Hollywood Week Begins

You know what time of year it is. For many fans, “American Idol” didn’t officially begin until last night, when they programmed their season recordings three weeks behind the rest of us. For those of you who either haven’t enjoyed or didn’t even watch the seemingly endless a capella auditions that have aired the last few weeks, we offer you….er, more seemingly endless a capella auditions.  But this time, for the FIRST time, Hollywood Week is actually –gasp!- IN Hollywood. “Pasadena Week” just never quite had the same ring to it.  
As 147 hopefuls descended on Hollywood, we watched their dreams be both shattered and encouraged in groups of eight.  The judges were not there simply to critique their singing; they were there to be the judges of their fates. Randy, Paula, Simon and now Kara have the power to cut and to keep. A “no” could mean sending someone back to the lumberyard or to the McDonald’s fry cooker, for instance.  A “yes” could afford another person the chance to be the next American Idol; however it could also afford the same person to be the next featured player on “The Surreal Life” or, even worse, “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew.”   
Last night’s show highlighted hissy fits, breakdowns, and, of course, those damn Ford cars, but the main event was contestants singing their hearts out on the stage of the Kodak Theatre, which is now “legendary” according to Seacrest.  Yes, the Oscars and “American Idol” finals have been held there, but “legendary?”  Really? How long does it take something to become a legend anyway? The Kodak Theatre has been around for all of 7 years and 3 months.  I think Miley Cyrus is older than that but I have yet to hear her be touted a “legend.” Sheesh. Regardless, it was a nice move to give the contestants a feel for the stage they could potentially be performing on, even though, regrettably, at this early date there was no confetti involved.
One important twist that was quickly glazed over was the addition of “Idol Boot Camp,” which included sessions with the show’s vocal coaches, stylists and glam squad. The vocal coaches are a welcome addition to Hollywood Week.  It is, after all, a singing competition and at this early phase in the judging, song selection is so crucial.  It was also really cool that they provided the kids with a celebrity mentor.  What was NOT “really cool” was the fact that said mentor was…. Barry Manilow.  While Manilow is undoubtedly talented, both as a singer and songwriter, couldn’t they have gotten someone a little more, uh, timely? A couple of months ago, Simon mentioned that he would love to have Britney Spears on the show “in any capacity” (fingers crossed!).  Unfortunately, the fact is that many of today’s popular young performers are all image and no voice.  This puts the show between a rock and a hard place, which leads one to think that we will again see “seasoned” music vets acting as mentors this year, á la last year’s schizophrenic parade of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, Neil Diamond and Dolly Parton (relevant only to the teenager who is involved in musical theatre, frequents dueling piano bars or owns a banjo, respectively).
Again, I’m on board with the vocal coaching. That being said, couldn’t we just leave the contestants to their own senses of fashion and aesthetics for now?  Part of the fun of seasons past was watching geeky Clay Aiken transform from a literal redheaded stepchild into a man who brandishes a flatiron with ease. Do you remember asking, “I wonder what they could possibly do with Sanjaya’s hair tonight?” And while Carrie Underwood came into her first audition corn-fed and sporting hair that could only be described as “scrunched,” she is now such a glamazon that cyberspace and gossip mags alike ask the question, “Is she too thin?”. (Translation: “You’ve arrived!”)  Please don’t unleash the stylists yet.  We want to see the caterpillars gradually become butterflies.
As far as the actual singing auditions went, there weren’t many surprises here.  The contestants who were borderline in the earlier auditions were deemed mediocre in Hollywood and sent packing.  Those who didn’t make the cut included last week’s Sharon Wilbur and her shih tzu, along with Patricia Roman and her tambourine-playing family. While their Hollywood Week auditions weren’t even interesting enough to air, one reject who did prove interesting was Dennis Brigham, but not for his singing.  After giving a cruise-ship-worthy performance of Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life” and getting a “no” from the judges, Brigham accused Simon of wearing “very very cheap pants” for a rich person and sporting a “very lame shirt.”  Additionally, Erika Wesley, who was the only one in her group of eight to receive the “Idol pink slip,” took the stage again, this time alone, to plead with the judges for a second chance.  One of her main arguments was “It’s my cousin’s birthday.”  Enough said.
