Jan. 19, 2012 at 10:18 PM ET
“American Idol” went to Pittsburgh for Thursday’s audition episode, and as host Ryan Seacrest noted excitedly, “They call this place ‘City of Champions!’ ” Of course, it doesn’t really count if it’s a nickname you give yourself, but at least we got to see the Terrible Towels waving once more this season now that the Steelers have been eliminated from the NFL playoffs.
It was a strange group of 38 that made it through from here, heavy on the quirk and light on the powerful vocals. But by the end of the hour, a couple of legitimate contenders emerged from the pity selections and the random eccentrics who have no chance of winning.
Eben Franckewitz is this season’s attempt to capture the Justin Bieber vibe. With a look as wholesome as Beaver Cleaver and a mom who says things like, “I’m really, really proud of you, no matter what happens,” what’s not to like about this 15-year-old? Odds are somewhere around 110 percent that you’ll be seeing a lot of him in Hollywood.
The same goes for Hallie Day, who closed the show. She’s pretty much the exact opposite of the Franckewitz backstory, having dropped out of school, gone to New York for a failed experiment with a rock band, slinked back to Baltimore and tried to overdose on pills. Now she’s married, back in the game and is someone Jennifer Lopez thinks can win. Unlike “Survivor,” “Idol” doesn’t need a Redemption Island to provide second chances.
Speaking of second chances, Travis Orlando is back. The 17-year-old who told his story in last year’s auditions has fared only worse since missing his chance a year ago. He dropped out of high school, his mom walked out on the family, he got evicted and moved into a shelter with his dad and his twin brother. Other than that, it’s been an awesome 12 months. He’s all-in on music now, and he said he’s scared.
“Scared is good. Scared makes you do things you wouldn’t normally do,” J.Lo told him.
Others to watch include Reed Grimm, who broke new ground by auditioning to the theme from “Family Matters.” If “Idol” doesn’t work out, he should try Nick at Nite.
Mobile DJ and wedding singer Erika Van Pelt also got universal praise, though wedding singers always walk a fine line between engaging the audience and being a cornball, and she’s really close to falling on the wrong side of that divide.
Also watch Creighton Fraker, who wrote a song on the nine-hour bus ride from New York. (And from his stage persona, it looked like he might have inhaled some carbon monoxide fumes along the way.) He won the award for the most over-the-top praise of the night.
“A million percent yes,” Randy Jackson said.
“Two million percent yes,” J.Lo added.
Steven Tyler topped them all. “Three gazillion percent yes. This is why I joined Idol ... to say to you you’re going to Hollywood.”
Uh ... OK.
Others got tickets for reasons that are impossible to fathom. Like Heejun Han, who impressed the judges by singing much better than he spoke. “I am really impressed and shocked,” Randy said. Not as shocked as Han was when he learned he’s going to Hollywood. Or as shocked as I’ll be if he makes it past the first day there.
Also unlikely to win is Samantha Novacek, who was memorable only because her sister Patricia came with her and planked on the audition stage. “She sings better when I plank,” Patricia said. Uh ... if you say so. But how great would it be if Samantha made it to the group night and her fellow singers had to work their choreography around the planking? It was worth the ticket for that alone.
One of the few who were sent packing was coal miner Shane Bruce. “What made you want to be a coal miner?” J.Lo asked him. Uh, Ms. One Percent, have you checked the unemployment numbers lately? The answer probably is that he’s in a coal-mining family and needs the work. Not everyone can hang out in New York until they hit the big time.
At any rate, it’s always a bad sign when someone introduces their song by referring to it as ‘that Hallelujah song in 'Shrek.' ” Though all three judges were encouraging, he didn’t advance and was disappointed in himself. “Just got nervous. Didn’t do as good as I know I can,” he said.
There’s always next year. As we learned again on Thursday, “Idol’s” very sympathetic to those seeking a second chance.
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