Feb. 1, 2012 at 7:31 AM ET
When “American Idol” was young and feisty, it made its reputation by taking the dreams of unworthy hopefuls and ripping them to shreds. With Simon Cowell as the judges' ringleader, delusional applicants would have their voices trashed, their faces likened to those of wild animals, and sometimes even brought back for the finale for another round of mocking.
It was controversial and cruel ... and also must-see TV.
But if auditioning in those days brought the terror of having to wow the Mean Crowd in high school, now it’s like performing before friends and family. You might get some strange facial expressions and people might talk about you behind your back, but nobody is actually going to be mean to your face. If this is like last season, record exec Jimmy Iovine and his crew are going to be a lot harsher to the singers good enough to make it to Hollywood than the judges have been to those who are wasting everybody’s time when they try out.
The old style with Simon may have been unduly harsh, but it definitely broke up the tedium. The auditions are otherwise just hours upon hours of performers who blend together, with many getting airtime now only to later exit the show anonymously in Hollywood. There’s no incentive to fall in love with anyone this early, and there’s no need to write down what nastiness the judges said to discuss at work the next day since those comments are a thing of the past, so there’s no real reason to watch.
Take Phong Vu's performance on last Thursday’s Texas auditions, for example. He had no chance of advancing to the next round. The only reason he was put forward was for comic relief. But rather than the brutal truth, the judges responded with kindness.
“You know, you’ve got the passion ... but your voice is not interpreting what she sang. There wasn’t enough you in it,” Steven Tyler said. I’m no Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famer, but even I understood that the problem was there was too much Phong Vu in those vocals, not too little.
“Thank you, Phong Vu. It’s not going to work this time,” Jennifer Lopez added. "This time"? When’s it going to work, 2095?
Tealana Hedgespeth got her turn the previous episode in Aspen, Colo. She was bad enough that J.Lo turned to Tyler and whispered, “If you ask her for another song, I’m gonna kill you.” And to the judges' credit, if you’re looking for whispered criticisms or funny faces, these three are perfect.
But when the music stopped ...
“Have you ever recorded your voice and listened back? You gotta do that ‘cause then you’ll hear what we’re hearing,” Tyler said. Left unsaid was “... because what we’re hearing is making our eardrums bleed.”
“I think you’re adorable, but it’s a no,” J.Lo said.
“Love you, you’re so cute, but the singing’s not there yet,” Randy Jackson said. And by “not there yet,” he meant “hasn’t even left the driveway.”
So we got an 0-3 vote that was clearly warranted ... but with nothing but kindness. Here’s your blue ribbon for participation. Come back and see us again next year!
Those who complained about the nastiness of the old regime have gotten their wish -- these judges are unwilling to be dream-crushers. And while Rosie O’Donnell may be pleased with the results, it makes the auditions rather dull for the rest of us.
“Idol” can’t just show the good singers, or it’ll seem like everyone who walks in off the street is awesome. But without the negative commentary, bad singers are just that ... bad singers. When you hear one on the radio, you change the station. “Idol” had best hope that TV viewers don’t do the same.
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