Last night's American Idol showcased the auditions in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and maybe it's just the generally improved tenor of the tryout episodes compared to last year, but I had a pretty positive feeling once the hour was over. So positive, in fact, that I have a sneaking suspicion that last night's episode showcased the winner. Here are four reasons why this is so!
1. The auditions took place in the south, and most of the singers who appeared on the episode were from that region. Philip Phillips? From Georgia. Scotty McCreery? North Carolina. Kris Allen? Arkansas. Even David Cook was from Missouri, a battleground state in the Civil War. Contestants from the South just have an advantage as far as Idol voting, something that watchers of the show have had a keen eye on for a while. (Lee DeWyze is the one outlier, being from Illinois, but he was an outlier for so many reasons.) True, half the audition cities this year are in the southWednesday night's episode took place in Charlotte, and next Wednesday's is in San Antoniobut something about the Baton Rouge show felt different. Maybe it was because...
2. The singers, for the most part, were really good. An hour-long audition episode means that the filler is cut out, and even the lousy audition that got shine last night was OK, thanks to the atonal charm of Chris "Mushroom" Barthel. But so many of the other singers were quality! Dr. Calvin Peters, an actual physician, revealed his ambition by taking on Maxwell, and his voice sounded like a plush velvet couch. He fit right into Luke James's mold, and because of that he gave me my first "I would buy a single by this guy right now" moment. The show closed out with a barnburning audition by Burnell Taylor, whose family lost its home in Katrina; he comes from a musical lineage but didn't realize his own voice until after his family relocated. "That wasn't even an audition; that was entertainment for us," Nicki Minaj asserted after he tore through The Color Purple's "I'm Here."
3. The judges are selecting the Top 20 and will try really hard to have a diverse palette of hopefuls. While they're restricted to selecting 10 male contestants and 10 female contestants, I'm hoping that the judges will offer a potpourri of stylesand I hope that one of the people who makes it through is Charlie Askew, a floppy-haired wallflower who blossomed when he sang Queen's "Breakthru"; he even had a bit of Freddie Mercury Stank when his voice opened up. He reminded me of a Casey Abrams or a Brett Loewenstern, and given that the likes of fun.'s Nate Ruess have seen pop success in the past year, it's not too much of a stretch to see him be eventually embraced by a lot of people.
4. There were two attractive male country singers. Then again, this is Idol, and the passion that those viewers who vote incessantly have for White Guys With Guitars has been the show's guiding force for a long time now. Last night's episode wasn't just a nod to that fact, it was a genuflection. Paul Jolley has a wide grin and a "singing for my grandfather" backstory (that inspired the producers to attach the hashtag "#idolinspire" to his audition); he sang Rascal Flatts and charmed the majorette hat off Nicki. (He is also, according to reports on the Internet, a great dude.) But then there was Dustin Watts, a fireman (nice callback to Rescue Me with the Von Bondies musical cue, producers!) who prompted Nicki to ask immediately if he was taken (he is) and who reeled off a super-confident version of Garth Brooks's "She's Every Woman." Sure, he got confused when Keith Urban suggested that he sing George Strait's sassy "The Fireman," but that song is older than him, and that brief perplexed look probably made him seem even more endearing to a lot of people watching at home. Barring any major meltdowns, look for him to go at least Top Five. And feel free to hold me to this!