he confesses he's terrified, starts crying and admits he dropped out of school to sing. It's Idol's dark fame-whore underbelly encapsulated in one sad kid. There's no way the judges are saying no to him. I mean, they aren't dead inside. Well, Randy maybe.
Erika Van Pelt is a wedding singer who swears her life is nothing like The Wedding Singer. She only gets a few notes into her song before the judges start making "mmmhmm, oh yeah" sounds like she transformed into a giant bucket of fried chicken in front of their eyes. Her pass means everyone so far has gone through to Hollywood. Isn't it time to crush some dreams? Since we're in Pittsburgh, a steel worker would be preferable, but a coal miner will do. Nineteen-year old Shane Bruce of West Virginia fits the bill perfectly. The judges ask him what song he has in mind, and he puts the final nail in "Hallelujah's" coffin by calling it the song from Shrek. Who can we get to sing "Hallelujah" at the funeral for "Hallelujah"? Shane can carry a tune, but his voice cracks, probably from coal dust and the judges send him home. Then "Hallelujah" plays as the coal miner cries on his momma's broad shoulder about his dreams slipping through his fingers while Hallelujah plays and it is . . . searing. Goddamnit, America!
To end the night on an up note, Hallie Day, a statuesque blonde from Baltimore, takes a moment out of her auditioning to tell America about her attempted suicide. She assures the judges she won't get suicidal if they don't like her voice, but J. Lo makes a point of telling her to never stop believing in herself. To prove she is mentally healthy, Hallie chooses Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive." She is great, so we don't have to worry about a downward spiral. Yet.
See you on Sunday for a special edition of American Idol.
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