The latest round of American Idol auditions took place in Los Angeles, or more accurately, Pasadena, where 11,000 people showed up last June to try and secure a spot in the September callback. As you probably could have predicted, the episode opened with a stereotypical montage celebrating the mythic version of "Hollywood" that we all at one point agreed to use: the Hollywood sign, black-and-white movie footage, frequent deployment of words like "glamour." There's a reason Randy yells "Welcome to Hollywood!" when someone makes the cut in a cattle call. The show wants to pretend it's a place of magical happenings instead of just a grungy suburb of Los Angeles choked with tourists.
The two guest judges for the callback were Avril Lavigne and Katy Perry, and their pairing is either sublime luck or a plot to see if viewers will catch on to the fact that they're watching a talent show judged by two inherently untalented singers who co-opted random genres (pseudo-punk, burlesque) in hopes of appearing more gifted. They brought less to the proceedings than any guest judge so far. At least Victoria Beckham was pleasant and willing to offer compliments. Avril sat and petulantly played with her hoodie, and Katy got into bizarre spats with Kara. You'd think Katy would at least be willing to cut some singers some slack when it comes to attempting heightened looks or personas: She started out as a gospel singer before she realized faux-lesbianism would sell more records.
The first singer out of the gate was a clear loser who had been brought back to fail publicly, and you could tell from his vest and flop-sweat and the fact that he copped to being a data entry tech with bad people skills that this would not have a pleasant ending. Somehow, this was more like L.A. than any cheesy, knee-jerk image the show could manufacture: Someone out of their element, beating their head against a wall for no reason other than that they've seen others do it. He tried to make up for his lack of talent with an abundance of sad gusto, but no one was buying.
The winners were, as always, the ones whose auditions were preceded by taped remotes detailing their home lives, which ranged from normal (minister with wife and kids) to tough (young father escaping his gang surroundings) to tragic (kid from a dozen foster homes with no one to turn to). The production values on these pieces tends to be heavy-handed even by reality show standards: The shot of the foster kid looking through a chain-link fence at a train roaring felt like the documentary Amber Waves made about Dirk Diggler. He had a rough childhood, yeah, but there's no need to turn him into a cartoon.
Those who made the cut did have nice voices in the vaguely urban pop strain that Simon and the other judges seem to prize as most valuable, perhaps because it's the sweetest voice with the least character. Things might change later in the game, but for now, all the good singers sound exactly like each other, and they'll have to differentiate themselves if they want to stand out as characters on the show.
Although the L.A. visit collected 23 singers for the next round, none of the ones featured in last night's episode were that memorable, either as vocalists or characters. Maybe it's because the producers are saving some for later, though that would seem kind of opposed to their goal to create "Pants on the Ground"-type buzz. The better guess is that there's only so much mileage you can get out of interchangeable voices and tragedies. And with another couple episodes to go before we even get to the Hollywood Round of auditions and cuts, it might be a while before we see something worth remembering.