"American Idol": Fewer crazies as auditions begin

AMERICAN IDOL: Contestant Shannon Magrane, with her family on AMERICAN IDOL airing Wednesday, Jan. 18 (8:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. CR: Michael Becker / FOX.
Contestant Shannon Magrane, with her family on "American Idol," airing Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012.

(CBS) There are those who might find it tedious to sit through the audition phase of "American Idol."

To them, I offer data that might swing their psyche: William Hung, the man who sings less well than the average tipsy-turvy bar patron on a Friday night, sold 50,000 more records than Lee DeWyze.

Yes, the Lee Dewyze who won "Idol" what seems like only months ago (but is years ago).

Special section: "American Idol"

So scoff at the lunatics who were obviously shoved there by producers seeking a laugh. But one of these crazies just might find a little fortune in the unlikeliest way. By the way, if you're wondering about Hung, he now works for the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department as a technical crime analyst. Yes, really.

"'American Idol' is like an icon of American society," said one hopeful standing in line in Savannah, Ga., hoping for the chance of, who knows, a job.

Well, what does this new series of "American idol" say about American society? It says that many of those competing grew up with "Idol" as part of their cultural lives. This thing has been going on for 10 years. That's longer than even Paula Abdul can speak without interruption. So their view of "Idol" is akin to that of a high school student who wants to be the next quarterback at Alabama. It's something he knows. It's something he thinks he's experienced. It's part of a tradition.

In beautiful Savannah, the heat can sear your eyebrows and confederate flags fly proudly. Perhaps the greatest relief of "Idol"'s return is the cool sight and sound of Ryan Seacrest.

Seacrest is such a contrast with, say, Steve Jones, the oddly mannequin-like presenter of "The X Factor," that one found a sudden appreciation for his effortlessness guile - which first came into its own as a foil for the hissy-fits of Simon Cowell. Seacrest is like the perfect contemporary dessert - sweet, but with a curious level of salt that you didn't expect and rather like.

We began with David Leathers Jr., a young, black, confident little man, who reminded one of Astro from "The X Factor," save for the fact that he can actually sang.

Leathers Jr. had, just two years ago, defeated Scotty McCreery In some local talent competition. That would be the McCreery who wafted into stardom via this show last year.

Leathers Jr. is 17, looks 12 and is headed to Hollywood. Yes, JLo even asked him to impersonate Michael Jackson.

We then had to enjoy a few more teens who seemed to have an essence of what might be described loosely as talent. Then we had Jessica Whitely, who was, sadly, dehydrated. She sang like a strangulated Moldovan, after a 40-hour journey in the back of a truck. She was rejected. However, she promised she would see the judges again in Texas. Can one do that? It seems that one can.

We were forced to enjoy a quite passable Ryan Seacrest impersonator. Sadly, he sang perhaps as well as Seacrest. On the other hand, he's cheap.

We saw the daughter of Joe Magrane, a St. Louis Cardinals pitcher from the 1987 World Series. When he asked Steven Tyler how things were in Beantown, Tyler answered with a lascivious grin: "Hot, humid and happening - just like your daughter."

There ensued a difficult pause. Shannon Magrane is 15.

Magrane, though, can sing. She can really sing. Her whole family played percussive back-up, as she offered genuine talent. One can only hope the producers keep her away from Tyler's sad, lecherous ways.

"Idol" skittered along to offer us stories. For that is the purpose of these auditions - creating stories to get viewers involved.

There was a woman who lived with her boyfriend in a Tennessee tent (good), a boy who dreamed of singing the National Anthem at a NASCAR race (not good, wept, cursed), a 15-year-old who wants to be Carrie Underwood (good, JLo let her through after Randy demurred) and a former auditioner who was "in it to win it" and brought her brother along (both good, both work as face painters, both apparently benefiting from pain).

The names, the faces, the performances might be remembered. But right now, the show churns the hopefuls through, filling in time between the commercials. Still, how can anyone not love a 25-year-old who works with the intellectually disabled and sings (a little) like Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles?

Children and old men were brought in to claim that a bad singer called Mawuena wasn't a bad singer. He was. But, at this stage, the names don't matter. If you can register the faces, if you can remember the voices, if you can at least remember something of their stories, you might recognize them in the Hollywood round.

Then we heard: "Steven Tyler is my future ex-husband." This was spoken by a lady from Buffalo, who was prepared to "kiss his feet." First, though, she hugged him and grabbed his bottom. Perhaps this was inserted to create some sort of balance to Tyler's increasingly sad, lecherous persona. She didn't get a golden ticket, but she copped a feel.

As the show staggered to its close, one thing became clear: there were fewer crazies than one had expected. Was this some new, serious phase for "Idol"? Was this an attempt to blunt criticism of its past? Was this some kind of girding of its loins against "The Voice"?

Phillip Phillips, son of Phillip Phillips, was the last story of evening. He auditioned with his guitar. Well, the guitar lay on the floor while Phillip Phillips sang "Superstition."

Perhaps that's how they do things down south. No, because then Randy Jackson asked to see what he could do with the guitar. What he could do was perform a very interesting version of "Thriller."

One couldn't describe these auditions as thrilling - or even Phillip Philling. But "American Idol" is back. And it's, well, largely the same as ever.

  • Chris Matyszczyk

    Chris has been a multi award-winning executive creative director with some of the most celebrated advertising agencies in the world. His creative work has been recognized at the Cannes Advertising Festival, the New York Festivals, Clio, the One Show, as well as many other festivals around the world. His writing has appeared in such publications as the Financial Times, the European, the Sacramento Bee and The Singapore Press Holdings Group.

    He currently advises major global companies about content creation and marketing, through his company Howard Raucous LLC.

    He brings an irreverent, sarcastic, and sometimes ironic voice to the tech world.