The amazing thing about American Idol is that it gets tens of millions of people to watch it two months before it really starts. It begins with the audition episodes-singer after deluded singer in city after deluded city-that lead into the Hollywood-audition episodes, and thence to the interminable semifinal rounds that will bring us, sometime in March, to the actual competition. One wonders why they stop there. Certainly there could be episodes to be built out of the preproduction location scouting and the setting up of the craft-service tables.
These early episodes are about one thing: American Idol–how much you love it, how badly the singers want it, how many people watch it. "This show has become an integral part of American culture," boasted Ryan Seacrest, in a monologue that made the show sound like the Super Bowl, Christmas and Election Day rolled into one. As always, there were copious Fox-affiliate shots of auditioners lined up around the block; as always, the season promises to be "the best yet," with the "strongest" singers ever. At this rate, in a few more seasons, American Idol will discover a singer so great and mighty that she will open her mouth and her voice will usher in the return of the Lord.
Of course, since William Hung, the auditions have also become celebrations of bad singing, and in the first episode of season 5, Chicago did not disappoint. It is maybe a sign of American Idol’s influence that the auditions are full, not of people who can’t sing, but people who can, and sing terribly-terribly in the original sense of inspiring terror. They have the volume, the pipes, the ability to cram sixten notes per syllable in a Mariah Carey attack of malicious melisma, and they use these qualities-which, after all, they’ve seen rewarded for years on American Idol-to flay the skin off several decades’ of pop standards.
There was the guy who began with the ominous statement, "If possible, I will break out an original medley that I did," then segued from The Isley Brothers’ "Shout" into XTC’s "Making Plans for Nigel." The sheriff’s deputy who came on in uniform, looking like someone ordered him for a bachelorette party. The young man who performed in traditional dress from "The Fertile Crescent" and the young Ukrainian woman who bleated through "Bohemian Rhapsody." This country is a melting pot, American Idol tells us, and there is a gorgeous mosaic of ways to butcher a song. Only ten years to go until the finals.