It's no secret that country music superstar and multiple award-winner Carrie Underwood came out of tiny Checotah, Oklahoma (born in Muskogee), to audition for "American Idol" in 2004 in St. Louis. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. And she's still making it, her last album making her the first "Idol" alum to see a fourth platinum album certificate and see four albums physically sell one million copies. In the audition show on Thursday evening (Jan. 31), the show made no attempts to be subtle about the success of its most famous finalist from the state of Oklahoma. Host Ryan Seacrest even invoked her name when asking the prospective auditioners if the next American Idol would come out of their midst. But did the viewers see a potential Carrie Underwood in the playback?
Even Judge Keith Urban, the show's first ever judge with country music credentials, noted star power that had come from Oklahoma: Vince Gill, Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, Ronnie Dunn (of Brooks and Dunn), and, of course, Carrie Underwood. That group alone accounts for 70 Academy of Country Music Awards (including 11 Entertainer of the Year awards), 44 Country Music Association Awards (including 8 Entertainer of the Year awards), and 31 Grammy wins. And Keith didn't even mention Toby Keith, Roy Clark, Roger Miller, Leon Russell, Blake Shelton, Sandi Patty, Woody Guthrie, or Ryan Tedder.
So with all the promotion and a slightly dissonant multi-voiced intro to "Oklahoma!" (Rodgers and Hammerstein), not to mention several nods toward the Season 4 winner (and bestselling "Idol" in the show's history), you'd think things would go pretty well with the 9,000 plus that showed up to try for a gold ticket to Hollywood.
Instead, things were just plain weird...
The show only highlighted five people that got gold tickets, including two marginals that probably should have been told YouTube might be their way to fame.
First among the downright strange was the over-the-top performance of the national anthem by Zoanette Johnson. She was all over the place in her delivery, shouting here, singing there, stomping a bit for emphasis near the end. But then the judges, who seemed collectively to fear and sit in awe of Zoanette at the same time, began talking to her. Her replies were filled with scattershot phrases that seemed to hinge on the discussion at hand and quickly disintegrate into topics unrelated. She even demanded an invite to the White House from Barack Obama. The judges sent her through to Hollywood, so it appeared as if fear of what a "no" might produce overrode their talent judging capacities.
But if Zoanette wasn't strange enough (in a loud, Sybil sort of way), then Halie Hilburn's ventriloquism act certainly was. The young woman most likely thought it would be a cute gimmick, but it was just Jeff Dunham in a dress -- singing. Halie performed a duet with Oscar (her eyeless dog puppet), "(I Want To Be A) Cowboy's Sweetheart," who provided a coyote howl and a yodel (the latter of which got Judge Nicki Minaj dancing in her seat). The judges seemed more bemused than amused (or impressed), so they asked Halie to ditch Oscar, her partner since she was nine years old, and go a capella. She sang Gavin Degraw's "More Than Anyone" and proved she was a talent to be reckoned with, the judges sending her through and joking that poor Oscar, face down on the floor, already knew the partnership was over. (Host Ryan Seacrest took the puppet off her hands in the lobby and, in an act of overkill, the puppet ended up in the dumpster. So much for childhood memories.)
Then there was Karl Skinner, who proudly noted he was from Joplin, Missouri. He asked if he was allowed to move, then commenced to shuffle and stomp to James Brown's "I Feel Good." Not altogether terrible and showing a bit of promise, Karl was asked to perform with his guitar. He performed an original composition, but Judge Nicki thought that the guitar restrained his energy. Still, he got a gold ticket.
There were quite a few bad-to-godawful auditions but only one was worthy of about five minutes of "Idol" television time. Anastacia Freeman decided to ruin Toni Braxton's beautiful ballad "Un-break My Heart." Ruin -- as in you just might not ever be able to hear Braxton's version again without thinking of its "Idol" counterpart. When the judges questioned her, she told them she had been told to audition for "American Idol." When pressed, she admitted she had been watching TV and god had told her to "go." It was most likely lost in translation but that didn't stop "Idol" producers from recreating the epiphany in a "cheap dramatization." (Kudos to the guys behind that sketch, especially the part where the faux Anastacia asked if she were to go on "The Voice" or "X Factor," queries that were met with god-like and an increasingly louder "no.") After she got a full four-part "no" from the judges, she was later seen in the parking lot outside, where she told the cameras she would never again listen to a Mariah Carey song and Nicki Minaj worshipped the devil (she had heard). Now everyone knows how to mount a counterattack against honesty...
Making the entire segment even more hilarious -- Ryan Seacrest's voiceover as she closed her car door. He observed that Anastacia was going home to await further instructions...
But everything wasn't out-and-out weird in Oklahoma City. There was at least two auditions (well, they only showed two) that indicated that the wind that "comes sweepin' down the plain" hadn't addled everyone in the state.
One was Nate Tao, 24 years old and quite the unassuming young man. He effortlessly rolled out Stevie Wonder's "For Once In My Life." The judges were suitably impressed, with Judge Randy Jackson the most shocked, saying that Nate surprised him. A guy who looked like he should be doing The Dawg's taxes was actually a great singer. (Does that mean there's hope for CPAs everywhere?)
And as some singers' songs seem to prevail in the auditions (like Etta James in San Antonio), Stevie Wonder apparently was the singer of moment in Oklahoma City. Charismatic 16-year-old Kayden Stephenson offered up not only a tear-jerker backstory (he's got cystic fibrosis, a disease that will most likely not allow him to live beyond 35 years) but a pretty good rendition of Wonder's "I Wish" as well. The judges loved his breathy performance and the viewers will see Kayden in Hollywood.
Overall, Oklahoma City saw 45 contestants put through to Tinseltown. But if you were thinking that the great state of Oklahoma might be sending a few that don't represent the state all that well, just remember that Joan Crawford and Gary Busey were born in the Sooner State as well.
Next week: "Idol" goes to Hollywood.
"American Idol" airs at 8 p.m. (EST) on Wednesdays and Thursdays on Fox Television.
Take Home Message: Pursuing one's dreams is what life is all about. Unfortunately for some, the pursuit will not be a happy one, nor will it end in success. No matter how bad one wants to become a singer (or just famous), there often comes the ultimate career roadblock: The ability to sing. Some can; some cannot. (And some will become successful whether they can sing well or not.) But there is something to be said about the delusional, those that, for whatever reason, have come to believe that their vocal talents are pleasing to the ear. Although the "American Idol" judges are sometimes cruel and make light of the contestants whose vocal stylings fall far short of what it would take to get to Hollywood and beyond (something that, though honest, needlessly belittles and devalues the contestants themselves), they also provide many with feedback that they've most likely never heard from friends, family, and themselves -- the truth. For those, it is time to take up another dream, and if one's passion is for music, being told that a singing career might not be one's calling does not in any way hinder one from pursuing a career in the many arenas of the music business. One just has to find one's niche. Oh, and please -- stop singing...
(photo credit: American Idol, Fremantle North America, Fox Television)