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Memphis ‘Idols’ lack looks, but not talent

Boy, they had a prayer in Memphis. By Craig Berman
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A lot of contestants for “American Idol” have nice voices, but may be handicapped by their lack of traditional pop star looks. Despite the success of Taylor Hicks last season, the “Idol” bias has always been in favor of hopefuls who could step right from the stage to the cover of a teen magazine with just a quick tug of the hairbrush. It’s easy for many to sneer that unless they have the look, they haven’t got a prayer.

Boy, they had a prayer in Memphis.

Despite only getting an hour of airtime, Memphis didn’t lack for talent. It may not have been the kind of crowd that looked very impressive, but several stood out for anyone willing to close their eyes and just listen.

None of the judges took Jason “Sundance” Head seriously when he walked into the room, probably because he’s named after Butch Cassidy’s companion and because he looks like a guy who’s 27 years old and sings in bars. But in a lot of ways, Head emphasizes the type of contestant that usually succeeds at these auditions; older, with performing experience (his father is Roy Head, of “Treat Her Right” fame) and an appreciation that this is probably their last chance at becoming famous in the music industry.

Head not only sang the blues well enough to make it to the next round, he got the first Prediction of Greatness from Simon. “I’m going to be amazed if you don’t make the finals,” he said. Simon’s predictions aren’t always the most accurate in the world, but the fact that such praise has been hard to come by this season paints Head as one to watch moving forward.

None of the judges knew quite what to make of Melinda Doolittle. A backup singer her whole life, looking like she might throw up from nerves at any moment, Doolittle may have had the best vocals of the night. “You walk in with no confidence, no attitude … and yet you are a brilliant singer. You are what it’s all about — a great voice,” Simon said. Of course, she made it to Hollywood as well, but is one of the rare hopefuls who needs to dial the personality up rather than tone it down.

Head and Doolittle got the most attention, but they weren’t the only candidates to advance despite questionable first impressions. Sean Michel looked like Memphis’ version of Fidel Castro, the kind of person people are trained to cross the street to avoid. But he sounded good enough to earn a trip to Hollywood.

Danielle McCulloch looked more like a pop star, but sounded less like one. Still, her voice was bluesy enough that Randy’s “no” vote wasn’t enough to keep her out.

Then there was Philip Stacy, who missed the birth of his second daughter to audition. It looked for a long time like that was a choice he’d live to regret, but Randy liked him and Paula wanted to spite Simon, so Stacy got the golden ticket to Hollywood. Only after that did he (and the “Idol” cameras) race to the hospital to meet the baby.

Judges sing the blues
The story of the week has been , as though the mark any change from what’s occurred in the previous five. It took just five minutes of airtime for the show to remind everyone that it has high ratings, its critics don’t, and it will go on being rude for as long as it wants, which is probably for as long as it dominates the ratings.

Frank Byers, Jr. was the first singer to have his audition air on Tuesday. He’s the captain of the Southern Arkansas cheerleading squad. He brought the marching band with him. And he definitely had the personality. An easy person to root for, an earnest young singer looking to make it big…

“I hated it,” Simon said of the performance. “I thought it was corny, over-the-top, cabaret.”

And if that wasn’t enough, when the band played a consolation tune and the cheerleaders gave Byers his props for giving it the old college try, Simon walked out and told them to shut up.

Host Ryan Seacrest had the band’s back, walking into the judges’ antechamber to give them a piece of his mind. “Someone’s a bit of a [expletive] today,” he said, using a word that wouldn’t make it onto the air on any of his 17 different shows in various mediums.

Of course Ryan was right, but that’s nothing new. For five seasons, one of the secrets to the show’s success has been that the judges, and Simon in particular, are unafraid to crush dreams with all the sensitivity of Borat. Rosie O’Donnell might not like it, and Jimmy Kimmel might bring on some of the rejected to vent their spleens, but a lot more people watch “American Idol” each week than watch those programs, so nobody else cares.

Simon and the show were in rare form in the Memphis auditions. Christopher McCain’s wife left him, and he reacted by sniping “I think when I become the next ‘American Idol’ she’s going to want me back, and I’m not going to have it.” He doesn’t have to worry — he wasn’t that close to being good enough to make it to Hollywood with his rendition of the theme from “Footloose.”

But Simon did his traditional comparison to a drunk wedding singer, and alluded to whether McCain sang the same song to his wife the night she decided to leave. McCain, however, didn’t seem insulted, saying he was going to “get drunk, do some karaoke, and fall off the dang stage.”

Later in the broadcast, the producers ran a montage of rejected candidates, and the judges' reactions, to the tune of Elvis Presley and "Don't Be Cruel." As long as cruelty leads to ratings, however, "American Idol" will take its meanness all the way to the bank.

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