According to Randy Jackson, season 11 of American Idol is a "new beginning," which is the sort of thing you say when the old ending saw you face down amid a pile of broken glass, plaster and somehow-congealed wine. It's not a great metaphor, you know? It's like if the State of the Union speech replaced the section about how the state of our union is strong with a long glance sideways, a swallowed sigh and a shrug leading into "well, can't be worse than last year, right?"
It's fun and occasionally useful to speculate on the ongoing dance of death that is Idol's season 11 ratings. Maybe talent's like seafood, and the show can't farm 16-year-old Idol fanatics at a rate fast enough to supplant the wild, organic sort nearing extinction. Maybe the likes of YouTube and Reverb Nation provide an even steadier stream of phenomenal-enough singers and purposeful doofuses that Idol's protracted audition process is just a lot of needless sunk time. (Word from Dave Holmes at Vulture: even the guy who wrote a book on Idol is sitting out the audition rounds this year. The book!) But if you give more credence to inside reports, auditioner Phong Vu had it: Idol feels the pain, and it wants to channel it back to us. Reading Idol recaps this season is like reading Lovecraft, or maybe House of Leaves: a journey that can only lead to madness, to endless keyboard salad and curse words and Steven Tyler Stockholm Syndrome, from which one cannot return.
That was really dark! Um. There were actually a lot of great singers this episode, at least until Randy Jackson and Steven Tyler consigned them to the sorry place Idol consigns awesome female belters? Somebody sang Pistol Annies? Oh, let's just get to it.
For racism, homophobia and endless montages of joke auditions, click NEXT.
THE HOPELESS: 28-23
28. Serious to Joke Audition Ratio: Hey AI: One way to give those falling ratings a boost is to not wait until the 13th minute for the first serious audition.
27. Phong Vu: Another way to give those falling ratings a boost is to not play a gong sound for that auditioner, named Phong Vu. Good to know Idol's back to frontloading the racism. You know, I'd left a benefit show early so I could catch the last Q train uptown, and somewhere between being rained on in Brooklyn and crushed amid crowds in Union Square, this half-nostalgic, half-creature comfort feeling came over me, that all would be healed by warm blankets, warmer tea and the immeasurably warmer sight of human decency. Instead, the first audition was a guy starstruck for Steven, Celine and "the camera in my face," who proclaimed against all Idol's logical and circumstantial evidence that "God is on my side, I know it." Anyway, he sang, and it was not great, and the judges smiled and shook their heads and penciled light outlines for the viewers to fill in their own stereotypes. Oh, and the editors gave him halo and fanfare SFX. Why? Because Phong Vu's audition is their canvas for reputation graffiti.
26. Crappy Singers Who Prominently Lisp: Phong Vu's segment went so long, in fact, that Idol realized it hadn't gotten any gay jokes in this episode. Problem solved!
25. Crappy Cowboy-Hatted Country Singers: Idol's probably also realized it hasn't sufficiently stacked its probable top 24 deck (yes, we've seen the alleged list; we find it suspicious at best) with country singers, nor did it stack the ratio enough to the "joke" side despite the above, and one imagines it's realized this episode took place in Texas. So the show drubbed us with drawling until the sarcastic "you rode that into the sunset!" critique seemed immaculate and scathing by comparison.
24. Crappy Miscellaneous Singers: One sang like granola Steve Martin in Baby Mama, one sang like a mynah bird attacking a grapevine, and we'll stop now because this is meaner than called for.
23. Randy Jackson: Not meaner than called for, however, was this J. Lo comeback after one auditioner called Randy the best of the panel: "He's not your favorite judge." Even Randy agreed: "don't lie on national television!" His presence on the panel has now officially ossified so much that the show openly mocks him, and he mocks himself as well.
For missing melodies and "Rolling in the Deep," click NEXT.
THE HAPLESS: 22-16
22. This Sentence: “The melody is missing.” --Steven Tyler to Phong Vu. It is at these times that we sit Shiva for Simon.
21. Alejandro Cazares: A meeting between Idol producers that didn't actually happen:
Guy One: "Hey, what are the kids listening to these days?"
