After a seemingly interminable series of audition episodes and a Hollywood round that went by so fast that it started approaching infinite mass, “American Idol” has finally whittled down its singers to this year’s 24 semifinalists.
But as happens every year, some appear to have been chosen for the express purpose of being easy, obvious eliminations, thus ensuring that “Idol” gets the top 12 producers want.
It’s the old advertising trick: it always helps to pitch an idea so bad that your clients will automatically prefer the one you really wanted in the first place.
On “Idol,” that translates into stacking the top 24 with two types of performers: judges’ pets and cannon fodder. After all, what’s the use of the judges putting through their favorites if he or she runs the risk of getting voted off quickly?
First things first: any singer who was never seen before making the top 24 is cannon fodder, pure and simple. It’s never a good sign when you advance in "American Idol" and the collective audience response is “Who?” So tough break, Jared Cotter (heck, his name even rhymes with “cannon fodder”), A. J. Tabaldo, Stephanie Edwards, Leslie Hunt, Amy Krebs, Sabrina Sloan and Nicole Tranquillo.
Meanwhile, Nick Pedro, Chris Richardson and Haley Scarnato did nothing whatsoever to stand out since their introductions in the audition episodes.
That still beats Alaina Alexander, still reeking of the desperation of declaring that she auditioned for “Idol” so that she wouldn’t have to debase herself by going to college. Same with Paul Kim, who wanted to be the anti-William Hung but was last seen buttering up “How Deep Is Your Love” with a gallon of overwrought vocal runs.
In a more devious twist, some cannon fodder has been cleverly disguised as judges’ pets. Sundance Head initially seemed to have all the signs of being not just a judges’ pet but possibly the judges’ pet, with unanimous praise at his Memphis audition and a compelling backstory: he’s the son of veteran country and soul singer Roy Head (“Treat Her Right”).
Antonella Barba’s initial audition also seemed tinged with a golden halo. She and her equally bikinied friend Amanda Coluccio offered the promise of Hollywood drama: would they turn on one another if it meant getting ahead?
It all started falling apart for both Head and Barba in Hollywood. Round after round, Head failed to live up to his first impression, and both he and the judges knew it. Barba, meanwhile, suffered guilt by association, as Coluccio seemed to be auditioning for the Rachel McAdams part in a community theatre production of “Mean Girls.”
But the show didn’t truly throw Head and Barba under a bus until they made the semis. The show pitted them against Thomas Daniels and Marisa Rhodes, who were both shown outperforming their competitors to high praise from the judges, at which point they were shown the door. As Melissa McGhee learned when she beat out Ayla Brown for the final spot in last season’s top 12, having the audience blame you for someone else’s ejection is a deadly position to be in. Head and Barba are likely to learn soon enough.
Blake Lewis, on the other hand, is the exact opposite: a judges’ pet disguised as cannon fodder. On paper, he appears to be nothing but a one-trick pony with a gimmick — beatboxing — that the show will play with for a few episodes before getting bored.
But Lewis lucked into the single best Hollywood group audition in the show’s history. A vision of a boy band gone horribly, wonderfully wrong, he and his partners pulled off a beat-boxed “How Deep Is Your Love” that looked and sounded like they’d been together for years, not half a day.
The show has so far been coy about showing Lewis actually singing, but the judges must surely know, after the persistence of season four’s teenaged crooner John Stevens, that a single unique gimmick can take a contestant quite far. If the judges didn’t like Lewis, there’s simply no way that he’d be given the opportunity to keep bm-ch-ch-bmm-ing well into the top 12.
Two of Lewis’ partners also made it through to the semis, and the afterglow of that one performance is probably enough to tag Rudy Cardenas as a pet as well.
As for Chris Sligh, “Idol” couldn’t love him more if he brought home straight As and then mowed the lawn. He came on strong in his audition, winning the judges over with his confident, self-deprecating sense of humor. Happily, he could also sing, and if you didn’t know him by the time he made the semis, then you hadn’t been paying attention.
Gina Glocksen got much the same royal treatment. More, actually, if you consider the exposure she got during her ultimately unsuccessful run last season. In a year when the show acknowledged the number of repeat auditioners, Glocksen was treated like their queen. Even in her tiff with vapid Shakira knockoff Perla Meneses, the show painted her as being in the right. And, considering who pulls the strings, her crush on Simon certainly couldn’t have hurt.
Glocksen’s vindication after her previous rejection is one of the show’s favorite “Idol” arcs. Professional backup singers Melinda Doolittle and Brandon Rogers allows the judges to write another — the blossoming of a performer who doesn’t realize how good he or she really is — without actually risking them not being able to sing.
Philip Stacy, on the other hand, missed the birth of his baby girl to audition for the show, priorities that Simon clearly endorses.
Then there are the pets who serve as potential correctives for failed contestants of the past. Lakisha Jones is Mandisa 2.0, all shouting passing for soulfulness, while frizzy-haired professional teen Jordin Sparks could spark rumors that Lisa Tucker is trying to sneak onto another season. And Sanjaya Malakar, who also benefits from a cute backstory (he auditioned with his older sister), covers this season’s teenaged boy requirement. After last season’s Will Makar, Kevin Covais and David Radford, one is plenty.
Just being a judges’ pet is no guarantee of making the finals, of course. Nor will all the cannon fodder be culled by then. (Covais, anyone?) Such is the risk of handing the reins over to the audience. Time will tell if the voters have their own ideas.
Marc Hirsh is a writer in Somerville, Mass.