Wednesday, February 4, 2009

American Idol Season 8
Hollywood Days 1 & 2

Hollywood Week has finally arrived for the tryouts who received a Golden Ticket during the show's audition period (to put in into perspective, the auditions were held in July and August 2008 and Hollywood Week took place in November 2008). We learn that this year, once again, the rules have changed for this important level. To begin with, Hollywood Week is being held on the stage of the Kodak Theater, the venue where the finale is held. We imagine that this will somewhat ameliorate the awe and fear some contestants experierence when stepping out onto its enormity later on -- or perhaps the producers just wanted to see who could cope with it early on.

Another change: Before getting in front of the judges, the 147 contestants who have made it thus far go through "Idol" boot camp, where they work with stylists, makeup artists and, most importantly, the show's vocal coaches, led by Debra Byrd. Byrd stresses to each comer that the most important thing is song choice, song choice, song choice. And if she didn't emphasize it enough, it's song choice. Yet, we later see that the most prevalent thing that will trip up 43 contestants and send them packing on Day 1 is -- all together now -- song choice. And surprise! Former mentor Barry Manilow, who has had so much plastic surgery that his face now resembles a caricature of its former self, has been employed as a guest lecturer. He tells the tryouts that there are two elements to success: opportunity and preparation. They've already been given the opprtunity, now everything will be depend upon how they deal with preparation.

Which brings us to the third change with Season 8: On Days 1 or 2 (depending when the contestant is scheduled to perform), you get one shot to make it or break it. We liked when they changed the rules in Season 7 for Day 1. Contestants were either put through immediately to the next round, or given a second-chance reprieve to get through. After all, anyone can have a bad day. It was also interesting to see who made it through right away, who made it through on the second-chance try and who stumbled on both. Perhaps the producers discovered that those who needed a second shot to advance ultimately fell to wayside anyway and that the experiment was a time waster and exercise in futility.

Finally, we learned at the end of the episode that on Day 3, the show had reinstituted the group performances, which were always interesting. Although "Idol" is the search for the ultimate solo artist, competing on the show includes a season full of group performances with the other finalists, as well as a summer tour with group performances. This past summer, much to the dismay of many fans, the tour focused on solo performances in a countdown mode from 10 to 1, with only a couple of group numbers. We're left to wonder if this means they'll revert to the old format of mostly group numbers during summer 2009.

Of course, the danger with group numbers is that a great singer in a lousy or lazy group can be taken down with it. We recall Season 6, when Antonella Barba and her friend, Amanda Coluccio, destroyed the chances of then 16-year-old Texas bright light Baylie Brown, after the Jersey Girls partied and fraternized with the guys the night prior to the group sing instead of rehearsing. This so rattled Brown, that she forgot the lyrics during her performance and was eliminated on the spot, even though she had been a favorite of former "Idol" executive producer Nigel Lythgoe. Ironically, Antonella and Amanda made it through to the next round, with only Antonella going all the way to the Top 24, where she was finally eliminated after several weak performances and tons of controversy over questionable photos of her posted on the Internet by "friends" (some suspected Coluccio of the deed).

For Day 1, the contestants are split into two group. One group will get the day off to go sightseeing in Hollywood (a nice perk if you're going to be eliminated right off), the other will stand before Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson and Kara DioGuardi to find out their Hollywood first-round fates. Once more, they are performing a cappella. We are first shown Lil Rounds, who the producers seem to be pushing greatly. She received a lot of face time on the her audition, as she does in the Day 1 Hollywood segment. She sings Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You." Frankly, we were surprised. Song choice? Don't the judges always advise not to sing Whitney or Celine because you can only come out sounding second or third rate? They're right and Lil did. It sounded shouted more than sung, with some warbling on the high notes. But, OMG, the judges loved it. Kara gives her a standing O and Paula joins her. Huh? Kara tells her, "I liked you from the day I saw you. I thought you were bold and brave then. You're still bold and brave, and that's what makes for a great artist." Er, OK. We like her, still that performance wasn't the best. Of course, she easily gets through to Round 2.

Next up is Dennis Brigham, who also auditioned in Kansas City. We weren't that impressed with him then, and his rendition of Stevie Wonder's "For Once in My Life," fails to ring any bells for us this time either. Nor for the judges, who cut him. But Brigham isn't going down without a fight. After his appeals fail, he leaves the stage, saying, "You all suck as judges." Simon retorts, "Dennis, you've just reinforced my decision a million times." But Brigham isn't done. He sasses back with, "Great, good. You need to get some wardrobe. For somebody to be so rich, your pants are very, very cheap, with that cheap very lame shirt you got on." Did we tune into the wrong show? Was that Heidi Klum and not Ryan Seacrest and is this "Project Runway"?

