Despite a certain undeniable similarity between its past five champions, "American Idol" is still supposed to be a melting pot of talent, a show on which singers of all different races, religions, genders, genres, shapes, and sizes can hopefully all get a shot at becoming America's next pop superstar. And during this Wednesday's "Idol" Long Beach/San Antonio auditions episode, one singer of a particularly unusual size, 4'9" Matheus Fernandes, proved that the great equalizing "Idol" dream is still alive and well, when he wowed the judges with a huge voice that belied his tiny frame.
While multiple doctors were never able to attribute Matheus's height, or lack thereof, to any specific medical problem--"You're just plain short!" was their eventual shrugging diagnosis--that didn't stop schoolmates from bullying Matheus when he was a child, and it certainly didn't stop Matheus, now 21 and still barely as tall as a 12-year-old, from harboring doubts about his future in showbiz. "For a while, I didn't think I had much of a chance, because of how different I am," he confessed to "Idol" host Ryan Seacrest this Wednesday. But eventually Matheus came to the conclusion that "I wouldn't change a thing, because it made me who I am," and then he strutted into the Long Beach, California, "Idol" audition room with Bunyon-esque confidence--even joking to the judges, "My first question is, is there a height limit on this show?"
Matheus proceeded to belt out Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," and there was no limit to his vocal range. The judges were all astounded. "To sing a song like that, you've got to know what challenge, struggle, and adversity are--and you have that in spades," marveled Keith Urban. "We're looking for a unique, special person, and you fit that bill," declared Nicki Minaj. A misty-eyed Mariah Carey told Matheus, "You hit me in the heart; you could sing anything for me, any day of the week"--at which point Matheus started to tear up as well. And Randy Jackson preached, "I know society can be crazy and harsh, but we don't put up with any of that around here. To me, you're 10 feet tall right now."
This was an amazing TV moment, for sure...but it was interesting that zero mention was made of the great TV moments that Matheus had experienced in the past, when he was the eighth-place finalist on Season 1 of "The Glee Project," an Oxygen Network talent search for new "Glee" cast members. (Matheus was actually a frontrunner for several weeks on that show.) While Matheus was perfect for "The Glee Project" and its cast of singing misfits, it's true that "TGP" was more of a cult program; "American Idol" is a whole other platform, one that could take Matheus's career to an entirely higher level (no pun intended). It's possible that Matheus's existing fanbase will give him a major advantage going forward on "Idol," but it remains to be seen if mainstream viewers will really accept Matheus as easily as "The Glee Project's" more niche audience did. Let's hope that Randy was right, and that a real change is finally gonna come in Matheus's life.
Overall, the San Antonio/Long Beach episode was a very satisfying and impressive one, positively packed with talent. It seems that after a shaky start, Season 12 is truly looking up, up, up. Here are the other promising singers who made it through to Hollywood on Wednesday:
Vincent Powell - Apparently Vincent, who at age 29 is just on the upper cusp of "Idol" eligibility, made it all the way to the end of last season's Hollywood Week. But I don't remember him at all, so I guess he didn't get much screentime. I have no idea why Fox editors left Vincent on the cutting-room floor last year, because he was fantastic this Wednesday. An avowed Mariah Carey fanboy who grew up in a bedroom wallpapered with Mariah posters, he seemed to be singing B.B. King's carnal classic "Rock Me Baby" directly to Mariah--and her husband might be jealous now, because Mrs. Cannon seemed to be feeling it. I was feeling it too. His voice was a little bit Bruno Mars, a little bit Anthony Hamilton, and a whole lot of awesome. "Thank you, Jesus!" exclaimed Randy--and while I don't think Vincent was feeling particularly religious or spiritual, judging from the way he serenaded his boyhood crush, Nicki did say that Vincent could potentially record an amazing gospel album. ("Your voice is one of those voices that gives people chills," she said.) And Mariah told him, "You sing like an angel." Keith praised Vincent's ability to mix genres, which seemed to totally contradict the comments he made to last week's unwittingly feud-instigating country/soul singer Summer Cunningham, but I agreed with him. I think Vincent could do gospel, neo-soul, pop...his voice is brimming with possibilities.
Savannah Votion - With a name like Savannah Votion, and a sultry image reminiscent of Season 1 "Idol" bombshell Ryan Starr, this girl seemed like a readymade pop star. And thrillingly, she possessed the voice of a soul star. I would have preferred a song choice other than the done-to-death "At Last," but at least Savannah gave a memorable performance of the Etta James wedding ballad; the struggling single mom seemed to pour a lot of pain and heartache into the song. "You have life in your voice; I can hear a lot of life going on. I could hear all of it," marveled Keith. Randy called Savannah a "natural performer." Nicki said, "It sounds so organic. It doesn't sound forced. It sounds like that is what you were born to do." Four enthusiastic yeses ensued.
Cristabel Clack - America, meet your new sweetheart. Cristabel is a worship leader and mother of three, who's been happily married for seven years to a guy who supports her musical dream. So, no sob story here--but with talent like hers, Cristabel didn't need one. Luckily, she had a cool, Fantasia-meets-Janelle Monae look to keep her from seeming too square and squeaky-clean, and her cover of Alicia Keys's all-too-familiar "If I Ain't Got You" felt surprisingly fresh. "I know you, I get you, I love you," gushed Mariah. "You're what the whole thing is really about," raved Randy. I have a good feeling about this girl.
