Mercifully, it ends. The Idol preliminaries wrapped up this week with Tuesday night's San Antonio auditions show—during which an enraged woman told Simon Cowell, in a memorable phrase, to "go back to British." This was followed by Wednesday's utterly gratuitous (and boring) "Best of the Rest" broadcast, featuring clips from all of the audition cities that couldn't be shoehorned into the previous episodes. Highlights were scarce. In San Antonio, I enjoyed 16-year-old Baylie Brown, "the city girl stuck in a small town," whom Simon pronounced, "Commercial with a capital C." ("Is that a good thing or a bad thing?" Brown anxiously inquired.) Then there was Ashlyn Carr, the "weird faces girl" with the robust contralto voice, who got a reprieve from the judges after being dismissed. Carr's saga took another turn when the news broke that she'd been arrested for pouring sugar in the gas tank of her ex-boyfriend's car, raising the possibility that she might be Idol's first-ever contestant to be dismissed, reinstated, and dismissed again. But should she be sent packing for scorned-lover automobile vandalism, an activity that Idol's Season 4 winner glorifies in her current smash single?
All in all, 172 singers were sent on to Hollywood, and now the real fun begins. The teasers for the "Hollywood Week" shows, in which the field will be winnowed to a smaller group of semifinalists, promised (surprise!) buckets of tears as well as the usual recriminations among contestants. I'll be pulling hard for my favorites. For those who can't stand the suspense, the invaluable realitytvmagazine.com has played sleuth and spoiler, noting that "several contestants had their names privately registered as domain names on November 18, 2006, which is rumored to be right around the time the Hollywood contestants were narrowed down to the top forty or so semi-finalists." (These include my beloved Malakars, beardy blues dude Sundance Head, and Jersey babes Amanda Coluccio and Antonella Barba.) For those interested in a deeper level of Idol background research—aka those without lives, real jobs, or loved ones—YouTube is an invaluable resource. You can sample more of Blake Lewis' beatbox stylings, Brandon Rogers' suave neosoul singing, and Chris Sligh fronting his tuneful guitar band, Half Past Forever. Is this guy already a rock star, or what?
As it happens, the singing competition is not this year's only Idol contest. On Wednesday night, Ryan Seacrest announced that a national songwriting competition will be held to determine the Idol finale anthem. This is good news—amateurs can't possibly do any worse than the professionals who've supplied the songs on five previous occasions. Consider this lyric:
What if I told you it was all meant to be?
Everybody's looking for that something
One thing that makes it all complete
Have you ever reached a rainbow's end?
And did you find your pot of gold?
It's been a long and winding journey
But I'm finally here tonight
Picking up the pieces
Walking back into the light
I've never been the one to raise my hand
That was not me and now that's who I am
Because of you I am standing tall
That's not actually a single song. It's a mash-up of opening lines from the five finale songs performed by the previous Idol victors: "A Moment Like This," "Flying Without Wings," "I Believe," "Angels Brought Me Here," and "Do I Make You Proud?" The formula is clear cut: Start with plaintive piano chords, add a maddeningly vague "inspirational" lyric, and throw in a whole-step modulation round about chorus No. 3. (For an extra jolt of soul, you can trot out a gospel choir, nearly all of whose members will sing as well as or better than the Idol finalist.) The emphasis on inspirational pop makes sense given the show's secular-sacred ethos of self-actualization and triumph against the odds. But really: Isn't it possible to create a big, stately ballad suitable to the august occasion of an American Idol finale without invoking pots of gold or winged angels? Tunesmiths, America is rooting for you—make us proud.