In the final night of auditions, you expect some fireworks. Who wants to head into Hollywood week on a sigh? Well, the Oklahoma City auditions delivered a thin crowd of contestants, but American Idol producers made sure to bring in a ringer: Steven Tyler. And man, that dude looked like a lady.
Tyler appears as the last contestant of the night, dressed as a saucy older lady named Pepper. Pepper, however, is the most terrifying woman I’ve seen on television, and that includes that time I watched The Ring on FX at 2 AM. It’s clear that the folks at Fox had this ace in the hole waiting for the final audition of the season, but I can’t help but wonder if they hoped we’d encounter round two of Tyler’s Twitter feud with Nicki Minaj from the Fall. Luckily, Nicki is simply entertained by the incomprehensible vision before her eyes (Tyler even springs for some press-on nails to complete his look). But believe it or not, Tyler wasn’t the most unbelievable part of freakish episode.
We meet talented freakazoid Halie Hilburn, a singing ventriloquist who’s brought her pal Oscar along for the audition. She tries to tell us that Oscar is a dog, but she doesn’t seem to see that her dog is a bear. She and her “dog” both “sing” during the audition until the judges have her put her hand puppet down so she can sing a real song with her really sweet voice. She turns in a pretty nice performance, but has trouble reaching the sweet spot during her final (and only) high note. Randy isn’t impressed but the other judges usher her through to Hollywood, leaving her puppet Oscar to be used for a time-suck of a featurette in which Oscar becomes a beggar on the street and later ends up wasting away in a dumpster. Dark, guys. There must have been a shortage of interesting contestants, because why else would spend that much precious television time on Oscar the Trash Dog?
But wait, it gets weirder. Zoanette Johnson waltzes into auditions in jean booty shorts, a pink mullet dress with an inappropriately high front hem, a yellow blazer, a fur vest, and hair that I can only describe as tortured Barbie meets Shakira. This girl is a mess. We just know it. And when she opens her mouth to sing, of all things, “The Star Spangled Banner,” she not only forgets the words part-way through, but she sounds like Fantasia if you shook her voice up in a jar of pennies and nails. She technically hits the right notes and she’s got a big voice, but the result is not equal to the sum of those parts. It’s awful. And confusing. And before the judges can even weigh in, she judges herself saying she wishes “Obama, Obama, Oh Obama was watching this and that he invites me to the White House.” Somehow after that and a finish that sounded more like an underwater Marilyn Monroe impression (“Happy birthday… Mr. President”) and a kid learning to play a trumpet for the very first time (and the fact that she simply looked liked she’s ingested a colorful cocktail of narcotics, or at the very least far too many actual colorful cocktails) the judges not only sent her through to Hollywood, they sent her through UNANIMOUSLY. They all voted “yes” together, and seconds later they couldn’t comprehend what had just happened. Did we just witness the infinite pull of the producers’ whims? Did the judges send the crazy lady through because we need a show in Hollywood? The only other explanation is that Zoanette had the judges so zoned out they really had no idea what they were doing. Keith was so confused he fell off his chair. How else can we explain this nonsensical happening?
The final crazy of the night falls on both Idol and the auditioner in question. Anastacia Freeman is so nervous before her audition that she cries and shakes like a leaf before she even makes it into the audition room. She’s so nervous, she trips over her shoes as she walks to the stage, the poor thing. It appears that she’s going to be a lovable, yet awkward young woman, but when she starts singing “Unbreak My Heart,” it’s nothing but bad. While Nicki and Randy laugh, swearing the poor girl that they’re not doing what they’re very clearly doing, Keith and Mariah look truly distraught over the sad display by this duped girl standing before them. But then she has to answer their carefully-planted question: Who told you to come here? Oh, well, you know, just God. He took a break from being a spiritual leader and guiding his followers to paths of righteousness to tell this terrible singer that she should audition for Idol. As she tells the story of watching Phillip Phillips win as a vision appeared to her beckoning her to Idol, we’re treated to a “cheap dramatization” starring the same redhead who played a ghost haunting the Queen Mary on Wednesday night’s auditions episode. It may be the boldest and most potentially offensive audition enhancement we’ve seen all season, but it didn’t make that girl’s singing any better. She’s sent home, at which point she vows to never listen to Mariah Carey’s music again, but don’t worry, she never even started to listening to that “devil worshipper” Nicki Minaj’s nonsense, so she’s sustaining no loss there. Keith is the only musician who emerges unscathed, but that may be because he was too stunned to actually say anything.
Finally, we must make mention of the two most promising contestants of the night, because yes, there were actually worthwhile folks in Oklahoma City and not just a never-ending slate of wackos. We did find one more weirdo though, but this one is a cute, little red-headed weirdo. Karl Skinner just married his lady love in March and makes his living as a pizza chef. He’s already one of my favorite auditioners. How often do you find a singing pizza chef? And how often do you find one who’s actually kind of great, even if his dancing is a little spastic? He sings “I Feel Good” and an original song, and while he’s not exactly belting out the big notes, he’s one of the first people we’ve seen who’s actually got a unique tone and quality to his voice, unlike anyone who’s come before him. He’s not immediately package-able, but the judges see his potential and send him through, but not before bringing in Ryan Seacrest for a little spontaneous palling around. Despite being the season of “mean,” these judges sure are connecting far more intensely than the past few years’ panels have.
Next is Nate Tao, an adorable young sign language teacher whose parents are deaf (“So they don’t know whether I’m good or not.”) It doesn’t take long to hear that Nate, who sings “For Once in My Life,” has a great tone, is extremely likable, and is simply a good singer. He goes to Hollywood and while he’ll face stronger voices than his, he’s got a sense of clarity and humble confidence that’s hard not to latch on to.
In the end, we meet the youngest contestant of the night. Cystic Fibrosis doesn’t keep 16-year-old Kayden Stephenson from bringing his sweet, lovable little voice to Idol. Mariah notes that he’s got serious pre-teen lady appeal, a currency that appears to be as good as gold in the music industry at the moment. And from what we saw, the little survivor will have no trouble wooing the ladies; he spends the whole time in his audition adorably schmoozing the judges. Kayden’s story of living with CF and knowing that his life expectancy is only around 35 years old is a story that even this cynical writer and chronic sob story fatigue sufferer can’t help but be charmed by. The kid is cute and he can sing. I just fear we’re in for a tearful goodbye in the coming weeks, because while his voice is sweet and angelic, it’s facing an onslaught of incredibly powerful voices and I worry he could get swallowed up.
But whatever happens to these contestants, we can guarantee the second tier of auditions will be an interesting cycle. The golden ticket receivers we’ve seen have been so disparate, it’s hard to tell what we’ll be looking at as the groups continue to shrink. And these auditions have done little to help us figure out just what these judges are attempting to assemble for our top 24. It could be the most unique set of contestants we’ve ever seen. The raw goods are certainly ready and waiting when Hollywood week starts rolling.
Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler
[Photo Credit: Fox]