‘Idol’ in St. Louis: Carrie Underwood, William Hung, Madonna Upstage Actual Auditioners

Eight years ago, a little Oklahoman farmgirl you may have heard of named Carrie Underwood tried out for a little show called "American Idol," and the rest was history. So when "Idol" returned to Carrie's original audition city, St. Louis, this Thursday, they milked it for all it was worth, all in an attempt to convince viewers that The Next Carrie was somewhere to be found here in the gateway to the West. (Or "the gateway to 'Idol' success," as Ryan Seacrest put it.) They kind of failed.

Yes, the nostalgia was laid on thick Thursday, from the vintage footage of Carrie roadtripping to her 2004 "Idol" audition; to the shots of kumbaya-singalongs in the St. Louis parking lot with the Ryan voiceover that declared, "'Idol' is where this generation comes together"; to even a memory-lane parade of past bad auditioners (i.e., William Hung 'n' Friends). And of course, I understand why "Idol" pulled out all the stops for this last stop, this final auditions episode before Hollywood Week. It was time for the "Show Me State" to show me, and other hopeful viewers, some real Underwoodian talent. But all this "Idol" nostalgia sort of backfired, as it only reminded me how much better this show used to be. (I'm not so sure the judges have found a Carrie Underwood this season, and they've certainly not found any trainwreck as enjoyable or viral as William Hung.)

When the St. Louis auditions finally started, there were a couple promising country girls who might be able follow in Carrie's cowgirl-booted footsteps (or at least in Kellie Pickler's), but ironically, the episode mostly trotted out a bunch of scruffily handsome folk-rock boys in Kris Allen-regulation plaid shirts, typical of the last four seasons' male winners--so I'm not sure what the producers were trying to accomplish with the whole Underwood nostalgia fest. And THEN, a midshow preview of Madonna's football-themed "Gimme All Your Luvin'" music video upstaged all the auditioners--not only emphasizing the sad fact that few "Idol" contestants will ever enjoy a career as sensational and decade-spanning as Madonna's, but also serving as a compelling advertisement for Madge's Super Bowl half-time performance on NBC this Sunday...which of course will be followed by the premiere of "Idol's" rival show, "The Voice." Oops. Again, I'm not sure what "Idol" producers accomplished there.

Anyhoo, maybe the judges did find the next Carrie or Madonna in St. Louis, since they handed out 46 golden tickets...but frustratingly, only FIVE of those ticket-holders received any significant screentime during Thursday's hour-long episode (because all that actual Carrie/Madonna footage hogged up so many minutes). So who knows?

Want to know more about those fortunate five? Read on...

Johnny Keyser

- This 22-year-old Floridian waiter sort of reminded me of a real-life Finn from "Glee." A hunk with a heart of gold (his dad is his BFF, how sweet), he pretty much came straight from "Idol's" Central Casting. He just looked like the type who wins this thing. Lucky for him, he sounded like the type who wins, too. His cover of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" was a fine showcase for this young man with an old soul. HOWEVER, the judges' excessive gushing and fawning put me off; come on, yes, Johnny was good, but the way Steven, Jennifer, and Randy were acting, you would've thought the immaculately conceived lovechild of Aretha Franklin and Freddie Mercury had walked into the audition room. "You know you're gonna be a star, right? KEEP SINGING!" J.Lo shrieked, slamming her French-manicured hand on her desk. I'm predicting now this is one of the early frontrunners who becomes a "shocker" cut during the Green Mile episode. They were selling Johnny just a little bit too hard.

Rachelle Lamb

- Rachelle had a lot going for her. Single-mother status? Check. Cute daughter, who kind of looks like the girly version of that Jerry Maguire kid, dragged into the audition room? Check. Stacy Francis/Britnee Kellogg-esque sob story about a mean ex-husband who kept her from pursuing her musical dreams? Check. Pretty-but-not-too-pretty, approachable image? Yep, that too. Thankfully, Rachelle also had a really good country voice, and she showed a lot of what Steven Tyler called "moxie" during her obviously real-life-inspired performance of Faith Hill's breakup song, "Find Somebody New." Rachelle definitely has potential, but this season is packed with many strong female country contenders, so she's going to face some serious competition in Hollywood.

Reis Kloeckener

- Reis claimed he'd been bullied in high school--a common sob story among "Idol" auditioners--and I have no reason to think he wasn't telling the truth, but it's hard to believe that this cute kid wasn't Mr. Popularity back home. Smitten girls out there would vote for this Bieber-haired boy in droves. He, like Johnny Keyser, also gave off a real-life "Glee" vibe (getting discovered by his school's choir teacher in his senior year gave him confidence and changed his life), which made him immensely likable. His "Lean On Me" performance showed promise, and with that plaid shirt--something hanging in almost every male "Idol" contender's closet--he already looked like a winner. But then Steven sighed, "That was so beautiful, you made me cry!" Okay, calm down and dry your eyes with one of your fabulous scarves, Steven. It wasn't THAT good.

Ethan Jones

- It should have been off-putting when Ethan walked into the audition room with a bloody cut on his face (he suffered some sort of nerves-related pre-audition accident, then made his injury worse by nervously picking at it), but somehow it wasn't. Ethan was yet another bedheaded boy-next-door, oozing more likability than actual blood. I certainly liked him, despite his unfortunate song choice of the done-to-death, should-be-banned-from-television-forever "I'll Be" by Edwin McCain. His backstory--his musician father, who used to be his bandmate, struggles with addiction and is going through rehab, and now they're semi-estranged--struck a chord with Steven, for obvious reasons, but I personally appreciated how Ethan didn't act sorry for himself or milk his sob story too much. I do admit I got a little choked up when Ethan called his dad after his successful audition, and his dad told him, "I'm proud of you." I hope Ethan can keep making his dad proud in Hollywood.

Lauren Gray

- This 22-year-old country girl, who works for her family's wedding business in Arkansas by day and sings with her father in a Southern rock band by night, was saved for last--a spot usually reserved for either amazing singers, or Magic Cyclopian ones. Lauren fell into the former category--she could really sing, man--but her cover of Adele's "One and Only" was not quite as amazing as the producers would have viewers believe. Sometimes it seemed like she was yelling the Adele song at the judges, and while the judges praised her fearlessness (Steven ickily called it "the sexiest thing on the planet"), J.Lo went overboard when she said Lauren had "one of the best voices" on the show. Lauren has a gift, for sure, but she still needs to learn how and when to rein it in.

And so...that's it. With this season's auditions episodes being relatively un-earth-shattering, the show is now fast-tracking to Hollywood Week next Wednesday, skipping over its originally scheduled New Jersey episode entirely. I'm not exactly sure if that's a good sign--really? they couldn't find a single Jersey audition worth airing?--but Hollywood Week IS my favorite part of any "Idol" season, and Ryan Seacrest boasted that this season will feature the "most emotional and exhausting Hollywood Week ever," so I can't/shouldn't complain. Bring on the drama, I say! And bring on the great singers, too. The highlight reel that closed out Thursday's episode, featuring the past weeks' more memorable hopefuls (Wolfman, Tent Girl, Hipster Tripster, et al), did get me a little more excited about Season 11's future...so maybe the best is really yet to come.

And if not, well, there's always "The Voice."

Parker out.

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