Ann Difani - Ann was one of those contestants nominated by a loved one, a new twist this season. Her adoring husband was the one who contacted the show, and it soon became clear that this former pageant girl didn't have a voice that only a husband could love. Her performance of Faith Hill's "Stronger" was country-strong, and she just came across as extremely adorable and likable. Of course, just like with Summer Cunningham last week, Mariah started needlessly grilling Ann about her musical direction. (Ann enthusiastically expressed her love for country music, but committed the cardinal sin of stating a desire to also cross over to pop.). However, eventually everyone agreed with Ann's hubby: This girl had the goods. Hopefully the distance between Ann and her man, as she heads off to Hollywood for weeks or possibly months, won't strain what Randy called "a great American [Idol] love story."
Victoria Acosta - Bringing a little Latin flavor to "Idol," this mariachi singer did what I thought was a somewhat caliente rendition of Fergie's "Big Girls Don't Cry." But the judges were left feeling lukewarm--"I liked it, but I kept waiting for one more thing, so I felt a little disconnected," shrugged Keith. So Randy then asked her to sing some traditional mariachi music instead. I didn't dig Victoria's second audition as much, but the judges preferred it, claiming that they sensed more of a connection between Victoria and her Spanish-language material. So the judges put her through based on her raw promise, but I don't know how long she'll last on this show; there's never going to be a Mariachi Night on "Idol," so she'll always struggle if the judges (or viewers) don't find her convincing in other genres.
Papa Peachez - "Will the next Phillip Phillips be found in San Antonio?" asked an optimistic Texan DJ at the start of Wednesday's "Idol" episode. Well, no, that didn't happen. But this other potential star with the initials P.P. was discovered instead. With a moniker like his, Papa Peachez was clearly a true original--so much so that Nicki couldn't even give him one of her wacky nicknames. ("Ladybug" doesn't have the name ring, does it?) Of course I was immediately fascinated by this guy, the most cartoonish Papa to hit television since Papa Smurf, with his emo/Robyn/Miley coif and endless self-declarations of absolute fabulosity. But once he started singing his bizarre, untitled original song, I was more confused than amused. Yes, the raw talent was there, as was the awesome entertainment value. But his voice was weirdly frog-throated and Satchmo-esque, and he defiantly announced that he hates doing cover songs. Um, that's going to be a problem on a show that MAKES CONTESTANTS SING COVER SONGS, methinks. Keith dismissed Papa as "too theatrical," and Randy suggested that Papa come back next season (assuming there is a next season). But Mariah surprisingly gave Papa a "small yes," and then the show's resident weirdo, Nicki--seemingly seeing Papa as a kindred spirit--really rallied for him, calling him a "superstar" and giving him a "billion Sicilian yes." And after a bit of shameless begging, Nicki convinced tiebreaker Randy to come around to her way of thinking, and Randy eventually, grudgingly gave Papa a "small yes" too. "Nicki Minaj, I won't let you down!" Papa cried out, as he ran out of the room with his unexpected golden ticket (and the Presidents Of The USA's "Peaches" played in the background--a nice touch). Now we'll see how Papa reacts in Hollywood when he's told he has to sing "Hallelujah," "Forget You," "I'll Be," or some other overdone "Idol" cover tune.
Sanni M'mairura - This lovable 16-year-old showed up at his audition with his Tanzanian mother and Kenyan father, and he no doubt instantly won America's hearts. Even Ryan noted that Sanni had "incredible presence"--and Ryan said that while Sanni was still hanging out in the holding pen, before he'd even sung a single note. Sanni's cover of the Jackson 5's "Who's Loving You" was the performance of a true star--I got the Bruno Mars vibe again, a bit, but most of all, I just got a Sanni vibe. He lit up the room. "Candy canes, strawberries, whipped cream, rainbows, and sunny skies," sighed Nicki, presumably adding Sanni M'mairura to her list of favorite things. "You weren't trying to just be like Michael Jackson. You're fresh," observed Randy. "I love your balance of confidence and humility," said Keith. BINGO. Keith said it all right there. Confidence + humility = "IDOL" VICTORY. It's a precarious balance to strike, but if Sanni can pull it off, he could go very, very far.
Adam Sanders - Considering that this 19-year-old kid was all verklempt just while sitting in the waiting room, I expected a trainwreck. And when he accidentally lumped Mariah and Etta James in the same old-school-soul category, and Mariah icily corrected him with, "Etta James is a lonnnnnnnng time before me"...well, that didn't bode well for his chances, either. But, pleasantly-surprisingly, Adam's cover of Etta's "I'd Rather Go Blind" was a revelation. The guy pulled it together for a true wowsers moment, full of such passion and power. He left all the judges (even the normally motormouthed Nicki) so speechless, Randy suggested, "Let's not even comment!"--and they skipped straight to the voting. Four yeses later, Adam was crying again--with joy.
