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Hooray for Hollywood: ‘Idol’ starts cutting

In California, some singers shine, others flop, and some just whine
AMERICAN IDOL: L-R: Judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson
compare notes at the Hollywood auditions on AMERICAN IDOL airing
Wednesday, Feb. 8 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX.
AMERICAN IDOL: L-R: Judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson compare notes at the Hollywood auditions on AMERICAN IDOL airing Wednesday, Feb. 8 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX.Fox TV
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

After seven audition cities, thousands of contestants, and endless horrible renditions of Josh Groban’s “You Lift Me Up,” “American Idol” finally passed on to the next round. No more would the judges have to fly to musical hotbeds like Austin, Boston or Greensboro. Now the competition moves to its home turf: superficial, petty and judgmental Hollywood.

Of course, if a variety of reports can be believed, at least two competitors have experience being criticized not only by Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul, but also by actual judges in a court of law.

Derrell and Terrell Brittenum began as among the most notable of the hopefuls auditioning for “American Idol” this season. That’s due to several reasons; they sang well at the Chicago auditions, they have big mouths and get on camera a lot — and by the way, they to buy a car in 2005.

Early reports said the twins had been “uninvited” from the show, which would be consistent with the program’s historical tendency not to be a big fan of rap sheets. But Bo Bice made it to last year's final two despite , so perhaps that attitude is changing. Or perhaps the Brittenums convinced the show’s producers of their innocence.

At any rate, if the reports were true, it was a very brief disinvite. Both made it to Hollywood, made it past the first round of cuts — and made it on camera an awful lot.

Derrell Brittenum sang first, but didn't really impress Simon. “You can sing,” Cowell acknowledged, adding “I don’t think for one minute that I’m looking at the next American Idol.” Terrell did better than his brother, according to Paula Abdul at least, but both brothers were upset at the criticism. Among other things.

The Brittenums spent a lot of the show complaining. The song selections for the first round were terrible. Untalented people were being pushed through (why that would be bad news is unclear, since it would presumably be a good thing for them to compete with less talented rivals). Carrie Underwood shouldn’t have won last year. And so on.

The constant whining made for good television. Whether it gets them much farther remains to be seen.

Few surprises earlyAuditioners were already cut to a group of 175 singers to begin the Hollywood round, and just 24 will survive to reach the audience participation portion of the program.

The hopefuls were split into two groups over the first couple of days, with one group performing before the judges while the other toured around town and made fun of Simon Cowell’s lack of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. At the end of two days, 99 advanced to the dreaded “group sing,” while the rest were sent home before they could unpack all of their socks and underwear.

The first round of cuts was based on each singer's audition as well as his or her Hollywood debut. That probably helped Kellie Pickler, who looked petrified in her California rendition of “Hopelessly Devoted to You” but did well enough to sail through.

Kevin Covais looked every nervous inch of his 16 years, but made it anyway. So did David Radford, even though his gestures were more robotic than flowing — Simon does love his crooners. Taylor Hicks, who sounds a bit like Joe Cocker and looks a bit like a 45-year-old, advanced despite singing “The First Cut is the Deepest,” not really a Joe Cocker type of song.

It was also a good couple of days for the teenagers. Lisa Tucker, the best 16-year-old Simon says he’s ever seen, made it. Paris Bennett, who said “There is no little person in the world as loud as me,” proved it with an impressive performance. Both look to have good chances of making it to the final 24 unless they fall apart.

Story, story, who's got a story?The Hollywood round always offers its share of human-interest stories, and this year did not disappoint. For starters, there was the requisite sick-person-who-perseveres-and-makes-it-through contestant in the form of Megan Zieger.

Zieger was not the most confident candidate in the world. While the rest of the “Idols” frolicked and played on the beach in Santa Monica, she sat by herself talking about her laryngitis. She didn’t seem any better waiting in the wings before she sang, lamenting that “people who aren’t on the level that I’m at are singing better than me today.”

Her misgivings proved to be justified. Zieger wasn't great, mangled her first vocal, and had to try again in a lower key in order to keep her voice from breaking.  She knew it still wasn’t good enough, and pleaded with the judges for another chance.

“Look at me — I’m sick as a dog, and I’m up here singing and trying my best… You have a team player here. You have a winner,” she begged. And whether the judges liked the speech or really liked her first audition, they bought the sob story, and Zieger lived to fight another day.

Amazingly, so did Garet Layne Johnson. The Wyoming teen cowboy seemed like the proverbial fish out of water in this competition. The trip to California marked his first time on a plane, and while there, he saw the ocean for the first time, and in general walked around more like a guy willing to buy fake Rolexes for five bucks than a serious “Idol” contender.

But when Johnson sang to musical accompaniment with background singers (first time for that too), he sounded much better than he had at his first audition. He also clearly made a lot of friends in his couple of days in Hollywood, as the rest of the contestants gave him a rousing ovation.

“Butcher me now,” he joked after he finished, but the judges didn’t. Improbably, the singing cowboy advanced to the next stage.

Others took advantage of the new stage with some strong performances. Chris Daughtry sang much better than he had in Denver and sailed through. Brett “Ace” Young had the voice, the face and the gestures down pat, and also had Paula melting in his hand. He got the easy ticket onward.

California, here we ... go
Of the rest of the familiar names from the auditions, many sailed through, but not everyone. Steven David Jr., who flirted his way to Paula’s good graces and a golden ticket out of Greensboro, didn’t make it to the second round in Hollywood. Neither did Ronnie Norman, who, at his audition, displayed an impressive ability to talk to women but showed less star quality onstage.  

Then there was David Hoover. Hoover was the auditioner who looked like he was on some form of mind-altering drugs, but somehow convinced Randy and Paula to send him to Hollywood despite Simon’s strenuous objections. He was no less crazy in California, leaping onto the podium to shock the judges.

He got sent home, but seemed to be the calmest of the 66 losing contestants. “I came, I saw, I flew across the stage … I’m out of here,” he said.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.