Oh, if only someone on "American Idol" had covered Weird Al Yankovic's "Another One Rides the Bus" this Wednesday. Because contestants were riding buses, literally, and getting thrown under them, metaphorically, for the entire two hours.
Yep, it must be Hollywood Week!
But this was not your typical "Idol" Hollywood Week. Oh, no. Ryan Seacrest's smirking warning — "If you think you know Hollywood Week, think again" — was the first hit-you-over-the-head clue of that. The second clue? When this season's 212 golden-ticket-holders disembarked at LAX, and their chartered bus transported them not to some glamorous reality-TV McMansion, not to the Dolby Theatre, but to an ominous airplane hangar in an industrial wasteland that didn't look like Hollywood at all.
Yes, people, it was time for another "shocking twist." And I'm not talking about the first televised appearance of judge Keith Urban's ill-advised new haircut — although that was plenty shocking, because it had me thinking for a minute that'd I'd accidentally tuned in to a rerun of "Jon & Kate Plus 8."
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You see, it was time for the new "Hollywood or Home" round, in which dozens of on-the-cusp contestants (mostly ones that Harry Connick Jr. hadn't liked during the initial audition rounds) would have to sing on the spot for the chance to stay. At the end of the day, some of them would board Bus #1 (a bus headed straight back to LAX), while the ones who managed to impress would happily hop on the Hollywood-bound Bus #2.
"It has to be a knockout. If you screw this up, it's over," Harry announced, as the idling buses' engines hummed in the parking lot. No pressure, then…
One by one, 52 of the 212 contestants performed, some too spooked by the situation to even steady their hands while playing their ubiquitous guitars. And many of them were unable to change Hatchet Harry's mind. Johnny Newcomb, the 17-year-old Eddie Vedder wannabe, did a not-very-special "Pumped Up Kicks" that had Harry grunting, "I don't feel like I want to see that." Hippie Adam Roth's "Radioactive" made Harry hiss, "Come on, how hard is it to do those chord changes?" (Side note: Adam's lack of impeccable musicianship didn't seem to bother Jennifer Lopez much, of course.) Caitlin Johnson's shouty, stagefright-stricken "Only Girl in the World" had Harry shaking his head and grumbling, "I don't know what we saw in her." But Caitlin wasn't the only girl in "Idol's" world who got blasted by Harry: Morgan Deplitch, the 15-year-old who'd freaked him out with her age-inappropriately sexy Grace Potter song choice at her Boston audition, was called "extraordinarily weak" by Harry this time, after her shrill cover of Sara Bareilles's "Brave" had none of the judges saying, "Ooh la la."
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Others who failed to impress: Tristen Langley, the teenage son of Season 1 finalist Nikki McKibbin; raspy Patriots cheerleader Stephanie Petronelli, who wasn't nearly as memorable out of uniform; overbearing, waveringly-accented Khristian D'Avis, who seemed "really into the sound of her own voice," according to Keith; and Alyssa Siebkin, the goofy girl who'd stood out with her Waka Flocka Flame cover at her first audition, but just flamed out this time.
Thankfully, there were a few contestants who excelled under pressure, like Eric Wood, who delivered a quietly fiery cover of the Black Crowes' "She Talks to Angels," and returning contestant Neco Starr. Neco shouldn't have had to sing this time; he'd already had many chances to prove himself in Seasons 9 and 11, and honestly, he should have gone farther in either season. But his performance of Bruno Mars's "Gorilla" was a chest-pounding delight. It may have seemed a little bit like a Bruno impersonation…but dang, it was a really, really good Bruno impersonation.
And then, 32 of these kids, including Tristen, Khristian, Johnny, and Caitlin, took the Bus Ride of Shame back to the airport, never really getting "through to Hollywood" at all. Fox's frustratingly random edit job made it difficult to spot other familiar faces on Bus #1 — but shockingly, Adam the hippie and Stephanie the cheerleader somehow snagged seats on Bus #2, along with, less surprisingly, Eric and Neco.
However, as the "Hollywood or Home" survivors joined the rest of the hopefuls at Hollywood's Dolby Theatre later on, the drama was just beginning, or at least not ending. Because it was time for all of them to sing for the judges, and soon, even more cuts would be made, whittling the remaining 160 contestants down to 104.