Guy Two: "Scotty McCreery, of course."
Guy One: "Of course."
Guy Two: "And Lee DeWyze. I hear his sales increased 500% a while back."
Guy Three: "That just means he sold 50 more--"
Guy Two: "FIVE HUNDRED PERCENT." "
Guy One: "What about Lady Gaga? People still like Lady Gaga, right?"
Guy Two: "Hey, didn't she have that one single called--"
Guy Four, The Secret Little Monster On Staff: "--Government Hooker?"
Guy Two: [oblivious to Guy Four] "Alejandro?"
Guy One: "Oh yeah! I loved that song. We should feature it. Hey, can you get us a guy named Alejandro?"
Guy Three: "Just any guy? Like, good or bad?"
Guy One: [oblivious to U.S. demographics] "Yeah, whatever, how many Alejandros can there even be?"
And that's how we got Alejandro Cazares, who is the self-proclaimed revolution. Auditioners of the world, unite--you have nothing to lose but every remaining shred of your dignity! Asking Idol for revolutionary thought, anyway, is like asking a five-year-old to win the Millennium Prize, which is why Alejandro's idea of revolution involves Lady Gaga. He also has the sort of girlfriend who tells him things like "I can't wish you luck in something I don't believe in," and he wants to be "on the cusp of where [Steven] got to," which probably constitutes glancing at a 22-year-old girl, and his voice, in J. Lo's increasingly correct words, was just not good enough for Idol. Onward and downward.
20. Steven Tyler: At one point, he tries to eat Ryan Seacrest's tie while mumbling with his mouth full, which means the cusp of where Steven got to is usually reached by age two.
19. Steven Tyler’s Styler: This evening’s fashion crime was not in the form of mismatched paisley patterns or hair feathers. (Note: Both were still employed.) Tonight, we wanted to wring Steven’s neck for what was around his neck: Big, brown, shiny healing beads.
18. Julie Shuman: "Rolling in the Deep," we missed you so much since we heard you ten minutes ago! Overdone singing by a singer who's probably otherwise decent and Steven leching in with "I bet you're crazy in--on the dance floor!", we guess we missed you too.
17. Kristine Osorio's Tattoo: Kristine has more up her sleeve than the solid pipes that land her much farther down these rankings. Unfortunately, it’s in the form of two half-naked, fully-distracting women. Steven Tyler missed this opportunity so much.
16. Ryan Seacrest: Spends most of the episode as the slight glue whose slighter dialogue ties the great auditioners to the grisly, until the end, where he tells all the successful auditioners to go run into the ocean, and they do. Unquestioning. Oh, Ryan. You know not the power you wield. If only you could wield it in the production rooms.
For worship leaders, worshipped singers and literal outer space, click NEXT.
THE HARMLESS: 15-9
15. Commander Dan C. Burbank: Introduces American Idol from the International Space Station so American Idol can cross "outer space" off its camerafolks' bucket lists. Incidentally, this guy has been on two space missions and is in an actual all-astronaut band. And now he's handing it over to Ryan Seacrest. Fame hurts.
14. Also Sprach Zarathustra: Strauss's iconic composition, forever turned into stock soundtrack music by 2001: A Space Odyssey. There is not a producer on the show who doesn't wish Idol began just one year earlier so the anniversary tie-in could've happened.
13. Linda Williams: OK, here we're gonna need some context. The running gag this episode was that J. Lo was right and the guys were wrong, which because J. Lo represents all women and Steven and Randy represent all dudes is that--well, firstly that gender relations are doomed, but secondly that it's a battle of the sexes! Anyway, Linda sang Alicia Keys' "Fallin", and it was like a blast from the pre-Adele past, and it probably didn't help our assessment that her audition started on the part that goes "ah, ah, I never felt this way," which is nearly impossible to pull off. Nevertheless: J. Lo was right.
12. Phong’s “Iconic Dance”: Ali Shields' obnoxious Ghetto Dance < this robotic thingamajig < Ashley Altise's exuberant Joy Hop.
