It's an established fact that American Idol wants to cast off its pallor of age this season, and the Nashville episode showcased the one contestant who the show's powers that be are betting will bring the show back to a relevant place for teenagers. Executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, in the run-up to this season, said that they found "the next Kelly Clarkson" in Nashville, and last night's episode was a series of afterthoughts and bad auditions designed to bide time until Lauren Alaina took the stage.
Lauren is 15 years old and from Georgia, and she's got big hair, a bigger smile, and a pretty gargantuan voice. She also has a sob story; her cousin Holly, who was "like a sister" to her, was diagnosed with a brain tumor three years ago, and Lauren was so moved that she threw a fundraiser in her cousin's honor. There are tears in the pre-interview.
In contrast to Wednesday night's episode, where the object of Chris Medina's sob story was wheeled into the audition room after he had been put through to Hollywood, Holly was brought in before Lauren even warbled a single note for Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, and Steven Tyler. This, of course, gave us the opportunity to watch the third straight Jennfer Lopez Show-Closing Blessing To A Sick Person, and it also tipped off longtime Idol viewers who might not have been paying attention to Nigel's overheated press clippings to this girl's early status as The Chosen One.
But could she sing? Well, her performance of Faith Hill's "Like We Never Loved At All" was quite strong, and her victory lap of "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing" was better than the performances turned in by most of the other Idol contestants who have attempted that hoary old chestnut. I should note, though, that during her audition she did that maddening thing so many of the young vocalists who reach the Idol stage do—she smiled through her audition in a way to ingratiate herself with the judges, even though these were the lyrics she was singing:
You never looked so good
As you did last night
Underneath the city lights
There walking with your friend
Laughing at the moon
I swear you looked right through me
But I'm still living with your goodbye
And you're just going on with your life
This performative lyric blindness afflicts way too many of the younger Idol singers, and it torpedoes them early on in my eyes—or at least it did in the past nine years, when the show was more about emotion-laden singng and less about The New Pop Music Thing. Perhaps the disconnect here won't matter so much in the long run, because the lyrics the contestants will be tasked with singing will be more akin to the Kidz Bop cover of "DJ Got Us Fallin' In Love Again" than anything too overly emotional.
Now, the question is this: Will the pre-release drum-beating by Nigel and the other Idol executives result in Lauren triumphing? Does no one remember the similar "game-changer" hype surrounding eventual runner-up Adam Lambert two years ago? Does this mean that the legions of female fans who call and text obsessively will overrule the suits' wishes and put an unassuming dude in the winner's circle for the fourth straight year?
GOLDEN TICKETS DOLED OUT: Not announced. Because Lauren Alaina is the only one who matters, dig?
RANDY JACKSON'S VAGUE COMPLIMENT OF THE NIGHT: Perhaps the gravity of being in the Grand Ole Opry's Ryman Auditorium put a bee in Randy's bonnet, because last night the newly anointed head judge was all about doling out the tough love. Although who could blame him? The lousy-audition-to-decent-one ratio made the hour-long show seem almost as long as Wednesday's 180-minute episode.
NEW JUDGE JUDGING: Jennifer dinging the vocally weak yet "hot" Stormi Henley for not having a strong voice? I agree with her, but I also think the concept of "irony" turned itself inside-out when that happened.
LOST IN THE SHUFFLE: Buildup to Lauren's audition aside, I have to say that Adrienne Beasley, a young African-American woman who was adopted by white parents at age two and who grew up on a farm, had the best pure voice of the night, absolutely slaying Lady Antebellum's "American Honey" with her rich alto.
SAD STORIES GALORE: Are Chelsee Oaks and Rob Bolin the first exes to audition together? During happier times, they were partners on the CMT singing competition for two Can You Duet, and also dating. But since then they've broken up, and Rob still seemed pretty miserable about the whole thing. It's like Nashville in Nashville! Kind of a shame that they didn't do "Since You've Gone" as their collective audition:
Their individual auditons went well; Rob has one of those feathery voices that sounds tailor-made for covering Ray LaMontagne's "Trouble," while Chelsee's restrained performance of Brandi Carlile's "The Story" was marked by a voice that had a timbre not unlike that of a muted trumpet. Both made it to Hollywood—and the fact that the end of their package was set to Lady Antebellum's drunk-dial ode "Need You Now" makes me worried that the producers are going to try and set up some sort of awkward "reconciliation" as a way to bring back the show's drama quotient.
Next week: On to Austin!