Watch video of Lil Rounds and Dennis Brigham Hollywood Week, Day 1

Next up is Nathaniel "Nate" Marshall. We didn't see him during the auditions. He sings "The Anchor Holds" by Ray Boltz. He has a nice voice, but nothing that's going to make us run to the phone to vote. Paula tells him, "You have beautiful vocals, but you picked a song that stayed here [she mimics a flat line with her hand] the whole time." Simon asks about the inspiration behind the song, and Nate tells him, "Well, I'm one of those kids that's been through a lot and it means something to me because music's always been the anchor for me that keeps me from freaking out when something bad happens or, when, you know, [voice cracking] I didn't have people around me to support me, like other people." Simon gives a face shrug, Paula says, "Aw." Nate adds, crying, "I just want this, more than anything." Now the judges are feeling bad. Yes, Nate is very sensitive, but too much for our taste. "It's on my skin, like it just bursts out of me every time I'm on stage and I don't know why," Nate sniffles. Paula tells him, "It's OK, sweetheart," and Nate wipes his eyes. Randy tells him, "It's OK." Well, yes and no. This was getting a little too dramatic for us. This isn't even the hard part of the competition and he's bawling already. On they're already calling him Danny [Noriega] v.2.0 and we're beginning to understand why. Were we surprised he made it through? Again, yes and no.

Watch video of Nathaniel Marshall Hollywood Week, Day 1

In Marshall's group are also some familiar faces from the auditions: Anoop Desai, Jasmine Murray and Rose Flack. We remember liking them all, especially Jasmine. Anoop is up first and he knocks it out of the park with Stevie's Wonder's "If It's Magic." He's also better looking than we remembered. Then comes Jasmine and we love her even more after hearing her sing "The Trouble With Love Is." Kara tells her, "For me, you have raw natural talent." Jasmine's also looking even hotter than during her audition. Guess the stylist segment of Idol Boot Camp is working after all. We knew from her audition that Rose Flack wasn't the strongest vocalist. She has trouble in her boot camp rehearsal and seems to be falling apart. But she pulls it together before the judges with Otis Redding's "Dock of the Bay." It wasn't great, it was more interesting. But she performed it well enough to get a pass to the next round, as, of course, do Anoop and Jasmine, and we notice Michael Castro (who was not shown performing).

Watch video of Anoop Desai, Jasmine Murray and Rose Flack Hollywood Week, Day 1

The next group includes Stephen Fowler. We like his smoky R&B tone. Paula tells him, "You nailed it" and Randy says that the Stevie Wonder song he performed ["Superwoman"] is one of the hardest, ever. He told Stephen, "You slayed it, dud. Wha?" We were impressed by Jorge Nunez during his San Juan audition and he gave us no reason to question that appraisal in Hollywood after we heard him do Jon Secada's "Angel." This could be the big Latin singer "Idol's" been hoping to land for years. Bravo! On the other hand, we weren't impressed with Von Smith's theatrical "Over the Rainbow" audition, and we fairly hated his overly dramatic rendition of James Morrison's "If the Rain Must Fall." Simon's "Thankew" said it all. Well, not quite. He also told Von, "I thought it was indulgent nonsense ... a horrible song, a horrible performance, really annoying. It's the kind of thing a child would do, when they're learning to sing, at like 10." So what did they do? Amazingly, put him through to the next round. Fowler and Nunez advanced as well.

Watch video of Stephen Fowler, Jorge Nunez and Von Smith Hollywood Week, Day 1

If wacky New York auditioner Nick Mitchell could ever settle down and just sing, we know he be just as impressive as he is funny. We figure he thinks that he doesn't have a snowball in hell's chance at winning idol -- or even getting near the Final 12 -- so he is shooting for as much exposure as he can get as far as he gets. That means reverting once again to his hilarious Norman Gentle persona. For his Hollywood Day 1 performance, he once again did "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," from "Dream Girls," even calling out to Seacrest in the balcony. Only this time Simon didn't get to stop him. Randy told him, "You are hilarious dude ... but you know what? Dude, you actually can sing! Because you have some skills in there, dawg." On the other hand, Simon said, "I genuinely don't know what to make of you. Because without the glasses and the headband you're just a boring person. And then when you put the stupid outfit on, you become a joke. It's just ridiculous." But, believe it or not, Nick/Norman gets through to sing in the next round! As do nearly blind singer Scott MacIntyre and jazzy Frankie Jordan.

