For Episode 3 on Tuesday night, American Idol traveled to Memphis—back to the loamy Southern soil that has produced all of its winners. Through five seasons, region has proved the most significant Idol metric, far more than race, gender, genre, or anything else. There have been three white and two black Idols, three females and two males. Winners have included a straightforward pop singer (Kelly Clarkson), an R&B smoothie (Ruben Studdard), a soul belter (Fantasia Barrino), a country balladeer (Carrie Underwood), and a cuddly Adult Album Alternative type with a delusional Otis Redding complex (Taylor Hicks). But they've all been from Dixie—Carrie Underwood, from Checotah, Okla., is the closest we've seen to a Northerner. Most of the major runners-up (Clay Aiken, Bo Bice, Chris Daughtry) are also from the South. For those who like to draw comparisons between Idol and presidential politics, the regional question is compelling. Will Season 6 finally give us a champion from someplace north of the Mason-Dixon? If not, should the Dems think twice before nominating a Yankee like Hillary or Obama?
Tuesday's show—shortened to an hour because of the live broadcast of a plaintive solo acoustic set by 2000 Idol winner G.W. Bush—was a tad less shrill and "freak"-heavy than last week's Minneapolis and Seattle episodes. Did Idol producers re-edit the broadcast, in response to a week's worth of criticism about the show's "meanness"? (Lord help us if Rosie O'Donnell has such power.) The closest the Memphis episode came to the freak show was the usual rejectee singalong montage. (Predictably, they chose an Elvis song, "Burning Love.") Then there was the totally endearing Sean Michel, with very long hair and a stretching Old Testament beard, who (not unreasonably) compared his own look to Osama Bin Laden and Fidel Castro. The judges were clearly taken aback, but his rugged performance of Johnny Cash's "God's Gonna Cut You Down" made them believers. Paula: "That was kind of shocking. I didn't expect to hear that." Simon: "We expected something about a revolution." Randy: "It don't matter what you look like, you can blow! Welcome to Hollywood, baby!" Here's hoping that Michel makes it through to the final 12, if only to see how the Idol stylists handle his makeover.
Memphis also gave us the two best singers thus far. First, there was the roly-poly fellow with the preposterous name of Sundance Head, whose father, Roy Head, had a No. 1 hit in 1965, "Treat Her Right." In the pre-audition interview, Head fils claimed he was a better singer than his father, and sure enough, he peeled back the judges' ears with a roaring "Stormy Monday." (Simon: "He just blew Taylor out the park." Randy: "Dude, I'm seeing circles.") Next came Melinda Doolittle, singing Stevie Wonder's "For Once in My Life." Doolittle is a professional background singer, and boy, can you tell: In terms of tone, timbre, and control, she has the best instrument of any Idol contestant I've heard, in any season. Mark my words: She'll make it all the way to the final three. At least.
No one nearly as great emerged from the New York auditions, but there were some cuties. Simon nearly dissolved into a puddle of drool during the audition of best friends Amanda Coluccio and Antonella Barba. (A leering, totally gratuitous B-roll montage showed the pair romping on the beach in bikinis.) Paula was treated to her own hunk of cheesecake in the form of 16-year-old Jenry Bejarano, who will almost certainly be co-starring with Tyson Beckford in a boxer-briefs advertisement within months. On the other end of the charisma spectrum was the sepulchral guest judge, songwriter Carole Bayer Sager, who brought the show to a screeching halt every time she spoke. At this point, isn't Idol bigger than B-listers like Sager? Can't Simon Fuller put in a call to Max Martin or something?
Oh yeah, some people cried. Check that: Nearly everybody cried. This isn't anything new—from the get-go, Idol has aimed for catharsis, prying open tear ducts with some of the most lethal weapons known to man: the soft-focus up-close-and-personal segment and Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All." Idol's emphasis on hard-luck back-stories, and the preponderance of slow-boiling self-actualization anthems, virtually guarantees many weepy money shots, and sometimes these are quite affecting. Who can forget Fantasia Barrino's glorious diva moment in the Idol 3 finale, belting out "I Believe" through streaming tears?
But this season has upped the emotional pornography quotient; the show is veritably awash in tears. Tears of triumph, tears of defeat, tears of frustration. Mom's tears, Dad's tears, Little Sister's tears. In New York, Sarah Burgess cried before, during, and after her audition about her father's lack of support for her singing aspirations. (Father and daughter reconciled, in a tearful phone call.) Kia Thornton wept after getting sent through for a fine performance of Aretha's "Ain't No Way." When the judges rejected tone-deaf Sarah Goldberg, she flew into a tearful tirade. Then there was Nakia Claiborne, who went from manically jovial to heartbroken in a span of a couple of minutes, proving that there is nothing sadder than the tears of a clown. I nearly shed a tear myself when she emerged, dejected, from the audition room. "They said no," she sobbed. "And sometimes you get tired of hearing no."
In truth, the raw emotions are understandable, given the intensely personal and expressive nature of singing itself. This is the heart of American Idol: Yes, it's a big, schlock-drenched, hyper-commercialized, exploitative spectacle. But the show is really about one of the most primal and moving human activities—the act of expelling air from your diaphragm and shaping it into music with your vocal cords—and this gives Idol a purity and grandeur that you just don't find on, say, The Bachelor or Celebrity Fit Club. There's often little difference between singing and crying in the first place—little wonder the tears flow.
Still, there are healthier ways to deal with an Idol rejection than bawling. Simon was right to call Ian Benardo, who did a kind of Arnold Horshack rendition of Laura Branigan's "Gloria," "annoying … Mr. Boring." But Benardo got the last laugh. "Hollywood is not even that great," Benardo said, marching off in a huff. "Hollywood is New Jersey with celebrities."