11. Ramiro Garcia: This season's Danny Gokey: a worship leader with a sob story (in this case, he was born with no ears, something legitimately unfortunate that Idol fortunately treated with respect) whose pop-rock voice is just OK but who will go unconscionably far on the show, perhaps even win. At the very least, his audition prompted Steven Tyler to pretend he is any sort of expert on the sentiments in "Amazing Grace."
10. Cortez Shaw: He's a warehouse worker who grew up homeless, which would be how he got in if he didn't have a supple voice and hadn't managed to make Adele's overplayed "Someone Like You" interesting: turning it into an upbeat R&B track. That doesn't mean it was advisable; turning "Someone Like You" into an upbeat R&B track means it can no longer be heartbreaking, and Cortez doesn't even try. But then again, as Melanie Amaro and The X Factor taught us, "Someone Like You" is actually a dance track. What's one more gimmick?
9. Taxidermy: Popdust does not advocate the killing of animals. We’re just saying that a deer mounted on a wall (“Ain’t he pretty?” - Skylar, its slayer) is, by definition, “harmless.”
For killers of deer and voices that kill, click NEXT.
THE FLAWLESS: 8-1
8. The Backdrop: Were we in Houston or Hawaii? The auditioners gazed beyond the judges at clear blue waves and palm trees. The tourism bureau is probably overjoyed now, and we're not complaining either, but shouldn’t the background have been some sort of representative method of transportation? Say, a Ford pick-up truck?
7. Baylie Brown: You semi-remember Baylie, right? She made it to Hollywood Week when as a 16-year-old stripling but was cut in favor of later-disgraced Antonella Barba, whose name I didn't really expect to have to type again. (She admits to forgetting her words, blamed it on "those Jersey girls.") Anyway, there's no way her five-years-later resurgence wasn't completely planned--just listen to the sloganized snap to Randy's "Baylie is back! Baylie's back," which he said at least three times--but her country-enough "Bed of Roses" was fabulous, as country-enough performances go, and the judges don't bother much with critiques or talking much at all because she already got backstory, and a good country singer is bio enough for this season. But if you're reading this, you're in your teens and you're thinking of auditioning for Idol, compare this to her undercooked original audition, go out and live your life, then come back after your voice reflects this.
6. 5. and 4. Rachel Turner, Reagan Wilson and Cheyenne James: These three weren't and probably won't be so lucky as Baylie. Usually Idol waits until eighth place or the semifinals to get rid of its awesome female belters (Lisa Leuschner, Gina Glocksen, Allison Iraheta, Alexis Grace, Carly Smithson, and no, I don't care about her past album....). This season dispatched them in montage form despite successive awesomeness--one of them even sang Carrie Underwood! Who is country! And a moneymaker!--and Jennifer Lopez's functioning ears. Speaking of which....
3. Jennifer Lopez: Remember how we told you to watch J. Lo's every minute as if she was completely over Idol? You had to slog through several episodes of immaculately styled nothing to get to it, but sweet payoff has arrived. She conks Steven on the head. She yanks Randy's hand down as he tries to cut Cortez's decent audition short. She does an actual headdesk. She calls the other judges out for putting mediocre singers through over great ones. Sure, some of this freakoutery happens while handlers are touching up her makeup, because J. Lo is a diva and you can't be allowed to forget that, but nevertheless, she is every recapper's spiritual sister. We will now hang on her every word.
2. Kristine Osorio: She's 28, she's got short hair and tattoos and three kids, which means she's really not Idol's priority No. 1 in terms of contestant breakdown, but she turns in a wonderfully raspy version of an Adele song you actually don't know ("One and Only"), and the judges say they've "heard enough." They always hear enough. They let her through, thankfully, but not before Steven compliments her "tenor-ness."
1. Skylar Laine: Skylar Laine, on the other hand, might be the perfect contestant. For Idol's core demographic, she's country enough to say "papaw" and "mamaw" and to ride ATVs and Katniss the life out of deer on camera, and small-town enough for her family to keep what might be an actual general store, with home-cooked food and deer skeletons, open for decades! For the demographic of Steven Tyler's ego, she claims that her friend has a poster of him on her wall! For the recapper demographic, she sang Pistol Annies' "Hell on Heels," and the judges treat like an automatic go-through!