Watch video of Nick Mitchell/Norman Gentle Hollywood Week, Day 1

Jackie Tohn leads off Day 2 of Hollywood Week singing Susan Tedeschi's "Rock Me Right," sounding like Janis Joplin. She's loud, she's brassy. What do want? She's a Jewish kid from Oceanside, Long Island. She's our homey. And she's also the only auditioner we've seen this season with a real rock vibe. We are still loving her, but since she is a bit over-the-top, we wonder if she's just annoying the rest of America. And is the performance genuine or is she acting it up for the judges? Randy thinks she's genuine, saying she was performing as if the judges weren't even there, as if she was just in her room and was going to go on all night. He also tells her he likes her. Paula tells her that she remembers Jackie the most out of all the auditions and that she would be missed if she wasn't there. Happily, she's also through.

Watch video of Jackie Tohn Hollywood Week, Day 2

A segment on making friends along the "Idol" journey results in the funniest line of the evening, when Jackie Tohn, referring to Deanna Brown standing next to her says, "We're friends. Best friends," then turns to Deanna and says, "What's your name again?" After exchanging names, Jackie waits a sec, then says, "Best friends for life," and high-fives Deanna. Ah, nothing like sincerity. This leads to true friends Jamar Rogers and Danny Gokey, who auditioned together and both made it to Hollywood, where they are roomies. Jamar's up first with The Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreaming." It's a nice job, but nothing we're going to remember the next day. Randy, however is a fan, telling Jamar he thinks he is different and relevant. Danny sings Seal's "Kiss From a Rose," and slam dunks the difficult melody. Paula tells him, "I love you. You are fantastic. You are ready to record." Jamar and Danny are through to the group round, as are Arianna Afsar, Matt Breitzke, Leneshe Young and Matt Giraud.

Watch video of Jamar Rogers and Danny Gokey Hollywood Week, Day 2

Ugh! Well we knew it had to happen sooner or later, the one you guys have all been waiting for, the return of Bikini Girl Katrina Darrell. Nope, she wasn't wearing a bikini this time, but she was still trying to makeout with Ryan and continued her bitch-slap fest with Kara, saying that "When Kara starting singing [during Katrina's audition], I thought that was kind of rude," and "Well, the first thing that went through my head was, 'Wow, she is getting insecure.' " Katrina sang Faith Hill's "Breathe," and it was the audition all over again -- Kara and Paula saying it started OK but went downhill and Simon and Randy saying she was better than the first time they heard her. And damn, we wish her voice was worse. Of course, she got through. As she was leaving, Kara says to Katrina, "Leave your number in the back room" and "Tomorrow bring your pool," to which Katrina answers, "I told you she doesn't like me." We can only hope her 15 minutes of fame are at 14:59.

Watch video of Katrina Darrell Hollywood Week, Day 2

Next, popular contestant Jessica Furney gets cut, along with Sharon Wilbur (who brought her dog to her audition) and Patricia Roman, San Juan's final tryout. This leads to the performances of oil roughneck Jeremy Michael Sarver, doing a tender job with Gavin DeGraw's "More Than Anyone." He makes it through, with Randy telling him it was one of the best he heard that day. But Jesus Valenzuela, whose young sons charmed the judges during his audition, does not, with his rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Lately."

Watch video of Jeremy Michael Sarver and Jesus Valenzuela Hollywood Week, Day 2

In the last group: David Osmond, sounding better than he did during his audition, Erika Wesley, a pleasant but forgettable singer whose San Juan audition wasn't aired, and Emily Wynne-Hughes, she of the multi-colored hair and tattooed arms, who at the last minute changes from "I Put a Spell on You," the song she rehearsed and sang well to one by No Doubt. The judges ream her on song choice and it looks like it's all over for Emily. But surprisingly, it's Erika Wesley who gets cut. David and Emily are safe, as are Alexis Grace, Brent Keith, Anne Marie Boskovich and Adam Lambert. Erika, not willing to go without a fight, appeals to the judges. Paula gets into a tiff with Simon over it, but much to her dismay, it's all over for Erika.

Watch video of David Osmond, Erika Wesley and Emily Wynne-Hughes Hollywood Week, Day 2

Tomorrow: Hollywood Group Day

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