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Simon shows ’em who’s boss in San Antonio

Judges are hard on a sympathetic group of wannabes on ‘Idol.’ By Craig Berman
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

If the “American Idol” judges would like to know why people like Rosie O’Donnell think they are mean, Tuesday’s replay of the San Antonio auditions should give them a big clue.

It wasn’t that the comments were particularly nasty, or that Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson were wrong in any of their judgments. It wasn’t even that the show spent a lot of time on the unwashed masses of no-talents this week. In fact, the episode was bright and cheery as far as audition shows go, with a lot of airtime given to the singers who made it through.

But the episode still went out of its way to depict the judges as petty tyrants, picking on the untalented while holding even the successful in suspense. Even in an episode where the success stories were more memorable than the rejects — a rarity at this stage of the competition — Simon and company still were given plenty of sound bites in which to be rude.

That editing should be a big clue as to what those in charge of the show think of criticism. Call the judges any kind of name in the book … they don’t care. Love them or hate them, people watch “Idol” to watch the judges' mockery as much as to hear the singers sing. Probably more.

But that’s easier to take when the targets clearly just want to be on the show for the sake of being on television. In San Antonio, the victims were more sympathetic, which made even innocuous comments and gestures look more sinister.

‘Other door!’Every “Idol” episode seems to have a montage, and this show’s depicted the struggles singers have had all season with the doors. In every “Idol” city, there has been a set of double doors in the audition room, with the right door open and the left door locked. Contestants have a 50-50 shot of picking the right one, tricky enough even without the emotional state many of them are in after either being told they’re going to Hollywood or hearing that they stink. Numerous clips showed the judges rolling their eyes and making snide comments at the many who choose poorly.

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But, really. If the door issue bothered anyone at “Idol” that much, it would have taken two seconds for someone to reach up and unlock the second one, allowing everyone to leave unimpeded and saving a whole 10 minutes of each day. It’s not like host Ryan Seacrest doesn’t have time to kill … get him a stepladder and some WD-40, and put him to work.

But the judges didn’t stop there. San Antonio didn’t offer much in the way of nutcases and attention-seekers, just a whole lot of people who were in way over their heads and didn’t know it. The judges were happy to clue them in.

Take Jasmine Holland. The 22-year-old looked scared to death to be singing in front of three cranky people on national television, and whether it was the nerves or the lack of talent, the result wasn’t pretty. But the fact that Simon was chuckling behind his hand and Randy was laughing as well infuriated Holland, who explained her struggles thusly — “it’s because y’all are being rude. You don’t know me and you don’t know anything about me.”

The judges kept on laughing through William Green’s rendition of “Amazing Grace.” In fairness, Green did sing the song slowly enough that grass grew between the wood floorboards, but Paula and Randy might have some serious questions to answer on Judgment Day for their snickering.

At least Green reacted well — smiling, thanking the judges, asking them if they minded if he put on a show on the way out, and only then unleashing a string of mock invective as he opened the door. Sandie Chavez came in with higher hopes, since she’d performed before the mayor of Houston who claimed to love her singing (in fairness, there’s no word on whether he asked if she was a registered voter first). But Chavez was no better than Green — her attempt at “Black Velvet” was entirely unintelligible.

When Simon asked “Was that serious?”, Chavez broke down in tears and apologized. Paula told her not to say she was sorry, and then Simon indicated that perhaps an apology was actually in order. Houston’s mayor surely won’t be inviting him to a concert anytime soon.

Of course, not every rejected contestant fit that mold. Several seemed to think the competition was “Metal Idol,” and the show quickly disabused them of that notion.

Chris Daughtry’s success last year has led to an increase in the contestants who think that America really likes its Idols to have a rougher edge. While a sizable number of voters may want some more alternative options, it’s important to remember that Daughtry sang at his auditions — he didn’t shriek like he was playing at Dodger Stadium.

These auditioners took a different approach. Bryan Kyrish said that people told him he sounded like Billy Idol, Ozzy Ozbourne and AC/DC. In other words, he sounds like a bunch of artists that never appear on “American Idol.” He chose to audition to “Rebel Yell,” screamed out a verse, and was quickly sent packing.

Jacob Tutor claimed to be more like Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose — former chart-toppers, but again not exactly what the show is looking for. He fared no better, except that he left by dropping a bunch of F-bombs that made the exit more entertaining.

Success stories aboundDespite the judges’ crankiness, there were a lot of success stories in San Antonio. Twenty-two people advanced to Hollywood, and in a unique twist, several actually got airtime.

Anyone who doubts that Simon is the judge with the power need just cite the case of Ashlyn Carr. Carr, 18, had a unique voice that’s rough, but strong enough that she deserved a second look. The problem was with her facial expressions — she looked like she was trying to mime the song's action as she sang the lyrics. Randy and Paula voted no, and then as Carr was sniffling out the door, Simon said “I would have said yes.”

Well! That changes everything! He suggested that maybe the judges had made a mistake, and before Carr had the chance to call for a taxi ride home, she was back to sing another song. Lo and behold, this time all three judges agreed to send her to Hollywood, which shows beyond a doubt where that Simon holds all the power at this stage of the game.

Also advancing in less-traditional fashion was Akron Watson. First, he came with another family member, his cousin, who auditioned and was awful. Second, he sang his first song, got an “eh” from Simon, and then went right into a second song. Normally, that spells disaster. But his voice was good enough that he broke convention and made it. [Update: Akron apparently was after his audition.)

Jimmy McNeal reminded the judges of Ruben Studdard, the Season 2 winner. He got nothing but raves and advanced to Hollywood, possibly to the dismay of Clay Aiken fans, who are still upset that Studdard beat out Aiken for the title.

Good looks help
Of course, good-looking women who could sing a little fared the best among the auditioner demographics.

Twenty-four-year-old Haley Scarnato said she’d been singing in a wedding band since she was 15, then chose “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt. Her band must play a lot of dour receptions with a repertoire like that. Her voice was solid if unspectacular, her backless dress caused Simon’s jaw to drop below the table, and she got a quick ticket to Hollywood.

Baylie Brown got a stronger endorsement. Brown is just 16 and from Krum, Texas, and yet pointed out that she’s aggressively uninterested in farming, yardwork or staying in that small town any longer than she has to. Her dad pointed out that wearing heels didn’t mesh well with farmwork, but it was obvious that she was going to make it because the editors made it sound charming, and not like Brown was a spoiled brat.

“I think you’re one of those girls who was born to be a pop star. Your voice isn’t great, not yet … but you are commercial with a capital ‘C’,” Simon said. The rest of the judges agreed, with Paula expressing surprise that Brown was so fashionable despite being from small-town Texas. Clearly, television and the Internet are reaching even the tiniest town in North Texas, much to Paula’s shock.

Brown advanced to Hollywood, will make the final 24 unless she gets lost on the way to the West Coast, and will try to become one of the few 16-year-olds in the show history to manage to make it through the competition without being so twisted in knots by the judges that they forget which way is up.

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