The hard-luck story is a staple of American Idol's audition episodes, and last night's episodewhich covered the auditions in San Antonio, Texas, and Long Beach, Calif.had no shortage of them. There was Matt Farmer, who suffered a traumatic brain injury while over in Iraq and took meds that were supposed to render him sterilebut whose wife got pregnant six months later. (He brought his daughter into his audition with him and got through, although his Gavin DeGraw-like voice certainly helped him out on that end.) There was Micah Johnson, who had been struck with a speech impediment because of a tonsillectomy mishap, but who reeled off a velvety, perfectly enunciated version of Zac Brown Band's "Chicken Fried." Heck, you could even throw in the Mississippi-born gay-rights activist Papa Peachez, who declared himself to be "a big black woman trapped in a white guy's body" and whose "quirkiness" turned off Randy Jackson at first but who got through to Hollywood based on some lobbying from Nicki Minaj.
But the last two contestants of the night were set up as some sort of statement against bullying and being mean to people because of their looks, or their sexuality, or an appearance on Maury, or whatever else might make them different. Now, obviously bullying is terrible, and I cringe at the thought of how the hyperspeed nature of social media has made it more omnipresenthome, which was a refuge for me during The Difficult Years, can't even be thought of as a safe space because of the potential that social media has to invade. That said, Idol's New Niceness seems more than a bit disingenuous.
Briana Oakley was the second-to-last contestant of the night. When she was 12, she appeared on an episode of Maury about talented kids; this led to her friends turning on her and her being mercilessly teased at school, to the point where she avoided the cafeteria at lunch. (Her dining venue of choice was the bathroom; I actually ate in the nurse's office for a good chunk of my elementary school years, so I sympathized.) She was cute and spunky, and her take on "Up On The Mountain" showcased some strong pipes, and she charmed the judges straightaway. Which is fine; she was certainly talented, if perhaps another example of a young singer taking on material beyond her years.
Matheus Fernandes closed out the night, and he talked about how he was mocked because of his height. (As MJ Snatilli of MJ's Big Blog notes, he was on The Glee Project back in 2011.) "Is there a height limit on the show?" he asked before trying out. "The only limit there is is that there's gotta be some talent," replied Randy Jackson, which, OK, that is not really true. He sang "A Change Is Gonna Come" (which Farmer also sang) and incorporated a couple of lyrics about the judges, and he got through, which prompted Jackson to put forth the following declaration: "I know society can be crazy and harsh, but hey, we don't put up with any of that around here."
Oh, really? Let's not even get into the mockery that Idol has trotted out over previous episodeslet's just look at last night's episode, which had montages about "scary" contestants, and Randy's "GET OUT NOW" reaction to the purple-haired screamo chick Stephanie Sanson (which, honestly, if the producers want to shake up the show, they could at least entertain the prospect of elevating that legitimately popular genre for a second), and Brian Martinez, who was apparently discovered while singing in a bathroom and who was roundly mocked for being awkward and quiet? (Not to mention the teaser for Volkswagen's Super Bowl ad, which featured a bunch of people who were became YouTube punching bagsthe woman who broke down about her love of cats while filming a video for eHarmony, "Sad Football Fan"dancing as Jimmy Cliff sings the Partridge Family theme song on a hillside, a la Coca-Cola's "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing" commercial. Talk about it getting better, at least for a minute or so.) And let's not even get into Hollywood Week, which is imminent and which features a ton of backbiting and melting down that's edited for the purposes of making those viewing at home figure out who the heroes and villains are.
On the bright side, Nicki Minaj continued to hold it down for those contestants who might not have fit the Idol moldI wished she'd been there for Sanson's audition, but alas, the American Music Awards beckoned. Tonight's the last night of auditions, and the episode (set in Oklahoma City) only lasts an hour, so here's hoping that the producers skip the sanctimony and stick with the good singers.