American Idol: A Lot of Hot Air in the Windy City

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So here we are with our pants on the ground, in the second week of American Idol, and it'll be another month before auditions end. At first I was pleasantly surprised to find that last night's episode was just an hour: I did my time in the trenches with Dancing With the Stars and assumed that similar reality competition shows used two-hour blocks as endurance tests for people like me. But it turns out that, though later Idol eps will be longer (and I'm not even going to think about the weeks that air three episodes over three straight days), the early contests are shorter. It makes sense, too. The season has a long way to go, so there's no sense overdoing it in the early rounds.

Tuesday's audition was in Chicago, home of Ferris Bueller, the Blues Brothers, and probably some famous athletes. The open call drew 12,000 people (!) to Chicago's United Center, meaning that half the arena could be filled with people who thought they were talented enough to be pop stars. That's pretty telling. Also, as a reminder, the June cattle call was for people to sing in front of producers, who picked likely winners and definite losers to perform in front of the "real" judges at a two-day callback at the end of August. It's going to take weeks, in bits and pieces, to let that weirdness sink in.

The celebrity judge for the Chicago auditions was Shania Twain, who was a pivotal figure in my life at the onset of my adolescence. She holds the record for the best-selling album by a female artist, and is outsold in Canada only by Celine Dion. Seriously, she's sold 48 million albums just in the United States. She's also terrible, and performs songs that claim to straddle the line between country and pop but are really just bad ballads, bad jokes, or bad all over. Kara said of Shania, "She has done some of the greatest pop songs," which I guess is the best way to sum up the sorry state of country music.

The hour unfolded just like the ones last week, and the ones that have aired every season since the show began in 2002. (Spoiler: They'll be the same next week, too!) At least some of the winners in this round had character and were memorable in that way we ask reality show contestants to be. I could easily see some of them sticking around until the main event.

There was the blonde Kaitlin, who kicked things off, and if you think she was going to fail after we saw a taped piece about her home life and recently divorced parents, well, you have no idea what these words mean or how they appeared like magic on the screen at your library table. Another sweet winner was Angela, who's been trying to do this for years and has had success on previous seasons only to lose out or miss her chance (last season she couldn't go to the next level because she had to appear in court for a traffic violation, which I'm sure was a fun day). But she sang well and the judges rightly put her through.

And of course, there were the terrible singers and unfortunate-looking people who had been brought in just to fail on camera. Some were harmless, like the guy doing the Carlton dance and singing "It's Not Unusual." Some were disconcerting, like the Army guy who didn't close his mouth when pronouncing labial consonants and who I swear might actually have a mental impairment. And some were just plain sad, like the dude who actually broke down and cried when he got turned down after giving a bad audition. For some reason, at some point, there was a montage of hopefuls set to a version of the "Growing Pains" theme, which is weird because the Seavers lived on Long Island, near the Stabones, not Chicago. And Alan Thicke's Canadian! In short, it was probably the least sane thing the show did all night.

All in all, 13 people got the go-ahead for the Hollywood round, each one beckoned by Randy Jackson yelling, "Welcome to Hollywood!" Maybe it's just me, but he sounds like the homeless guy who shouts the same thing at the beginning and end of Pretty Woman. Now that guy was a character.

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