Simon Cowell couldn’t believe his ears.
You’d think he’d be used to it by now. But the acerbic “American Idol” judge was railing again about the tone-deaf auditioners he, along with Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson, is forced to endure.
“People turn up who can’t sing a note in tune,” Cowell huffed on an episode last week, “and yet they believe they are the Second Coming.”
The Third Coming is more like it. Each contender on this third edition of Fox’s talent tourney comes believing he or she is the next American Idol.
Let others waste their breath campaigning to be the next American President (an unrelated contest that began in earnest with the Iowa caucuses the same day “American Idol” returned). Thousands bucking for pop stardom sing a different tune — though, much too often, it’s just another melismatic knockoff of “A Whole New World.”
More audition clips from around the country will air on “American Idol” this Tuesday and Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET, leading up to the Going-to-Hollywood eliminations Feb. 3 and 4 which, in turn, will trim the field to 32 performers.
Way down the road: an instant pop star jointly canonized by the three judges and the voting public; a new American Idol joining incumbents Kelly Clarkson and Ruben Studdard, plus his just-as-famous runner-up Clay Aiken; someone unavoidably in your face and ringing in your ear who, today, you have never seen or heard and don’t even know exists.
All that is the majesty of “American Idol,” whose third-season kickoff drew 29 million viewers — thus far the best start for any 2003-04 series.
No wonder. Unlike nearly anything else on the air, “American Idol” gets to have it both ways. “American Idol” glories in both success and failure, in both the best and the worst available — which means the viewer gets to, also. To paraphrase Mae West, when “American Idol” is good, it’s entertaining, but when it’s bad, it’s better.
Effort not enough
Just ask Cowell, who seems to enjoy nothing — and that includes admiring his biceps — more than dashing a bad singer’s dreams.
Here’s a sample Cowellism, inflicted on Roland Maxharj, a Kosovo-born resident of Hartford, Conn., after he had finished wailing “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me”:
“Thank God you don’t have to sing to get immigration status here.”
While Abdul and Jackson snickered like schoolchildren, Cowell flashed his wicked, lipless grin. “And THAT,” he sneered, “is what YOU think we are looking for?”
“I tried my best,” she replied.
Which, in her mind, should have been enough: earnest effort plus blind (or was it deaf?) faith. Shouldn’t that qualify her for the next round?
And what about Andrew Chester of Hudson, Fla.? Stumbling through “Sweet Home, Alabama,” he couldn’t even remember the lyrics.
“You have wasted my time,” Cowell informed him. “You have wasted your own time. You have wasted everybody’s time.”
Outside the audition room, Chester was heartbroken.
“This is everybody’s dream — ‘American Idol’ — to sing in front of America,” he told the camera as he choked up. “I’m a good person, I know I’m talented. They just don’t see it.”
Every good soul deserves a place in TV heaven, so why not Andrew Chester, who pledged, “Definitely be back next year.”
Among this season’s 80,000 entrants, a precious few already have displayed real ability. John Stevens IV of East Amherst, N.Y., crooned a plush “Just the Way You Look Tonight.” Lauren Enswiler of Moss Point, Miss., sizzled with “Summertime.”
But for the most part, they have been about as appealing as Howard Dean’s battle cry.
Meanwhile, prospects are dim that a truly fresh, surprising performer will rise to the top, especially if past “American Idol” winners are any sign. (Though brand-new to show biz, Clay Aiken already seems primed to take up permanent residence in Branson, Mo., performing nightly at the Clay Aiken Theater.)
The ideal of “American Idol” reminds me of something an art teacher used to tell her students to keep us honest: “You don’t know what you like; you like what you know.”
I’m also reminded of a phrase used to describe the style of Celine Dion: “not to defy expectations, but exceed them.”
On “American Idol,” where the customer is always right and singers scramble to fill the bill, the music you hear is the music you expect. The main surprises: When a performance of that music defies your expectations with addled, inspired awfulness.