Among the female standouts were Majesty Rose York, whose ethereal cover of Feist's "1, 2, 3, 4" had everyone smiling; returning contestant Brandy Neelly, who had sort of a young-LeAnn-Rimes thing going on; Austin Wolfe, who completely crushed Adele's "Take It All"; Kenzie Hall, who turned Macklemore & Ryan Lewis's "Can't Hold Us" into a supercool poetry slam; absolutely adorkable school-band girl Malaya Watson, who gave good brace-face; Jena Asciutto, who played keys while warbling Lana Del Rey's noirish "Video Games"; and two of this season's notable divas, child prodigy Briana Oakley and the awesomely named Tiquila Wilson.
The boys' group was even more impressive, indicating that the male winning streak that was finally broken last season by Candice Glover will probably resume in Season 13. Among the many standouts:
— rock 'n' roll pastor John Fox, who gave me an Imagine Dragons vibe
— Alex Preston, who totally pulled a Kris Allen/Phillip Phillips with his unexpected guitar cover of will.i.am and Britney Spears's "Scream and Shout"
— adorable teen-bait Sam Woolf, who put a nice spin on John Mayer's "Waiting on the World to Change"
— C.J. Harris, who infused Ray LaMontagne's "Trouble" with tons of heart and soul and earned a standing ovation from J.Lo
— Ben Briley doing a really inventive cover of Grace Potter's "Stars"
— Dexter Roberts, whose bluesy Civil Wars cover inspired Keith to get in on the action and play Dexter's guitar
— Jack Black-ish rocker Caleb Johnson, doing an interesting (if almost unrecognizable) version of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil"
— single dad Casey Thrasher being dubbed a "heartbreaker" by J.Lo and a "real artist" by Keith after crooning "He Stopped Loving Her Today"
— stage-mom-smothered former "X Factor" contestant Austin Percario, celebrating his newfound, over-18 freedom with a very theatrical, "Glee"-worthy performance
— a wacky "Proud Mary" by Harry Connick Jr. fanboy Munfarid Zaidi
And, speaking of theatrical and wacky, Emmanuel Zidor did a version of "And I Am Telling You" so over-the-top, he made notorious scenery-chewer Jennifer Holliday herself look sedate.
And finally, there was singer-songwriter Savion Wright, an ADHD sufferer who has used music as an outlet in his troubled life. Savion dedicated his original song "Breathing Underwater" to his brother, who sadly died less than three weeks before Savion left for Hollywood. It was a stellar performance, and Savion's brother would surely be proud.
All of these contestants made it through to the group round, but somewhat surprisingly, so did Keith London, despite a performance that left the clueless judges confused. None of them seemed to understand or appreciate the message behind his cover of Beyoncé's "If I Were a Boy," and they remained puzzled even after he followed that with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis's gay marriage anthem "Same Love." (Keith later came out on Twitter, just to make things extra-clear.) Keith advanced, but if he sings, say, Madonna's "Material Girl" or No Doubt's "Just a Girl" later this season, the judges' heads will probably explode.
And then, in an already action-packed episode, it was on to the group round...and more Hollywood drama, of course! While some contestants seemed to gel easily — like Ben Briley, Casey Thrasher, and Dexter Roberts, who formed the Backstreet Cowboys, sort of "Idol's" answer to "The X Factor's" Restless Road — other totally struggled.
Carmen Delgina, Terrica Curry, Emmanuel Zidor, and M.K. Nobilette formed a foursome called the Dreamers, but the dream was soon over when their rehearsals devolved into nasty infighting and M.K. and Terrica went missing. Ambitious rocker Jessica Meuse became furious because she thought her group, which comprised Matthew Hamel and Clark King, was unprepared; eventually she parted ways with Matthew, and she almost seemed relieved when poor Clark became ill and decided to quit the competition entirely. Another bickering bunch of ladies, the aptly named Loud & Fierce, were screaming at each other like Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj back in the day. And poor Malaya Watson, as likable as she is, somehow couldn't find a group at all.
"What a mess," sighed eye-rolling musical director Michael Orland, surveying the chaotic scene.
But what a watchable mess, right? Thursday's episode, which will feature the groups' performances, is sure to be a one-way bus ride straight to television trainwreck (or bus-wreck) heaven. See you then!