When Burnell Taylor began singing "I'm Here" from The Color Purple, American Idol's judges panel lit up in unison: Keith Urban stood for a standing ovation, Mariah Carey stopped talking about herself, and Nicki Minaj quit rolling her eyes at Carey.
"You can turn an atheist!" declared Urban, reeling from the 19-year-old Katrina survivor's audition. Carey was moved to tears by Taylor's soulful, stirring performance of the Broadway showstopper (sample lyric: "Gonna put my shoulders back/and look you straight in the eye/I'm gonna flirt with somebody/when they walk by.")
Welcome to American Idol's Baton Rouge auditions, where the musically gifted overshadowed the duds and the Nicki-Mariah feud took a backseat while Thursday's show focused on the contestants.
Besides Taylor, other standouts were:
- Twenty-two-year-old Megan Miller, the reigning Miss Baton Rouge, who postponed leg surgery (priorities!) to sing "Something's Got a Hold on Me" while on crutches; she nailed her audition, with Randy Jackson dubbing Miller a "natural" and Minaj going a step further by calling her an "undeniable superstar." Hyperbole much, Nicki? Miller might have a decent set of pipes, but she's hardly a "superstar." She's not even in the same superstar league as "Beyonce Lip-Syncing the National Anthem."
- Next! Maddie Assel is one to watch: She's 17 but has old-soul musical taste, selecting The Beatles' "Oh! Darling" and then whipping out an apparently effortless, bluesy version of it; that and she has a cool Siobhan Magnus/Ally Sheedy-in-The Breakfast Club outsider thing happening, what with her boho outfit and slightly awkward stage presence.
- Speaking of awkward, there was Charlie Askew, also 17, who could not stop talking about how socially inept he is even though he seemed fairly confident belting two songs in front of four famous judges. The ginger-haired heir apparent to Clay Aiken crooned Queen's "Breakthru" and Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy" with surprisingly stylish vocals and a tone that was memorably haunting. The panel loved it: Urban compared the teen to David Bowie, saying his voice is "not of a gender," and Jackson also approved, observing that he's a "seemingly dark, strange but cool guy." Meanwhile, Minaj made a face when Carey said she too identifies with using music to escape her life, blah blah blah. It's not always about you, Mimi.
- Paul Jolley, a 22-year-old who radiates goodness and good energy -- kind of like Urban -- performed Rascal Flatts' "I Won't Let Go" to unanimous praise. Minaj liked his "sparkle" and Urban dug his "honesty."
- Dr. Calvin Peters, the "singing doctor." A shoo-in. Come, a SINGING DOCTOR. And a McDreamy one to boot. What is this, a Grey's Anatomy casting call? Somewhere, Nigel Lythgoe is jumping up and down because a singing doctor got sent to Hollywood.
- Singing fireman Dustin Watts, who earned a golden ticket for his spot-on rendition of Garth Brooks' "She's Every Woman." Semi-related: Who'd you rather be rescued by -- a singing doctor or a singing fireman?
Oh, but it wasn't all beautiful voices and star quality in the Deep South. A gregarious guy named Christopher, clearly hand-picked by producers for his willingness to look the fool, made the judges simultaneously laugh and cringe with a William Hung-level singing ability. What did he sing again? We do not remember because whatever he sang was rendered barely recognizable. But his odd, mushroom-shaped Prince Valiant haircut is tough to forget: giving him a nickname on the spot, Minaj no doubt took inspiration from Christopher's 'do (or don't) when she christened him "Mushroom," which Jackson immediately abbreviated to 'Shroom.
Needless to say, he did not go to Hollywood.
Tell us, Idol Worshippers: Who's your favorite Baton Rouge contender? If you could vote one judge out of the competition, who would you pick? Should Minaj give up showbiz and make up nicknames for a living because she's so good at it?
Last but not least, here's video of Taylor's "I'm Here," via MJs Big Blog: