'Never judge a book by its cover': Joke contestants flip the script on 'American Idol'

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Joke contestants have been an audition tradition on American Idol since before even William Hung she-banged his way to TV stardom, so when two merry pranksters showed up Sunday — one dressed as a shaggy Viking, the other, in a rope chain and shuttershades, claiming to be the next Bad Bunny, Daddy Yankee, or raspy-voiced “Latin Cookie Monster” — really nothing was shocking anymore.

What was shocking, however, was that both contestants actually received Golden Tickets to Hollywood. And while one of these auditioners could turn out to be more than novelty act and get more than just 15 minutes of fame, the other (non-unanimous) yes was downright baffling. “I will regret it, and you all will regret it,” Katy Perry warned her fellow judges — and truer words were never spoken on Idol, as this controversial decision might have taken away a spot from a memorable singer with actually serious intentions.

First up was 27-year-old Thor cosplayer Anthony Guzman, whose unhinged audition-room entrance, all sledgehammer-wielding and “Skolllllllll!” and Braveheart-style war-crying, honestly had some bad optics following last month’s Capitol building riot (which spawned that disturbing viral photo of a similarly pelted protester). But this all turned out to be a bait-and-switch, because when Anthony opened his mouth he… smoothly crooned “Cry Me a River” from the Great American Songbook??? And was decent??? “That’s a curveball,” quipped judge Luke Bryan. “Never judge a book by its cover,” mused Katy. I do wonder if the two judges who put Anthony through, Lionel Richie and Katy, would have been so enthusiastic if Anthony hadn’t thrown them off with his antics and set their expectations low (in which case, Anthony’s a genius strategist). But Lionel told him, “You can seriously sing; now I need you to take yourself seriously.” So, Anthony probably shouldn’t pack the Viking outfit when he goes Hollywood — unless he has a backup plan to charge tourists to take photos with him on Hollywood Blvd., if Idol doesn’t work out.

One contestant who was hard to take seriously, as entertaining as he may have been, was Yurisbel — a 25-year-old Polynesian restaurant emcee and self-described “walking empanada” (because he’s “got a lot of flavors”) from “Miami, Florida, party town of the United States.” American Idol really needs to pick up Snickers as a sponsor, because Luke and Lionel clearly weren’t themselves when Yurisbel shimmied onto the set around the afternoon-slump hour and caught them in a moment of weakness.

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Yurisbel sure was a fireball, as the title of his Pitbull cover promised, and I’m sure he’d be a blast to watch at his Miami tiki bar while indulging in a couple of flaming fishbowl-sized cocktails (or Fireball shots). But as welcome as Yurisbel’s comic relief might have been, his voice simply was not up to snuff in this already very competitive season. Katy was a no, saying, “I just don’t know if anyone would ever trust me again if I said yes!” But apparently Yurisbel’s less trustworthy fellow party boys, Luke and Lionel, were feeling the vibe, so Yurisbel is headed to Hollywood. This decision was baffling. Why didn’t they put last week’s German Speedo model Mario Adrion or Keytar Boy through, while they were at it? Lionel merely explained, “The kids need to be to having some fun.”

One kid I was really rooting for — and whose rejection further baffled me on a night when Anthony and Yurisbel got a pass — was Ace Stiles. The 16-year-old trans boy shared his sweetly quirky Joanna Newsom-meets-Perfume Genius singing voice (which Katy described as “vintage-y”), actually good original song “Addicted,” and brave backstory, with his supportive mother by his side.

Katy told Ace, “I think that you’ve got something worth investing in,” and certainly viewers were already emotionally invested in Ace after all that screentime — before the judges threw their own curveball and inexplicably sent him home in tears. “I like myself and I wouldn’t have it any other way, because I think I’m pretty cool,” shrugged Ace. I wish the judges had thought so too. This cool kid deserved a shot, and it was positively heartbreaking to see his dreams crushed, as if by Anthony’s sledgehammer.

Ace Stiles is inexplicably rejection on 'American Idol.' (Photo: ABC)
Ace Stiles is inexplicably rejection on 'American Idol.' (Photo: ABC)

That being said, Ace would have had a hard time in Hollywood Week, and so will Anthony and Yurisbel, because Sunday’s episode was, like last week’s premiere, packed with talent. These were the other successful auditions of the night:

Amanda Mena, 18: “Golden Slumbers”

Sunday’s episode cold-opened with this “one of a kind" belter — no fanfare, no sob story, just sanging. The judges seemed dazed by her remarkable talent, giving her an instant unanimous yes without even consulting each other. (“We’ve never done that,” noted Lionel.) She radiated likability and X-factor, and I loved the intimacy of her performance. That being said, I hope viewers get to learn more about Amanda during Hollywood Week.

