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‘Idol’ doesn't mess with Texas

Austin brings flat notes and zombies with a message: TV rots your brain!
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Austin, Texas, is billed as the Live Music Capital of the World. Kelly Clarkson, the first and most successful "American Idol" winner, calls the state home, as do the national champion Texas Longhorns football team.

With a culture of both musical talent and winners, expectations were high for the Austin "Idol" auditions. But somehow, a city that can seemingly produce musical talent at every random street corner didn't set the world on fire, with talented hopefuls turning Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson to jelly.

Mostly, the judges just looked bored as usual. Too bad they weren't standing outside the arena, where the interesting action was taking place.

The Austin auditions were the scene of a bizarre protest from 15 people dressed like zombies, complete with fake blood and gore. The maneuver was apparently organized by a Texas graduate student, designed to draw attention to TV's brain-rotting tendencies.

Of course, this being the United States, and "American Idol" being a reality show, the result was a little different. The zombies got their 30 seconds of airtime and posed for the cameras, and the "Idol" producers made this week's video montage saluting the rejected candidates as the mock-horror "Curse of the Co-eds."

Therefore, the zombies actually contributed to the further rotting of the American TV-watching mind. Whether that's good news for the undead is uncertain.

But just in case it leads to more zombies in Hollywood, there was good news that followed the protest. The first Austin contestant to make it through was a funeral director.

Speaking of the undead ...Jason Horn probably doesn't run across many actual zombies in his line of work, but he does embalm the dearly departed. The jokes were obvious, and the judges made several. They probably would have gone on for hours, except that they passed him onto Hollywood and wanted to save some material until then.

To his credit, Horn didn't come in with a gimmick, didn't dress formally and didn't speak in the stereotypical monotone. In fact, he was among the more refreshing candidates in the interviews.

Instead of talking about himself as the next "Idol" winner, he said "I would like to get through to the next round. That would be neat." He got his wish.

Also falling under the "interesting jobs" category was Ashley Jackson, who makes her living as a fit model. That doesn't just mean that she's in shape; she models clothes to make sure they're designed correctly.

She also performs, and not badly at all. The judges heard her sing "Something to Talk About" with her mouth open, then "The Star Spangled Banner" with it closed. Then they sent her to Hollywood, presumably for the former performance and not the latter.

Ronnie "R.J." Norman has a more mundane gig as a waiter, and judging by the interviews is the guy who nobody wants approaching the table of their wife, girlfriend, sister or mother. This year's designated ladies man, who the show filmed both talking about his way with women and actually hitting on fellow contestants, got both a ticket to Hollywood and what appeared to be a list of phone numbers.

The two other success stories to make the airwaves had no jobs at all, or at least none that were mentioned. Ricky Hayes did the music program at Texas A-Commerce proud by being, as Randy put it, "A music major that actually sings in tune." He sailed through, probably earning himself valedictorian honors.

William Makar was a solid 16-year-old who Paula likened to a young Justin Timberlake, but then said wasn't ready for the competition. Simon and Randy disagreed, apparently realizing that young Justin Timberlake turned into huge money-maker Justin Timberlake. Makar got his ticket as well.

Texas-sized odds
Of course, only 12 who auditioned in Austin earned the judges approval and advanced to the next stage, and over 5,000 showed up to take their chance. That meant that for every success story, there were somewhere around 420 who were turned away and sent outside with the zombies.

The most intriguing of those was Allison Schoening, whose plane from Raleigh, N.C. nearly crashed on the way to her audition. She described holding a cell phone, debating whether to call her mom or her dad, and recommended that everyone go through such an ordeal at least once because "it changes things."

It wasn't the sort of speech that inspires viewers to find planes likely to suffer engine failure, but it probably would have made her a fan favorite had she advanced to the portion of the competition where fans have their say. Unfortunately, one thing that may have changed after her near-death experience was her ability to sing under pressure. Even given a second chance to impress, she didn't come close to making it.

Paula Goodspeed didn't fit the bill either, despite the fact that she had life-size drawings of her namesake judge that, fortunately, she did not actually bring in to the audition room. Perhaps she realized that such gimmicks tend not to work.

But the lack of a gimmick focused all the attention on her singing, which wasn't good enough either. Her main function on the telecast was to allow Simon to make a joke about her braces, since orthodontia was one of the only topics he hasn't had a chance to mock this season. Another was Christmas music, but Cierra Johnson took care of that on the checklist with an unimpressive rendition of "O Holy Night," followed by "Silent Night."

Julian Riano told the cameras that he turned to singing after failing to get into dance companies, and though the judges were impressed with his splits, complete with the full-leg extension, he got shot down in this career path as well.

Finally, there was Tessie Mae Reed. The 17-year-old told the cameras that "Simon will love me … he's going to love me from the moment I walk in."

Given the fact that Simon tends not to love any female contestant who doesn't look like she could be a model or an actress, that was an unlikely scenario from -- the fact that she didn't sing very well was an added bonus.

Austin's contribution to the brain-rotting of America thus ended with a fizzle.

Craig Berman lives in Washington, D.C. and is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.