Ryan Seacrest began Tuesday's “American Idol” premiere by describing the show as a rite of passage. In his usual “can you believe the excitement” voice-over, Seacrest postulated that nowadays people get their first car, go to prom, graduate high school … and audition for the show. “No self-respecting American will have turned down the chance just to try .. to be the next American Idol,” he said.
In addition to exhibiting the Seacrest flair for overstatement, the sentiment proved to be an apt description of those trying out in the two-day Chicago auditions. Though some did make it through to the next round, it soon became clear that many would sacrifice much of that self-respect just to spend a few seconds on national television.
"Idol" may indeed be a part of American culture, like baseball and apple pie, but unfortunately it's much easier to mess up a pop song than it is to burn a pie crust. And when those songs are butchered, one judge in particular is always ready to pounce.
‘You would be a great female impersonator’
In their preseason press tour hyping the show, a common theme was that this would be a crankier, meaner version of "American Idol." The desire to triumph over the competition, the theory went, would be enough to bury the camaraderie and bring bad feelings to the forefront.
However, in Chicago — apart from one scene of cattiness where a female contestant who got rejected turned around and mocked one who made it through — the only person meaner was Simon Cowell.
Simon, of course, is always the crankiest judge, but he went to a new low after Charles Berry's audition. Berry said he'd auditioned twice last year, took the judges' advice, and was ready for another chance.
This time the result was the same, but the advice was new. "Shave off your beard and wear a dress. You would be a great female impersonator," Simon said.
It may well be the most gratuitously nasty comment of the judge's "Idol" career. Berry walked out in tears, and even the other judges commented on the sentiment being too harsh. Of course, since Cowell is signed for at least three more years, it's not like he needs to temper his tongue because of job security.
The rest of Cowell's criticisms were the usual example of urbane dismissals. He called one failed candidate "a wasp … a little, buzzing, energetic thing," and said another sang like "an auntie," but apart from that his comments were very ordinary.
He also was unimpressed with the size of Mandisa Hundley — "just Mandisa," she said — reflecting his concern about her weight with the patented Simon sensitivity. After she was told she had made it to the next round, Simon asked facetiously, "Do we have a bigger stage this year."
Hundley wasn't in the room at the time, however, which meant all Simon was really doing was preening for the cameras. It's an art he's perfected over "Idol's" run.
‘I value their opinion, but…’
Plenty of people made it through to the next round, but that's not really what these audition episodes are about. Viewers have plenty of time to learn about the potential next Carrie Underwood or Ruben Studdard, but only a minute or two to mock those who clearly would be overmatched at a karaoke bar.
By telling the judges he would be singing a medley and was "not going to tell [the judges] exactly what it is," Derek Dupree instantly saved himself the effort of packing for Hollywood even before he opened his mouth.
Katrina Taukey doomed herself by not being prepared. She started off singing "The Humpty Dance" was told to sing something normal, and took too long trying to think of a second song.
Stuart Benyamin's uncle may indeed be the Assyrian Elvis Presley, but that didn't mean it was a good idea for Benyamin to pick a folk song in a foreign language as his audition material.
It also isn't such a good idea to drop a couple of profanities into the actual song at the audition, as 18-year-old Jessica Nelson found out.
"When I'm famous, you'll be sorry you didn't have me on your precious little competition," Nelson said in the part of her post-audition interview that didn't have to be bleeped out. The judges may well be sorry, but the Fox censors sure won't.
And the sheriff of an unnamed town in West Virginia might want to start sleeping in a Kevlar vest. Deputy sheriff Brandon Graves auditioned in uniform by singing the chorus to "I Shot the Sheriff" … over and over and over again until the judges finally made him stop. He either has an unrealistic impression of his singing talents, or some workplace issues that desperately need to be ironed out.
Of course, the next contestant who gets rejected and treats it calmly as a repudiation of their skills will be the first. Typical of the rejected was Yvette Gomez, who reacted to her dismissal by saying "I value their opinion … but it's not going to stop me from doing what I'm doing."
Twins heading to Hollywood
Though many of the auditions were as excruciating to watch as the Chicago Bears offense, some contestants did indeed manage to please the judges, ensuring that there will in fact be a Hollywood round again this year.
There's David Radford, a 17-year-old who could either be the next Josh Grobin or the next John Stevens. Crooning "Summer Wind" by Frank Sinatra, he impressed the skeptical judges enough to get to Hollywood.
Paula Abdul said Simon would "mow him down like a lawnmower when he gets to Hollywood," but the acerbic Brit was an early booster of the teenaged Stevens in the show's third season, so anything is possible. That would also bode well for Zachary Smits, who sang "I'm in the Mood for Love" and left the judges in a good enough mood to send him forward.
And Chicago was far kinder than usual to twins and siblings. Terrell and Derrell Brittenum both made it to Hollywood, as did 16-year-olds Joshua and Jarrett Simmons.
Sisters Brooke and Leah Barrettsmith also made it through, barely. Randy Jackson gave a tepid yes, Simon a definite no … but when it's Paula Abdul breaking the tie, odds are just about 100 percent that a trip to California looms. It may well be the first time in "Idol" history that the judges chose not to create family drama.
Dental hygienist and "Catfight" vocalist Gina Glockson also made it to Hollywood; apparently the judges felt someone with such an unglamorous day job deserved a few days in the sun.
But the biggest surprise of the night was David Hoover. Hoover came to the audition barefoot, said animals talk to him, was a master of non-stop motion, and didn't sing particularly well.
Still, he got passed through on a 2-1 vote by Paula and Randy. Either the two were punch-drunk from two days in Chicago, or they were determined to offer encouragement for every nut in the Midwest. Odds are good that whoever rooms with him in Hollywood won't be sending the judges a thank-you note.
"Are you completely insane?" Simon asked them after they sent the clearly overmatched Hoover to Hollywood. Of course, both are, but no more so than in the past. It's just the start of another "Idol" season.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.