Liahona Olayan, 16, and Ammon Olayan, 17: “Listen to My Heart”

This adorable Hawaiian brother-sister act performed a plucky call-and-response original, and while Ammon was pleasant enough, Liahona, who played the piano too, was the true star of this show. The undercooked Ammon’s vocal was a bit timid, while Liahona was a feisty firecracker giving Sara Bareilles/Alessia Cara vibes. She simply sparkled. “It’s so fresh,” raved a widely grinning Lionel. “I was loving the savant-ness of it. Liahona, you have a voice… that’s ready for the radio,” said Luke. Katy called Liahona “talented beyond belief, an incredible songwriter, like should be signed right now.” Both Olayan siblings got Golden Tickets, but I suspect that Liahona will be going solo very soon.

Hannah Everhart, 17: “Wayfaring Stranger”/“At Last”

This surly small-town Mississippi girl with a Katy Perry face, badass Kristen Stewart attitude, and “no filter” seemed superhumanly confident until she actually sang. I don’t think Hannah knows how good she really is. Clearly the judges saw the potential and already adored her, so they put her through, but I hope she doesn’t get overwhelmed in Hollywood. Katy advised her, “You better start rolling the dice on your life,” and Lionel assured her, “You’re sitting on a goldmine.”

Calvin Upshaw, 26: “Falling Out of Love”

Calvin is a formerly incarcerated single dad looking for a “new beginning,” and producers set him up for a perfect redemption storyline, in reverse, showing him sobbing upon receiving his Golden Ticket before he sang a single note. It soon became apparent why he got that ticket. This raw natural talent infused his Calvin Richardson ballad with emotion and gospel flair. “That voice crack was not a vocal crack, that was a feeling crack,” said Lionel. “You’re ready,” said Katy. This was a bit tough to watch, because Calvin was such a broken man, but as Luke put it, “It is impossible to witness a human being going through that and not give them love.” I’m rooting for this guy.

Casey Bishop, 15: “Live Wire/“My Funny Valentine”

This Nirvana-loving rock ‘n’ roll girl got my attention straight away by covering an early Mötley Crüe song off the metal band’s 1981 debut album Too Fast for Love. That was certainly an Idol first! She put a bluesy spin on it, very Alannah Myles, and I’m not sure this alone wasn’t enough to impress the judges, who requested that she sing something more classically vintage. After she paid tribute to Sarah Vaughan, Lionel said, “I would love for you to appreciate rock, but sing like that!” No! I want more Crue! But I think this girl could sing just about anything. Luke said he hadn’t been so floored by an audition since Alejandro Aranda's, even declaring, “I think she’s the damn winner of American Idol.”

Chayce Beckham, 24: “What Brings Life Also Kills”

This was the other big redemption story of the night. After tough year that saw this Apple Valley forklift operator moving back in with his parents, Idol has given him motivation to move forward with his life. His appealingly rough-hewn, textured voice on his Kolton Moore and the Clever Few cover had Luke instantly bursting into applause (“Your first note had me”), and Katy told Chayce, “You sound like the hearts of America” and predicted he’d make the top five.

Cassandra Coleman, 24: “The Way It Was”/“Apologize”

It’s hard to believe that the “terrified” Cassandra had never performed in public before, because her Killers and One Republic covers were perfection. She had an intriguing and distinctive vibrato, masterful vocal control, and she made the nerves work for her, telling both songs’ stories with quavering emotion. Cassandra is a consummate storyteller, and she’s one of my new favorites. “That was about as angelic as it’s gonna get,” said Lionel. Luke called her voice “straight-up God-given” and told her, “You are a new voice the world has never heard.” Clearly Cassandra was born to do it.

Willie Spence, 21: “Diamonds”

After a health scare that led to him taking control of his life and losing 180 pounds, Willie is ready to pursue his dreams, once of which is to win a Grammy. “That Grammy is attainable, no doubt in my mind. … You’re an unbelievable, special human being. Gosh, I did not want it to end,” Luke gushed after hearing Willie’s sublime Rihanna cover. Willie has a big pure voice (the kind that Katy said “stops people in their tracks”) and a big pure heart, and I think he’s Grammy material as well. “I cannot tell you how excited I am to have you join us on this show,” said Lionel.

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