Shubha Vedula - This girl was good, but she should have been disqualified and immediately sent home, golden-ticketless, for introducing her audition song, Etta James's "Something's Got A Hold On Me," as being BY CHRISTINA AGUILERA. Sheesh! At least Savannah Votion and Adam Sanders knew to give the late, great Etta proper credit. Oh well, I guess it could have been worse. At least Shubha didn't think it was a Flo Rida song.
Matt Farmer - Matt was one of several serious sob-story cases on "Idol" this Wednesday--one that made Matheus's height issues and Savannah's single-parenting struggles look like nuthin'. After experiencing a traumatic brain injury while serving in Iraq, Matt was told that the medication he was prescribed would render him sterile. But only six months later, he miraculously found out that his wife was pregnant. And now he has an indescribably precious 3-year-old daughter, Cadence, who of course accompanied him in the audition room this week. Usually I'm suspicious when contestants drag their adorable moppet children to their "Idol" auditions--it seems like such a blatant ploy to improve their odds, because what judge wants to look like the bad guy in front of some wide-eyed, trusting toddler? But dang...Cadence was ADORABLE. Luckily, none of the judges were put in the awkward position of having to crush Cadence's daddy's dreams, because Matt's blue-eyed soul audition (of the same Sam Cooke song Matheus did) was great. He had a real Elliott Yamin/Matt Giraud thing going on. "You got strong pipes, dude," said Randy. "I thought there were certain moments that were so real and beautiful and heartfelt," said Mariah. "There were some safe choices, but I love that thick tone, that Gavin DeGraw-esque thing," said Keith. And so, Cadence's dad made it to Hollywood.
Jesaiah Bair - This 16-year-old quirky girl's performance of Kimbra's "Settle Down" (cool song choice!) was interrupted when the fire alarm went off and everyone had to temporarily evacuate the premises--but I suspect Jesaiah was the one who really set off that smoke detector, because her audition was so hot. Yes, at first her whole shtick, with her Halloween-costume captain's hat, annoyed me. (The Long Beach auditions were held on famous ship the Queen Mary, and she was trying to be clever, I guess.) But when Jesaiah sang, it was pure bliss; she could have been wearing a pirate outfit and I would not have cared. (Actually, if she'd dressed like a pirate, that would have been awesome. But I digress.) Jesaiah had this smoky, sexy, slightly growly tone mixed with a jazzy, scatting style--it was like a Haley Reinhart/Casey Abrams duet, contained in one single body! "I loved it within seconds of you starting," said Keith. "You are really, really talented for 16," said Randy. "You have very mature confidence; it was very shocking for me. Kudos," said Nicki. I think Jesaiah should leave the gimmicky nautical-wear at home next time, but I'm excited to see her in Hollywood.
Micah Johnson - A huge music fan since toddlerhood, this 24-year-old recently experienced a singer's worst nightmare: What was supposed to be his routine tonsillectomy went horribly awry, and he wound up with freak nerve damage and a permanent speech impediment. (This apparently only happens to one out of every 100,000 tonsillectomy patients.) But just as this season's severe stutterer Lazaro Arbos proved that music can be a great equalizer and a great healer, with his perfect audition, so did Micah: When Micah belted out the Zac Brown Band's "Chicken Fried," there was nothing holding him back, and absolutely no sign of nerve damage. "If I got a golden ticket, it would prove to me that despite the obstacles, I can still do anything," Micah said. "I feel that I can be an inspiration for someone, so why give up?" Said Mariah: "I was moved by your story, but even if you didn't have that story, I'd be moved by your voice." And then Micah got that golden ticket, of course. He deserved it.
Rachel Hale - This Arkansas country cutie-pie earned comparisons to Wynonna Judd from Keith, after she sang the Impressions' "People Get Ready." The other judges adored her too, with Nicki even exclaiming, "You have such a good energy around you. You sound like someone that's already established! You're my favorite girl." Added Mariah: "I am glad that there's someone that already understands who they are and what type of artist they want to be." I seriously do NOT get why Mariah has such a problem with any country singer who expresses even the slightest desire to dabble in other genres, but I do think Rachel seems like the type who could be very popular with purist country fans, who vote for "Idol" in droves.
Briana Oakley - Briana, who is now 16, was mercilessly bullied as preteen after she appeared on a "Most Talented Kids In America" episode of "The Maury Povich Show." (Apparently the students at her junior high were bigger Sally Jessy Raphael fans?) I'm not sure how Briana thought returning to television to talk about how she was once bullied for being on television was supposed to break this cycle of abuse, exactly--but at least she proved that she's still one of the most talented kids in America. Her cover of Patty Griffin's "Up To The Mountain" was simply exquisite. Nicki ranted, "WOW WOW WOW!" about 57 times, before telling Briana: "You are poised and ready for this moment. This, today, is your moment. All the stars have aligned to bring you here today." I have a feeling that Briana will be a lot more popular at her (new) school, now that someone as cool as Nicki has endorsed her.
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- Interview with Season 1 "Glee Project" winner Damian McGinty
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- Surprising stars who never won a Grammy
- More about "American Idol"