The judges had nothing but praise for Lil Rounds’ rendition of “I Will Always Love You,” and somehow overlooked the fact that she was in and out of tune and was basically screeching.  Despite singing a Whitney Houston song (big no-no), Lil was deemed “bold and brave” by Kara. Huh? Other contestants continuing on to the group auditions included the gorgeous Jasmine Murray, annoyingly kooky Jackie Tohn, “Rastafarian Barbie” Rose Black, cocky Frankie Johnson, BFFs  Jamar Rogers and Danny Gokey and Scott McIntyre (the blind guy whom Seacrest infamously tried to high-five).  Also included was personal favorite Marie Boskovich, as well as David Osmond.  When Puerto Rican Jorge Nunez sang Jon Secada and Afro-sporting Stephen Fowler gave a mean Stevie Wonder performance to progress to the next round, things looked hopeful that Indian hottie Anoop Desai would sing something a little more “Bollywood” than Stevie Wonder. (“Slumdog Millionaire” is so “in” right now!)  Nevertheless, the former member of the University of North Carolina’s a capella group, the “Clef Hangers” nailed it and we are sure to see more of him as the show progresses.  Also making it through was pink-haired Emily Wynne-Hughes; although she gave a shaky performance of No Doubt’s “Excuse Me Mr,” she seemed to skate through on the merit of her impressive first audition, for which she sang “Barracuda.” 
Perhaps the most memorable moments from last night’s show were the exchanges that didn’t include singing at all, even in the case of those progressing to group auditions.  Take, for instance, Nathaniel Marshall – just your average headband-wearing, tattoo sleeved, face piercing-sporting performer of inspirational Christian songs.  Or so you thought. When prodded about his odd song choice, “The Anchor Holds” by Ray Boltz, Marshall explained that music has always been an anchor, especially when he didn’t have anyone in life to support him.  This sob story even gets a noticeable pout out of Simon. But then, in a clip that will no doubt be featured later this week on E!’s “The Soup” with Joel McHale, Marshall tearfully and theatrically explains that, “I want this more than anything.  It’s on my skin.  Like, it just BURSTS (!) out of me every time I’m on stage and I don’t know why.” Oooookay.  
In a perfect world, Marshall would open up for equally entertaining and flamboyant Nick Mitchell/Norman Gentle.  While Mitchell’s performance earned him a standing ovation from the other contestants, Simon was not impressed.  Randy, on the other hand, validated that Mitchell could actually sing and Paula agreed, stating that she was curious to see him sing without the gimmick. Fine. Let’s let his “real talent” shine through.  But, in return, just promise us a drag queen or cabaret theme night. And, again, stylists, hands off!
There is one more audition worth mentioning, not for the singing, but rather, the drama.  Yes, the notorious “Bikini Girl,” Katrina Darrell, who has the hot bod of a 20-year-old and the tanorexic face of a 40-year-old, warbled her way through Faith Hill’s “Breathe.”  While her tone was sometimes very pleasing, the way she moved like Bobblehead Barbie was distracting.  She also had the nerve to tell the cameras that she thought Kara was rude to her in her last audition and that it probably stemmed from insecurity.  As Kara gave her critique this time, explaining that Darrell “had me there for a moment thinking maybe I was wrong but actually I think I was right,” Simon mocked DioGuardi by insinuating that she was being catty.  The way that Cowell then came to Darrell’s defense was laughable and it is unclear as to whether he was being facetious or serious.  He told her that he didn’t think she’d had fair criticism from “these girls” and that she was “absolutely right” in saying that she’d do better with music accompaniment. She did, in fact, make it through to the next round and as she left the stage, Kara needled, “Leave your number in the back room!” and “Don’t forget your pole tomorrow!” I’m sure Darrell’s mother is very proud. 
Last night’s show offered just a taste of the drama that awaits us in the group audition round.  Last night it was every man for himself but tonight the contestants’ fates rely not only on the judges but on their peers as well.  It is time consuming to deal with a diva with an attitude and it can be draining to work with performers whose levels of talent are not on par with one another.  The original 147 have been whittled down and 104 hopefuls remain. Only the strong will survive.  Let’s hope that our boy Norman is not too “gentle.”