There are approximately 142 hours between the end of one week's American Idol broadcasts and the beginning of the next—a slow, grim plod, brightened only by the radiant memory of Ryan Seacrest's latest sport-coat-and-T-shirt ensemble. Sunday brunch rolls around, you realize that there are still two-plus days to go, and your soul is engulfed by melancholy. All is blackness, all is waste. Or is this just me? In any event, the mood of those long empty Idol less days and nights is perfectly captured by "It's Not Over," the hit single by last season's third runner-up, Chris Daughtry. "It's Not Over" is inescapable these days—the song seemed to follow me everywhere all week, blasting out of taxis and Korean delis. "I try to see the good in life/ The good things in life are hard to find," Daughtry wails as the guitars circle pitilessly between the same five crunching major chords.
It's a punishing and effective piece of music, and even if the Nickelbackian post-grunge that Daughtry loves is the most joy-killing and charmless of contemporary pop styles, there's no doubt that he's very good at it—along with Carrie Underwood, he's the best genre singer that Idol has produced. And, possibly, the most popular: Daughtry has been in and out of the Billboard No. 1 spot for the past few weeks, has sold nearly 1.4 million copies, and though the album dropped to No. 3 this week, its sales actually ticked up. Between Daughtry and Hollywood golden girl Jennifer Hudson, this is looking like the year of the Idol also-ran. On Tuesday, another runner-up, Katharine McPhee, released her debut album, and it's actually a good record, staking out a nice middle ground between R&B and adult album alternative, with the blowsy ballads kept to a minimum. (I'm a sucker for the single, "Over It.") Meanwhile, Taylor Hicks' album continues to tank—proof, perhaps, that Hicks-hater Simon Cowell was right after all, and a lesson worth bearing in mind as Season 6 moves along. Sometimes, an Idol victory can be Pyrrhic. And if you're a rock singer like Daughtry, getting kicked off the show is probably good for your cred.
Tuesday's auditions took place back in Hicks country, Birmingham, Ala. More of the same: a few decent performances, a few awful ones, and a baby-talking 19-year-old, Katie Bernard, who the judges sent onto the next round despite her goo-goo-ga-ga speaking voice and annoyingly twitchy singing style. (Paula: "You just got married. I think you should enjoy that marriage." Katie: "Oh, no, no, no, no!") Human interest, of a particularly ghoulish kind, was supplied by Jamie Lynn Ward. She told the judges about her paralyzed father, who shot himself and his wife when he caught her cheating. Simon was unimpressed, but Randy and Paula put her through. She's this season's Kellie Pickler, with an even harder-luck back story. By far the brightest spot in Birmingham was chubby, mop-headed Chris Sligh. "Some people tell me that I look like Jack Osborne. Some say that I look like Jack Black. But when I look in the mirror every morning, it's not those people that I see. It's Christina Aguilera," he deadpanned. Sligh told the judges that he's entered the contest because he "wanted to make David Hasselhoff cry," before launching into a nice version of Seal's "Kiss From a Rose." Six seasons and untold hundreds of contestants later, Idol has its first ironist. I'm looking forward to Sligh's subverting Idol's pieties for weeks to come.
Wednesday's show, in Los Angeles, featured guest judge Olivia Newton-John, looking like she'd just been discharged from the offices of Jocelyn Wildenstein's surgeon. (Sandy, why'd you do it?) Personally, I'm so over the auditions but I was amused—slightly—by the "panther" stylings of Martik Manoukian. ("There are three moves. The extension move, the crawl, and the slash.") The most promising contestant, by far, was Brandon Rogers, a former backup singer for Chris Sligh, I mean Christina Aguilera. He sang "Always on My Mind" in pure, high tenor, oozing confidence and professionalism. Are we headed for a Rogers vs. Doolittle, battle of the background singers?
The night's "emotional high" was the appearance of 64-year-old Sherman Pore, 36 years too old to qualify for Idol, who showed up to pay tribute to his late "lady love." I was about to click over to Deal or No Deal in disgust, but Pore's performance of the old Jo Stafford hit "You Belong to Me" totally transcended kitsch—it was a sweet, dignified, understated, and altogether lovely, a great old song, sung from the heart. Paula wept—for once, her tears were earned—and Simon shook Pore's hand and called him a class act. But why not take it a step further? Bend the rules! Send the old man to Hollywood!